Barrington teen makes movie debut in 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' with Cate Blanchett
Barrington High School student Emma Nelson and her parents arrived at the Lake Street Screening Room in Chicago's Loop last November to attend a movie that only they had been invited to see.
"Don't sit with me!" Emma told mom Sheryl and dad Chris, mayor of West Dundee. "Not even in the same row! I want to see the movie by myself!"
The movie started.
"Mom! Mom!" Emma screamed. "Come over here right now and sit with me!"
Mom rushed to Emma's side. Then the three watched a rough cut of Richard Linklater's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?"
Emma plays a major character in the movie, her feature film debut. And she narrates the story. This was the first time she had seen the almost-finished movie, based on Maria Semple's 2012 comic novel. Now, millions more will see it: The film opens at theaters nationwide this week.
Out of 500 actresses, Emma won the coveted role of Bee, the resourceful teen daughter of a Microsoft genius (Billy Crudup) and a conflicted architectural genius (Cate Blanchett) struggling with motherhood.
Emma's plucky, auspicious film debut radiates with the confidence and comfort of a veteran performer. She appears relaxed, unfazed by working next to Oscar-winning actress Blanchett and longtime actor Crudup.
Didn't she feel intimidated?
"Not really," said Emma, now 15. "There was no time for that. They hired you and they want you there. They made it very comfortable for me."
(Linklater confirmed this in a 2018 quote: "I was most impressed with her composure, confidence and unflappability ... she was unintimidated.")
Her parents noticed her natural star quality years earlier when Chris whipped out the digital 8 camera to shoot a video of Emma, then 2, and her sister Sophia, 3.
"Sophia was doing something super cute," Sheryl remembered. "Chris taped it. So, we put it on the TV and we're both watching."
Then they looked at each other with one of those magical "are you seeing what I'm seeing?" discovery moments.
"We're watching Emma doing nothing," Sheryl said. "Just standing there and glowing. And glowing."
But how did a Prairie Middle School student get cast in a major motion picture at 12, work on the movie in Pittsburgh and Seattle at 13, then keep her involvement publicly secret for almost two years?
She got help and inspiration from her parents.
Her mom Sheryl lives in Barrington and owns the Goddard School in Elgin, a preschool facility. Dad Chris, a West Dundee resident, has served as his town's mayor since 2013.
"My dad taught me very well about how to conduct a conversation," Emma said. "He's good at public speaking and he's very engaging. From my mom, I got my outgoing sense of self. I greatly enjoy going out with groups."
Emma said she has always possessed a performer's personality, extroverted and willing to entertain her parents and their visitors.
Then, at 9, she auditioned for a production of the musical "Annie" under Carol Lynch, legendary director of the Schaumburg on Stage theater and dance company.
Even though she had no lines as an orphan and member of the chorus, she found her calling.
"It was like this buzz," Emma said. "Even in rehearsals, I had that feeling that I found something I'm good at, something that excites me. I wanted to be on stage more. All I could think about was preparing for my next role."
That would be the role of Frannie in Marc Bruni's pre-Broadway production of "Trevor: The Musical" in 2017, originally at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
Emma, who will be a sophomore at Barrington High this fall, can now talk freely about "Bernadette," instead of telling friends and faculty she had been on a long, long, vacation.
"It was difficult. It was hard. But I think it was worth it in the end not to talk about it," Emma said.
So, how did she get along with her director?
"I've never been directed by anyone else, but according to Cate and Billy, he's an actor's dream," she said.
"Rick is known for casting actors who aren't that experienced. In 'Boyhood,' he cast Ellar Coltrane who was inexperienced. I think Rick enjoys the natural quality of actors.
"In rehearsals, we would go over every scene, every line, and he would give me freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. The whole rehearsal process was more like a conversation than direction."
Even though her parents have been divorced, Emma said the "Bernadette" experience has brought them closer together.
"Yes, I think it has improved our relationship," she said. "The filming process made me so much more confident. I finally got to do what I love to do, and it made me more comfortable in my own skin."
And she still glows.