Main-Character Syndrome: Molly Gordon and Ben Platt on the self-seriousness of Theater Camp

Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in Theater Camp.
Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in Theater Camp.

Theater Camp stars and creators Molly Gordon and Ben Platt lift the curtain on the haywire energy of the theater kids they were, the ones they work with today, and the kind of collaboration we can all laugh and learn from.

What we love about ourselves as theater people is the self-seriousness, and the unbelievable intense passion for things that feel incredibly small and insignificant.

—⁠Ben Platt

Nobody knows how annoying theater kids are better than a theater kid. It gets worse with age—which is when you grow to love them, and so yourself, a little better too. Molly Gordon and Ben Platt have known this in their bones since they were four and five, when the Theater Camp pair (she the co-star, co-writer and co-director, he the co-star and co-writer) met, of course, doing theater. For Gordon’s feature directing debut and Platt’s most remarkably restrained comedic turn in a while, the stage felt like home. As a result, they knew they had no choice but to rib it with everything they had.

Gordon and Platt are joined by friends and fellow theater kids Nick Lieberman and Noah Galvin as co-writers, Lieberman directing alongside Gordon, adapting their own 2020 short film of the same name. Other familiar faces joining the family in the feature-length turn include Letterboxd besties Patti Harrison, Ayo Edibiri, Owen Thiele and newly anointed theater kid Jimmy Tatro in the cast—as well as kid geniuses including Alexander Bello of John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch fame and Minari’s Alan Kim, plus evergreen mom genius Amy Sedaris. Stars in your eyes everywhere you turn, Theater Camp wants you to feel good about all these über-talented people who kinda make you feel bad sometimes.

For Jack, the movie “did the unthinkable and made me like theater kids” while Nolan simply must write: “fuck this movie, I think I broke my jaw from laughing and smiling the whole time.” They’re not alone in being pretty mad about how good it is: after the world premiere of Theater Camp at Sundance this January, the movie won the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble. Gordon and Platt’s roles as thespian teachers Rebecca-Diane and Amos Klobuchar may be at the heart of this give-me-drama-or-give-me-death kind of summer adventure (alongside Tatro’s tech bro Troy Rubinsky, an inspired camp addition) but the magic comes from the kinetic energy of all these haywire, almost unhinged personalities doing their damn best to make the dream work.

Throwing their hands up and admitting they might have passed their peak at the age of five, Gordon and Platt open up about their self-seriousness, favorite sitcoms and their own summer camp memories. Oh, and this whole thing as the most Jewish conceit you’ve ever seen.

What was the moment you realized, while growing up, that the things you were doing needed to be on the big screen one day?
Molly Gordon: I mean, I think theater people are the main characters of their own lives. If we were going to make something together, we had to do something that we deeply knew.

Ben Platt: We met doing musical theater when we were four and five years old. So many of our formative experiences happened in rehearsal rooms and cast parties and backstage, with insane theater teachers who we love and hate and hate and love. It’s so wrapped up in the DNA of each of us individually, and also as friends. We all did comedy together growing up and so the intersection of comedy and theater was always our home base.

I love the archival footage in the film. Some folks who might not be familiar with your backgrounds might squint and be like, “Those children look very familiar.” How brutal could you be when looking back on your childhood videos? Was it easy to judge whether you were impressive enough to be in your own movie?
MG: That’s such a funny question. I actually think I was better growing up. When I was five, I was probably my best because I was the most free. Ben knows, I was falling off the stage. I was drunk basically, just having a blast. I feel like I’ve gotten so much more self-conscious as I’ve gotten older.

BP: There are snapshots of things in our minds, like Molly whipping a skirt around her head in a show when she was six, certain things just had to be in the film. Molly and Nick in the editing room found the moments that were the sweetest and packed the most punch. It’s a quick, quick movie—we don’t want to spend too much time on videos, so they have to count.

MG: But it’s honestly for our parents, having those clips in the movie.

BP: My sister’s hidden in there, my nephew’s hidden there. There’s lots of little easter eggs for our families. It’s like our whole tapestry of our growing up in the theater.

I love that nod to your families, because it’s not exclusively a Jewish thing, but our parents are like this even more, right? The second there’s a new photo of my boyfriend and I at a wedding, my mom is like, “I need to print it.” She has to print everything.
MG: Okay, first of all, boyfriend reveal! Also yes, 100 percent. Anything I’ve ever posted on Instagram, my dad will be like, ‘So interesting… Why was this not sent to me before? I’d love to know…’

BP: Also when we would do musicals, they were almost always professionally filmed but my parents somehow didn’t trust that that was going to happen, so they would video camera the entire show. They would just follow me. Even when I was in the ensemble and another child would have their day in the sun, my mom or dad would just film a close-up of me.

The child stars with adult-size talent in Theater Camp.
The child stars with adult-size talent in Theater Camp.

Let’s talk about other children who are not us—the kids in your film are so talented, it’s quite intimidating. Shoutout to Alexander Bello of John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch in particular.  I’d love to hear about the way that you work with the kids, and specifically, the way that it feels like there’s no kind of barrier with age. Every single person of every age in the film feels as intimidating and hilarious as the next.
MG: The hardest thing when pitching this movie was that no one understood how we could have kids improvise. But that was something that we all knew in our hearts, that they were going to be able to kill on such a deep level. We didn’t think of them as children, we found the best actors possible. They were so fucking committed to their roles, and we treated them like the true artists that they are. They knew their roles so deeply and showed up in such an intense way and made us have to step up.

BP: A lot of them had seen the short we made that the film was based on, they were so in on the tone and understood the world they were in. Plus they were all real theater kids. It was important to us that they all know these teachers, these rooms, these rehearsals, they know the world. Theater is really the great equalizer, in the sense that we did shows with kids of all ages, and suddenly you’re playing opposite a fourteen-year-old and you’re seven. Everyone is an actor, and you get treated as a professional. That’s how you grow.

MG: Also, this younger generation is just so much smarter than us, so much more well-informed.

BP: Better aesthetic.

MG: We should have left and let them run the ship.

I don’t want to look back at photos of myself from that age, doing theater, but I look at all these kids today and think, “You’re so cool.” They already carry themselves in the way I hope to carry myself ten years from now.
MG: I think they feel like they can be their authentic selves, and I’m still struggling to do that. Alex is so in himself already. That’s inspiring to be around, to look at a thirteen-year-old and be like, I wish I was as mature as you.

BP: They grow up with social media, whereas it came in the middle for us. I feel like we navigate the negativity of it in a different way. It’s such a big part of their reality that they’ve learned how to use it for good. Obviously there’s still scary things about it, but they’re so much more used to knowing how to present authentic versions of themselves.

I want to dive into your comedy toolkit. Do you have any literal tricks you share with the cast and crew in terms of body language in particular? The comedy in this film is very, very specific, to not go too far, to not be too big with your comedy.
BP: So much of what’s funny and what we love about ourselves as theater people is the self-seriousness, and the unbelievable intense passion for things that feel incredibly small and insignificant. In this particular comedic world, it was about committing fully to the reality of the situation, no matter how heightened. Whether it’s a kid using a tear stick and the shock of that, or kids doing a show about cocaine. It was about playing against knowing there was a joke afoot and trying to drop into the passion of the moment.

MG: We thought about it in our shooting style too. The mockumentaries we’ve all come to love like The Office and Parks and Recreation and Abbott Elementary, they punch in when the comedy is about to happen and that’s what makes you die of laughter. It’s an amazing tool, but we wanted to do a little more of what a true documentary does, which is that you miss it. You get to the joke at the tail end of it, and you don’t want to anticipate it. We wanted it to feel more like a fly on the wall kind of thing.

The camp counselors of Wet Hot American Summer (2001).
The camp counselors of Wet Hot American Summer (2001).

So many little bits in the movie are specifically for Jewish theater kids. Again, it’s not all about us, but it’s also a very specific thing. There’s often a misconception that Jews are neurotic and lonely and insecure—far from performers. But theater is the perfect space for overachievers where your parents can take note of your achievements, right? How much of the way you were raised came into how you built Theater Camp?
MG: Summer camp is inherently Jewish, but we also took a lot of inspiration from Ben’s Jewish camp.

BP: Molly went to Stagedoor and Noah and Nick went to youth theater camp and we did a youth theater program together, but in terms of my sleepaway summer camp experience it was all at a Jewish summer camp. We have this whole conceit about teachers performing a night time performance for the kids that was ripped directly from my camp experience. Going away to summer camp, especially on the East coast, is a bit of a Jewish conceit. You can feel all our history in the fabric of it.

MG: Growing up and loving comedy, that felt like my religion as well. Humor and community, that could be any religion.

Let’s talk about your own camp memories. Did you watch any movies there?
BP: Yes, when I was in the second to oldest age group, we had this cool night time tent activity and they showed us Wet Hot American Summer. It was so funny and raunchy and shocking. I felt like I was getting to do something I wasn’t allowed. The whole storyline with Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black, I remember the rest of my bunk was a little iffy on it but I was like, ‘This is interesting to me... something I’d like to see more of…’ That was definitely very, very formative.

Do you have any favorite movies about plays within them?
BP: Birdman is one of my favorite movies. It captures the insanity and weirdness and hubris of theater so well, and also that literal St. James Theater. I love the way it portrays theater people as truly insane.

MG: I also love the use of the stage and the backstage, in that film. The colors of the lights were so specific to theater and we took a lot of inspiration from that. Only the stage manager would be like, ‘The light backstage, it’s not really that color!’ It was very real. We also love Waiting for Guffman of course.

BP: It’s a Bible.

MG: I also generally love in movies when people are working on something and you’re like, ‘This is never going to work. This is so bad.’ Then in the finale of the film, it’s this surrealist amazing thing and they’re able to pull it off. It’s so exciting and such a great metaphor for life.

I spoke to Maya Hawke about Asteroid City and we were talking about movies and plays within movies. One title I need to pass on to you because she hadn’t seen it: High School Musical 3.
MG: Oh my god. I’m so sorry, yes, High School Musical 3.

BP: Oh my god. Opening weekend, I was in the theater.

There wasn’t a question there. Just something I wanted to bring up.
BP: It’s something we should always be bringing up.

MG: It was definitely our main inspiration.

There’s a great ensemble in that movie, as there is in yours. What are the things you love about ensemble experiences, the magic you only find when a big group gets together to make something beautiful?
MG: Change is not possible in a vacuum. Collaboration is the most beautiful thing we have as humans, getting to bring together this beautiful collective of people and all push each other to be better. Also, if a joke’s not landing, you move on. It gets you out of your head. Daniel Kwan was saying that’s why he works in a partnership—they don’t spend time on a bad idea. That’s what it felt like on this movie.

BP: Inherent in our wanting to make this movie was how much we love other collectives. Obviously Christopher Guest’s crew, and a certain era of Saturday Night Live with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, people who you feel enjoy each other and make each other laugh. That’s an ineffable thing you can’t recreate. As actors it’s freeing, because when you’re playing characters this intense or strange, you can have as much of your flavor as you want and lean in as hard as you can, because there are so many other flavors around you. Whereas if you’re leading this vehicle, there’s a pressure to keep yourself palatable.

“I always wanted to live in that color world of Oz.” —Ben Platt
“I always wanted to live in that color world of Oz.” —Ben Platt

Finally, what’s the movie that made you first want to make movies?
BP: The Wizard of Oz was what I used to watch every day after school. The black and white to color was like this magical metaphor: there’s so much more to be found in these fantasy worlds of being other people than there is in my two-dimensional everyday life. I always wanted to live in that color world of Oz.

MG: I have two, because I saw them the same weekend. One is The Graduate. I saw it way too young, but I was just like, ‘Life, monogamy, what is going on?’ It stirred me in such a deep way. That night, also way too young, my parents then took me to see Anchorman. I remember laughing and feeling more joy than I had ever felt. I couldn’t believe a piece of art could make you that happy.

Theater Camp’ opens in select US theaters July 14, and expands July 21 from Searchlight Pictures, and in UK and Ireland theaters August 25.

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