At 14, Mae Whitman Was Besties With Her Future Arrested Development Co-Star

The Up Here star opens up about being a child actor — and the first time she went “hog-wild” at Limited Too.

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Mae Whitman knows the staying power of adolescent cringe. “My entire life has been awkward until, like, last year,” she tells Bustle. One incident in particular was her first kiss at the roller rink. “He tried to stick his tongue down my throat,” the 34-year-old actor says. “I had not been made aware that this was an option, and I — knee-jerk reaction — pulled away and slapped him across the face.”

Once he informed her that was a thing people did, though, Whitman was OK. “I was like, ‘Let’s try again,’” she recalls. “And of course, from that point on, I loved the tongue-down-the-throat-situation.”

It wasn’t all awkward, though. At 14, Whitman was starring alongside Alia Shawkwat on the FOX Family dramedy State of Grace, a few years before the pair reunited on Arrested Development, where Whitman would play Ann Veal (yes, her). She was already a child actor with an established resume, too, ranging from a memorable guest spot on Friends to a critically acclaimed role in the George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer romance, One Fine Day.

“I’m such a raging air sign,” Whitman says. “I’m such a Gemini. It’s like, I can do anything a little bit. And if I didn’t have this path laid out in front of me that luckily happened to be the thing I think I was born to do, and feels like the only thing I truly want to do, and is the most natural for me, I feel like I would be floating around aimlessly.”

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That path has now led to Hulu’s new musical rom-com, Up Here, where Whitman plays Lindsay: a woman whose parents and middle-school friend serve as the musical voices in her head. They’re psychological stand-ins for adolescent shame and insecurity she never quite shook off — even as she tries to lower the volume and pursue love and a creative career in 1999 New York.

Below, Whitman talks about Limited Too, hanging around the Arrested Development set, and the teen drama she was obsessed with.

Take me back to 2002. How were you feeling about your life then?

It’s weird being a child actor. You’re doing this adult job, but then you have to go to school and be like, ha, ha, ha, yeah, school. The kids in my school were pretty chill up to eighth grade. [But] something happened in high school. It might have to do with me being forced to be on the cheerleading team. I’d always skated by being nerdy and talking to all the groups. And then high school happened, and I was really popular. All these guys who had never looked my way were like, “Oh, I’ve got such a crush on you.” I was this unwilling prop. It was a very weird time for me to be pushed and pulled in these strange directions. You’re starting to feel confident in yourself as an adult sexual being, but you’re also confused about what’s going on, and your hormones are raging. It’s a tricky time. And lord, the clothing, am I right?

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Yes! What was your go-to style?

I remember the first time I got to go hog-wild at Limited Too. I was just like, This is timeless. It was, like, glitter shirts that said “Gemini.” My parents, thank God, saved all this sh*t. I opened a box of my clothes from middle school. And it all still fits. It is so in now. It’s so chic. I wore one yesterday that says “Hollywood cowgirl.”

On Up Here, Lindsay deals with musical voices in her head. Who were the voices in your head at 14?

My voices, my defense mechanisms, were from when I was a child child actor. I started when I was 3. So mine look more like hand-drawn, crayon monster characters like Medusa. It’s been fun as an adult: you stop and turn to the voices in your head, and you acknowledge them, and you’re like, “Thank you. I understand you’re here to keep me safe. [But] I got this one.”

My parents are so damn cool. They’re chill as hell. They’re supportive. They’re proud. They’re funny and insane. So, I never felt criticism from them, literally ever. They’re up there — but just in the good areas.

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Did you ever watch Gilmore Girls when you were 14 before going on to star with Lauren Graham on Parenthood?

It’s weird; I didn’t, which is good, because I probably would have been too starstruck around her. I watched it later, thank God. But I loved The O.C. I was obsessed, and I remember my dad coming in and being like, “What is this piece of sh*t?” And then a few seconds later, he’s like, “I just don’t understand why she had to shoot him,” weeping to Imogen Heap. So we basically watched the entire series together. If you try to get him to admit it now, he’s like, “I never watched that.”

You were friends with Alia Shawkat even before Arrested Development. Did you feel like you had a good, core friend group at 14?

My friend group was ripping. I knew Alia from when I was 11 or 12. We immediately fit together, like two puzzle pieces. We’re so different, but the ways that we meet in the middle are really special. She was my absolute best friend.

And then I got to know Michael [Cera] when Alia got the show. I was always hanging around the set. It was that exciting time when your friends are starting to drive, so you can go to the beach every once in a while. Growing up in LA, [kids are like], “I’ll take my dad’s car on the 10, out to Venice, and then get on the 405.” And I’m like, Jesus, that is some advanced adulting. But I did OK! I’m here. I’m alive.

You’ve been vocal about living with endometriosis, and starting to seek out a diagnosis starting around 14. What was it like dealing with that — on top of puberty in general?

I always say it was my shadow. It was my partner because it affected me so much that I couldn’t function on my own. I couldn’t just make a decision without consulting it. I’d have to pass on jobs — it was so a part of my life. The pain was unbearable. And it was alienating because I didn’t know anybody else that had it. They tried to put [me] on birth control, like, “This will stop it.” Which, of course, it didn’t. Then I just spent 15 years of my life being like, What is it?

Finally, I got so sick a few years ago; I ended up in the hospital. I was on a morphine drip, and I was barfing my guts out in the shower, like, I can’t do this anymore. That’s when I faced that demon and met my surgeon, Dr. Orbuch, who’s also my dear friend now. But being acknowledged and having someone tell you what it is — I just cried hysterically in the doctor’s office. Because it was the first time I didn’t leave feeling completely alone and isolated. That feels like a big reason that I’m here on this Earth: to try to amplify those voices. Because God knows, there’s a lot of us.

What would you tell 14-year-old Mae today?

Enjoy your youth, and your youthful little gymnastic rubber body that can pound all this fast food and sustain physical things without hurting yourself around the house. But honestly, I would tell myself that I was proud of myself — and that I was doing enough and a lot more than is necessary. I took it for granted because I was like, Well, this is just what it is. You just work this hard. You just feel this stress. So I feel like whispering in my ear, “This is not normal. And it’s something that you should be proud of, but also not something that you have to be doing all the time. You can rest.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.