Anika Noni Rose, Amandla Stenberg, and Stella Meghie
YA films are all the rage right now. From "Twilight" to "The Hunger Games," millennials head to the theaters in droves to see themselves represented on the big screen. However, unless they are relegated to bit parts or sidekicks, young people of color, specifically Black women are rarely ever seen in these type of films. Stella Meghie's "Everything, Everything" changes all of that.
Adapted from the gorgeously written novel by Nicola Yoon, "Everything, Everything" follows Maddy (Amandla Stenberg), an imaginative 18-year-old who is unable to leave the protection of the hermetically-sealed environment within her house and her physician mother (Anika Noni Rose) because of an illness. That all changes when Olly (Nick Robinson) moves into the house next door.
Recently, I got the opportunity to chat with Stella Meghie, Anika Noni Rose and Amandla Stenberg about the film, why it's so important and what we'll see them in next.
Aramide Tinubu: Thanks so much for speaking with me today.
Stella Meghie: Of course, thanks for wanting to talk.
AT: How did find yourself in the director’s chair for this film? Had you read Nicola Yoon’s novel prior to learning about the film adaptation?
SM: No I hadn’t read the book. My agent sent me the script about a month after "Jean of the Joneses" premiered at SXSW. So I really actually didn’t read it very quickly. I was like, “I’m not about to jump into a studio film." I had another independent film that I wanted to do. But, one of my reps was like, “Did you read that script?” I was like, “I’ll do it this weekend.” I finally started reading it, and I was like, “You know what, I love this.” I looked Nicola Yoon up and learned more about her book, and I was really really peaked about everything she stands for. Then I read the book, and I just loved the book because it just had so many layers to it and just so many tones. In a way, I could see my own tone going into it. So, I ended up saying I really would love to pitch for this. A week later I was in LA pitching for it and I got the job two weeks later.
Anika Noni Rose: I had not read the novel actually, which is funny for me because I'm a pretty avid reader and I read a lot of YA, and somehow I missed it, I don't know how. But I got a call from [Stella] saying we're doing this film, and I had been given the script, and I thought the script was really lovely and a lovely way to see a young Black girl and her mother.
AT: It really is.
ANR: That's so rare, especially in that type of a relationship. And to see her in that type of a life space, that I just thought that was really exciting and moving. That was really what brought me to it. Then she told me Amandla was in it. That was it for me; I really love Amandla.
Amandla Stenberg: I received the script. When I received it, I kind of assumed it was for a white girl just because I saw that it was young adult and a romantic film featuring a male lead who was white, so I assumed it was some kind of mistake or something, that I had gotten it in my inbox. Also, it's very rare for me to receive projects that are specifically written for Black girls. It took me a moment to realize that this was a project that was intentionally made for a biracial girl in the lead. When I saw that it was kind of a no-brainer. I mean it's so rare to see roles like this and just do projects like this on the big screen. I saw how important and powerful it would be to play this character and this representation on screen that I don't think we've really seen before in this way.
AT: Fantastic! I know that young adult stories are really popular right now, but there are no many with young Black girls at the center. So Stella what was you vision coming into this film? I know you had Nicola’s book as a guide, but what did you want people to see on screen?
SM: I think what I found interesting about the book was the tone and for me when I was reading it, it was really this Grimm’s Tale. It was really like this dark fairytale. I really didn't see it as a grounded story. Even though there is no fantasy in Nicola’s book, I thought it had a kind of magical quality to it, and I thought that was interesting because you don’t get to see a young Black actress in that kind of role. I really brought that dark fairytale magic to it that if you see the movie, you get to see more of. It’s a little bit of an unorthodox telling of a YA novel. It was definitely something you haven’t seen someone like Amandla Stenberg in.
AS: These projects don't really exist so when they do come to fruition and are widely distributed across the entire world everyone gets to see a Black girl carrying a film that is not necessarily made just for a target Black audience and is not about race. They get to see a Black girl existing, and I think that's one of the most powerful things, the humanization of Black people, the representation of Black people in media. I think when something like that comes out, it can change people's perspectives on life.
AT: In the story, Maddy and Ollie are able to communicate because of technology. How did you bring technology into the film in the beautiful pop-art way that it’s portrayed in the trailer? How did you decide that was how you wanted to incorporate it?
SM: I thought it was really important to portray technology as somewhat seamless in the film. I think sometimes you see films that weigh a lot on tech and it takes the lead in the film in a way and makes it more of a feature. So, I think if you’re young and you’ve grown up with cell phones and iPads and all of these things, it’s just something that is a part of your life. I wanted it to feel like that in the film; I didn't want it to take away from what they were doing. I wanted it to be seamless in the way that they were getting to know each other. There’s a lot of texting in the book, and I didn’t think that would work onscreen. So, I ended up changing that, and that’s some of the way I brought in the fantasy to the movie. Some of the conversations when they’re texting; they’re in the same room, but I used a lot of sound cues to let you know that they are texting and not actually in the same room together. So for me, that was a way to get these kids in the same room and keep the chemistry brewing and making sure the technology was not an impediment to the viewer of getting to know them.
