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Tavi Gevinson takes centre stage

Fresh from bewitching on Broadway, the Rookie editor-in-chief and actress explains why performing on stage is as much about self-actualisation as it is about becoming a girl possessed

Taken from the autumn 2016 issue of Dazed: 

At the beginning of Ivo van Hove’s Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s witch-trial drama The Crucible, the stage curtains rise to reveal a classroom of schoolgirls at their desks. Dressed in identical uniforms with their backs turned away from the audience, their voices ring out in a chilling 17th-century hymnal. Though right in front of us, the girls feel far away and unknowable, washed in greyscale. Among those turned backs, though you wouldn’t know it yet, is publisher, writer and now actress Tavi Gevinson.

It is a striking image of restricted adolescence, and one that’s a far cry from the glistening, empowered world of girlhood Gevinson has created for young women online through the website she edits, Rookie. It’s the day after the performance I was in the audience for, and Gevinson and I are sitting outside an old-school West Village restaurant close to her apartment. “I was with Amandla and Willow the other day,” she begins, relating a previous conversation shared with friends – in this case, fellow world-wielding young women Amandla Stenberg and Willow Smith – over an iced coffee or two, much like any other 20-year-old on a Friday afternoon in New York. “Willow was like, ‘Rookie is so Tumblr.’ And Amandla was like, ‘No, woah, Rookie started that. Tumblr is Rookie.’” She smiles at the idea. “And I was like, ‘I know, where’s my money?’”

In person, Gevinson is talkative and sparkly, her mouth able to keep up with her thoughts without seeming like she is in a rush to get it all out. Even when she is giving forth on, say, an extremely well-articulated theory on the progression of mankind (“The thing is, after secularism…”), everything is delivered with unaffected spontaneity, and an endearing smidge of goofiness – it’s never didactic, but you’ll definitely learn something. Sentences are often prefaced with, “This is a little weird to bring up,” “OK, see if you can follow this…”, or even, “Can you tell that I live alone and have a lot of thoughts that I never share with anyone?”

But that is precisely what Gevinson has always done, and for some eight years now: shared her thoughts, honestly and vividly. She has communicated Comme des Garçons critiques on her fashion blog, Style Rookie, which she began when she was 12; given advice to devotees of her monthly editor’s letters on Rookie; brought together sticker sheets, Solange and lessons in intersectionality in the four best-selling Rookie annuals; and schooled one million-plus viewers in her 2012 TED talks on what it’s really like to be a teen who is “just figuring it out”. Ever since she wrote “Well, I am new here” on that first blog post, an important conversation about identity – her own, and every girl’s – has continued. She writes, she says, every single day.

“(Writing) is the thing that allows me to feel connected to the world. I can’t imagine not having that dialogue with myself” — Tavi Gevinson

For Gevinson, it is as essential to have an ongoing conversation with her self, from scribbled-down reminders to diaries of brain-dust left over from dreams, as it is to speak to her legions of fans the world over. “It’s the thing that allows me to feel connected to the world,” she says. “I can’t imagine not having that dialogue with myself.”

When Gevinson first moved to New York from her native Chicago in 2014, she thought acting might put paid to this impulse. “When I did my first play here (her critically lauded turn in This Is Our Youth), I was like, ‘Let’s do an experiment: I’m gonna stop writing. Maybe that will help me be more in the moment, feel more a part of my cast.’ But, no, it just made me forget who I was. And that was right for the time and that was what I wanted. But I find that I really can’t afford to skimp on alone-time. If there is something that strikes me as interesting or beautiful or something I could learn from and I don’t write it down, then I could be at lunch with you and it’s like there’s a pile of laundry in my brain that I haven’t put away and I struggle to really listen, so that’s always been important to me. A lot of it I haven’t shared, and I like the idea, long-term, of collecting all this stuff I’ve been doing for myself.”

Gevinson’s 2013 role alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini in the sharp romantic comedy Enough Said – via a notable guest slot in The Simpsons – first announced her softly-softly foray on to screens. But this wasn’t such an about-turn as it might have first seemed. In fact, before founding Rookie, theatre had been a great high-school passion of Gevinson’s. While it may be hard to imagine, this not-so-average teenager’s school days were as all-American as anyone else’s, from acting in school plays to watching band practice of “guys in the year above”. “That’s the thing that no one wants to hear,” she admits. “That you can be let into all of these exclusive places and still chemically experience greater joy from going to the woods with your friends. But that’s what I found to be true in that time of my life.”

The weekend before we meet, Gevinson had attended the Tonys with the Crucible cast, a big moment for her in throwback terms (“I totally got so emotional, ’cos they were doing musical numbers from when I was a kid and would try and copy the dance moves”). “With acting, I felt like I had a lot to prove because I didn’t study it, I didn’t work my way up in a traditional sense,” she muses.

But Gevinson has truly come of age as an actress in that most traditional, and terrifying, of places: the stage. In her assured Broadway debut in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth in 2014she played opposite Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin as a privileged fashion student, neatly suggesting the emotionally messy undercurrents that lay beneath her character’s Upper West Side sheen and era-specific legwarmers. Returning to similar acclaim alongside Ben Whishaw and Saoirse Ronan in The Crucible, Gevinson is shaping up to be a seasoned regular of Manhattan’s boards when she is barely out of her teens.

In this year’s gut-wrenchingly modern revival of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, Gevinson plays Mary Warren, a maid who becomes involved in the Salem witch trials as one of the accusers – and, in the play’s thrilling apotheosis, becomes herself the accused. Finding the inner strength and angst in a character too often played as the stereotype of feminine weakness and malleability, Gevinson has thrown herself into the role with a determined intensity, pushing herself to physical extremes on stage. “(It’s) so physical and vocal that at first I was ready to lose control. And then at one point I was like, ‘Oh, if you do that you won’t last the run!’” she says. “It was challenging figuring out how to do the physical stuff, (including) the physical stuff that isn’t being possessed and bewitched, but all the crying and getting beaten up and crawling. To do it in such a way that you’re not technically hurting yourself? It’s wild.”

“That’s the thing that no one wants to hear, that you can be let into all of these exclusive places and still chemically experience greater joy from going to the woods with your friends” — Tavi Gevinson 

It’s clear that balancing all that external kicking and screaming – basically, “Ben Whishaw ruining my life”, she quips – with a constantly shifting relationship to her character’s inner life has been a learning curve for the young actress. “If you decide what the show is gonna be and who your character is and how you’ll play every single moment, it’s not an enriching experience. Kenny (Lonergan) once said to me, ‘You know when you’re writing and suddenly you’re not choosing your words, you’re just writing? That’s what this should be like.’”

I wonder about Gevinson’s relationship with quote-unquote ‘fashion’, now she is fully immersed in a world where she has to wear the same identical uniform and grey zip-up hoodie every night. When quizzed as to whether she is in tune with the new wave of emerging designers in her city, she bark-laughs. “What? No! Marc Jacobs? I dunno!” Turns out performing the same play in the same location seven times a week doesn’t lend itself to browsing Instagram in search of what’s next. “I mean, I will always love clothes so much. But, because I have 24 hours in a day, and this many go-to-sleeping, and this many go-taking-care of-myself, and this many go-to-the-show…”

What Gevinson is wearing for our lunch date today offers a good picture of her current relationship to fashion: she is totally at her ease in a laidback Coach floral minidress which, funnily enough, doubled as her outfit to the Met Ball a couple of weeks ago (minus the Stan Smiths). But the fantasy world accessible through dressing up still has a lock and key in her heart, something evidenced by her continued adoration of Rodarte and friendship with the Mulleavy sisters (when Gevinson heard this shoot would celebrate ten years of the label, she was hooked). Having first linked up with Kate and Laura via the coolest of connections – Style Rookie follower Miranda July – Gevinson took her first trip to LA to hang out with the Mulleavys, dad in tow. She was 13.

“I saw their studio and freaked out,” says Gevinson. “They had so many books and they were colour-coded and they had signed Lord of the Rings stuff and Japanese toys. I remember seeing Iris Apfel at their show, I feel like she said something funny to me, like, ‘Contact me by carrier pigeon!’ Something really Iris-ey. We went to their studio to say hi and they were there with (photographer) Autumn de Wilde, (stylists) Shirley (Kurata) and Ashley (Furnival) and all of their friends who work on the show every season, and I remember taking a nap on a big pile of their clothes because I was exhausted and a child.”

