Mere weeks into the initial lockdown of 2020, I conducted one of my very first interviews via Zoom. It was with a family of actors whose daughter, Abby Ryder Fortson, had just delivered a performance in the Amazon series, “Tales from the Loop,” that caused me to hail her as “a fierce screen presence.” Afterward, I came across the prize-winning short film, “Rated,” that Abby had made with her family. In it, Abby’s own mom, Christie Lynn Smith, plays Maggie, a mother who wakes up one day to find a star rating hovering above her head. To make matters worse, she only has two-and-half stars (which translates as “fair to middling,” according to Leonard Maltin), whereas her husband (played by Abby’s father, John Fortson, who directed the film) turns out to have five. As they scramble to get their daughter (played by a scene-stealing Abby) to school, Maggie embarks on a journey to discover why her rating is so low, while facing discrimination once she attempts to go about her daily routine.
My subsequent interview with the Fortson family ultimately proved to be one of the happiest memories of an otherwise harrowing year. Little did I know that not long before Abby’s twelfth birthday in March, the party for which was cancelled due to the pandemic, she auditioned for what would eventually become—in 2023—her first lead role in a major motion picture. Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Judy Blume’s 1970 masterpiece, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., is easily my favorite film released thus far this year, and Abby’s portrayal of the titular middle schooler is simply astonishing. It is here where Abby cements her status as one the most gifted actors of her generation, anchoring every scene with the complex emotions that register on her expressive face. Not since Elsie Fisher in “Eighth Grade” have I felt so wholly immersed in the moment to moment experience of a young person onscreen.
“As soon as I read the book, I turned to my parents and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, how did someone write down this experience? This is it!’” Abby recalled during our recent virtual chat. “I was going through the exact same stuff that Margaret was at the exact same time that I was shooting the movie and developing her as a character. I think that Margaret has really helped me look back on my younger self with more appreciation for how it was an awkward time—I mean, I’m 15, so I’m not past that yet—but I can appreciate the awkward moments more now. I realize how the things that may have seemed like matters of life and death to me at 11 are not as dramatic now. I think Margaret came for me at the right time in my life, and I’m really appreciative of that.”
During Craig’s recent visit to Chicago, I spoke with her on the same floor of a local hotel where I had interviewed Hailee Steinfeld about the writer/director’s sublime 2016 debut feature, “The Edge of Seventeen.” Craig told me of how lucky she felt to have found “a true wunderkind” like Abby.
“Abby has a vulnerability that comes through where you just look at her and you root for her,” marveled Craig. “She is also able to convey so much through her eyes and her facial expressions. Margaret is a very interior character and is not the center of attention. Very often in a group, she isn’t saying much, she’s just hanging back thinking and feeling a bunch of things, and it all has to read on her face. When we auditioned her at age 11, Abby could do all of that in a way where you were just with her. You didn’t want to look away from her eyes.”
Since acting is clearly the Fortsons’ family business, Abby never needed to look to other actors as her source of inspiration in terms of choosing a career path. She did, however, cite a movie that is among her most cherished.
“I loved the Studio Ghibli films when I was growing up,” recalled Abby. “I watched ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ over and over. We had the DVD in the car, and I fought to put it on every single time we had a long ride home from auditions. It was one of my favorites and still is, honestly.”
I was pleased Abby brought up the 1989 animated classic by Hayao Miyazaki, since the adventures of its titular young witch—specifically her clumsy broomstick-riding—are as filled with awkwardness as they would be in real life.
“Yeah, I think ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ is ‘Margaret’ if it had witches,” agreed Abby. “It has that same kind of a vibe.”
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” is being released in U.S. theaters on Friday, April 28th, exactly one week after Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s equally extraordinary documentary, “Judy Blume Forever,” premiered on Prime Video. It has led to a renewed interest in Blume’s brilliantly stigma-busting and deeply moving explorations of the female experience, as typified by the hilarious exercise utilized by Margaret and her peers, who swing their arms back and forth while chanting, “I must…I must…I must increase my bust!” Only after laughing at this scene in the film’s trailer did I learn that my wife’s mother partook in this routine when she was a kid. Blume herself—whom I would love to see portrayed by Jessica Lange in a biopic one day—has gone on record stating her belief multiple times that the film is better than her book. Craig told me she felt that was in part due to the expansion of Blume’s adult characters, particularly Margaret’s mother (Rachel McAdams) and grandma (Kathy Bates), as well as a climactic twist that brought down the house at the film’s first Chicago screening.