AT: Like we were saying before there aren’t many YA films or books with people of color at the center, and there also aren’t many love stories. There are the staples like "Love & Basketball" or Gina Prince Bythewood's "Beyond the Lights."
SM: "Love Jones."
AT: Exactly, that’s ’97, so it’s twenty years old at this point. So why is it important to tell stories like this with Black women at the center of them?
SM: It's important to show Black women as whole human beings, and part of that is showing them being loved and loving others and that’s often something that is not shown. Usually, it’s about a larger struggle or not necessarily a romantic story, and for me, that’s paramount because Black women deserve to be loved and we deserve to love others and to be shown doing that.
ANR: I think it's really important for them to know that it's okay to be soft, it's okay to have love in their lives, that it's okay to be imaginative. These are never words that are ascribed to us. This film proves that all those things that are okay, even though the circumstances are different than any child would definitely be dealing with. It's saying that even in the worst circumstances it's okay for you to live in these worlds. I think that is a beautiful thing and a wonderful message, and so many of us did and do, but we would never verify it, you know what I mean?
AT: Of course.
ANR: It was never shown to us as normal, it was never said that it was okay. Generally, if you lived in a whimsical genie world, somebody would be calling you out of your mind somehow. Not necessarily in the past, but as something other than what you are, or questioning who you are, or the veracity of who you are as a Black girl. I think it's very important for us to say that this too is our truth.
AT: Definitely. Stella, how did you get the cast together? Was Amandla already attached to the project? Was Anika already signed on or did you seek out these two women specifically?
SM: Everyone was on my mind. Amandla when we met she’s just so poised and intelligent and insightful, and when she auditioned, it was very obvious that she was bringing a special level of depth to this role. We were all really excited to work with her. Nick, I’d known his work, and I thought he would ground Olly and Anika I was just a huge admirer of, and I wanted to work with her. I thought she would really bring a strength and a warmth to the role in equal measure. So I got lucky with people I really thought would do a great job. I’d just seen Ana [de la Reguera] on "Narcos" and I thought she was really funny and heartful and she really brought that to the role.
Amandla Stenberg & Anika Noni Rose in "Everything, Everything"
AT: Anika, to play Dr. Whitter, did you talk with mothers who have children with chronic illnesses? Where did you pull from in order to play this woman?
ANR: Honestly, I just took everything from the script. I just approached it from an intense space of love and care. I'm very protective of people that I love. Very. And if they're little people, even more protective. They're little new spirits in the world. I'm not a helicopter, but I'm very protective. So I went from that space, and I didn't really feel like I needed, necessarily, to talk to someone about the fear of losing someone.
AT: Of course I understand.
ANR: Or about living in a space of loss, because I've lost people in my life. So I really used the script and went from a place of love. I have a great love for Amandla, so that was a wonderful thing to be able to tap into. I think it's a very poignant space in our lives as Black Americans specifically. But anyone who's ever lost somebody and knows what that feels like and has dealt with grief can understand the place that this woman is sitting in, that fear; that need to hold close. When I think of Black American women, and I think of people like Tamir Rice's mom. Jordan Edwards. When I think of these parents, how are they supposed to step forward into the world? How are they supposed to continue to be aware and awake and alive for the children they have left and for themselves? That is an amazingly fearful, painful place to have to inhabit, I imagine. So I think that reading these stories every day and feeling that fear of the loss of anyone you know, your brother, your sister, your Sandra Bland, your dad perhaps. That fear of that loss, I think, is living quietly beneath all of us every day right now. In addition to having lost people that I love, and just knowing where that is, and what that is. You know? I felt like it was very poignant in ways that aren't written on the page for the right now, for the today certainly.
AT: Amandla, how did you approach your portrayal of Maddy? Was it very claustrophobic to sort of always be confined?
AS: The story itself is, I mean it's very whimsical. It's very much based in fantasy. It's not so much based in reality. So for that reason when we were approaching creating Maddy, it was about creating a character who experiences disease, but the film is not based in reality. She's been so fiercely protected and guarded kind of in a Rapunzel-esque way, because of that she is really sweet and kind of naïve and a little awkward for sure, she definitely has difficulty interacting with people for the first time.
AT: What do you think about the state of Black women behind the scenes in Hollywood?
SMH: I mean there are the names that are the forefront, and there are not enough in the forefront. We just need more women to make more films and to be given or to take bigger projects. There is a conversation that is happening which is helpful to let the gatekeepers know they should be thinking about these things. But, there is a long way to go.
AT: Anika, why do you think it was so important for Stella to be at the helm of this film? Were you able at all to talk with Stella about what her visions for this film were?
