Eye on Emmy: Parenthood's Mae Whitman Says, 'My Career Path Hasn't Led Me Wrong Yet'

Mae Whitman is a force to be reckoned with. Just 23, she has a resume that boasts nearly two decades’ worth of solid acting experience, including countless movies (Hope Floats, the upcoming Perks of Being a Wallflower), tireless voiceover work (it runs in the family), and abundant television gigs (In Treatment and, of course, Arrested Development). She is that rarity, a bona fide child star success story.

Will Whitman’s moving turn as troubled Amber on NBC’s Parenthood finally garner her some recognition for her undeniable range and high-caliber performances? Possibly. But what’s truly important to the actress is the role itself.

Check Out TVLine’s In-Depth Preview of the 2011 Emmy Awards

TVLINE | Having started out in the business at such a young age, did you ever anticipate what was in store for you? I mean, did you hope to achieve this level of success?
When you’re younger, it’d hard to see it that way. I don’t really remember too much about it, but the general feeling that I do remember was that I just liked it. Being on a movie set when you have a great strong people there supporting you can be very nurturing. You get to explore these creative parts of yourself as a child that most people don’t explore until they’re in college. So for me it was always more about a feeling of fun and entertainment and having my horizons expanded early on. That was why I wanted to continue on in the direction I was headed, and luckily that mentality has stuck with me as I got older. [My career path] has always been about living in the moment and longevity and whatever feels the most organic at the time — and that hasn’t led me wrong yet.

TVLINE | With so many of your characters to choose from, is there any one that sticks out in your mind as a personal favorite?
Every character I’ve played at this point [in my life] has a really special piece of me. When you do a role that you really believe in, as I’ve been lucky enough to do, every single one of them means something different to me. Being a part of Arrested Development, for example, is something I’m thankful for all the time because I am such a huge fan of that show and of all the people involved with it. Plus, Parenthood and the movies I started doing when I was young have all led me to this place, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

TVLINE | That mentality shows in your roles, which collectively have this vastness of range. Is that something you specifically look for, as opposed to always sticking with one genre?
Why I like to do what I do is because I’m generally all over the place. I like to be a lot of different things at once and dress different ways and I change my hair all the time, so being an actor lets me live out the fantasy of living out 100,000 different lifetimes in one, without all of the repercussions. [Laughs] If I want to play a drug addict for three months, I get to do that without actually doing it, and that’s really been a lifesaver for me. It helps me not only find a stable life but really appreciate having the real, normal life that I go back to. I don’t have one role that I’m particularly fond of doing, and I don’t really look for it to differ all the time, but I will try anything and do anything. If it’s a role I connect with, I’ll go for it, no matter what’s involved.

TVLINE | Let’s talk about the freedom that comes with acting in a Jason Katims series. Were you aware of how loosely things would be written, and how much you’d be able to improvise, when you first joined Parenthood?
I actually hadn’t seen [Katims’ other series, Friday Night Lights] and had no idea what it was going to be like [to do Parenthood]. In the pilot episode it wasn’t too improved or loose, so there was no way to know [back then]. But we all found that the showrunners and producers were very trusting of us as actors and creative people who were connecting with their character, and really chose their cast carefully. They always encourage us to improv and talk over each other, and those are the kind of freedoms you’re never afforded, especially on a television series. It makes everything flow so nicely when you feel that the people in charge trust you and appreciate your ideas. That’s what sets our show apart, the naturalness of the dialogue and everyone’s connections… because every once in awhile you get some really great really moments out of that.

TVLINE | Some of your most powerful work comes from your scenes opposite Lauren Graham. How long did it take for you two to master an organic mother/daughter back-and-forth?
It’s interesting, I don’t even remember a point when it “clicked.” I do know that she and I immediately had great chemistry, and in a way, I think that’s really rare for people. We have a very, very similar sense of humor and we read the same books and we like the same things, and immediately we got along really well. I love Lauren so much, she’s one of my best friends, and because we have such a similar mentality we’re able to come up with things that are very vulnerable and visceral. I trust her and trust that I can go to those places with her and she’ll be there in those moments. We really lucked out finding that the vibe with each other.

TVLINE | To that point, Amber took such a dark but incredibly realistic turn this season. How much time and notice are you given to mentally prepare for such a major shift in a character you’ve helped develop?
Changes like that are huge and you have to keep in contact with the people who are making those choices because every day you’re building a character — especially on a show like Parenthood where they love that you add your personal touch. So I try to keep in touch with [the executive producers] to try and understand when those changes are coming, because in real life those things don’t happen out of nowhere. There has to be a slow build and a way to connect the dots. I feel like in a lot of other TV shows and movies where you don’t have a close communication with the showrunner or writers, it can be really frustrating because you build a whole character and all of a sudden it doesn’t feel right. But that’s one thing on this project I’ve never had a problem with. Any movements that feel false or questions that I have, we’ve sat down and we also find a way to connect the dots in a real, honest way.

TVLINE | So once you wrapped your head around Amber’s new attitude, you were excited to play it?
Absolutely. While the things Amber went through were unpleasant or can be seen as selfish, it’s really real stuff. Being a teenager is hard. One of the things I love about this show is that every family can sit down at the end of an episode and talk about it. It’s important that we’re tackling these issues. This season we were very, very emotional, so it was hard. But again, things aren’t hard if they make sense.

TVLINE | I have to say, I have no idea how you were able to get through that impound lot scene with Craig T. Nelson in the finale. It destroyed me.
That scene with Craig… I didn’t even know what he was going to say! He came up, said those things and we basically did it in one take. Craig is one of the most incredible, beautiful human beings I’ve ever met. He is a really special individual and anytime he says anything to me that is slightly emotional — in real life! — I start crying. [Laughs] So when I’m having to do a scene with someone I weightily care about, it’s amazing. I feel that real connection between the people [on Parenthood]. It all happens in a natural way.

TVLINE | Were there any other standout moments for you from Season 2?
My favorite moments on the show are the humorous ones, to be honest. [Laughs] People think of the show as extremely dramatic, which it is, but there are also some really funny people on the show, and when they get their moment, they shine. There was one with Miles Heizer, who plays my brother and is a genius, where we’re driving in the car with Lauren and she’s telling us so seriously about drugs and alcohol, and Miles says from the back, “Amber’s on both right now.” You can barely hear it, but it is so funny. My proudest moment of emotional acting would have to be the scene where I tell John Corbett [guest-starring as Amber’s father] that I don’t find his behavior acceptable. I liked that because the whole episode felt really organic after everything that he had put Amber though, coming back and acting like everything was fine — it just felt like there was such a deep well of pain there for Amber, and I got to explore it and expel it.

TVLINE | And now, after all of the tears, car crashes and college rejection letters, you’re on Parenthood hiatus and shooting a film that I hear you’re really excited about. Tell me a little about it.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book that was written in the early ’90s, and while I hate the term “coming of age story” because it has such a weird connotation now, it really is one in the most honest and stripped-down sense. It’s about a boy who is very sensitive and special and finding himself. I play Mary Elizabeth, one of his close friends who ends up becoming his first girlfriend. Unfortunately, he’s in love with our other best friend. The thing that I love most about the project is that every single person who reads the book loves it and [the feature] is being directed and written by the author of the book, Stephen Chbosky. It’s so realistic, beautiful and painful, and it’s one of the only coming-of-age stories I’ve ever read that really summed up all of the most sensitive and guttural things you feel when you’re that age. My wardrobe and makeup is out of control/amazing, and the music is awesome…. It’s just going to be a great visual picture, and the story is great. I’m really, really proud of it.