Bella Thorne may not be the biggest movie star in the world, but she’s already better known to a generation of young fans than many more established marquee names. She leveraged her early success on the Disney sitcom Shake It Up into not only a music career and a series of film and TV roles (The DUFF, Amityville: The Awakening, Famous In Love, The Babysitter) but also a massive social media following. With 23 million followers, Thorne has essentially grown up online in front of an enormous audience, which gives her a unique perspective on others’ attempts to achieve social media success.
This came in handy for her latest film, Infamous, in which she plays Arielle, a young woman from small-town Florida (just like Thorne herself) who teams up with her new boyfriend, Dean (Jake Manley from Netflix series The Order), to go on a cross-country crime spree, robbing convenience stores and posting the videos online to amass a huge following. The A.V. Club spoke with the actor recently and discussed the new film, the sea change in youth culture brought about by social media, and why she keeps returning to projects that interrogate digital existence.
The A.V. Club: Infamous invites comparisons to films like Bonnie And Clyde or Natural Born Killers. But those are about couples who are more or less on the same page and their stories are given equal weight. And this is not that—this is Arielle’s story, not Dean’s. He’s very much not on the same page with her dreams of online fame. Is that disjunction between them part of what you found interesting about the role?
Bella Thorne: I think that, no matter what, having two characters on the same page the whole movie is, like, where’s the dynamic there? That format gets a little boring to me. But definitely, yes—through Arielle’s eyes. It’s her memory, it’s her events, it’s how it played out in her head. Even her glamorizing these moments, you know? I think that was a really interesting choice from Josh [Caldwell, the director]. I think another interesting one was we kept wanting to play against usual character dynamics, and we did that a lot in the movie, which I think is really important. In so many ways, if you rewatch the movie, you’re like, “Wow! Wow!” There were so many obvious choices, and we purposely went to the furthest one.
AVC: It’s a depiction of a relationship that might have worked under normal circumstances, but they end up relying so much on desperation and passion to paper over this huge chasm between their desires. Do you see them more as aware of that disparity, or do they have this fundamental adolescent misunderstanding that blinds them to their situation?
BT: I think there’s always blinding when we’re talking about love, passion, lust. I think that Arielle wants him to be on her same page. She really just wants him to understand her, to be down for the count, to be her wingman on her journey. And Jake is the same: Dean wants Arielle. He’s so in love with her, he thinks he can change her as a person, as we do in all relationships. We’re like, “Oh, this thing we don’t kind of want to fuck with—let’s see if we can change it.” That’s never going to work, you know? It usually never does. And it is this kind of fight to go over to one side. Arielle’s fighting to bring him to hers, and he’s fighting for that exact same thing. They’re both really pulling and want it to work, but there’s so much chaos right there, and we’re just kind of… [Laughs.] We can’t figure out the problems as fast as they keep happening.
AVC: Do you see that connection to that immaturity, or maybe adolescence, do you see that as part of the film’s appeal? Because it definitely feels like it’s trying to speak to a younger audience.
BT: I think that the younger generation of the audience can completely understand this movie, because we don’t really know much of a time without social media. It is not a big time for us. For the older generation, social media really is the question part—the older generation says, “Whoa! How can somebody go so crazy? What would you need this so bad for? How could you become so obsessed with this thing?” Because you guys have built your life and become settled in who you are as people, usually, not just reliant on this fact of the internet. And, because we are born in this generation, we are so reliant on it that, for us, it’s completely understandable to have such a need and love for acceptance that... how many boundaries are we willing to cross, you know? And the lines just keep getting thinner and thinner as the internet keeps growing. And you watch more and more people cross those lines every day. And so, for us, watching this movie is super fucking realistic, because we’re like, “Whoa! We could definitely see that on our timeline!” We’re completely engulfed in this world of social media.
AVC: How do you see Arielle’s particular obsession with social media clout? It almost seems like there’s this desperate fantasy to give her life meaning, that she’s turned this online fantasy into reality for her. Do you see her need for online approval as someone participating in a similar fantasy?
BT: I think me playing her as an actress, I have to find a much more grounded element. I could not do her justice if I based it on this thing that I have no connection to whatsoever. I had to base her in realism in myself: the love, the need for notoriety, the need for acceptance, the need for someone to tell me, “Hey, by the way, your life is worth it. Don’t end it now. Hey, by the way, I see you. You’re worth this earth. You’ll make a change. You’ll do something interesting. You’ll inspire someone.” I think, again, we want to hear that so bad. And that is where I had to base her in. Because it’s that. I personally just found a way that that gets sped up in time to an accelerant amount. She starts to fall in love, and then it becomes, like, the hottest rollercoaster relationship. And that really is how social media is, though: As soon as you get started and you’re engulfed, you’re fucked. [Laughs.] Because then you’re always engulfed in it, and it takes so much courage and wanting change for you to remove yourself from that. So I had to base her in realism that I could understand as a person.
