The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Dear Evan Hansen.
Stephen, you’re no stranger to bringing musicals to the big screen, and you’re no stranger to stories about teenage longing and discontent. How did you get involved in the project?
Stephen Chbosky: I saw the show about three years ago, on Broadway. And I loved it. I didn’t know anything about it when I saw it. And I loved the show. And so the next day I called my team and I just said, “look, I don’t know if they’re going to make a movie of this, but if they do, I’d love to meet about it.” And a couple months later, I had some conversations with the producers, and I kept asking, and I kept pestering. And your question is sort of how I pitched myself— I remember going to Universal, and meeting with the executives and I saying, “I’ve basically done two things for the last fifteen years of my career: Musicals, and thoughtful films about young people.” So, I’m you’re guy. And luckily they agreed! That’s how I got involved. The vision was, really… I was obsessed with all the different ways that I felt like you could capture the emotions of the show, but in a very literal medium like film. And that included live singing. There several very specific moments in the show that I was very moved by, and I talked about how I would show them on film. For example, something like the song Requiem. It was beautifully depicted on the stage with three people, and I thought, well, with the family, what do each of those three spotlights mean? And I started to talk about how the abstraction of the stage would translate to the real world.
I really knew that the key to the lie is her need.
Ben, you’ve lived with this character for years. How did you adapt Evan’s character for film, and what was it like coming back to him after having several years off?
Ben Platt: It was certainly terrifying, a little bit scary, to re-enter that space that had been such a formative experience for me, both in personal terms (it obviously really changed my life in many ways), and then in a mental sense, to enter that anxious and somewhat self-hating mind space that Evan lives in for a lot of the movie was a scary thing to go back to. But I think just the prospect of how many people would be seeing the film, and could be positively affected by the story — after seeing firsthand how lives change and conversations start with this piece — it was more than enough motivation to get back in the shoes, literally! I think the translation was mostly about internalizing things, and demodulating things, and keeping all of the essences of his fraught emotional state, and his hunched posture, and his ticks (pulling on his clothes, biting his nails, taking up as little space as possible)… all of those instincts from the stage had to be kept in tack — they’re things that I feel really specify who Evan is, and that make him a specific person — but just trusting the intimacy of the camera and of the medium to not need to broadcast things in such a heightened way. And Stephen was a fantastic, consistent reminder of how to kind of bring things closer to the ground, and to keep it “inside the bottle,” as he would say. And in terms of singing, we had the great opportunity to sing a lot of the music live. And so there was a nice sort of raw communicative quality to it that the musical already has, but kind of to the nth degree for the film. So I think, for me, vocally the priority became even less the beauty of the music (which is there already), and the sort of quality of the singing, and more so just the communication of the emotions and the forwarding of the narrative. And that was really fun. Especially as a musical movie nerd for my whole life, and musicals in general, to see one that’s so sincere and so fully realized in terms of the humans singing and communicating in real spaces and in real rooms… it was really exciting to be part of a movie like that.
Amy, how did you find the character, and how did your musical training influence your approach?
Amy Adams: I was introduced to the play a little late in the game— I saw it in 2019 in person. And I just fell in love with the piece. I was so profoundly moved by the experience of all the characters. I immediately said to my agent, “if they ever do a film of this, I just want to be involved in whatever way I can.” So when I had the opportunity to develop this with this amazing group of people — to work with Ben, Amandla, Julie and Kaitlyn, Stephen… everybody! I could keep going on. It was humbling. I was just so grateful. I think that coming to this character… I really knew that the key to the lie is her need. Her need to know her son, her need to believe that her son could have been more than she saw. She wanted to think that she had missed something, that there was something there that she could hold onto. So that need sort of drives the first lie. It was one of those characters that, as I played her, was really… you had to just go with where you were on the day. And working with Ben, and the entire cast, that became very… I don’t want to use the word “easy,” but it became a very immersive experience. It was so moving. Working with Danny in developing the marriage, working with Kaitlyn in developing the mother/daughter relationship (which I thought was so key to Cynthia as well)… it was a really wonderful experience, and I’m really honored, and proud to have been a part of it.
How did you develop your bond with Evan, given the abbreviated shooting schedule?
Julianne Moore: I was so incredibly moved by the show. It was a show that was important to my family, because when I saw it on Broadway, my kids were adolescents. And this speaks so much to the adolescent experience, about feeling like you need to grow up, and kind of announce to the world who you are, and present that at a time when you don’t even know that fully yourself. It was so beautiful… my kids listened to these songs constantly in the car! What really struck me about it was, as much as it’s about an adolescent experience, it’s also about a parental experience, about what you go through as your child starts to differentiate themselves. You know that they need that distance, but you’re trying to be present, and be available to them whenever possible. And in her situation — I was really really moved by Heidi, because she’s a single parent and this is a tiny tiny family, there’s just the two of them — and so, as much as she’s trying to do everything (provide for him by herself), she’s also not physically there that she needs to be. And in the moment when she sings that song, that’s what’s so beautiful about it: That’s the time where she says, “I want to communicate to you how much I love you, how important you are to me, and how aware I was that I was going to make these terrible mistakes. And I have. That doesn’t mean that I love you any less.” And even though we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal, but I think Ben and I were both excited by the relationship, and wanted to connect as much as possible. And because our scenes are just the two of us — there’s like, nobody else there — I think we had that time to kind of establish their rhythm and their relationship, and just sort of go for it. You have to; you have no alternative. You have the time that you’re given. With that being said, I think it’s profoundly written. I love the book, I love the music. It’s very… as an actor, you have a lot to lean in to, as well as all these other cast members and our great director. So it was the infrastructure of everything that was the most helpful to me.
“So Big / So Small” was such an incredibly moving number.
JM: Yeah. That song is… I mean, it’s the ultimate parental song. It really is. It’s kind of… it floors you, I think, when you realize that this person hasn’t revealed themselves at all to you, you don’t know anything about her, you really don’t know anything about their history… and there’s this one moment, when she decides her son is able to hear it, she reveals herself in this way. And it’s just kind of intimate, and crazy, and emotional… and it’s a gift of a song for an actor, it really is.
Amandla, your character (Alana) was a bit different than the one we met on the stage. How did you grapple with the character as she was written, and can you discuss the song you composed for the film, “The Anonymous Ones.”
Amandla Stenberg: The Alana that I saw on the page was already very different from the stage version. She has this moment of vulnerability where she’s really struggling with her mental health, and that’s a reason why she connects so deeply to Evan, and also why she has such an impetus to start the Carter project. So I think going into portraying her, it was about really trying to tap into who that kid is, who is overachieving, and performing at such a high level… but is also struggling at the same time. And for me, it kind of really became about tapping into her self-worth, and the way that she valued herself. For me, that meant that she really needed a lot of external validation in order to compensate for the ways in which she maybe felt like she wasn’t fully whole. So I feel like, in terms of her physicality, and the way that she spoke… it felt important to me to portray a kid who wasn’t fully comfortable in her skin yet. And so I think she’s kind of different in that way. But also, I think Stephen Levenson kind of supplemented some of the main themes of the musical with kind of a new angle: there are a lot of people who you wouldn’t anticipate are going through mental struggles. It’s such a universal experience to have those kinds of challenges. So it was, for me, kind of about leaning into that feeling, and that’s what we decided to focus on most with the song, because we wanted to provide another opportunity for the kids who loved Dear Evan Hansen so much, and who connect to it, and who need it as a place to feel seen and heard, to also feel represented by this character. So that’s why she’s kind of different, why she feels different… and why she’s also this really high-energy overachiever! I think we just had a lot more time and space to hopefully add more color to her. And so the song is about what it’s like to be someone who presents themselves with a particular facade, but who is actually struggling. And how that’s actually something that most of us are going through, to one extent or another.