An interview with Tavi Gevinson, an American writer, actress, singer and editor-in-chief of Rookie magazine. Tavi came to public attention at the age of 12, due to her fashion blog Style Rookie.
In stories about Tavi Gevinson’s eclectic and inspiring career, her age is so often the focus. But, as anyone who is (or has been) a teenage girl will know full well, her determination, ambition and creativity aren’t particularly unique; rather, it’s that the work those traits have produced—first as a fashion blogger, then a writer, a website editor and an actress—could exist at all. At the age when most of us were being told we couldn’t or shouldn’t make the work we dreamed about, Tavi was blocking out that noise and persevering. And the work that perseverance produced has cleared a path for other girls and women, and told them, “you can do it too, you know.”
After three years as the editor of Rookie magazine, Tavi stepped out from behind the scenes last year when she won a role in the Broadway reprisal of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play, This is Our Youth. Tavi takes on each of her new creative pursuits with such ease you could be mistaken for thinking that everything comes super easy to her, but that’s not always the case.
She and I spoke about facing your fears, finding the courage it requires to stand on stage every night, and blocking out the doubtful voices in your head.
I know you acted before you got the role in This is Our Youth (Tavi also appeared in Nicole Holofcener’s 2013 film Enough Said and in musicals as a child) but was there anything about being in the show that scared you?
Absolutely! At some point during previews I was regretting the whole thing, just because my self-doubt was so immense. There wasn’t a ton of external pressure, I just had a few layers of second-guessing myself to unpack. I knew I’d been acting since I was a kid and that I’d had to go through the audition process and everything, but I still felt somewhat unqualified, and you really can’t hide onstage or rely on editing the way I was used to with writing.
My issue was basically that I knew the show really well and had a great plan for how I’d deliver every line and time every action, but eventually, I had to break out of that to keep it alive for eight months, not bore the other actors, and give the audience something that was, for lack of a more accurate term, real.
How did you overcome that initial fear?
When we did the previews at Steppenwolf in Chicago, I would do a lot of self-care during the day—which for me means journaling out self-affirmations and quotations that I like—and dance around in my dressing room before the show to feel more comfortable following my instincts. Sometimes I would also meditate or do yoga. Our playwright worked with me on trusting myself more once we got to NYC, but there weren’t really exercises we did, he was just like YOU JUST HAVE TO GO FOR IT and I was like I’M SCARED so he sent me Joan of Arc quotes. The first time I just did the show and tried to not think about how I came off, he was so overjoyed and thankful, and it was so much more fulfilling and made the world of the show so much more real to me. I just wanted to do it over and over.
Then the muscle got stronger and I wouldn’t have to do all that stuff before the show. I would play solitaire or do sudoku—things that kind of require focus but also shut off your brain. Now even if I’m just in a social situation where I feel insecure or too in my head, I use those same tools of just really paying attention to the person in front of you and reacting without second-guessing yourself. [That kind of] mindfulness helps. I’ll say “Do what’s in front of you” or “Put a floor beneath you” to try and refocus my energy on something that can be productive or useful, which anxiety is not.
When you were younger, some people were quick to cast doubt over your skills and talents and kind of reduced you to a novelty because of your age. You’ve more than proved them wrong now, but has that desire—to prove your worth/talents/longevity—ever been of primary concern when you’re working on a new project?
For sure. That was part of it – I was not nearly as experienced in acting as some people who might have auditioned. Acting is funny too because some people really believe in training, which I didn’t have, and others think it ruins you and prefer actors who’d been unmarred by education … it’s just tricky because there’s no “right” way to do it, but I still felt like I was waiting for someone to tell me I’d gotten it down.
That becomes irrelevant, though, because of course everyone has a different opinion, and is seeing a different show each night. Then when it comes down to you and if you think you did a good job, even then you can’t really know, because you can’t watch it back.
When I realised there’s no right way and that I wasn’t supposed to be working towards perfecting a single performance, I just tried to follow the methods that made it feel true and real to me night to night—with lots of guidance from the director and playwright—and remember that I wasn’t doing it for anyone else except the characters and the other actor.
How do you block out that doubtful white noise?
I just don’t mess with it. By now I can recognise and shut down the thought patterns that revolve around nebulous ideas of what people could say if I do something. I understand that these are not real things that have happened, just my own insecurity I’m projecting onto non-existent people and letting myself be stopped by.
The scariest thing about anticipated criticism is that the people it’s coming from are not real—it’s just this looming presence. You have to recognise that that presence is actually inside you, that it’s just your own self-doubt—then it becomes manageable, because it’s not this external thing you have no control over. (And, if there are real people who have said things, they, too, are just people. Helpful criticism will stick with you and the stuff you know isn’t true will fade away. This is advice George Saunders has repeated from Hillary Clinton.)
I have friends and co-workers and, in the case of the show, someone whose title was actually “Director”, to point out my blind spots. This is always met with a bit of stubbornness and then immense gratefulness that I’ve learned something and tried to change it.
But white noise like reviews—I just didn’t read them. Maybe I could do it now that the show’s closed, if I’m really curious, but I think while I was still in it, anything that would’ve made me self-conscious—unless it was constructive feedback from someone who was working with us every day instead of a critic who saw one show out of many—would have been counter-productive.
You’ve been your own boss for so much of your working life. How do you feel when you’re acting and someone else is in charge?
Relieved and thrilled to be part of a story that is larger than me and to embody someone other than myself.
Is there any creative outlet you’ve got simmering away that you haven’t explored yet, but want to?
Just more variations on writing and acting (probably filmmaking).
Do you think fear is ever a healthy emotion?
It helps me to think of it as a safety net. It’s similar to how I set the cadence and timing of every line of the show and that’s what allowed me to finally be “free” onstage—whenever I told our playwright I was just so concerned with making sure the story got told, he’d be like, “You have done it so many times by now; there’s no way everything won’t happen the way it’s supposed to or that the character won’t be exactly who she’s supposed to be. But your messiest alive performance is infinitely more rewarding for the audience to witness than the most perfect, calculated one.”
It’s the fear and the people who will point out my blind spots that make me feel I can live an authentic life.
What are some things that scare you, and what are your tools for dealing with them?
Fear itself scares me! Which I know is cliched, but I find a lot of my anxiety is about the idea that I will feel anxious later. I have panic attacks when I’m worried I’ll have a panic attack. Michael Cera, who was in the play with me, told me about a Brian Eno talk or interview where he says he told his doctor he was having panic attacks, and his doctor was like, “Have you tried … having a panic attack?”
I’m not giving medical advice or anything but it helps me to let myself go through these feelings of fear and anxiety instead of trying to resist them. Nothing is scarier to me than walking around in denial or pushing down something that’s festering inside of me. Then it just comes up when I’m in an altered state, and it’s even more confusing to face. I am not comfortable lying to myself.