Bo Burnham On The Genre-Bending World Of ‘Promising Young Woman’

Spoilers ahead for “Promising Young Woman.”

It was a pre-pandemic day in Park City, Utah, as I climbed up a snowy driveway to Marriott’s Mountainside, the ski-in-ski-out resort where I was to sit down with actor-director Bo Burnham last year.

His performance had just received numerous laughs from moviegoers at the premiere of Emerald Fennell’s buzzed-about directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman,” a reaction that felt oddly necessary amid the tense atmosphere in the theater. Some audience members had walked out; others happily squirmed in their seats, gasping at the final act’s twisty end. 

Fennell’s dark comedy, now on demand, is a genre-bending adventure ― part revenge thriller, part candy-colored rom-com. It tells the story of med school dropout Cassie (Carey Mulligan) who is now a barista by day and a bad-man exposer by night. After a traumatic event leaves her broken, Cassie is out to prove a point. She sets traps for guys at bars, luring them in by pretending to be drunk and helpless. Once they take her home, she hits them with a sobering reality.

While completing her mission, Cassie begins to fall for Ryan (Burnham), a former classmate and pediatrician who shows her that there are still good dudes in the world. But their romance explodes after it turns out that he was involved in the very incident that led Cassie to leave med school in the first place.  

Burnham, the former YouTuber who earned acclaim in 2018 for his middle-school indie “Eighth Grade,” was just the kind of guy Fennell wanted to cast in the role of Ryan. She was purposely looking for well-liked heartthrobs (Adam Brody, Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield) to play the terrible men of “Promising Young Woman” in order to test audience allegiances.

“There’s nothing we love more than a villain and a very clear-cut victim. We love that as a society and as a viewer because we know who’s good and who’s bad,” Fennell told HuffPost’s Matthew Jacobs. “What is really discomforting is when we’re seeing people that we really like and respect, who’ve been longstanding people that we’ve had crushes on since childhood or whatever it is, do stuff we don’t like.”

She continued, “It’s so important they don’t know that [Bo’s] been cast in a subversive way.” 

Sitting less than 6 feet apart on cozy hotel room chairs, Burnham and I talked about Fennell’s world, playing opposite an Oscar-nominated actor and the misguided disdain of pop music.

From left to right: Carey Mulligan, Emerald Fennell, Laverne Cox and Bo Burnham on the set of "Promising Young Woman."

From left to right: Carey Mulligan, Emerald Fennell, Laverne Cox and Bo Burnham on the set of “Promising Young Woman.”

You haven’t been to Sundance since “Eighth Grade” debuted here in 2018. How does it feel to be back?

It’s just a surreal environment. Everything feels so strange. Was I just here? Was that 10 years ago? I don’t know. “Eighth Grade” was such an experience for me because that was just like my entry into anything having to do with the film world. It was a little traumatic! And this is traumatic in its own way. The trauma of your face on a screen, for me, is just too much to bear. But it’s so great because I just love Emerald so much and root so fucking hard for her. 

Yes, she has such an original voice. Did you know from reading the screenplay for “Promising Young Woman” that this would be a film that would get people talking? 

Oh, definitely. But from the screenplay, I was like, “I don’t know who the fuck could pull this off.” The tones are so disparate. And then you meet Emerald and those tones are encompassed in her as a person. I mean, she is funny and darkly funny and sweet and emotional and incredibly intelligent and, like, confectionery. Then I saw her short film [“Careful How You Go”], which definitely balances all those tones, and thought, “Oh, thank God.” The one person who could pull this off happens to be the person who’s doing it. She just has a real fucking gravity to her. I just wanted to go into her world and be a part of it. 

And then you get cast opposite Carey Mulligan. 

My agent was like, “Do you want to do a chemistry read with Carey Mulligan?” Presenting it to me like, “Do you want to go humiliate yourself?” I literally thought, OK, I’ll go, I’ll have a horrible experience, I’ll fall on my face and I’ll come out of it a better person. And I went to the chemistry read and she was so great. Truly, Carey is just so immediately accessible as a person ― frustratingly so, to the point where you’re like, “Fuck, I thought if you’re that talented, you’d be an asshole?”

