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“I Went Through the Book a Million Times” – Abby Ryder Fortson Talks “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”

10 min read

Lionsgate UK

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

Published in 1970, 's novel Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret has become a bestseller around the world but it has also been challenged and banned too because of its themes. And now, over 50 years later, there is finally a film . Judy Blume served as one of the producers of the film and has even claimed it is better than the book.

The title role of Margaret is played by , best known for her role as Cassie Lang in Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp. To mark Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret's home release, FILMHOUNDS sat down with Abby Ryder Fortson to discuss her role as Margaret.

 

Had you read the book before you were cast in the film?

I actually hadn't. Judy Blume and I just missed each other I guess. But as soon as I got the audition, I read the book and I loved it so much and I related to so many parts of it. And I was so surprised that someone was able to write down such an honest truthful retelling of the whole teenage experience, especially in the 70s and I just loved it so much.

 

So what made you want to audition for the part if you hadn't read the book?

Honestly, I connected to Margaret when I first auditioned. I was 11, just turning 12 and I connected to Margaret, all of her experiences, all of the things that she was going through, and the way she was feeling. It just made me want to explore that in film format.

 

You met Judy Blume and she was part of the filmmaking process. How did that affect your portrayal of Margaret? Did she give you any tips or notes and how she wanted you to play the character?

Honestly, she kind of handed the reins over to Kelly [Fremon Craig, the director] and me. The one note, and we're all so happy that she was on set this day, was when we were filming one of the scenes where all the girls do ‘I must increase our bust'. We were rehearsing it, and Judy was watching us and she was like, ‘Oh no they're doing it wrong.' So she had to pull us off-set and teach us how to do it correctly. So we're all so thankful that she was there that day.

Lionsgate UK

What was that like getting to work with Judy Blume?

It was so lovely. Honestly, she's such an incredibly nice person and just such an inspiration too. But when she was on set, I think most of us were kind of just nervously looking back to where she was sitting and being like, ‘Are we doing this right?' because we wanted to do right by her because she didn't let anyone else touch it for almost 50 years. And I think we all just feel so lucky to be a part of this and to and to feel like we made Judy happy because I know that she's said it a million times, but I think she's really proud of the film that we all created together.

 

She should absolutely be proud of this film! Did you ever make up any stories, either by yourself or with Judy, about what you think happens to Margaret after the end of the book and after the end of the film?

Yeah, I like to imagine that she stays friends with Laura and Janie and they all go off into Junior High and start a book club and hang out and just try to be less worried about what other people think of them and basically turn into me and how I am now and just super cool.

 

When you're playing a character like this that's based on a book, how much do you try and base your performance on everything that's written down in the book and not make up anything else? And how much do you like to bring some of yourself to that role and add something that's maybe not on the page?

I think I drew a lot from the book. Judy has such wonderful characterization of Margaret already written and Kelly added a lot with the script. But I did draw on a lot of my own life experiences to really make Margaret a fully rounded-out person because I feel like with film, as opposed to other written formats, you can really show every single side of someone.

I went through the book a million times, went through the script a million times, I wrote lists upon lists upon notes, everything… my script is falling apart. I have it bobby pinned back together. I had to just put it on a shelf and never touch it again or else I'm afraid it's just going to fall apart. But I have so many broken-down notes of everything, from the way that her socks look in the morning, to her every single thought about one singular person in the film that she interacts with. And yeah, I think it always is fun to draw on what the original author has created because that's the original thing, but it's always great to learn how to make it your own as well.

So what do her socks look like in the morning then?

They look ridiculously messy. One's pulled all the way up, one's scrunched down around her ankles. It was really fun to work with our costume designer Ann Roth to work out all of the little things in her wardrobe and I have to say, the 70s costumes are so amazing. I wanted to steal half of the things that I wore.

Lionsgate UK

I was going to ask you what it's like getting to play a character in the 70s, a time before you were born. What was that like for you to get to wear the costumes and use all the props?

It was awesome! I'm a huge vintage and thrifting kind of person. I have huge collections of vinyls, cassettes, vintage clothes, and all that and it was just so much fun. I did steal a couple of things from the set, maybe a vintage typewriter and a vintage suitcase. But my favourite thing about the 70s or at least playing on a 70s set was, you know, when you're hanging up on someone nowadays, and you have your phone and you're really mad at them and you want to make them hear that you're mad at them. When you're hanging up, pressing the ‘end call' button does not have the same effect as having a rotary phone and slamming that thing down. That is so satisfying. It's so fun.