AVC: You yourself are someone who does have this large online following. How does the knowledge of what it’s really like to have such a widely followed social media presence change how you think about stories like this, or people like this who are sort of aspiring to that so desperately? What Arielle is dreaming of—this whole fantasy, this world that she’s created, what she thinks is the logical way to get to that, she’s convinced herself at this point. You actually have a large social media following. Most people don’t. Most people have friends and family that they know; they don’t have a large platform with which they can reach tons and tons of people. I’m curious how because you do have that that you can tap into something most people can’t—how that changes the way you see stories like this, or think about people like Arielle.
BT: Hm, I don’t know. I think that’s a hard question. I think that I felt a very specific way about social media. I’ve made my decision on that, and I don’t want to spend my life going back and forth. So with Arielle, I had to make that same decision with her, so that it could really send her on that drive for that hunt, you know, to want it that bad. You can’t want something that bad if you’re still indecisive about what you want. And so Arielle had to just make her choice about what she wanted. And that was fate, and the rest she’s going to figure out later. But she wants people to know her. She wants to change the world. She wants someone—she doesn’t just want to be the girl from the Redneck Riviera that no one ever gives a fuck about. Even if they hate her, she’d rather people care in general, have an opinion.
And I think that having a large social media following just made me understand the power that she wanted, the voice that she wanted, the platform that she wanted. And it also made me understand so much of this up-and-down, this hunger for social media when people are like, “Yes! We love you!” and then “No, we hate you—you’re canceled! Fuck you! Fuck you!” And how deep that that stab can go. I really kind of brought that to a new level and experienced that through her, because I try not to let myself feel how deep that stab can go, because I know it’s just social media, and it shouldn’t be the end of the world. I’m completely coherent. I’m like, “No. I don’t want it to mean that much. I don’t want to listen to what people say.” But Arielle is not. And Arielle is solely based on that. So I had to—I can understand it, but there’s also some parts I had to separate.
AVC: From this to Assassination Nation, Famous In Love, Keep Watching—so much of your work interrogates questions of digital existence. What about that topic holds so much fascination for you that you want to keep returning to it in projects?
BT: Funny you say that, because I really want to—when you see this release come out about this other movie that I’m doing, you’re going to be like, “I fucking knew it! This bitch loves this shit!” [Laughs.] Yes. That is such a big theme in my career, and I think it’s because I relate. I relate so hard to... I am born in the time where there wasn’t so much memory of my life before the internet, before this type of stuff mattered. And now, the more prevalent years of my life are of course in the mix, thrown in, on the internet. And it is like, “Ahhh!” Force-fed the internet now. And... oof. It’s a lot. [Laughs.] It’s really a lot. So I think that’s why I genuinely relate to these projects more, and I find it really interesting when people find a way to do it, and it’s not pushed in your face, it’s not cheesy, and Infamous really nails that. We never make it feel gross in the movie, except when Arielle feels gross about it, or when we as humans naturally feel gross about social media. But we never shove it down your throat, Like, it’s cheesy. Social media is hard when you’re showing it on screen. It’s a hard one to understand, and Josh did a really beautiful way of showing this relationship.
AVC: Do you find it most compelling when stories can harness it in a way that feels like just another day on the internet? So much of what we watch is about Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous or Kardashians—something that you can’t necessarily relate to on a practical level. But a story like this seems to be a search for what you can still relate to in a very practical, everyday way.
BT: Oh, yeah, definitely. I also think that times have changed in such a short amount of time since the internet, and I think that’s one of the most powerful things about the internet, is that times can change with that. Times can really rally people up, and that’s something that we’re really experiencing the power of now. So I think that any story that really tells of social media, or gives you another aspect to look at social media, it’s nice to take those movies and give another voice to social media, see another aspect of it, experience it for people, and show them a new side that maybe they weren’t exactly thinking about before. And this movie definitely does that.
AVC: With the pandemic, we live in a world that’s very different than even just a year ago when you shot this film. Online communication has become even more crucial, and so virtual existence feels even more vital to people. Have your feelings on the film’s subject matter changed since you first signed on?
BT: I think I feel the same. I think I feel the same way about it: that social media has this power. It has this power—it can be a monster, you can use it in beautiful ways, it could be the angel that saves you, or it could be the monster that brings you to hell. So it just depends on how you use it. But, no matter what, it has that power, and that power is undeniable. Undeniable. And people I think see that now, that we can actually really make a change with this.