Earlier this week I had the pleasure of talking to 17-year-old Emily Robinson who is best known for her role in the progressive Amazon TV series Transparent. Upon seeing a lack of representation for young girls and their sexuality in the entertainment industry, Emily took matters into her own hands by writing and directing a movie about it. Virgin Territory is a short film described as a “sex-positive, queer, questioning coming-of-age story about a teenage girl’s sexual awakening and exploration”. It will have its world premiere at the LA Film Festival on June 2nd at the Arclight. Read our interview below where we discuss her film, feminism, and some of her influences.
I just read about your push to get Virgin Territory made and how quickly it happened! That’s extremely impressive. What made you want to write a story like this?
Virgin Territory came out of this frustration in not seeing enough layered depictions of girls that I could identify with. I call it a “queer coming of age story from a female’s perspective.” I know my friends and I have all these conversations about the ambiguity that comes with girlhood. I wanted something that was sex positive and wasn’t pushy but talks openly about things that my friends and I do talk about and think about. I wanted something that represented us and how we act or think versus how people tell girls and young women they should act/think.
It’s definitely nice to see it from an insider’s perspective.
Yeah! I was very lucky to have a team that I trusted. Before we filmed I had two table reads with the cast. What I took away most from it, because of my age and because I’m a girl and it being my first time directing and writing was that I’m one of the few people who would not exploit this story. Even though it’s not autobiographical, it’s still closer to home than it would be for many other people.
I think that it’s important to note that age doesn’t debunk any sexual experience or queer questioning, but since you’re so young, are you afraid that people are going to brush the story under the rug?
I hope, obviously, that that doesn’t happen. I think that so far, although not many people have seen it, some people have seen the trailer and the responses have been purely positive. I think we’re starting to experience this shift in talking about sexuality where we’re realizing that things aren’t necessarily clear-cut. Sexuality and gender are more spectra than binary. There’s this sort of age of ambiguity where people are reveling in the uncertainties and I’m hoping that there is a greater acceptance for understanding that teenage sexuality isn’t necessarily clear-cut. I’m hoping it won’t be written off as “oh she’s experimenting!” Because it’s so much more than that. It’s a deeper understanding of what all of this means and trying to come to terms with the uncertainty of it all and embracing it.
It’s so brave of you to not only write, but make and produce a movie like this, have you screened it to any audiences yet?
We haven’t had a screening yet, so not many people have seen it! (laughs). Our first screening is June 2nd at the LA Film Festival, which is incredible; I’m so completely honored to have it there. And although we haven’t had a screening yet, we did have a pretty positive reaction to the trailers so far!
Are you nervous for the festival at all?
You know what? I’m not in a weird way. (laughs). I’m really excited. The thing is, I’m not expecting everyone to love it. Even with the overwhelmingly positive responses that we’ve got so far, I was worried considering the content and the lead being an outspoken young feminist sex-positive woman, I was worried there would be more backlash, but there really hasn’t been any of that. Instead, I’ve gotten messages from girls my age and throughout the country that have been talking and saying, “are we normal?” “What is this?” It’s been kind of a solidifying thing. Due to that, I’m really just excited for the premiere, because even if not everyone likes it, it will help me open up or start a new conversation!
I know you work on Transparent, which is an extremely progressive show that’s really opened a lot of people’s eyes to the many struggles the trans community faces. Did working on a show like that push you to make this? Did it help you at all in the process?
Yes! It absolutely helped. Jill Soloway, the creator, and showrunner of Transparent is always saying, “just do it! Just make it.” She’s also always saying, “direct from your pussy” (laughs). She’s one of the most creative and open directors I’ve ever worked with. Everything that she brings to TV and film is so inspiring that it makes me want to create too. So being surrounded by the Transparent crew has definitely helped me. It made me want to try something new. It is a little bit intimidating because everyone is so great. But the thing is because they’re so open and welcoming and supportive it’s exciting versus threatening. It’s not like “oh I’ll never be as good as them.” It’s more “oh my god! I need to try to do something.” It’s really just an inspiring, riveting experience working on that set.
Women in Hollywood have always been important, but even more so now that people are starting to realize the inequalities that they face in the industry. I noticed your entire cast of Virgin Territory is female, and now that I’ve talked to you I realize it probably was, but was that a conscious choice when writing the story/casting the movie?
Yes, it was. There was a question originally of if we wanted to show Kyle (the guy in the movie) at all. I knew I wanted a small cast and I knew who I wanted as I was writing it because I worked with Mel Shi before and I think she’s one of the funniest people in the world. Everyone was just awesome! I knew who I wanted in this project. Towards the end, there was a question of if I wanted to just show Kyle’s feet and I opted out of that. It’s really not about him. It’s about the women so I thought it would be stronger to not include him at all.
You said that Jill Soloway was an important influence; do you have any other influences?
So many! Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank)… I could like honestly go on forever (laughs), I love Lena Dunham too. There are so many amazing filmmakers. Especially right now! I think TV is totally changing the game with how we consume stories and it’s exciting to be a part of that.
I know you had a small stint on Girl Meets World. Did you get a chance to connect with Rowan [Blanchard] because I know she’s very active in the feminist community?
Yeah! We actually originally met doing a photo shoot but that was just in passing. I’m such a huge fan of her and her activism. I think that Girl Meets World is a very important show because of its discussions about growing up and stuff, which is why I wanted to be on it. I think that Girl Meets World and Bella and the Bulldogs are two of the shows changing young adult television because they do have these young strong female leads who DO mess up and they do get to explore. I think that’s important for young girls to see. So yeah, I did a small cameo on that because it was something I really wanted to do. Rowan was so sweet and welcoming. So were Sabrina Carpenter and the rest of the cast! I’m so impressed with everything that Rowan does and it was such an amazing time. There’re so many people to look up to now. There’s also Amandla Stenberg who’s great too.
I know you’re doing something you love, and you’ve managed to squeeze in school, but since you’re so busy all the time do you find it hard to make time for friends or to just relax?
That’s a really good question! I am fortunate that I’m doing something I love with acting, but it’s definitely a full-time job, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. It’s hard sometimes trying to balance it. Luckily I have really great friends. So even if we can’t see each other we Skype and stay in touch whenever we can. I am lucky a lot of my friends are in LA and can actually come and support me at this festival too.
You’ll be starring in the play Big Sky too. So is there anything you DON’T do? (laughs).
(laughs). Yeah! There are a lot of things that I don’t do! This play has been so much fun. I haven’t done theater in a while. Back in 2010 in New York was the last time, so it’s been exciting to do it again. But back to the question, yeah there’s lots I don’t do!
Good because if you tell me you sing too I might have to hang up the phone!
No! I do not sing (laughs). Well actually, funny story, the end credit music in Virgin Territory is my singing with Michelle Clunie.
So you do sing!
(Laughs) I don’t! I don’t! I can carry a tune if I try REALLY hard. I remember I was singing one time when I was younger and my grandpa said, “oh my god you’re like tone-deaf. Please stop you’re giving me a headache,” (laughs) so I typically avoid singing.
What’s next for you? Do you think you’re going to want to write and star in more movies?
I want to do it all! I want to be an actor/writer/director and ideally, in things, I’m passionate about. I’ve been lucky to do all of that now so I just really want to continue with it.
Lastly, you kind of touched on it earlier, but what’s one thing you want audiences to take from the movie?
I think that Virgin Territory is really about embracing the uncertainties and doing what feels right in your heart and not worrying about anything else. It’s about being who you are and following your heart which is important. I hope that’s what the audience gets.