Halston Sage went to an all-girls high school, and she spent most of her time there working on the school newspaper, serving on student council and riding horses. So, her teen experience was very different from that of her character Lindsay in “Before I Fall,” the confident but secretly troubled ringleader of a pack of mean girls. Her clique includes the film’s protagonist, Zoey Deutch’s Sam, who finds herself mysteriously living the same fateful day over and over again, “Groundhog Day”-style. The film is based on a YA bestseller, but it’s more thoughtful than most, digging into ideas of mortality and existential dread.
I’m imagining you weren’t a mean girl in high school.
No. It was very therapeutic to be bossing people around all day. I’d get it out of my system without it actually reflecting on who I am as a person. [Laughs]
You do have a scene where you and your clique scream at an unpopular girl and dump drinks on her head.
There was actually a take in that sequence where [Elena Kampouris] spit on me and wound up hitting my eyeball. It got really intense. [Laughs] We were really living that fight. Then on the van ride home it was like, “Sorry, I love you!”
Despite it being based on a YA novel, I don’t think the movie’s strictly for young adults.
Even though it takes place in high school, it deals with very adult themes — questions we ask ourselves even after high school. Who do I want to be? What do I want people to remember me for? How do I want to treat people? What do I want to do with my time here? These questions are really important and really elevated when you’re in high school, because at that age you think everything is so important and it’s the end of the world. I’m 23, and I still feel that way. I could talk to my mom and she’s still asking the same questions.
It’s weirdly comforting when you realize adults don’t know anything either.
Right! And there are still girls who are mean, but you realize they have more sides to them. That’s the benefit of getting older: You don’t just see everyone in one way. They could be someone like my character, who’s had something terrible happen in her life or is going through a rough time. You don’t want to justify their behavior, but you want to understand them, give them a little more credit, rather than reducing them to one kind of person.
It must have been strange going back to high school after five years, though.
One thing I loved was how authentic it was about high school life now. Everything is very consistent with how they live — how they dress, how they speak. We would improvise over the dialogue to make it sound more like how they speak. You don’t really see that in movies about high school. High schoolers are so much cooler now than when I was in school. They’re cooler than me.
They may even be smarter and savvier than when I was in high school. I’m probably wrong about this, but I’d like to think their gadgets, which we didn’t have in my day, make them more curious about the world, more connected to it.
I hope. They have so many more options, so much access to learning about the world, between smartphones and even the content on TV and in films. It’s so much more elevated than it’s ever been.
They also have the whole YA phenomenon, which must be helpful. There are writers who know what they’re going through.
It’s a confusing time when you’re a young adult! You want to know you’re not alone. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be an actress growing up. I go to the movies for two reasons: Either you want to escape from life and laugh, or you want to connect with other human experiences, to feel like you’re not alone. It’s such a crucial gift to be able to tell someone at that age they’re not alone or other people are going through what they’re going through.
Do a lot of the books’ fans write you over social media?
When you’re making a film based on a YA novel you have this huge built-in fanbase. You have a lot of people who are excited about the movie and are constantly sending you messages on Instagram and Twitter, saying, “You have to get this part in the movie” — things like that. It’s a fun way to make movies these days.
Is that strange for you, having fans with direct access to you?
No, I think it’s really sweet. If I was that age and I was able to talk to my favorite actress or send her a note online, I would have done it. Hopefully you can separate your anxieties about the negative side of social media and see it as more of a platform to reach out to people you admire or care about. Or you can talk about a cause that’s important to you, to get that message across to other people. That’s the nice way of looking at social media.