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Casting Emma Roberts: A Shrewd Choice

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sometimes it takes a mom to put things into perspective.

Emma Roberts, the young star of the Nancy Drew film that opens Friday, is apparently so likable, so professional, so wholesome that even a makeup artist she works with throughout an entire day can't help raving about her. Her directors use terms like "one of a kind" and talk about how she knows the names of all the crew members on her various sets -- plus the names of their kids.

By the time the creator of the Nickelodeon tween series "Unfabulous" -- Emma's breakout vehicle -- mentions that Roberts sang the goody-good "Hopelessly Devoted to You" from "Grease" at her audition, a reporter's sweet-o-meter is headed off the charts.

"She just twinkled," says Nickelodeon's Sue Rose.

Sure enough, when 16-year-old Emma rolls into town to promote her turn in "Nancy Drew" -- in which she's all Peter Pan collars and penny loafers and healthy lunches packed in a metal lunch pail, even though the film is set in modern-day Los Angeles -- it's hard not to fall for her. She settles in for an interview at the Four Seasons in worn ballet flats, black jeans, a T-shirt and a tiny cardigan sweater. Her eyes are huge, her smile natural, her demeanor unfailingly polite.

All anyone seems to hear about these days are the bad girls of Hollywood: Lohan and Spears and Hilton, rehab and jail, DUIs and drugs and unfortunately revealing wardrobe choices. The age-old image of the Hollywood princess -- think Emma's aunt Julia Roberts -- has been dwarfed by the drumbeat of girls gone wild.

Heck, even Emma's next project is tentatively titled "Wild Child," which she describes: Spoiled Malibu teenager is so out of control that she gets packed off to boarding school in England.

Any vestiges of yourself in that character?

She giggles.

"There are certain aspects I can relate myself to in that character," she says.

Really? Like what?

"She's really sassy and has an attitude and stuff."

Which brings us back to Mom.

Kelly Cunningham certainly has a healthy dose of pride in her daughter's accomplishments -- and her public and professional behavior -- but she's not one to sugarcoat. Sassy? Try "mouthy," to quote Mom.

"Come on," Cunningham says, "no one's perfect. By the time she's 18 years old, she'll probably have been grounded 100,000 times."

Budding princess? Wild child? Emma, it appears, is . . . a teenager.

Not your average teenager, of course. There's nothing run-of-the-mill about taking a trip to Las Vegas to visit Aunt Julia at work and hanging out with George Clooney during the filming of "Ocean's Eleven." Or giving a joint reading with Laura Bush at a private girls' school, as Emma did on her recent visit to Washington. This girl is not only the niece of an actor, she's the daughter of one -- her father is Eric Roberts.

But she also has a mom (her parents split when she was a baby, and her mother has primary custody) who wouldn't buy her a car for her 16th birthday, insists on handwritten thank-you notes and grounds her regularly. In fact, Emma got grounded -- for talking back, as usual -- just the week before the publicity tour. It was a 21st-century version of grounding: no iPod, no cellphone and no computer access for four days. When Cunningham returned her electronic toys a day early for good behavior, Emma cried with happiness.

"I said, 'You're crying over a cellphone?!' " Cunningham recalls, laughing.

No one knows what Emma will be like at 18, 19, 20. (Though it might be telling that both she and her mother talk of her commitment to attend college.) But right now she's this engaging mix of gushing teenage girl and seasoned professional. One minute, she can be completely composed in front of a camera; the next, she's bubbling over with admiration for the Olsen twins.

"I love Mary-Kate and Ashley," she says. "I still love them, but I loved them when I was younger. I saw them at a Chanel fashion show and I almost, like, fainted."

The girl in her still lights up at the mention of American Girl dolls -- "I collected them, and the clothes and beds and everything," she says -- and willingly watches endless replays of "High School Musical" to appease her 6-year-old sister, Grace (she's Cunningham's daughter with musician husband Kelly Nickels). Emma has the same friends she made in middle school, she and her mom both say, and though she has been home-schooled the past few years to accommodate her work schedule, she attends their football games and formals.

"She's a good egg, especially when you compare her to other girls," says Elizabeth Allen, who directed "Aquamarine," a 2006 fantasy that provided Emma's biggest prior film role.

"We're lacking role models for young girls, for audience members, and that's why I'm happy Emma is so successful. . . . She's not a goody-goody, but, because of Kelly, she's not going to be raging out of control."

Asked whom she admires in the industry, Emma cites Drew Barrymore -- who also grew up in a family of actors -- and Reese Witherspoon.

"They have really great careers," Emma says."And I don't see them in the tabloids doing crazy things these days. I know Drew had her moments when she was younger. But now they both seem like very nice people.

"You want to keep your private life as private as possible," she adds. "You don't have control over what people write or say about you . . . but you don't need to go out parading yourself, I don't think."

Cunningham, speaking on the phone from the family home in the Los Angeles area, is pretty open about her relationship with her daughter. An only child of a single mom for the first 10 years of her life, Emma, Cunningham says, was "glued to my hip."

"Emma is sassy and she has an attitude, but it's not a bad attitude," she says. "It's a strong, smart attitude. That's what I love about her. But sometimes, when they get older, they don't want to listen."

She sighs.

"Grace -- she's 6 -- she's still the way Emma was. She listens, sweet as pie. She's so great. Emma was that way. But now the separation, which everyone says happens when they get to a certain age, is starting. I think it's harder on me than her."

As a little girl, Emma loved to perform in shows and dances and be the center of attention. At 9, she started begging her mother to go on auditions. Cunningham eventually caved -- thinking, she says, that her daughter wouldn't get the part but would be appeased -- and Emma was cast the very first time out, in a small role in the Johnny Depp film "Blow." By 12, she was meeting with executives at Nickelodeon, who cast her in "Unfabulous" as Addie Singer, an awkward seventh-grader who writes songs about the trials of junior high. (Emma just wrapped her third and final season, which will air in the fall.) Cunningham became a semi-reluctant stage mom, accompanying her daughter to the set for every day of filming.

"She's always supervised," Cunningham says. "She never goes to the set by herself. She's not at home by herself. What's going on with these other girls, I feel very sad about it. But I think those kinds of situations are a concern for any parent, whether you're in the business or not. There are consequences for your behavior and that's what I try to tell Emma.

"She has this career now, and she has a lot to lose. Hopefully, she'll make the right choices."

"Nancy Drew" is the first film Emma has to carry -- she was in every scene, and it was a challenge for her to play a character so temperamentally different from herself. While Emma shares Nancy's natural curiosity and personal drive, Nancy is a very serious young woman. She is always focused, always thinking, always determinedly trying to help the next person by solving the next mystery. There is something distinctly old-fashioned about her, despite her girls-can-do-anything attitude.

Nancy would never talk back to an adult. (Unless, that is, he was one of the "shady characters" she was trying to catch.)

Emma is "freewheeling, she likes to laugh, and she's disarming," says Andrew Fleming, the "Nancy Drew" director. Nancy, he adds, "is not like anybody you or I know. So [Emma] had to go up in that space and inhabit it, and she did it. . . . She's using her own self to be something very unlike herself, which is really the hard part."

As a reward for all her work on the movie, Emma asked her mom for a $2,500 Chanel purse.

Mom, not surprisingly, said no.

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