Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard are sitting on a bed. It’s appropriate, in a mildly weird way. In their indie dramedy “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” the film they’re here to talk about, they play, respectively, Minnie, a teenager in first blush with her sexuality, and Monroe, her mother’s boyfriend, with whom she is sleeping. (The mother is played by Kristen Wiig, who is not present.) They have the kind of goofy rapport that comes with actors who’ve had to fake intimacy through real trust.
“I’d never done a sex scene onscreen before. Alex was my first onscreen kiss,” Powley says, dispensing a laugh Skarsgard shares. “He took my onscreen virginity.”
Powley, a young British actress with the usual extensive English TV and theater experience, found herself transplanted to America, specifically 1976 San Francisco, making a film that could be uncomfortable for all but wasn’t. Part of the potential discomfort was the graphic sex, but part of it was also working with a first-time filmmaker, Marielle Heller, with a deep history with the project. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel-cum-diary, it was something Heller had already turned into a stage production, in 2010, starring her in Powley’s role.
“This had been her baby for eight years,” Skarsgard explains. “But there was no ego involved at all. She was collaborative. She encouraged us to take control of our characters and find them. If something wasn’t feeling right on-set, she took that seriously.”
As for Powley, she found herself in the unusual position of playing the very character once portrayed by the person directing her.
“People always have to remind me of that. I forgot,” she confesses. “It was never Marielle saying, ‘Oh, when I did it I did it like this.’ I was never worried I was emulating her version of Minnie.”
Though the role called on Powley to do some uncomfortable firsts, Skarsgard wasn’t off scott-free. He had to play a 35-year-old sleeping with a) a high-schooler and b) his girlfriend’s daughter.
“I saw that as an interesting challenge,” Skarsgard says. “He could easily become predatory. You have to make their relationship mean something. Otherwise it’s not going to be interesting. If he’s too predatory you think, ‘Why watch this for more than five minutes?’ You have to be invested. It’s always more interesting if you make the audience uncomfortable. Then they’re torn. Then it feels real.”
“Obviously there’s a 20 year age gap, but it’s like any relationship,” Powley adds. “It ebbs and flows, it’s balanced and the imbalanced. You think maybe they work together, then it falls off-kilter again. There’s a power struggle between them.”
Of course, what amounts to statutory rape is a touchy subject, though so far viwers seem to have shared the film’s nonjudgmental tone.
“I’ve been surprised: the conversations we’ve been having at Q&As and with journalists have been very intelligent in the way they’ve approached the subject,” Skarsgard says, adding, “It’ll be interesting when a general audience sees it.” That said, even those who are typically against movies about sexuality, especially female sexuality, and especially female teen sexuality, have been into it. “We’ve done interviews with quite conservative journalists, and they really responded to it.”