“Actors are essentially meat puppets,” Brianna Hildebrand was told by her director Tim Miller on her very first day of shooting on Marvel movie Deadpool. Miller then turned around and walked away. Hildebrand was 18 at the time and Deadpool was her very first feature film. She plays the wonderfully named Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a kickass Marvel superhero who looks and dresses like an adolescent punk.
Prior to Deadpool, the young Texan actress had never been a proper movie set before. She had appeared in shorts and in web series Annie Undocumented. She was “strangely uncomfortable” with rehearsing in front of big crowds and now thinks that Miller’s “meat puppets” remark was his way of reassuring her not to worry too much about the whole business of performing.
Not that Hildebrand was bashful. When she first auditioned to play Negasonic, she already had a shaved head. “I went through crazy hair phases at high school. I dyed all different colours and then I came to this point where I said you know, I am just going to shave all this off!”
The character wasn’t written to be close cropped, but the Deadpool casting agents clearly liked both Hildebrand’s skinhead look and her attitude. She won the part and very soon afterwards was working opposite Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein and co.
The Texan-born actress will be seen in Britain this month in a film that is far removed from the world of Marvel and the X-Men. In First Girl I Loved, she plays Sasha, the star player in the high school softball team who begins a relationship with Anne (Dylan Gelula), the gawky, Annie Hall-like editor of the school yearbook. This is a delicately observed, humorous but queasily intimate teen drama about the perils of lesbian first love.
Hildebrand auditioned for her role when she was in Vancouver shooting Deadpool. “It resonated so closely to me so I was excited about it,” she says of her reaction to the First Girl I Loved script. “Throughout my junior high and high school life, I was kind of in the same boat as Anne. I was a little confused. I hadn’t seen a film that has shown queer kids during their confused times. Usually, queer cinema is sexualised or is about grown people who know who they are.”
Unusually for a young Hollywood star, Hildebrand has come out openly as gay.
“It took me a long time, not necessarily to come out, but to understand how I was feeling. It wasn’t planned for me to come out with First Girl or anything. I just so happened to have met my current girlfriend on the set,” Hildebrand says of her partner, who was working in the art department of the movie.
When the film was completed, she was approached by Its Gets Better, the campaigning project to support LGBT youth around the world, to make a video about her experiences. In the video, she talks about learning “early on that I liked both boys and girls” and of the problems she faced growing up in a “fairly religious household”. Talking direct to camera, she tells viewers: “Whether you are unsure and afraid or sure and proud of your sexuality, no matter what part off the journey to self-acceptance that you are at, it’s OK, and it really does get better! You are exactly where you are supposed to be.”
Asked why she made the video, she says that she has “a lot of young kids following” her and wanted them to know that they are “not alone”.
“I am lucky to say now that it is not frightening for me living in LA to be gay. Even when I was in Texas, I wasn’t afraid. I was kind of out in high school,” she continues. “I just could never decide on what label. I am glad that I am public about it and I think I should be.”
It helped, she reflects, that her manager is “very gay”. “I spent most of my time when I first came out here talking with him about whether I was into guys or girls. That was really relaxed. My dad has always been really accepting. My immediate family has been great. But, you know, there were definite bumps along the road.”
Hildebrand grew up in a small Texan town. Her father was a car salesman (“a car guy”, as she calls him.) “My mom was not in the picture for the most part. It was just me and my dad hanging out in Texas.”
Her initial ambition was to be a singer-songwriter. “I got a guitar when I was 12 and started writing. That’s what I really wanted to do.” Her big break came when she entered an IMTA (International Models And Talent Association) competition in Los Angeles. Winning allowed her as a 17-year-old to come and study in LA.
“When I got to LA, it was a pretty big culture shock,” Hildebrand says. “It was really frightening. I came out here with my dad and stayed in a hotel for a couple of weeks while we tried to find affordable, reasonable apartments.” After a fortnight, her father went home to Texas and she was left on her own. “If I hadn't been in acting class every day, I probably would have been a lot more lost and overwhelmed here. It was difficult at first.”
Hildebrand based herself in north Hollywood and, like everyone else in LA, learned to travel across the city to auditions by car. “Acting classes are interesting. Some are way to the left and some are more or less... therapy sessions,” she laughs. “I guess it is people trying to rein in their vulnerability and be able to access these emotions quickly.”
There were several moments at which she thought about giving up and going back home to Texas. “I had a kind of silent deal with my dad that if nothing worked out for me in the first couple of years, I would be going home. That gave me a lot more drive to try to make something happen.”
Gradually, she made friends. “The longer you’re out here, the more you realise that LA is strangely small.” She took comfort in her singing and songwriting. Almost exactly a year after her arrival in California, she landed the Negasonic role in Deadpool and became an “overnight” star.
“I am definitely not Ryan [Reynolds]. I can still walk into a grocery store and nobody cares, which is great,” Hildebrand says, but she adds that being in the movie transformed her career. She is able to audition for bigger projects. She now also regularly attends fan events like Comic Con, where she meets the Marvel fans face to face. “It’s a lot of fun now I’ve gotten use to it,” she says of the fan events. “No matter where you go, the fans are the same. They are so invested in and know so much about what is going on in their little world.”
As for herself, Hildebrand still “gets anxious” every time she sees herself on screen. “I am one of the people who just doesn’t enjoy watching myself. I wish I could! I’ve seen Deadpool three times, the third time it was enjoyable for me. The first couple of times it was, like, oh man...”. Her voice tapers away in dismay.
At the moment, Hildebrand is in full training mode for the next Deadpool movie. Playing Negasonic seems to require a lot of running and fitness work. And, yes, she does do some of her own stunts. She’s also off to the South by Southwest festival in Austin later this month with another new film, teen horror comedy Tragedy Girls, in which she stars alongside Alexandra Shipp.
A “proud Texan”, Hildebrand heads back to her home town once or twice a year. Being a movie star has clearly done wonders for her popularity with her old peer group there. “I, at high school, had a very select group of friends. I am still pretty tight with them now. I definitely have a lot more friends than I remember when I go back home!”
'First Girl I Loved' will be released in UK and Ireland on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Vimeo on 13 March
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