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Abby Ryder Fortson on her titular role in 'Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Many stories have been told about girlhood, puberty and coming of age, but perhaps none are more well-known than this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET")

ABBY RYDER FORTSON: (As Margaret Simon) Hey there, God. It's me, Margaret. I'm a little nervous, actually, about being alone. So can you just not let anything really horrible happen?

MCCAMMON: That's a clip from the new film adaptation of Judy Blume's wildly popular 1970s coming-of-age novel, "Are you There God? It's Me, Margaret." The film and book follow 11-year-old Margaret Simon as she confronts early adolescent anxieties like menstruating for the first time, discovering boys and, of course, boobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Look how round they are.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Mine just look like little wizard hats.

(LAUGHTER)

FORTSON: (As Margaret Simon) Hilary Bright (ph) is a 19-year-old who loves water skiing, horses and going out to the mall for an orange Julius.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Do you think any of us will look like that when we're 19?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) We must. We must. We must increase our busts. We must...

MCCAMMON: Abby Ryder Fortson plays the eponymous Margaret in the long-awaited film adaptation, and she joins us now to tell us more about it. Abby Ryder Fortson, thanks so much for being with us.

FORTSON: Of course. Hi.

MCCAMMON: Hi. That must have been so fun to film this movie, first of all.

FORTSON: Oh, yes, 100%. It was some of the four best months of my life.

MCCAMMON: Well, this book is pretty iconic as far as tales about young adulthood go. And, you know, there are a lot of classic moments. But it was released more than 50 years ago, so long before your time, even before my time. How familiar were you with the book when you decided to take this role?

FORTSON: Oh, my gosh. I am so embarrassed. I never actually read Judy Blume before I got the audition. I'm a huge reader, I always have been. But I guess Judy and I just missed each other. I was really into sci-fi and fantasy when I was younger, so I didn't - I never really dove deep into the trenches of all of Judy Blume's wonderful, wonderful stories. But as soon as I got the audition to play Margaret, I immediately just said to my parents after I had finished reading it, I was like, oh, my gosh. How did someone write down this experience? This is it. And in the '70s? Whoa.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. I mean, what was it about the book when you first read it that jumped out at you as, like, so relevant?

FORTSON: I was surprised that I related to her so much, even though it was written in the '70s. I think that her experience of all those awkward teenage moments and having all those feelings that you don't really know how to deal with yet and just figuring out so many new things about yourself, I think we really all can relate to that constantly, even if you're, you know, 11 or 50 or 80. It just - it shares a message that we all really can connect to.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. I mean, I've got a tween and a teen, and so I'm seeing it firsthand. But I think every single adult would tell you they remember that age so well because it is such a tough age for so many people, and it's such a pivotal time. Did you feel any pressure coming into this role, just knowing how beloved a book it is by so many people?

FORTSON: I tried not to. I did my best. I think that the main thing was - is that we really wanted Judy to be happy because "Margaret" was her baby for 50 years, and she finally kind of passed it along to us to really bring it to life. And while she was on set for a couple of weeks, we were all just like nervously looking over our shoulders, being like, my God, is Judy happy? We just really want her to be happy with this. We want to do right by her. So I think that she is super-duper happy and I hope that everyone else who grew up with the book will be as well.

FORTSON: I know you're about 15 now, but you were probably around Margaret's age when this was filming. I mean, how much - I asked - you said you related to a lot of the book, but, I mean, how did it help you think about what you were going through at that age?

FORTSON: Yeah. I was 13 when we shot. And just her entire journey, her entire experience, I 100% relate to her in so many ways. And it really did help me kind of reflect on my own experiences and kind of look at them with a little bit more kindness and being like, OK, I might have had some very awkward moments when I was 12 and 13 and 11 and all those ages. But Abby was great back then, and they're great moments to look back and laugh on. So... (laughter).

MCCAMMON: You know, in addition to all the physical and emotional changes people go through in puberty, the film, it also talks about issues of faith. I mean, it's right there in the title and how much that can be part of finding yourself. What do you think about the way that Margaret worked through her questions about God and religion?

