As their social media revenge movie Assassination Nation hits UK cinemas, we spoke to the stars about their finstas and how they deal with trolls
“When Chloë Sevigny followed me, I plotzed,” says Hari Nef, musing about her most surprising Instagram admirer in an admission most of us could only imagine. “Because, like, if I could only follow one person on Instagram it would probably be her.”
Perched around a table at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills are Hari, Abra, and Suki Waterhouse, co-stars in the new Sam Levinson-directed thriller Assassination Nation. Also starring Odessa Young, it might appear like a typical high school flick on the surface, but Assassination Nation’s all-American setting and phone hacking plot provide the perfect backdrop for incisive commentary on everything from sexism to gun culture to social media.
The latter is what we’re getting into, with Hari’s list of famous followers also including Katy Perry, Cynthia Nixon, and Marilyn Manson (“he’s dad”), while Abra counts M.I.A. among her 139k. Suki’s most shocking follower? “Ivanka Trump,” she says, deadpan. “Damn,” says Hari, equally blank of expression, until Abra erupts in laughter and they all get a fit of the giggles. Probably not quite the audience Suki was going for…
While the schoolgirls they portray in Assassination Nation are very much of the Instagram-born-and-bred Gen Z, the trio also remembers simpler social media times. “I was obsessed with MSN Messenger,” says Suki. “And I was on Bebo. I have this really funny picture from Bebo where I’ve drawn, literally on Microsoft Word or something, green around my eyes. I really wanted green eyes.”
However, even with a lack of Facetune and filters, social media never felt entirely innocent to the girls. For Hari, MySpace was part sanctuary, part predatory. “It felt like a place where I could almost seek out a tribe of like-minded folk when I wasn’t necessarily finding them, or enough of them, in my hometown environment,” she says. “So I opened myself up to all these people, and that came with some really great revelations and friendships, but it also let in a bunch of weirdness. I remember dealing with strange, predatory things on the internet.”
“It went from a safe place to kind of Peeping Tom-ish,” says Abra. “It used to be the place where I’d seek out like-minded (people), or I’d get to see other perspectives that I’d never been able to see, and now I see it becoming like voyeurism. It’s very different.” Of course, this hasn’t stopped her – or Hari or Suki or the rest of us – from using the platforms at our disposal. The horrific new Screen Time feature on iPhone, and the many conversations it has provoked amongst friends, only confirms that. But Abra is right. Social media has gone from being a place for connection to an opportunity for comparison, competition and, often, serious creeping.
“There’s my Facebook me, which is a wholesome me, then Twitter me is ratchet, finsta me is even worse; my Instagram is branded and safer” – Abra
We’re all guilty of it; IG stalking an ex when we’re having a bad day, then falling down the rabbit hole and finding ourselves on their cousin’s best friend’s sister’s feed, obsessing over the seemingly picture perfect life of a total stranger. With a 2017 study by the Royal Society for Public Health concluding that Instagram is indeed the worst social media for your mental health, Assassination Nation’s portrayal of the app as a weapon – perhaps even a villian in itself – couldn’t be more timely. IRL, the film’s stars are willing to shed their own filters on the topic.
“My Instagram is constructed,” says Suki. “I know what the people going on my main Instagram want to see, so it doesn’t feel that icky, but it’s not the whole scenario.” Note her use of the word “main” – finstas are now part and parcel of the social media experience for celebrities and non-famous types alike. Hari’s finsta is apparently Suki’s favourite, which makes her laugh, as she admits it’s “just a lickle” different from her public feed that she curates with her 310,000 followers in mind. Abra, meanwhile, considers her social media “fragmented. There’s my Facebook me, which is a wholesome me, then Twitter me is ratchet, finsta me is even worse; my Instagram is branded and safer.”
The fragmented approach is reflective of Assassination Nation’s protagonist, Lily (Odessa Young), whose text messages are a mix of lukewarm responses to her boyfriend and nudes to her Daddy. Yes, I mean that kind of Daddy. But double, triple, quadruple lives aside, did the girls relate to their characters beyond the iPhone screen?
“I related to Bex in that her swagger and outspokenness was often coming from a place of extreme vulnerability,” says Hari. “I get that way when I’m feeling vulnerable, and I think that speaks to the teenage experience. Teens have all these avenues to feel confident and seen, perhaps because of social media, but there’s also the wound of being a teenager that these things can fill or worsen. I think that contemporary teenagers have more of those extremes to deal with.”
One such extreme: trolls. Ten years ago, when the cast were still in school, they might have had to put up with playground bullies or the occasional nasty AIM message, but now everyone in the world is so accessible, how do they deal with social media’s biggest enemies? “Bye bye. I don’t know her,” says Abra, with Hari agreeing that she hits the block button.
“The kind of person who hides behind a screen is a coward and a loser,” she says. “But they don’t know you. They don’t spend time with you, they don’t know your friends, they don’t know your family, they don’t know the way your voice sounds when you laugh. They know this girl who looks like you, has your same name and is an amalgamation of text, photos and videos online. They don’t know you. They know that girl. So when I read that shit I say, they’re talking about that girl. They’re not talking about me.”
Assassination Nation lands in UK cinemas today, November 23