Dear Evan Hansen (movie)

It's hard to imagine Amandla Stenberg — who's played tenacious characters in The Hunger Games, Everything, Everything, and The Hate U Give — being easily intimidated.

But the actress and musician was nervous about writing a song for a film based on a Tony-winning Broadway musical. When she signed on to play high-achiever Alana in the big-screen adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen (in theaters now), she was both flattered and terrified to be asked to co-write "The Anonymous Ones," a new song for her character exploring themes about the facades that people present.

Stenberg is a violinist and member of the folk-rock duo Honeywater but writing a musical theater song was entirely new territory. "You have this responsibility to ensure you're telling this coherent storyline, and to make sure the language feels like someone is speaking to you," she elaborates.

That also meant composing a song to be of a piece with the pre-existing Tony winning score. But they started with the simple idea of moving anonymously through the world and using perfectionism to stave off loneliness, reflecting Alana's own journey in the story.

She was drawn to the role of Alana because of her own experiences with academia and mental health. "I related to Alana, hardcore," she tells EW. "I was a really intense student and academia was my most centralized priority when I was in high school. I understood what it's like to be a kid who was really hard on themselves and the perfectionist and their schoolwork and their academic life [being used to] prove their own value to themselves."

Dear Evan Hansen
Amandla Stenberg in 'Dear Evan Hansen.'
| Credit: Erika Doss/Universal Pictures

The song was part of filmmakers desire to expand the character of Alana from her more minor role in the stage production. In the film, Evan (Ben Platt) and Alana connect over their mental health struggles and use of medication, the reveal of which surprises Evan because Alana seems so outwardly on top of everything.

"It just goes to show you never know what's going on with people," she adds. "So many of us are dealing with mental health challenges in a different way. That was already beautiful in the scripts, but what emerged with me and Benj [Pasek] and Justin [Paul] was talking about the parts of people that we don't see. One of the hallmarks of mental illness is you feel literally no one else is equipped or has experienced what you're going through. The intention is to make people feel less alone."

"The Anonymous Ones" was written over what Stenberg describes as several delirious late-night Zoom sessions with Pasek and Paul. "There were nights triumphantly reading your verses and other nights banging your head to get something more," she describes. "Every single line needs to penetrate an idea and another point in the story, which was a way I had never worked before."

The trio had a baseline chord progression coming in, before starting to explore melody, structure, and lyrics, oftentimes running through 10 different verses. Stenberg used the songwriting process to help her unlock her character, finding resonance in the song's chorus: "The parts we can't tell, we carry them well/But that doesn't mean they're not heavy."

It was Paul who first found the refrain. "We had been having these conversations about the things we don't show people, the things that we feel like we have to go through alone, and the weight of that," Stenberg reflects. "The thing for me that popped off originally is the moment after people smile or present their facades, what does that moment look like?"

The trio finished writing the song before the film went into pre-recording vocals, and Stenberg says that part of the process helped unlock even more of her emotional experience.

As a musician, she was used to a quieter, more internal approach to singing. "I have a tendency to sing really close to the mic," she explains. "Theater singing is external, and I really got the song in my body. It's hard to cry and sing at the same time. How do I carry this level of emotion in my body and my face and maintain a note at the same time?"

The trick? Make it personal.

"The funny thing about songwriting is you're like, 'I'm just writing this narrative about some random person,' and then, you're like, 'Oh wait, this is totally about me.'"

A version of this story appears in the September issue of Entertainment Weeklyavailable to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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