Dramatic role in “Cyberbully” lets Emily Osment “show what I’ve got”

Emily Osment recently spent two months in a constant state of depression, sequestering herself from her friends and family and suffering the exhaustion that comes with feeling the world is out to get you. And she loved every minute of it.

It was all part of her commitment to Cyberbully, a hard-hitting drama airing on ABC Family July 17. Osment plays Taylor Hillridge, an easygoing high-schooler who is thrilled when her mom gives her a laptop computer for her birthday. Her joy soon turns to tragedy, however, after Taylor painfully discovers the brutal pitfalls of living online. A page she sets up on a social media website soon becomes host to vicious rumors and comments about her, driving Taylor to the point where she doesn’t know who her real friends are, and instills in her a relentless sense of terror from which there seems no escape.

The role offered the 18-year-old Osment the chance to show a different, more dramatic, side to her talents, which largely have been featured in light comedies like Hannah Montana and the Spy Kids movies. She says she was heavily involved in the entire production, from tweaking her lines to contributing a song to the soundtrack, and paying close attention to how the film — which has its twists and turns regarding the identity of the bully — is marketed.

Beyond the professional fulfillment it brought her, Osment also was proud to be part of a project that addressed a tough, all-too-relevant issue. Cyberbully is the centerpiece of the “Delete Digital Drama” campaign by ABC Family and Seventeen magazine. In addition to the film, ABC Family is producing several public service announcements featuring stars from the network, while Seventeen is dedicating much of its August issue to stories about cyberbullying and how to combat it.

Osment spoke to us about getting the chance to play a dramatic role, and how being a young celebrity — with more than 1 million followers on Twitter — makes her more empathetic to victims of cyberbullying:

How important was the chance to play a dramatic role to you in doing this movie?

That was definitely part of the attraction. … One of the reasons I really liked it is this is a character that truly takes a journey. She’s at a pretty healthy point. She’s in a family where the father has left, she doesn’t have a great relationship with her mother, a pretty normal relationship with her brother, but she’s OK. She takes this amazing journey from being really OK to the lowest of lows that anyone can be. Dealing with that, and every day going into work and having to figure out, “OK, at what point in her journey is she?” and of course you don’t [film] in order so you’re jumping around from a healthy, happy girl to really, really depressed. … It was very challenging for me to try and figure out where in these very short months she was, and making sure that matched. Same with hair, makeup and wardrobe, we coordinated everything. Maybe her makeup is not as profound, or her clothes are a little bit more droopy or her hair is flat or something. We wanted to make sure everything matched. It was quite a challenge, and when I read the script I saw that, and I saw that it was a really good opportunity to show what I’ve got. I’ve wanted to do a dramatic role for a long time.

Those scenes where Taylor is really in depression and contemplating harming herself, how did you get there emotionally?

I couldn’t tell you. I honestly can’t analyze it. I don’t know how or when I get to that state sometimes, your body just takes over. We had an amazing director, Charles Biname, and he’s incredible. We worked and rehearsed for a few days, probably about a week, before we started shooting. … I’m very in touch with myself, and I know what’s going to click and get me to that emotional state. Charles was working on that and tightening that. Charles would throw me around the room — not actually, physically throw me around the room — but he would cover my eyes and walk me around the room. We had a girl working with us, an actress who’s not in the film, but she would be running lines with us, and he would have her scream at me and then I would scream back at her. Then he would run around and say, “OK, now go face the wall and say your lines to the wall.” “Now go face the other wall.” “Now face the window and say the line.” It was so draining, and I was exhausted at the end of the day.

Why was that process necessary, do you think?

You really see what this girl goes through, because she is exhausted and tired and upset at being bullied. People she doesn’t even know are yelling at her and just being cruel. I think that’s what he was doing [for me], and he’s brilliant for doing that. It was almost a little bit easier when we did get to those points of crying every single day on set. It became easier to really tap into what Taylor went through because it’s pure exhaustion and it’s no hope. That crying comes from [having] absolutely no hope. … The common phrase on set was, “Hey, can I cry in here?” “Is it OK, can I have this room and just sob a bit?” “Yeah, sure go ahead.” It was very, very nonchalant. Everyone knew that’s what this movie was, that it was going to be me crying every day. … My eyes were puffy and awful and I talked to none of my friends while I was in Montreal. I was in such a depressed state for two months, [but] I’m so glad I did this. It taught me so much about what I’m capable of.

Is there any comparison you can make between being a young celebrity who sees not so nice stuff written about herself online and a regular kid being cyberbullied?

Absolutely. What I bring to the table is the emotion of how easy it is to be cyberbullied, and how easy it is to become a bully. You just jump online and say something mean about somebody. I see that. I get thousands of replies every day, and truly people that follow [me] on Twitter are usually fans, so I only read really good stuff, really nice stuff. But there are those random people that are just … there’s one guy who’s made like seven accounts and he just is demoralizing to me, and I find it funny, because that’s how I deal with that kind of thing.

Were you ever bullied in high school?

I wasn’t really. My [private] school was kind of small. I was friends with everyone. … Everybody understood. There was another actor who went to that school. Nobody cared, which I loved. That would have been my main reason to be bullied, because it’s so easy to make fun of someone for that.

