How Mae Whitman Turned Her Personal Pain Into Professional Success

How Mae Whitman Turned Her Personal Pain Into Professional Success

“I often get typecast as a quirky, misfit girl — the friend you don’t really hear the story of,” the actor told BuzzFeed News. “So I was excited to see that girl’s story here … It was interesting to get to glorify anyone who’s ever felt like a misfit.”

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On the surface, The DUFF might seem like an unusual choice for Mae Whitman following six emotional seasons on NBC's Parenthood, where she brought the touching journey of Amber Holt, from troubled teenager to responsible mother, to life.

But what motivated the 26-year-old Whitman to sign on to play The DUFF's eponymous Bianca Piper — a high school student rudely dubbed the “designated ugly fat friend” of her clique — became increasingly clear as she talked about her own high school experience.

“I was bullied in high school, I was made fun of all the time, and I've always been an outcast,” Whitman told BuzzFeed News matter-of-factly, sitting in a squeaky desk chair at CBS Films' Los Angeles headquarters. “It's such a confusing time. There's this weird social hierarchy, and I think everyone is just trying to find some solid ground. Unfortunately, the easy way is to, often, make someone feel smaller so you can feel bigger. And once you realize that comes from a place of fear and insecurity, you can't do anything but feel bad for them and hope they're able to understand that they can be better — that they don't have to be that way.”

While Whitman does not consider herself overweight or unattractive, neither does The DUFF: After the titular term is introduced, it's quickly established that being seen as the “designated ugly fat friend” is more a state of mind than a physical state of being. But Whitman is relieved to see the target audience for the film has such a harsh response to the term. “A lot of people have a really strong reaction to hearing the name, and they should — it's a brutal name,” she said. “But so is every name that kids get called in high school.”

Whitman with her on-screen best friends in The DUFF: Skyler Samuels and Bianca A. Santos.

CBS Films

The DUFF, which hits theaters Feb. 20, is indeed smarter and more knowing than your typical teen comedy, making it the latest in a long line of genre-subverting projects Whitman has very intentionally chosen throughout her 20-year career. “I am not two-dimensional. Life is not cut and dry. People are complex and layered and you miss out on so much by trying to keep them boxed in,” the actor said.

Given that the subject matter rested so close to her heart, Whitman took a vested interest in ensuring that The DUFF not only spoke to those who'd been mistreated, but to the underlying cause of bullying — and therefore, the aggressors themselves. “It's illuminating the infrastructure of trying to contain somebody in a box and that person going, 'Is that really what I am? How do I get out of the box?'” Whitman said. “Everybody's felt that from time to time. It's about realizing that the way that people feel is real no matter who you are or how you look.”

For Whitman, one of the keys to ensuring the film's success lied in making the characters as authentic as possible. After all, if the high schoolers did not see themselves accurately reflected in the characters on screen, Whitman's intended message would fall on deaf ears. Luckily she found an equally invested partner in director Ari Sandel. “He was like, 'We're very into your vibe. We want you to come through. We don't want you to be a prop. We want this to feel natural and real,' and I think that's a really important thing,” she recalled.

To achieve their shared goal, Sandel asked Whitman to improvise on set and infuse the character with her sensibilities, her sense of humor, her emotions, and even her style. “I wore a lot of my own clothes in the movie because I wanted Bianca not to feel like any kind of stereotype,” said Whitman, comfortably sitting in a maroon pantsuit. “I wanted it to communicate, truly, from my heart. A big piece of my journey are the clothes I wear — I wear '90s button-up jeans, I wear overalls, I wear stuff that doesn't necessarily fit in. So I really wanted those things to come across. Like, no matter what you say to me, no matter if you think I'm right or wrong, this is a real struggle that I have felt and continue to feel all the time.”

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