By Joey Nolfi
September 21, 2018 at 09:30 AM EDT
Monica Lek/Neon

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Within her first minute of screentime in Sam Levinson’s madcap social satire Assassination Nation (in theaters Sept. 21), Hari Nef introduces herself by fantasizing about ogling a man’s junk, as outlined by a pair of form-fitting gray sweatpants. A gaggle of teenage friends — not unlike those seen at the center of films like Mean Girls and Heathers — giggle around her, bonding over their budding sexuality. But as normal as their playful banter might seem on the surface, these women are about to come of age with the help of katanas and pistols, thrust into a world where female liberation is a radical threat to the status quo.

It’s an offbeat introduction to the film world for the fashion industry darling, a 25-year-old model-actress hybrid who cut her teeth on social justice issues via Tumblr before walking runways at New York Fashion Week. But the film’s all-too-familiar presentation of young women facing society’s wrath was something she could relate to long before Levinson’s camera rolled.

“I think it’s something that affects everyone my age, but I think it affects girls in a really specific way,” Nef says of the online outrage culture that sparked Assassination Nation’s plot. The film revolves around the aforementioned group of friends (Nef’s Bex, Odessa Young’s Lily, Suki Waterhouse’s Sarah, and recording artist Abra’s Em) who inadvertently bear the responsibility when their hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, suffers a massive digital leak that spills residents’ twisted secrets.

“It was fun to dive in, but also intuitive,” Nef says. “These difficult conversations need to come from a place of empathy, not a place of rage. It doesn’t matter what the political vector is, whether it’s liberal or conservative. There’s a lot of rage and closed-mindedness on both sides, and obviously, the methods of communication people have been taking in this highly polarized, highly digitized time haven’t been effective. This film points out the inefficacy of those methods in a bold way.”

That includes pitting vengeful torch-and-pitchfork townsfolk against the foursome, who are pegged as convenient scapegoats for the bloody chaos the leak inspires. It’s no coincidence the film unfolds in Salem, the site where paranoid 17th-century Puritans unjustly executed women suspected of practicing witchcraft. The film’s setting is an obvious yet effective way to reflect contemporary America’s judgmental gaze back on itself. But instead of victimizing its protagonists, the “witches” of Assassination Nation fight back, burning the patriarchy instead of going quietly to their stakes. 

Below, Nef tells EW about working inside the project’s unique brand of resistance, turning the teen movie subgenre (violently) on its head, and following the lead of a white, cisgender director crafting a tale about a diverse group of marginalized women.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film is set in the present, in a town called Salem. Are you the “witches” fighting back?
HARI NEF:
It’s obviously a radical course of action, but there’s something cathartic about the reaction the film proposes. But it’s not so far away from reality that we can dismiss it completely and drop it when we leave the theater. If [Twitter] happened in real life, [this film is] what it would look like. People feel emboldened to say things on the internet they wouldn’t in person. What we can take away is that the internet is a medium for people’s feelings. In terms of an effective way to affect change, it leaves a lot to be desired.

So you all literally take a katana to the patriarchy as therapy?
I see it as self-defense. Nobody chose to pick up the katana; they had to.

The film begins with a disclaimer that it will contain transphobia, violence, etc. Do you think the internet has caused us to become desensitized to those things?
We’re absolutely desensitized to all of it. If we didn’t desensitize ourselves in some way, every day would feel like its own tragedy.

I want to go back to the setting for a moment. How do you feel about the fact that the film is set in Salem? What significance does that hold for you?
I was actually really obsessed with the Salem witch trials in high school. The people in those early colonies were living under a set of rules and moral restrictions they couldn’t actually maintain. The Puritan society was too strict for the majority of people living within it to live happily, and that disconnect between what you’re inclined to do and what you’re supposed to do is what led people to point at a select few others and blame them. People always point the finger when they feel bad about what’s going on inside of them or the things they do, feel, or think in private, so the internet is a tool that people use to deal with these feelings.

I was on Tumblr when I was a teenager and even into my 20s, and I remember a time where I felt like calling someone out or dragging someone for being problematic. It felt good because I felt like I was making a change in the world. And there came a point when I realized that publicly shaming people and dragging them — or “canceling” them, as we love to do — doesn’t make a positive change. [Shaming] doesn’t inspire people to learn or unlearn, it just makes people afraid, and I think there’s a way to explore sensitive topics and hold people accountable without point-blank dismissing [them]. These difficult conversations need to come from a place of empathy, not a place of rage. It doesn’t matter what the political vector is, whether it’s liberal or conservative. There’s a lot of rage and closed-mindedness on both sides, and obviously, the methods of communication people have been taking in this highly polarized, highly digitized time haven’t been effective. This film points out the inefficacy of those methods in a bold way.

