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Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard on 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' and why he did drag

The stars of the Sundance smash "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard, discuss being comfortable shooting uncomfortable things and why its portrayal of an inappropriate sexual relationship is being embraced.

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.

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“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.”

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” arrives in a climate that seems more receptive to having conversations about women’s issues as well as sexuality. It’s still an outlier.

“People don’t make movies or talk about female sexuality,” Powell says. “They’re such taboo subjects. With the rise of ‘New Feminism,’ it’s a very good time to be making a movie about young women wanting to have sex, and normalizing it. It’s very important for teenage girls to have that normalized. Otherwise you can feel really ostracized. It can be really damaging.”

“If you reverse this, and it’s a guy doing all that in a movie, you have to think: Would I judge that?” Skarsgard points out.

“There are so many movies about men wanting to get laid and men being promiscuous and men wanting to lose their virginity,” Powell says. “Why not make one about women?”

In America, Powley was an unknown before “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” played Sundance. She already has films lined up, including “A Royal Night Out” — in which she and Sarah Gadon play Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth sneaking out to celebrate V.E. Day — and “Equals,” with Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult. She also made “Detour,” in which she had to learn how to pole-dance. (“It was so hard. It takes a lot of upper body strength.”) She’s had other offers too.

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“The stuff I’ve been sent has been really good,” she says, though she adds, “People sometimes misconstrue when I say I want a strong female role. They’re like, ‘OK, how about a Marvel superhero?’ I don’t mean that kind of strong. I just mean a well-rounded, real, fleshed-out person, who isn’t just there because of the dude.”

There’s also the subject of how Alexander Skarsgard arrived at their film’s San Francisco premiere the other day. As it happens when they shot the film they employed many of the city’s drag queens, some of who performed before the film began.

“It sounded like fun,” Skarsgard recounts. “I had a couple pints and I said, ‘I don’t want to be excluded from all the fun. I want to be in drag.” So they made him up like Farrah Fawcett. Local performer did his makeup. “She told me I’m her daughter now. Whoever does your makeup the first time you go in drag is your mom. So Mercedez is now my drag queen mom.”

He even enjoyed it: “I want to do it at every screening. I feel so uncomfortable in jeans and a shirt.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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