We did the first scene [where they meet] and everyone was like, “That’s really good because Ryan is incredibly intimidated by Cassie.” And I was like, “Yeah, good, because that was a choice I was making.” [Laughs] Then it was just like, “Emerald, if you want me, all right. I don’t agree with you, but …”

I’ll do it! 

Exactly. I just wanted to be a part of her thing

“Promising Young Woman” is such a different, smart choice for Carey. 

What’s so smart about the genius casting of Carey by Emerald is that the plot elements of the movie are just so external in the world, but Carey is so internal. She’s able to do such vivid internal performances. What’s so incredible about watching this is that all of these actions are so outward and yet the drama of the film really exists in this very subtle thing going on behind Carey’s eyes. It makes the film so big, but also so, so subtle because Carey is able to work in the most micro ways as an actor. 

You’re the comedic element of the film, but this isn’t your typical rom-com fare, even though your character seems plucked from that genre. 

When I’d come to set, I’d be like, “Hey, everybody!” And they’d be exhausted from just filming something terrible. But yeah, it was very important that Ryan wasn’t aware of the movie that was happening around him ― the movie that eventually crashes in on him. So I tried to play it honest and not get too out of my head and trust Emerald to do all the balancing and architecture. I just totally committed to whatever my scenes were.

Mulligan as Cassie and Burnham as Ryan in "Promising Young Woman." Here, they sing and dance to Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Bli

Mulligan as Cassie and Burnham as Ryan in “Promising Young Woman.” Here, they sing and dance to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.”

You definitely committed to that Paris Hilton pharmacy scene. 

Horrifying. It’s so funny, Carey and I had earpieces when we were fucking singing that … 

I was going to ask if you actually knew “Stars Are Blind.”  

I’d heard it and listened to it a bunch. I think, for any actor, you’re not doing the right thing if you aren’t, like, humiliated on camera. It’s the whole point of being on camera is not to do things that you’re in control of, it’s to actually do things you don’t want to do. It’s just, like, so cringey. And Carey and I both lost a lot of body weight just thinking about it. And it’s also, like — that is what love is. Love in the early stages is so embarrassing. The stuff you do together is just, like, holy fucking god.

I mean, that was the scene at the premiere where I literally just covered my eyes for five minutes. I just could not look. And it was so fucking long. I turned to my girlfriend [Lorene Scafaria] like, “It’s still going. We’re on Verse three. How is this fucking happening still?”

“Stars Are Blind,” a “Toxic” cover ― great pop music in this. You got Enya to sign off on “Orinoco Flow” to be in “Eighth Grade” by writing a letter, so did you share any tactics with Emerald?  

Yes, I wrote a “Dear Enya” letter! But Emerald had a little run in with Paris somewhere and they sang the song together, which is beautiful. And the lyrics are, like, unbelievable.

I think this movie really is like a pop song. Popular music gets no credit because a lot of it is feminine and no one has respect for it. But if you saw “even though the stars are blind” in like a T.S. Eliot poem, you’d be like, “That’s fucking ingenious!” And that’s the point! The deliciousness of the popiness of something does not take away from its depth. This movie is not ironic. For Emerald it’s not, at least.

When you saw what happened with your character, who viewers assume is the “good guy” of the film, did you expect it?

I was actually reading the script going, “I don’t know about this. She’s going to redeemed by a romantic relationship with this guy?” There is probably no world I was never not going to do it with Emerald and Carey, but, strangely, my one thing was: If she ends up with this guy, I don’t know if I can do this. It did not feel like the right choice, but I felt like that script was heading that way. Then when it happened, it was obviously horrible but I was like, “Oh, good.” Of course, the ultimate good guy who has all these bad guys around ― this safe place where we can all identify with ― you have to turn the spotlight on him. You have to. No stone unturned, meaning that no man in this time can go without self-examining.

What Emerald said — which is so smart and I really hung on to — is Ryan is the type of guy who never considered that he wasn’t a good guy. And that is the fourth generation of this conversation that we’re having that we need to progress to and we’re not, because men are stiff-arming it the moment it encroaches on any of their casual behavior. Whenever the conversation widens a little past the explicitly criminal, we fucking go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” Obviously, that’s strange and this culture is really weird and not talked about. Actually, the one time it is talked about is in movies. Movies, mostly male-driven comedies, have just encouraged this very strange dynamic. It’s like a funny thing that you’re dragging the drunk girl into your car and she’s puking everywhere.