It’s interesting what you say about empathy because Sam is a white, cis man writing this movie about teen girls, including one woman of color and a trans woman. How did you feel about that?
He humbled himself from the beginning. He knew what the optics were, how high the stakes were for him steering the ship on these representations. After I got the part, he sent me a long email that said, “Hey, I think you’re amazing and I’m so excited you’re doing this, and I know I don’t know you, but I have a lot of love for you. I hope this process is one where there’s always an open conversation, and in that vein, if there’s anything you ever feel uncomfortable about, anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable, anything in the script you have questions about, just talk to me about it and I will take action.” He made that promise and ended up following through with it so beautifully. I sent him back a long email talking about a couple of aspects about the script that I had questions about, things that didn’t necessarily feel right to me, and he listened, made changes, and humbled himself, which is what you have to do if you’re Sam Levinson making this film about four teenage girls.

Again, there’s a lot of noise right now about representation and who gets to tell which stories, and I do believe artists — particularly those from marginalized communities — deserve every chance they can get to tell their own stories. However, I don’t think we can draw this hard line in the sand and say that white, straight men can’t tell stories about this community or that community, because they can, they just have to do it with an open door, an open heart, and an open mind. Sam, I have to say, is a shining example of that. I was skeptical and I had my reservations, but Sam was quick to put those to rest. I had a voice in this process. We all did: Suki, Odessa, and Abra. He listened to us and took our points of view very seriously.

This was your first major role in a film. What did you connect with most about your character, Bex?
I was able to step into the shoes of somebody who had a lot of the perspective that I came to have in my young adulthood at a much younger age. Bex is bold, confident, unapologetic, and informed about the world around her, and I found it gratifying and challenging as an actor to marry that savvy and swagger to the point of view of a teenager who hasn’t necessarily had certain life experiences yet regarding love or sex. I think that the contrast between innocence and experience is something unique to kids in school today. Bex talks about LGBTQIA and her politics and all of that stuff. I didn’t have that language when I was Bex’s age, and it was difficult and gratifying to find my way into somebody who had the language but wasn’t necessarily using that language in very emotional ways that teenagers want to do. When you’re a teenager, everything is amplified because everything is a first. The first time you feel othered, the first time you feel rejected, the first time you fall in love… it’s the first time, so it’s so vivid, and everything feels like the whole world almost, because it is your whole world; your world is small when you’re a teenager. That was how I found my way into her.

She also seems like she was a lot of fun. She has so many great lines, like when someone tells her she looks great and she quips, “Yeah, obviously!”
Yeah! Bex is somebody who’s lucky enough to gain a lot of power and a sense of belonging from leaning on her friends. I’ve definitely felt the same way at multiple points in my life. If Bex were a loner, she wouldn’t necessarily have that boldness, but there’s a beautiful scene where Lily tells her to hold her head high and “f— f—boys” and not to let the dream get her down. Bex is able to do that, but she needs a little bit of a reminder. I understand Bex deals with a part of this hot-button conversation everybody’s having right now, but all of the other girls deal with equally severe traumas [in the film], and what this film does [is show that] it all comes from the same place, whether you’re being called a slut or your womanhood is being called into question. It all comes from the same place. It’s not this conversation innately divided into different boxes. It can be, and in certain cases, it should be [like] when you’re trying to parse out certain kinds of oppression, but the oppression is all coming from the same place. It’s all coming from a world where being anything other than a white, straight, cisgender man is to be partially or totally in danger and always vulnerable to violence.

In terms of representation, this is a trans character who’s part of a group of girls typically played by cis women in teen movies. How does it feel to see her integrated into these female spaces?
I wasn’t concerned with Bex’s identity, because her identity isn’t an issue for her — it’s an issue for people around her. She has the most recognizable, conventional storyline of all: the love story. She’s in a star-crossed first love, and there’s nothing more universal. I understand Bex and I occupy a specific space in this conversation, but the specificity and voyeurism around that space detract from the fact that we deal with the same stuff every other woman deals with. It’s important Bex’s particular struggles are contextualized within the greater conversation of these three other girls and their struggles. They band together to fight the common enemy!

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