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If the cast and crew of Grow Up, Tony Phillips went out for a celebratory drink after they were officially accepted into SXSW, writer/director Emily Hagins wouldn’t be able to join them. She’s only 20. Grow Up, Tony Phillips is her 2nd movie to play at SXSW and her 4th feature film. In our opinion, it’s her best yet as we really enjoyed the movie. We sat down at a small roundtable to talk with Emily along with cast members Tony Vespe, Katie Folger, and AJ Bowen about the complexities of the characters and what it means to grow up.
Playmaker Magazine: Of all the things that we do in our childhood to represent youth in your movie, why did you choose Halloween?
Emily Hagins: I wish I had a really deep answer for this, but I love the look of Halloween. It was a big part of my childhood in two ways. 1) I had an over-active imagination. I was scared of everything. I would just hide at Halloween. Or I’d go out trick or treating during the day time. I didn’t want to see anybody. I was scared of trick or treaters. I was scared of anything that could set off my imagination. Coming from that, I wrote a lot of stories. But then when I started watching horror films, I loved Halloween! It was the greatest day in the world! It was such an influence on me in very different ways. I love the look of it. It’s such a nice time of year. It feels very different. And people get excited in a different way for a whole season like when the leaves start changing. It’s an interesting time culturally for people. Christmas stuff pops up too for some reason, and you’re just like, “Come on guys, it’s September.” But really, it’s the aesthetic. I love the color palate and the theme. And I thought by making a simple movie, we could do a lot with that.
Playmaker: Are the leaves changing in October in Texas?
Emily: Never! No! Haha.
AJ Bowen: Christmas is the only other time where there’s a very clear thing that kids do and there’s very clearly a thing that adults do. Unfortunately, most people live in between that zone or way beyond it. In that netherworld of, “where do I fit into this…” it makes it easier to discuss through that.
Playmaker: My favorite thing about the movie is that you tapped into the universality of having to give up certain things if you want to grow up. Is there something in particular that you tapped in to personally to make this film?
Emily: Some of my friends and family got into the issue of me going to college when I wanted to keep making movies. But that’s not what my gut was telling me to do. It became a thing where it wasn’t a hobby, it was a career. Anyone that wants to pursue something creative has to go through that struggle. I really wanted to tell a story from that transitional point in your life.
Katie Folger: In high school, I didn’t act until my junior year. I was really into books. I was about getting the best grades and being at the top of my class. I was a dancer, too. When I found theatre, I was like, this clicks. Everyone said, “Don’t be in theatre, those kids are weird.” And I listened to them. So I stopped listening to other people and started tuning in to what I really wanted. I came to college and I missed theatre so much. I said, I need to do this and I’m not going to listen to anyone else. That’s the great part of this movie. If you listen to yourself and put everything in to what you want to do, it’s going to reward you.
AJ: There’s this concept in storytelling for us about killing your darlings. It’s important in the process of collaborative creation that you do that. It’s come up as a point of humor among us because I’m older than they are. Eventually, this concept of killing your darlings applies to yourself on a profoundly personal level, letting parts of you die. Speaking in a pretentious metaphor, the concept of autumn, leaves changing, things dying, Halloween works for that for me. That’s naturally what I keyed in to. I’m not trying to get all Lifetime on you here, but I’ve been sober for about two years. I reached a point where that wasn’t working anymore. In order to grow, you have to let a part of you die. You eventually have to let things go. That’s where I was coming from with Pete. He’s got one foot in the door and he’s holding on too long. It takes someone shoving him because he’s not strong enough to do it on his own. He has to possibly permanently wreck a relationship that’s important to him than he realized… and once he realizes that it might be taken away, it becomes really easy and worth it to save. In life, I think that’s something that people can relate to.
Playmaker: The characters have great chemistry on screen all around. And what was really impressive was the moments that you were able to have with Caleb Barwick. What was it like working with him?
Emily: I worked on a TV movie with him in October right before we shot this movie. He’s the lead in that and he plays a blind kid. He was so thorough. We went to the Texas school for the blind. He was taught how to use the cane. On his trip to Connecticut, where we shot, he went blind. He had a blind fold on and he traveled like a blind person. It was all his idea because he loves acting. It’s so natural for him and it’s amazing to see that at such a young age.
Katie: And he’s a great kid, just a nice guy. Not a “child actor.” He’s a good kid.
AJ: They say kid, right? But that’s 20 year olds talking about a child that’s 12 going on 13. I’m just saying, ya’ll are 20. I’m going on 36.
Katie: Come on, AJ!
AJ: You watch your mouth and respect your elders.
Playmaker: We are a sports magazine. Do you guys have a team that you follow or sports that you play?
AJ: Go Georgia Bulldogs!
Emily: I was on the worst soccer team in Austin. We got trophies for participation because we were the worst, 2nd to the team that just wouldn’t show up.
Tony: I’m not a sports kind of guy, but when football comes on, I have to watch it. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy and grew up around it. I’m an Oakland Raiders guy. Maybe because they’ve caused the most fatalities on the field, or maybe they’re just awesome. They just rock it. They’re hard core. I love the Raiders. I don’t know how good they are, but I love them.