“I have always admired the absolute honesty that Judy writes with,” said Craig. “She writes in a way that never, ever shies away from the truth of the situation and includes all of the specifics, even the embarrassing ones that we don’t want to say out loud. The experience of reading about someone else doing those little embarrassing things that you think you alone have done is so reassuring. I still think that’s what connects me to other people’s work. You read it and go, ‘Ah, thank god, you’re a mess. I’m a mess!’ I’m just thankful that someone else put it on paper.”
The same could be said of Craig’s own work, notably the unforgettable scene in “The Edge of Seventeen” where a mortified Steinfeld has her teacher (Woody Harrelson) read a sexually explicit text that she accidentally sent to her crush. A look at the film’s blooper reel suggests that the actors had a blast filming it, and Abby affirmed that the onset environment while filming “Margaret” was immensely comfortable.
“The set that Kelly created, and along with everyone else, was so inviting and welcoming,” said Abby. “I really felt all of the support from everyone. On a set, we are all there with a common goal to make a really great movie, and I felt that specifically on this one. Especially when dealing with so many sometimes sensitive topics such as faith and body-changing, it’s important that you feel safe onset and I always did. Kelly was always very supportive, understanding and respectful of everything that I felt, and I knew that I could go up to her and tell her anything. Kelly knows how to give her actors the moments for themselves to really prepare and delve into their characters, but she was always present and ready to help. She was just incredible to work with and one of the sweetest people you will ever meet.”
“It’s always very important for me to create an environment that feels safe and nurturing, where everybody feels like they have room to try things that don’t work,” said Craig. “I’ll say, ‘I’m going to pitch ideas that don’t work and are bad. I want you to pitch ideas as well. Let’s really reach for them and not be afraid to fail.’ There’s a lot of talking and back and forth about ‘where your body says that you want to go,’ because I am very physical. I am oftentimes standing in the person’s place and saying, ‘Do you feel like you want to go here? Because my body makes me want to leave the room when he says that.’ When I’m blocking a scene, I’m running around being each person. Even when I’m writing, I don’t see this person or that person sitting there talking to one other. I am each person in my head, so I’m looking through their eyeballs and I’m feeling what each one is feeling. It’s only later when I go to direct it that I have to think about where we are exactly.”
While speaking with Abby, I quoted one of the answers that she gave me at age 12 in which she said, “When we all work together, we are all learning from each other because we each get a piece of the project.” I followed that up by asking her what she had learned from her collaborators on this project, such as the letter-writing she maintained in character with Bates.
“We had started that before we had even met in person to really gain some insight into our characters,” revealed Abby. “We were building this bank of improv stories that we could use while onset, and it really helped us develop our bond. And I’m really proud of my younger self for saying that! Wow, that was very good! [laughs] When we are onset, we are always learning from each other and grasping different things that everyone brings to the table. That’s one of my favorite things about acting is that we are all in this together. We are all working together to create something beautiful.”
“I love all the little details that make what we’ve created feel like life,” said Craig. “There’s one wonderful detail that my costume designer Ann Roth—who is such a legend—came up with. I said, ‘I really want to capture the messiness and the flaws of this age. I love that at that age, your hair is a little greasy and unkempt, your clothes are rumpled and all that type of stuff.’ I came in one day to the costume room, and Ann had Margaret dressed in one dingy white sock and one clean white sock, and I went, ‘That is it! That is the exact right look for that age.’ And that’s a detail that only Ann and I know about, and now you know about, but it felt right to reach for it.”
While Abby has previously shared the screen with such formidable talents as Paul Rudd and Rebecca Hall, this film marks her first opportunity to act opposite multiple kids, such as Elle Graham, Katherine Mallen Kupferer and Amari Alexis Price, who are wonderful as Margaret’s core group of friends.
“I think we all bonded over the fact that we were talking about this stuff,” recalled Abby. “We all had so many laughs onset over all of the funny things that we got to do. It was a really special experience, especially to be working with kids my own age. I haven’t gotten many chances to do that before. I’m so glad I got the chance to get to know them because they are such great and wonderful actors, and I hope to get to work with them again in the future. When I work with actors who are the same age as me, we have the shared experience of working in an industry that is so dominated by older people. It’s really fun when there are other kids onset and it makes the experience all the more exciting and interesting. I’ve made some friends on this set that I hope to stay in touch with for a long time.”
Graham is a particular standout, starting out extremely funny and intimidating before revealing a sudden vulnerability during one of the film’s most poignant scenes.
“That kid is so talented, and what’s amazing is how funny she is,” said Craig. “I was constantly encouraging all of the kids to improvise, and so a lot of the funny stuff that they say are things they came up with in the moment. In the ‘I Must Increase My Bust’ scene, one of the girls asks, ‘Does that really work?,’ and Elle goes, ‘I’m living proof!’ [laughs] That was just her talking off the top of her head.”
When it comes to mentors, Abby credits both of her parents as huge influences, and says that it was helpful to have them present onset.
“I certainly learned from them that hard work is the most important thing, and prep work is always a must,” said Abby. “I took many different tips and tricks from my parents, who have been in the trade for so long, and they really helped me work on Margaret’s character. They helped me not only in developing her but in working on all of the big questions surrounding a lot of the topics in the film. They were such a useful resource, and I’m so lucky to have them onset and outside of it as well. Each of them brought different things to different scenes, and though there were certain scenes that one of them wanted to be onset for, they just switched off most of the time. They are incredible actors and coaches, so it was great to have them both be able to be there for me.”
As for Craig, the industry veteran who believed in her also happened to be a three-time Oscar-winner who has brought some of the most phenomenal female characters to screens both big (“Broadcast News,” “Terms of Endearment”) and small (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”).
“When I had the first movie that I wrote made, I showed up to see it and I sort of didn’t recognize it,” said Craig, referencing 2009’s “Post Grad.” “I had this moment where I was like, ‘Oh god, I think I’m done. I think I’m out of this business. This is not why I wanted to write.’ I wanted to do what Judy Blume had done for me. I wanted to write something that made people feel less alone, and it felt so far away. Then a friend of mine said, ‘Kelly, just write something for you,’ and I wrote ‘The Edge of Seventeen.’ I sat with my reps and we were talking about who to send it to. James L. Brooks is my hero, so they said, ‘Let’s send it over to him, but he’ll never read it, just so you know.’ The woman who runs his company read it, responded to it and then sent it to him. The next thing I knew, I was having a meeting with Jim.”
“In my mind, I said to myself, ‘Okay, at some point, if we do this together, I’m going to pitch myself to direct this, but I’m going to really try and earn his trust before I pitch that months down the line,’” Craig continued. “But what happened instead was during that first meeting, Jim said, ‘You know, the writing is really specific to you, so I actually think it makes sense that you direct it.’ I have never been so utterly shocked in my life. What was amazing is a couple years later when ‘Edge of Seventeen’ came out, I brought up that story and Jim did not remember it at all. He was like, ‘I said that?! That’s crazy, why would I do that?’ [laughs] In fact, I have to ask him why he took that leap. I don’t know, but I will be thanking him for the rest of my life. He’s an amazing human being, and just to be in his presence and see how he works has been such a privilege. I don’t know how other people work, I just know how Jim works and I love his process. He is passionate, and he serves the work with everything in him.”
In a film chock-full of marvelous moments, my very favorite one is the final close-up of Margaret, in which she is able to breathe a long-awaited sign of relief.
“I love that shot as well,” smiled Abby. “It’s one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie. I think it wraps everything up so nicely. In a lot of films and books, it’s hard sometimes to have a nice ending that wraps everything up perfectly while making you still feel fulfilled. This one really does that for me. After going through the whole movie, you have this sweet moment where Margaret is now having all these good things happening. She’s able to accept the fact that all of these things are changing, but she still may have a friend up there.”
“I loved the idea of just being with her,” said Craig. “I wanted to stay there and be really close while watching all of those emotions evolve through her until that last moment. I think Abby did such a gorgeous job.”
I asked Abby how she felt about the ways in which the film tackled the topic of faith by allowing Margaret to approach it on her own terms.
“I really appreciated that someone had done that,” she replied. “I feel that Judy wrote it in a very sensitive way and Kelly did as well. I loved the way that it’s portrayed because you get a lot of questions and there is a lot of room for curiosity about religion and faith. I think what Margaret is really looking for is a friend, someone to talk to, instead of trying to label herself as a member of a specific religion. I think she’s just trying to figure out what she believes while different sides of her family are telling her what she ‘has’ to be. I think the way that it is portrayed both in the film and the book leaves a lot of room for interpretation, which I really loved.”
At a time when lawmakers are attempting to ban not only Blume’s books from schools but girls from discussing normal bodily functions like their periods until they reach sixth grade, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” is proving to be one of the year’s most urgent films in addition to being one of the most entertaining.
“I think that it’s always important that we have the freedom to discuss these kinds of things,” stressed Abby. “Yes, it might be uncomfortable. I know that as a teenager, getting the talk is the worst thing imaginable—it’s horrible and so, so embarrassing [laughs]—but these are conversations that we need to have in order to let people know, if nothing else, that they’re not alone. I think that’s one of the reasons why the Judy Blume books are so well-loved. Judy was able to create such an honest, true story 53 years ago, and it’s so incredible that still to this day, it’s such a timeless story because it’s so relatable. I think no matter how old you are when you read the book, you can relate to the story of Margaret and her figuring all these things out about herself. I really hope that we continue to keep stories like this open and accessible to people because I think that these are some of the most important stories that we need to have around.”
“What’s going on politically right now is beyond absurd and I feel like I can’t wrap my brain around it,” said Craig. “I cannot fathom that this story is controversial. When we were making the film, this madness wasn’t happening—it’s all recent. But also, I have to say that even when we were making the movie, there were things that we were filming that I realized I hadn’t ever seen on film before. Certain moments, such as when we see Margaret put on a pad for the first time, felt quietly revolutionary. I’m 42, and I’ve never seen another human being do that. There were a bunch of men on the set, and after we shot that scene, one of them came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You know, that was so amazing to see because this whole time, I thought the sticky side went up!’ [laughs] I was like, ‘Thank god the movie exists!’”
Though Abby insists that she hasn’t cried during a film since she was 7 (she does, however, still tear up while reading books), the waterworks of audience members were in full flow during the film’s LA premiere this month.
“I stayed and watched the whole film,” said Abby. “I had a ton of my reps, my manager and a couple of my agents come. We all sat down and we watched the film. I hadn’t seen it with an audience that big before, so just hearing all of the laughs was amazing. Everyone was laughing and crying and having all these emotions together while watching this beautiful story play out onscreen. My mom started crying within the first three minutes. I actually turned to her and was like, ‘I’m sorry, but the movie hasn’t even started yet. It’s the opening titles, you don’t need to start crying yet.’ She just bawled the entire time.”
I couldn’t resist referencing the line Abby’s mother had on one of her previous actor profiles, “Cries a lot on TV, laughs a lot in real life,” and asked whether this story refuted its claim.
“‘Cries a lot on TV…and also while watching her daughter’s movies,’” laughed Abby.
“It is really gratifying to meet with people who know and love the book and have responded to the film,” said Craig. “But actually, at a screening yesterday, there was a girl who came up to me after the film who had never read Judy Blume’s work or had heard of the author. She was 13 and started crying as she asked me, ‘Can I give you a hug? I just love this movie!’ It was so sweet and it made me feel so glad that Judy Blume gets to exist for this next generation. That moment totally touched me.”
“I would love to do another project like ‘Margaret,’ something that is really meaningful and has a special connection to a lot of people,” said Abby. “I’m always interested in stories that are relatable, humanistic and that people can benefit from seeing. That’s what storytelling is all about. It lets people have a little escape or reassures them that they’re not alone or provides them with a little fun at the theater or at home after they’ve had a bad day. I really want to do more projects like that. I would also love to try out directing or writing. I’m writing a bit myself, and there are lots of books that I would love to adapt as well as other projects that I would love to be involved in as well.”
Among the writing projects that Abby is currently involved with is the upcoming feature version of her family’s film, “Rated.”
“I honestly love just trying to take the words out of my head and put them on the page,” Abby said. “I grew up reading while making movies, so I would love to get my own stories out there. I have been working on writing parts of the feature script for ‘Rated’ in order to adapt my character into an older version of herself. I think that her experience of growing up with social media will enhance the feature. I personally don’t manage all my professional stuff. I’m glad someone else does that for me. Social media scares me and I know I’m not missing much on there. It certainly influences how we grow up as well as how we look back on ourselves and reflect on who we are. I think our perception of ourselves sometimes gets warped by these false images that are put out there, and they create an unrealistic standard that we try to push ourselves to be when it’s unreachable in the first place. I think it’s super-interesting. We’re now finalizing the script while getting producers attached and I would really love to be able to shoot it this year! It would be absolutely wonderful to put that story out there because I think it’s so important, especially now.”
The premise of “Rated” may be a timely one, but its themes are as timeless as those found in “Margaret.”
“One of the things that I think Jim and Judy have in common is they are able to render the truth in such a perfect way,” said Craig. “And the truth is the truth, no matter when it happens to be told.”
“I think one of the reasons why it is so timeless is because the human experience of puberty is awkward and terrible and it never changes, no matter when you are growing up, and the same is true of figuring yourself out,” echoed Abby. “It is something that all of us can relate to no matter who you are, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the film and book are so special.”
"Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" opens in theaters on April 28th.