Having carved her own path from acute-beyond-her-years fashion criticism to explorations of popular culture and feminism, Rookie – which turns five this year – felt like a natural next step for Gevinson. The first online platform written for teenage girls, largely by teenage girls, the website spoke to the hopes, dreams and fears of a generation from the start. As one Reddit commenter put it when posing their AMA question to the editor-in-chief a couple of years ago, “Rookie (is) one of the best things to happen to the internet.” It’s true – the cultural impact has never felt like something that merely happened on the internet. “The connection that readers have to Rookie has only meant more and more to me as I get older,” says Gevinson. “I thought that wouldn’t be the case because when I was in high school I needed that community – I was lonely. The primary goal of Rookie was always, like, ‘How do we make people feel better?’”

“(Theatre) is the opposite of chronicling your life online. It’s bleeding and visceral and disappearing and not meant to be recreated and recorded, and the rest of my life is all of those things” — Tavi Gevinson  

The importance of Rookie in a media environment hostile to teenage girls is not lost on Gevinson. But, even in the five years since she began the website, the nature of that threat has altered. Today, the figure of the young girl wields more power than ever – but with that power come all-new, unprecedented scrutinies and pressures. When discussing online media today, Gevinson’s sunny disposition darkens. “I remember when Rookie started and being at school and seeing an article on my phone that was like, ‘Is Tavi Gevinson girl power’s last hope?’ and I was like, ‘This is actually bad journalism,’” she sighs. “I feel like brands and corporations use this rhetoric to their advantage without creating real change, or spaces for these people. It’s like, ‘Are you actually being trans-inclusive or are you just branding yourself as such?’”

“I think what human beings need is to be able to laugh at the absurd, hold on to ambiguity, and learn to love nuance, instead of making everything one or the other, and structurally so much of the internet and online publishing doesn’t have room for any of that.”

For someone who has always self-actualised through additions – clothes, books, words upon words – it’s clear that what Gevinson relishes most about her new life on stage is the total absence it signifies. Creating an experience shared only between herself and the audience – so that the moment must remain unrecorded, uncollectable and, ultimately, unretrievable – is what is so liberating. “It’s the opposite of chronicling your life online,” she says. “It’s, like, bleeding and visceral and disappearing and not meant to be recreated and recorded, and the rest of my life is all of those things.” In the course of our conversation, Gevinson alludes to a project she is working on, a book mapping the relationship between acting and self-actualisation that has so fascinated her. “What I’m trying to do is find a way to make writing more like stage acting. The idea that acting can also, even though it’s not as direct as Rookie or (articulating) my worldview, be a way of expressing something about my beliefs is interesting to me.” Speaking with Gevinson on this sunny New York afternoon, that she might have joined the cultural-criticism ranks of Kate Zambreno and Chris Kraus by this time next year seems less achievable than inevitable.

“I think what human beings need is to be able to laugh at the absurd, hold on to ambiguity, and learn to love nuance” — Tavi Gevinson 

Before then, Gevinson will return to Broadway in an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, where she’ll get to play “a girl in love, instead of a child in court!” She is also on course to reunite with Michael Cera, along with a lot of other cool humans (Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, Orange Is the New Black’s Olivia Luccardi) for Human People, Dustin Guy Defa’s indie ensemble drama set in Gevinson’s adoptive city over the course of one day. It strikes me that, from making your adolescent rage heard in a world of condescending adults, to navigating New York’s romantic landscape in your early 20s, Gevinson has been exceedingly canny in her choice of roles so far. That, or the tarot cards she has been known to shuffle have intervened to help her lucky stars align.

On that note, she describes how, hundreds of performances into The Crucible’s run, something had only struck her just the night before. “I didn’t put this together at first, but I felt it on stage last night when I was sitting in that chair and they were all not believing me. It was like, ‘Wait a second, this feels like when I was 13.’ When no one thought I was writing my own shit. The parallels and the serendipities do not escape me.”

Hair Tomo Jidai at Streeters using Moroccanoil, make-up Kanako Takase at Tim Howard Management using Shu Uemura, models Scotty 'Sussi' Sussman, Oscar Oak, Nay Campbell, Harry Charlesworth, photographic assistants Nick Rapaz, Mike Broussard, fashion assistants Katy Fox, Victor Cordero, hair assistant Yusuke Miura