FORTSON: I think that it's done in a very unique way. And I think Margaret - all she's really looking for is a friend. She's looking for someone to confide in. She wants - all of these changes are happening to her and to her life. And she's just looking for one person that she can rely on, and she finds that in God or whoever she's talking to or maybe even her inner self. And I think that when you look at Margaret's journey, she's figuring out that it's OK to be who she is, but not feeling forced to put a label on what she believes like her grandparents - both sides want her to.

MCCAMMON: And we should say, for those who may not be as familiar with the film or the book, that Margaret's growing up in an interfaith household, right? So that's part of her tension...

FORTSON: Yes.

MCCAMMON: ...Is how to find God and which religion to choose.

FORTSON: Yes. Her dad's side really, really wants her to be Jewish. And her mom's side really, really wants her to be Christian. And then there's this pivotal scene in the film where both of the families are kind of screaming at each other, being like, no, she has to be this. No, she has to be this. No, she has to be this. I think it's a really interesting moment in the film because you really get to see that her - Margaret realize that she doesn't really need a label on her religion. She just needs to know what she believes in. And I think that's what she's trying to figure out throughout the film.

MCCAMMON: And isn't that what so much of, like, adolescence and growing up is about more broadly too, right? Just figuring out, who do other people want you to be and who are you and how do you sort of connect those dots in a way that feels authentic?

FORTSON: Oh, yeah. I think that, especially with the friends, with Nancy and Gretchen and Janie, and you have all of these people kind of telling Margaret what to be, what to wear, how to act all this, and she's kind of - she's going along with it. But inside of herself, she's kind of like, oh, do I really want to do this? And then finally, she gets the courage to stand up for herself and say, nope, no more. I'm going to do my own thing. I'm going to be nice to Laura Danker now (laughter).

MCCAMMON: I know your mom, Christie Lynn Smith, and your dad, John Fortson, both are actors. How did they help you, if at all, in preparing for this role?

FORTSON: Yes, they're both actors. And my - honestly, when I first wanted to be an actor, it was because they used to bring me into their auditions. So when I was about like 3 1/2, I just kind of turned to them and I was like, oh, my God. Hey, guys. I kind of want to be an actor. This looks fun.

MCCAMMON: Super cool. What was their reaction to seeing you in the role as Margaret?

FORTSON: My mom started crying.

MCCAMMON: Aw. Was this story meaningful to your mom as a younger girl?

FORTSON: Yes, it was. She had read the book when she was a kid and she had loved it. And I think watching everything just as an audience member is already emotional. The story's already an emotional story. But then watching it when your kid is doing it, I think that just upped the tears for her. I was like, oh, my God, Mom. It's just opening titles. It hasn't even started yet. Don't start crying now.

FORTSON: They must be really proud of you.

FORTSON: Yes, they are.

MCCAMMON: What are you hoping that kids who see this film will take away from it?

FORTSON: I really hope that, one, everyone has a great time. I think it's a really funny, fun movie to go see. But secondly, I really hope that it opens up more conversation. I think that we are, especially in the United States right now, we're in a time where it's getting uncomfortable - it's uncomfortable to talk about, you know, periods and boobs and your body changing and puberty. And I know every single time that a kid hears those words, they just want to internally die because it's horrible to hear those words, especially from a parent or a teacher or something but...

MCCAMMON: Or a radio host.

FORTSON: Or a radio host or someone on the radio, yes. If you're listening to this and your parent's right next to you, you're going to probably be cringing right now. But it is so, so, so important that we talk about all of these topics, because the more that you talk about them, the more open that conversation is. I think films can be a great buffer between, you know, what do you feel about this instead of, oh, what does this character feel about this? And I think it can kind of alleviate some of the very traumatizing experiences that most of us have had with the sex talk.

MCCAMMON: Reduce the cringe, if nothing else, right?

FORTSON: Yes, reducing the cringe.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAMMON: That was Abby Ryder Fortson. She plays Margaret in the new film adaptation of Judy Blume's classic coming-of-age tale, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." The movie is in theaters now. Abby Ryder Fortson, thank you so much for being with us.

FORTSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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