 

Just to go back to that idea of portraying a character from a novel. Is that different from when you're portraying characters from comic books? So going back to Marvel and Cassie, is it different when you're playing characters from a whole series of comic books and graphic novels to a regular novel where it's just words and no images to draw on?

Really I think that in all written formats, it's kind of similar. For Marvel, I read a few of the comics but I think the basis of character development and character traits and all that is it stays the same, no matter if you're doing a comic book or a written novel. And they're both equally as fun to kind of twist into your own kind of character.

 

With the book being such a beloved book and read by so many people, did you feel any pressure coming into this role?

 At first, I didn't. And then as soon as I started talking to people about the book and hearing directly from them about how much they loved it and how special it was to them, then I started feeling it just a little bit. And I was like, ‘Okay, we've got to do this, right.' This has to be good, or else a whole lot of people are gonna be ‘You ruined my favourite book!' I think hopefully we did those people proud and they love it as much as we do.

 

Especially with a book being banned for such a long time as well, having a film that isn't going anywhere, and it's going to be able to stay around for people to watch, what's that like being able to do it so that people can watch this story, even if they weren't able to read it?

That is so amazing to me. I think honestly, it's so unfortunate that the book has been banned for so many years and in so many different places. Because it's such a wonderful story. It's about finding yourself and being proud of yourself and you have a relatable character because she's so humanistic and has so many amazing qualities but she's so insecure and growing up, and I think it's really unfortunate that the book has been banned and it's really wonderful that the story will be able to reach so many more people in its film format, even if they didn't get to read the book. But I still think everyone should read the book because the book is awesome. Books should never be banned.

 

You mentioned how everyone can learn stuff from both the book and also the film. Did you learn anything about yourself from doing the film?

To be less hard on myself. I think growing up, everyone has times where they're like, ‘Oh my god, I'm not doing this right' but I think I learned to be less hard on myself. And to let myself grow up, however I grow up.

Lionsgate UK

What was it like getting to work with and fostering that mother-daughter relationship the two of you had in the film?

Oh, it was awesome. Rachel is so kind and so amazing. What a wonderful actress to work with! And she's just so fun, such an amazing scene partner and it's funny because the way that we did it on set is that we had a two-hour meeting with Kelly and Kathy Bates and Benny Safdie and Rachel and I, we all sat down in the Simon's New York apartment. And we talked, we chatted a little bit. And all of a sudden we're like, ‘Hey, we're a family now.'

And then the next day we went out and shot. So that's kind of how it went. I think that's one of the most fun things that I get to do as an actor. I get to go up to a random person that I've never met and say ‘Hey, you're my mother now, I love you and we're going to be the best mother-daughter relationships people have ever seen.'

You've got a great on-screen relationship, was it really just a couple of hours the day before?

We bonded even more on while we got to shoot for a month and a half. But it was on the first day and just we jumped right in.

 

That's really amazing. And then with you and the other kids in the film, what was that relationship like?

I think we had about a week of rehearsals with all of the kids together. And that was so much fun. I don't get to work with other people my age very often. It's one of the drawbacks of working in our business. But it is always so much fun when there are other kids on set. And we had such a fun time filming all of those school scenes and the party scenes and it was a lot of fun.

 

Do you have a particular favourite moment from making the film that stands out?

So while we were shooting at Margaret's house, there was this neighbourhood cat. I think someone owned him because he wasn't a stray or anything. But he was bossy and he was powerful. And he was this giant ginger cat with a giant mane and his name was Simba. And one day he just kind of walked into the shot and plopped himself down right in front of the camera. And he would not move for a good five minutes. And he was just staring up at us, daring us to move him and he would not move and he would not get out shot. So there's a bunch of b-roll footage just lying around somewhere and I want them to put it in the special features on the DVD because there's a couple of really funny shots of me just standing being like, ‘buddy, come on.' And finally, the AD had to pick them up and he looks so sad for someone to take him away from the camera. He wanted his little moment.

 

He was called Simba? When you eventually picked him up did you play Circle of Life and lift him up like that? 

I wish we had thought of that, it would have been very funny!

 

And finally, now that the film is out and everyone's seen it and been able to watch it what are you most proud of about it?

Honestly, just its message and the fact that it's a feel-good film. It's not always happy, it has sad moments, but it's just a movie that makes you feel good. And we live in a world where you don't always get that. You have a lot of films out there and stories and you always hear about the bad stuff. And I think it's really wonderful that there are stories like this, that like Margaret, that really just show the good people and are uplifting and you can go to see it with your kids and have a meaningful conversation afterward. And I'm really proud of that. And I think everyone else is who worked on it as well.

 

Lionsgate UK presents Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. on digital 18 July and on Blu-ray and DVD 7 August