ANR: We had a talk before I accepted it, that was important. It's a girl's story. There are special men in the world who are able to tell girl's stories, and you believe it. I think Rodrigo Garcia is a phenomenal director. And he has done some amazing, beautiful work with women. But he's rare. So why would we not have a woman to tell this story about burgeoning womanhood?
ANR: Why is that not considered as important as the business seems to think it is to have "a dude" directing a shoot-'em-up flyaway movie? Apparently, that's their space. And yet, women still aren't allowed to direct within or been allowed to say about our own space. So I think that that's very important. And I think it's important that we tell many more stories. And stories that aren't just about us. Because I think that women pay attention to the world in a way that is much more intense than men pay attention to the world, generally, because we have to in order to survive.
AT: Yes. That's very true.
ANR: I don't know many men who walk around constantly scoping for potential danger that is silent, even. But that's what women do every day because we have to in order to make sure that we can get down the street safely. You know, get home from the subway, have a date that ends well, getting in and out of an Uber with the sanctity of our person intact. Those are all things that we have to do in order to survive. So I think it's very important.
AT: Amandla, what was it like working with this trifecta of Black women? Stella at the helm as director and Anika playing your mother all from the mind of Nicola Yoon. What was that like for you?
AS: It was powerful. I think even in making it; it felt historical. It just felt like something that hadn't been done before. That's not to say that there haven't been projects that Black women have been at the helm of. But, I don't think there have been projects like this that are for larger audiences and for everyone, being put out by this large studio and being curated and supported and crafted and everything by Black women.
AT: Stella, what inspired you to pick up the camera in the first place and to want to sit in the director’s chair?
SM: I think I am always a writer first. I always thought I would be more of just a writer. But, I think when I wrote "Jean of the Joneses" it was such a specific tone that I saw for it that I didn’t know who could do it. I just didn’t believe it would have the same feeling I wanted it to have if someone else did it so, I nominated myself (Laughing). Luckily, the actors got behind me and some financiers and we were able to do it. I guess I did it for selfish reasons.
Nick Robinson and Amandla Stenberg in "Everything, Everything"
AT: Amandla, following "Everything, Everything" your next two projects, "Where Hands Touch" and "The Darkest Minds" are also helmed by women. Are you going out of your way to find projects with female directors or is it just something that sort of happened for you at this point in your career?
AS: It's something that just sort of happened and I'm extremely grateful for it.
AT: Anika, you have had such a beautiful career with such diverse and stunning characters. I know that you're doing "Power" this year again, and "The Quad" hopefully will be back for a second season...
ANR: It was picked up.
AT: Oh wonderful! So How do you choose which projects to do?
ANR: I choose things that move me. And that doesn't mean necessarily move me to tears, but move me to feel something or think something, or move me to step into a place that is different from a space that I've inhabited before, hopefully. I want to be excited, I want to be titillated, and I want to be able to inhabit someone else. That's exciting to me, and so that's what I look for.
AT: You said earlier that you are an avid reader and fan of YA novels. So, I don't know if you could even speak to me briefly about why you chose to option "Shadowshaper," Daniel José Older's book, for film. What is it about this story that just spoke to you?
ANR: It's beautiful. And he is a man who writes women so honestly and clearly, that if you didn't know that a man had written it, you wouldn't know. And I think that this is a phenomenally special awesome girl who is a heroine. She's trying to figure herself out, her space in the world, while figuring out is she powerful, or where did these powers come from, and is it just the power of this magic that I happen to hold, or do I have to ... and am I able to claim this power of just being who I am as well? How often do you see a brown-skinned Afro-Latina ... never. So that's exciting to me. And it's New York, and New York is the place that I love. I felt like we don't get to be surrounded by magic, we don't get to move through magic and spirit, and own our spiritualism in a place that's magic, without it being called something, whether it's called voodoo or witchcraft. So I think it's just a beautiful place to see this young woman grow into her own power, and also fall in love, and figure out who she is in the scheme of that. I'm so excited to see it on screen. It's going to be magnificent.
AT: What do you think is the biggest obstacle facing Black directors and female directors in the industry right now?
SM: I mean there is not a lot of women working right now in the studio system. It’s hard to get through the door. I guess going back to what we were talking about; it’s just a bit of a sad state of affairs for women in the industry.
AT: What do you hope people take away from this film?
ANR: The theme that runs through it for me is love. How love can be life-giving and life-changing, but how love can also be suffocating. And how important it is for us to recognize where we are in that spectrum, and what are we doing, and is our love healthy, the love that we're getting and the love that we're giving. So I want people to just come to it open, and see what effects and hits them, where does it speak to them makes them want to speak to their mom more, and have a better communication? Does it make them want to give their child more space, or potentially hold them closer because they don't?
AT: Stella, what’s next for you if you can even speak about that?
SM: There is stuff that I've written that I want to direct. There’s a lot of things I'm reading right now and some TV projects, but nothing I want to name just yet.
AT: Congratulations on "Everything, Everything" and thank you so much for speaking with me.
"Everything, Everything" is out in theaters today.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami