The Bullying Kind

Hunter King plays a high school heavy in A Girl Like Her.

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At age 21, Hunter King has already won a Daytime Emmy for her role as Summer Newman in The Young and the Restless. But if you’ve never experienced Genoa City or met its scandal-prone citizens, you may not be aware of King. If that’s the case, when you watch A Girl Like Her, she’ll take you by complete surprise. In the film, King plays your high school nightmare: the beautiful and popular bully, Avery Keller. She relentlessly torments her former-friend Jessica, eventually pushing Jessica to attempt suicide. The film follows Avery as she deals with the aftermath. It’s a heavy, serious role that demands a lot from King, but she’s up for the challenge.

Paste recently spoke with King about A Girl Like Her, why she was hesitant to play a bully, and the big things she hopes this film will achieve.

Paste: By Hollywood standards, this is a pretty tiny film. How did you get involved with the project?
Hunter King: I auditioned for the project and [the] big decision I had to make once I found out that I did get it [was] if I wanted to do it or not. Because I didn’t want to ever be typecast as the bully or have people look at me and see a bully. But I talked it over with my mom a lot, [and] we both decided that it would be a really good move for me—not just for a movie to do, it’s way bigger than that. It’s such a big, important issue that everybody knows something about today and everyone’s dealt with at some point themselves. I was just really excited at that point to be a part of it.

Paste: Obviously you’re no stranger to dramatic roles. In The Young and the Restless your character Summer Newman even had a plot line where she cyber-bullied another character. So I can understand why it may be a bit nerve-racking to take on another bully role. But is there something compelling about playing the “Mean Girl”?
King: It’s so difficult. It’s fun as an actor to challenge yourself and this role was one of the most challenging things I’d ever done, because most of this film was improvised. Our writer/director, Amy Weber, she gave us an outline script. There were a few scenes that she did plan outline-wise, but a lot it was all improvised. All the bullying scenes between Jessica and me [were] just us kind of coming up with it together, deciding what she wanted to see happen throughout the scene and what she’d want the audience to feel. From there we just went and kind of rolled with it, just “Let’s see what happens and we’ll go from there.” But it was so difficult. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, ever.

And I really like how it turned out, because we wanted to make it realistic and we wanted the audience to feel like it was a real situation happening. We wanted to put them right there with Jessica. So it just gave it a real authentic feel.

Paste: I was going to say, one of the things I most enjoyed about the film was how very high school it seemed. And that’s because you and your co-stars actually talk like high school students. This wasn’t like Dawson’s Creek, you know? The language was really believable. So it’s interesting to learn that most of this was improvised.
King: It was. That’s also why we didn’t want it to come off like a Mean Girls-type movie where it felt like a film. This feels like a documentary when you’re right there with the characters. I think by doing it the way—[filing it] like a documentary and also with all the ad-libbing—it just is going to make the audience walk away and feel something so much stronger than they would with a normal typical film.

Paste: A lot of this film is told from the bully’s perspective. The goal isn’t to make you feel sorry for Avery, but perhaps to understand her and her motives a bit better, and I think that’s something we don’t see in teen movies a lot.
King: Usually you do see it from the victim’s side of the story. We’re hoping [the film] will spark more of a conversation to get down to the bottom of why bullies are the way that they are. That’s what you truly see happen in this film. There is a reason why Avery is behaving the way that she is. And if we can stop just one bully from doing what they’re doing, it can have an affect on so many lives, even more than people think about. So rather than tell it from the victim’s side, we tell it from the bully’s side so that you can get an inside look at where she’s coming from, and get to know her more personally rather than just look at her as a mean, awful person—and as a monster. She truly is a monster throughout the film, but you begin to peel away the layers and begin to understand more about her and why she is that way.

Paste: You said it was really hard for you to film a documentary-style movie, but I’m wondering, did it change your relationship with the material at all, knowing that, in a way, your character was addressing the audience directly?
King: Yeah. It was hard. I think, also, one of the reasons why I was so gung-ho about doing it once I made that decision was because I was bullied in high school. I [wanted] to be able to speak for everyone, and I [wanted] to speak to everyone so that people really take something away from this film and we can try to begin to solve this epidemic, rather than just do a movie. There was so much more to it. There was so much more thought and feelings put into it. Yeah, it was really, really difficult, but that’s what kept me going at the end of the day, that this movie can help so many people. You’ve just got to move on. I’m playing make-believe here, but it was really hard. At the end of the day, I would go back to my hotel room and I would almost feel depressed because of how awful my character was acting.

Paste: I think everyone, at some point in their life, has been bullied in some way or another. Did you draw inspiration from your own bullies? How did you become Avery Keller?
King: I did, yeah. My director, also—this was loosely based on her life. We would have sit-down meetings and go over the things she wanted to see happen and pull from her experiences and then I would pull from my own experiences. I definitely wasn’t bullied to the severity [that] Jessica [was] at all, but just pulling from mean girls in high school and hearing what they would say or knowing what they would do to me and kind of pulling from there and just making this monster, basically, out of Avery. And also, with the ad-lib, it really gave me the confidence to make Avery completely how I wanted to make her. It really gave me the liberty to kind of go wild with her and really make her into how she was.

Paste: We talked about this a little bit already, but obviously the film is a piece of advocacy; it’s not just entertainment. What do you hope this film achieves?
King: Even though we might not solve bullying—I don’t think bullying will ever necessarily stop—we’re hoping this will at least be a start to finding a way to get bullies to recognize what they’re doing. A lot of times people speak more for the victims, telling them, “You need to ignore it,” and “Eventually the bullies will stop if you don’t give them the reaction they want,” which is all true. But, what we’re hoping to do is solve bullying at the source and speak directly to the bullies and have them feel like they can identify with Avery and be able to speak out and say, “I’m a bully, and this is what I need to do to stop it.”

Paste: After tackling all this drama, any desire to do a comedy, or something a little lighter?
King: Right now I’m still on The Young and the Restless. I’m contracted over there. I love my job; it’s so fun. I never get bored over there, but if I could ever do a sitcom that would be the best thing ever. I’m currently watching Friends right now on Netflix, doing the binge-watching. I’m just like, ‘Oh God! I just so want to be on a show like this, just even for one episode guest starring.’ I would die to do that. Sometimes you want a little bit of comedy when you do so much drama.

Paste: I’m also binge-watching Friends at the moment. I’m on Season Six.
King: Oh you are? I’m on season seven now…. It’s so good.

Paste: Well, I guess I have to ask, are you a Monica, Phoebe or a Rachel?
King: I don’t know. I think I’m kind of a combination of all of them. I hate my house being dirty. I need things to be neat. So, I’m sort of like Monica in that way. But I’m obsessed with Phoebe. I wish I was more of a Phoebe than I am. I think she’s the funniest thing.

A Girl Like Her opens March 27. Check out the trailer here.

Regan Reid is a Toronto-based freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter.