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Eliza Scanlen on 'Babyteeth', love, and emotional responsibility.

Eliza Scanlen on 'Babyteeth', love, and emotional responsibility.

"Milla is feeling suffocated and trapped by her parents," says actress Eliza Scanlen of the main protagonist in new film, 'Babyteeth', based on a play by Australian playwright and actress Rita Kalnejais. Last seen in 'The Devil All the Time' and Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women' as Beth March, Scanlen plays Milla Finlay in 'Babyteeth', an only child who is starting to test the boundaries of her close-knit family unity. Scanlen further explains: "She is going through puberty and a terminal illness at the same time, so it’s a very difficult combination that she is dealing with. All she wants to do is break free and rebel and do all the things normal teenagers do. She feels her mother is overbearing and that Anna can only really be happy when Milla is wanting her attention and gaining happiness through her."

'Babyteeth' opens with Milla meeting a boy while waiting for a train... and immediately embraces the escape he represents for her. Scanlen says: "Milla and Moses’ relationship is quite unique. It begins simply as a gateway for Milla to experience things she wouldn’t have been able to before. The more she sees him and gets attention from him, the more she can see true merit in their relationship. She has never received attention from a boy before and she appreciates his honesty because she is so used to people treading lightly around her. He offers her a fast track to new emotional experiences. Moses opens up Milla’s world to new understanding. Her heart grows a lot in the short time she is with Moses."

Via email, we talked to Eliza Scanlen recently about working with director Shannon Murphy on 'Babyteeth', love, and the ephemerality of life...

Coming of age is saying goodbye to a life led only by feeling, and learning to take emotional responsibility.

COUP DE MAIN: There's a real sharp emotional precision to every scene in 'Babyteeth', which is ironic as the characters themselves are emotionally loose cannons. Do you think that kind of characterisation is true to what it's like to be human?
I think audiences expect certain character archetypes to exist in a 'cancer film', and the irony of Shannon’s interpretation is how bluntly she rejects them. Her background in theatre, specifically Epic theatre, was a large influence in this. The purpose of these techniques Shannon has used - title cards, breaking the fourth wall, spoiling dramatic tension in scenes - is to increase the audience’s intellectual response. So while our job as actors is to bring the realism and messiness to characters, Shannon's manipulation of form meant that audiences could see beyond the mawkish cancer film they might have been expecting. I do think that these characters feel more human and alive as a result.

CDM: Milla and Moses have an instant connection when they first meet. Do you believe in love at first sight?
I don’t actually think Milla and Moses fell in love at first sight. To me, their relationship starts as rather transactional. But I don’t think it takes long for them to fall in love. And I guess I’ll believe it when I see it!

CDM: Is love an action or a feeling?
I notice love more in action. Love makes you do weird things.
CDM: How would you describe love to someone who has never been in love before?
It can feel obsessive and all-consuming, until it’s almost painful. But it's wonderful.

CDM: It takes Milla a while to work up the courage to ask Moses if he 'like-likes' her. Is that question the scariest question one can ask another person?
It’s a terrifying question. I think all of us wish we could be as upfront as Milla.
CDM: When you're young and feeling invincible, you can do almost anything and it won't be sad. What do you think changes as we grow older and feel sadness more and more acutely?
I think when we grow older, move out into the world and experience people move in and out of our orbit, we become much more aware of life’s ephemerality. There’s a real sadness to that.

CDM: One of the most relatable parts of the film is when Moses says: "I'm not ready to be functional." Is that the crux of what it's like to be a teenager and avoid coming of age?
I do. To Moses, being ‘functional’ means the end to his recklessness and hedonism. Coming of age is saying goodbye to a life led only by feeling, and learning to take emotional responsibility. Moses knows he has hurt people in the past, and at times can't even trust himself, and a big part of him doesn’t want to take responsibility for that.

CDM: At one point in the film, Anna says: "This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine."
What would you have chosen to do if in the shoes of Milla's parents? I probably would have let Milla. There’s no stopping somebody when they’re in love!

CDM: Playing characters who take to the beach in both 'Babyteeth' and 'Little Women', are you now a firm believer in the healing powers of the seaside? Is this a compulsory trait for all Australians?
I truly do. I live near the beach and it gives me so much joy and a sense of calm to know it’s close by. Nothing beats an Aussie Summer.

CDM: Having given up the piano at thirteen, did playing it somewhat for your role in 'Babyteeth' help when having to play the piano as Beth in 'Little Women'?
Even though I gave up piano, I've always enjoyed playing every once in a while. Though preparing for 'Little Women' made me a lot more comfortable with reading music again. On this, I was more focused on learning how to play the violin in the two weeks pre-production. I was terrified.

CDM: If you could make Milla a playlist, what are the main songs you would put on it?
'Tell Me Something' by Middle Kids, 'Sticky' by Ravyn Lenae, 'Landmine' by I Know Leopard, 'Diane Young' by Vampire Weekend.

'Babyteeth' is now playing in New Zealand cinemas.

Watch a trailer for 'Babyteeth' below...

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