Let me tell you: there should be a German word for the specific feeling of “what have I been doing with my life?” that manifests from attending the same high school as Tavi Gevinson (albeit, ahem, several years prior). But speaking to Gevinson over the phone feels very much like catching up with your coolest friend; the 21-year-old speaks with thoughtful deliberation but refreshing openness.
I’m struck by the way she weaves together, in real time, her own experiences and insights with gems of wisdom collected from mentors, friends, and beloved art works — a habit formed from years of meticulously documenting and organizing her inspirations, first on her Style Rookie blog and, later, on Rookie, the online, teen-girl-focused magazine into which it evolved.
We talk a lot, too, about Gevinson’s process of relinquishing that impulse toward archiving her own life as it happens, as she’s moved in the last few years out of the digital space and into the world. The last few years have seen Gevinson throw herself head-first into acting, both on screen and onstage. She made her theatrical debut in 2014 in a revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play This Is Our Youth. Last month saw the official release of Person to Person, an indie film about New York City. Most recently, she spent five weeks living in Williamstown, Massachusetts, for Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, a modernized adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, in which she played Irina (who she laughingly describes as “such an asshole”). For a woman who’s spent more than half her life thus far working online, Gevinson seems recharged by this new mode of expression. Read on for our interview with her.
MG: Reading your “Infinity Diaries” series on Rookie last year really helped stage acting as a form click for me. I read it and thought: whoa, theater is intense!
TG: My friend Jake, who runs Metrograph on the Lower East Side, put it this way while explaining it to a friend who was a writer: “Imagine if someone said, you have to write the best book you can tonight, right now.” It’s so crazy! Nothing else I do makes me feel that way. It’s sort of the opposite of working on the internet and knowing that everything you’re doing is leaving a trail. It’s a cliché, but I feel so free onstage because every moment is just passing, and you have to get over everything as soon as it happens.
Do you feel, at this point, that you’re more of an actor or a writer at heart?
I think the way I move through the world more closely resembles the traits we associate with writers. The guys I met in [This Is Our Youth], who’d been acting since they were kids, were so instinct-based and able to let things go really easily. And I felt like the opposite of that. Now there’s no question in my mind that I am an actor, and that certain parts of it feel very natural to me.
But I like to think about what would happen if I didn’t treat them as very different things. I just read an interview with Rachel Cusk where she was describing her writing process and how much of it accumulates in her head before she sits down and just does it. She compared it to being a performer onstage: preparation, and then a kind of freedom, letting things just happen to you and surrendering control.
This is going to sound cheesy, but I feel very in touch with the biology of the world as I’m [acting]. It’s not about preserving anything. When I do a play and the whole thing is over, it’s like, no one will ever see that except the ones who were in that room. I could not fully write about it. And then I’m almost giddy with acceptance of the passage of time.
Do you feel that your writing has changed, being informed by this other practice?
I would hope so! One thing Kenny Lonergan said when we were doing This Is Our Youth was: “Your brain is actually not the smartest part of you.” And that alone changed the way I thought about writing. It’s so easy to fall into the traps of fear, and to try to get ahead of the writing and know what you’re doing before your subconscious does. Stage acting has helped me trust all the other mechanisms that don’t put things into words as soon as they happen, and can alchemize these events into some kind of insight.
One thing that was really great about doing this play with actors with different degrees of mainstream fame was that we were spending all this time together, so you end up talking about everything, and everyone has a million rejection stories. When I sit down to write something, the pressure can be so great that it should just pour out of me and be good. And what inspires me the most is whenever people talk about how hard it actually is. And the fact that it’s hard and surprising is what makes it mysterious and kind of magical.
What are some small or big things that make you excited to wake up and be in the world?
I am a much fuller version of myself if I can start the day journaling, or giving myself a tarot reading, or even sitting down and flipping through a book, not reading necessarily but just getting inspired in some way — whether it’s a comic book or a zine or rereading annotations in a book I read a long time ago. It always feels like a treat to do things that are creative but not meant to serve your work. And when a friend finishes a project, I love thinking back on when we got dinner and they were really stressed out because they never thought they’d finish it. Seeing other people come out at the other end from something is good.
What was the last thing you read that made you think, thank God this exists!
There’s a film zine called “Bright Wall/Dark Room”; every issue has a different theme, but they dedicated one to the movie Margaret, which is one of my favorite things ever made. That movie didn’t get the life it should have, but thank god there are people who can be so passionate about something so specific that maybe didn’t have a great mainstream cultural impact. I would hope that there are things on Rookie that do that to an extent, too. Actually, that reminds me — you know when you read something that makes you angry because it’s so good that you’re like, “Fuck, I want to make that, I hate you!” It’s healthy when that happens because it lets you know what you really want. So I made a list of things that make me go, “I want that, I want to make something like that.” And it’s like: Margaret, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a bunch of Annie Baker plays, Channel Orange by Frank Ocean, The Kick Inside by Kate Bush … I don’t know what the common thread would be between all these things, but, I guess, things that feel wide in scope but everything about them feels really deliberate.