If you go back 10 years, that scenario was everywhere in movies. 

I was just watching something the other night, and I’m not going to name the title, but it was from 2012 and I was like, “Wow.” You can look back and realize that no conversations were happening. I mean, things are still really fucked up but … 

Those male-fronted comedies were “the thing” a decade or more ago and, as teenagers, we most certainly thought they were funny. Of course, now we have more life experience and see them completely differently. Was “Promising Young Woman” therapeutic for you? Were you able to look back on your own life and evaluate how you maybe acted in certain situations?

Definitely. Certainly. But I also think it isn’t just a matter of people getting older and becoming more aware. It really is a whole culture, because clearly the people who were our age back then were fine with those movies, too. 

I really did watch this movie as an audience member; I really do feel like I have as much to say about this movie as any audience member would. This movie really invites the audience into a conversation. I was watching last night at the premiere and thinking about the geography of a bar and the setup of a bar: the dim lights, the music, the couches. Emerald cast the culpability so wide ― it’s personal, it’s interpersonal, it’s structural, it’s the education system, it’s just everything in the fucking frame. It’s so exciting. And, of course, if you’re going to cast the net that wide, things are going to bump up against each other and there’s going to be inconsistencies and maybe hypocrisy within it. But, to me, that’s the mark of fearless artists like Emerald willing to have a messy conversation. 

Men are stiff-arming the conversation the moment it encroaches on any of their casual behavior.
Bo Burnham

I’m curious if the men in the movie discussed the material together and sort of talked about being avatars for this culture? Like, “Am I brave enough to dive into this? How should I approach it? What am I representing here?” 

Well, a few things. Firstly, I think that’s giving the men way too much credit ― it’s an incredible script by Emerald starring Carey, so any actor would be lucky to be anywhere near this film. Nothing we were doing was charitable. But, I do know what you’re saying. She kept the guys very separated, but I felt — and I’m sure the other guys felt this too — like everyone saw through my soul and knew who I was. And she also knew that guys know what this is and she gave them permission to do it in a movie and relish in it. 

It was very important to me to not work backwards from where Ryan ends up. I needed to fully put myself on the chopping block and go like, yeah, I am capable of something like this. I needed to be genuinely honest with myself, and I didn’t go to college and I’ve never been in that world, but yeah. 

Are you looking to act more after taking on this role, or stick with directing?

I wasn’t thumbing through acting offers before this, you know? [Laughs] I don’t think I ever will be. But this set such a high bar and is an incredible film. Directing feels like having a child or something. I don’t know. I just I feel better at directing or I feel like that’s what I should do. I definitely don’t sit looking at my face going, “This should happen more!”

Do you want to stick with directing scripts you write? 

Yes, yes, yes, definitely. My directing projects will be every couple years or something, as what I pour everything into. And then in between that I will be able to jump in and help someone else realize their vision and also act. I also deeply feel like they feed off each other. I came into directing as an actor, not as someone who acts on film but as someone who grew up loving theater and loving acting and loving actors and watching “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and going, “I want to work with actors like that.” 

“Eighth Grade” was that. It was just me going, “I haven’t seen kids act on screen correctly.” I wanted to see the kid acting that I have in my head and in my heart on screen. They talk to each other for me, the two things. 

Is there any pressure you feel following the success of “Eighth Grade”? Like, “What’s next? How do I follow that up?” 

Definitely, and I had that for a while. For like a year I was writing this stuff that was, like, the responsible dramatic follow-up to “Eighth Grade” or whatever. I wrote two or three things, just 70 pages, and then went, “No, just stop what you’re doing.” Emerald inspired me, totally. Just, every time, risk it all. That’s the whole point. Just fucking let’s go like I could die tomorrow.

Of course, that’s hard, but that’s death for me to think about, like, “my oeuvre.”  I don’t give a shit about that. I’m always someone that, whenever I’m working on something new, I go, “Forget everything I did before that, which was stupid and horrible. This is the thing I actually like. I’ll never feel that way about “Eighth Grade” though, just because I’ll never not love Elsie [Fisher] in that movie. I just love her. It doesn’t feel like me; it doesn’t feel like mine. It feels like hers. 

“Promising Young Woman” is now on demand and in select theaters.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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