Did your parents ever address bullying with you growing up?

I was taught from an early age from my mom and my dad that you can’t let things bother you. I grew up with a brother [actor Haley Joel Osment] who teased me, and you learn how to take it. You learn how to have thick skin. You can’t tell someone who’s being bullied, “Get some thick skin.” You just can’t do that. You can’t give them self-esteem. You can’t give them the energy to go to school every day when they’re being bullied. That’s something they have to learn and something they have to fight through. The main thing that gets kids — everyone — through bullying is [knowing] you’re not alone. There are things you can do, there are help lines you can call, there are websites you can go to anonymously and talk about what you’re going through. There’s so much that you can do to tackle what you’re going through and make you feel like you’re not alone. I feel like that’s what this character Taylor’s problem was. The whole movie she had no idea she wasn’t the only one. She says that in her therapy sessions, “I had no idea this is happening to so many normal people!” It’s so hard to say to someone who’s being bullied, “You can get through it. You’ll be OK.” Because you don’t know. You’ve never walked in their shoes.

Did you read up on cyberbullying or talk to kids about it before doing the movie?

I read about all those horrendous stories about girls killing themselves, hanging themselves over bullying. That was heartbreaking. My mom’s a teacher, and so I talked to her for quite a long time about what she sees at school with bullies. She’s a really good teacher, and she did this amazing thing in her class where she had everyone anonymously write down whether they thought they were a bully or not. And all the kids that truly were bullies in the class said, “No, nobody sees me as a bully.” And all the kids who are very sweet, very quiet and wonderful children in her class wrote down, “I don’t know. I guess I could maybe be a bully.” … It’s so interesting what goes on in kids’ heads. If you’re a bully, you don’t even know. That’s what it is in cyberbullying. These kids go online and they’re saying nasty things about other people and not conducting themselves publicly as they would privately and they have no idea that they’re a bully.

These are grade-school kids your mom teaches?

Sixth grade. It starts pretty early. She’s a great teacher. She’s been doing it for a while. She sees all types of bullying, whether it’s physical or online. She has mothers come in crying because their child is suicidal because of bullying. [Hearing that] really helped me figure out the mind of a bully and the mind of those who are bullied and getting into that state of mind.

The movie’s not out yet, but have you heard any feedback from people about there being a movie that is addressing this issue?

Yeah, I’ve been getting some really interesting feedback. … I see so many comments from kids saying, “Thank God somebody’s finally making a movie about this!” “This is so great, it looks so intense.” “I can’t believe this is running on ABC Family. It looks too scary for ABC Family.” … It’s funny to see that this is totally riling up all those kids that are being cyberbullied and they’re saying, “I can do this.” That’s what you want. This is what this is movie is for is to show you and guide you through what it might be like to be bullied and say yeah, there are things you can do and you’re not alone. That’s what we want kids to walk away with when they watch this.

When you’re shooting the movie, obviously everyone’s got the idea that this is an important movie, and an important message to get out. But is there a balance you have to strike between making a message movie and still being entertaining?

Yes. Absolutely. There are moments when you’re watching it and you’re going, “Oh, ABC Family is talking.” Like in therapy sessions, and everything the doctor is saying. … You can kind of tell. When I was on set and we’d be reading the script and I would be pointing that out to the producer, like, “How can you word this so that it’s not so obvious that we’re doing a good thing?” “How can we word it so it’s not so obvious that we’re trying to send a message?” Because the whole movie’s a message in itself, we don’t need to do that. I had a lot of sit-downs with the writer. Every day the writer would be on set, and I would go over to her, and I adjusted probably every single line in that movie, I bet. I pretty much rewrote every line in that movie when I was saying it because I wanted it to sound so natural. Charles [the director] was great, he let us go in there and a lot of the things he just let us play. We would just ad-lib.

I know you’re all actors, but is it tough in those scenes when someone has to be mean to you? Do you try to keep a distance from those actors?

When we were shooting the film, I spent every moment with Meaghan [Rath] and Kay [Panabaker], and I’ve known Kay since we were little so that wasn’t too hard to tap into the lifelong friendship that we were supposed to portray. And Meaghan and I got along great. … As for the Lindsay character, I didn’t spend so much time with her for that reason. I didn’t really want to know her and I wanted in my brain to think she was a terrible person on and off set. I needed to believe that. I don’t think I ever told her that until the wrap party, and I’m glad I did. I said, “Look, I wish we could have spent more time together, but it was so easy for me to tap into hating you if I thought you were a terrible person in real life.” And she was like, “I completely understand.”

Now that the movie is wrapped, do you plan to stay involved in the issue of cyberbullying?

I think so. Absolutely. This is such an important cause. I feel like after being so involved in it for this long and wanting to spread the word about it for this long, you can’t just be like, “OK, this issue is resolved.” Because it’s not. It’ll never be resolved. I will always be a voice for cyberbullying, and I think I will always be willing to talk about it and be open about how I feel about it. It’s a really good thing to never stop talking about, because if you never stop talking about, you keep bringing attention to it and you make it a bigger deal. That’s what it needs to be. The world needs to know that this is a big deal.