There’s a moment in Promising Young Woman so delightfully shocking that I can still hear the collective gasp in the theater from when I attended a screening of the film in February. It's not the reveal that Cassie (Carey Mulligan) isn’t actually drunken dance floor roadkill but rather a stone cold sober, sexual assault vigilante — though that too is *chef's kiss* — but instead the moment when she knocks on the door of a cabin only to have New Girl’s Max Greenfield open up with such dick swinging bravado that all you can do is laugh — and then fantasize about kneeing him in the nuts.
This infuriatingly accurate brand of bittersweet humor is filmmaker Emerald Fennell’s modus operandi. It's also part of what earned her the gig filling Phoebe Waller-Bridge's shoes as showrunner on Season 2 of Killing Eve. Like the BBC and AMC drama, Promising Young Women is a thriller — complete with lots of comically gruesome violence — but it pushes further with its deft skewering of the modern day "nice guy" and all his pseudo-intellectual signifiers. These are guys who rescue Cassie from a disastrous seeming night out, then bring her home and dazzle her with kumquat liqueur and their ruminations on David Foster Wallace. As the conversations move from the living room to the bedroom, it becomes clear that they’re not that nice. “[My character] is wooing her and being so charming in his head. I think he’s convinced himself that he’s a hero,” The O.C.’s Adam Brody tells Bustle. “[Then you realize] he’s doing this with a comatose woman. He’s pretty much [charming] himself in a mirror with a corpse.”
Clever writing aside, Promising Young Woman’s real masterstroke is its casting. The "nice guy" contingent is formed of beloved television heartthrobs like Greenfield, Brody, and GLOW’s Chris Lowell; perennial Hollywood good guy Bo Burnham; and Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse. In essence, they’re the kind of "woke" men that we were taught it was safe to crush on; only as they begin to cross lines around consent, Fennell shows that they're not so harmless after all. “The important thing the movie does is extend the conversation beyond just the completely monstrous black and white criminal cases [of sexual assault],” says Burnham. “It shows that there's a line far beyond what's criminal that is still complicit.”
Below, the men of Promising Young Woman reflect on victimhood, consent, and why there’s nothing that nice about nice guys. Warning, spoilers ahead.
On McLovin, Seth Cohen, & The Tedium Of Playing Nice Guys
Why were you so eager to dismantle your reputation as a “nice guy”?
Adam Brody (Jerry): It wasn't a conscious effort on my part to subvert any expectation of me as an actor or try to not be typecast or anything. But it is fun to play with that image. Part of the fun — and I don't mean to be so flippant — but still the fun of the part to me was leaning into those moments [where] my character believes he's being quite chivalrous and romantic. But I know the audience is feeling discomfort and [I’m] twisting that.
Chris Lowell (Al): As someone who often plays nice guys, it's really fun to be able to play a villain that’s this complicated. We expect [Al] to be the worst of the worst [guys]. Then when you finally meet Al, he’s a pretty decent human being at the outset. He doesn't want to sleep with this stripper, he loves his fiancée, he's trying to be polite. He's not what we built ourselves up to believe he's going to be.
As an actor, it's just so much more fun to be presented with the challenge of having to be somebody who committed sexual assault years ago but is also trying to be a good human being today. I just think it’s a really brilliant portrait of a modern day villain, especially in the context of this film, which is really all about re-examining our perception of the nice guy.
Part of the reason you’ve earned the reputation as a “nice guy” is because The O.C.'s Seth Cohen is romanticized as the platonic ideal of the good, geeky guy. But is he really that nice?
Brody: He wasn't physically aggressive. He didn't walk around with a lot of testosterone or machismo. So, he was nice in that way but I don't know that he was the most selfless or stand up. I can't recall him putting himself on the line for other people, but he might've. He was affable, which isn't nothing, but it's less than the core of morality.
How would Superbad's McLovin fare against Cassie?
Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Neil): Oh my god. He would come out unscathed because that sweet boy was a virgin, no doubt. He absolutely lost his virginity in that movie, that's why he had no idea what he was doing. I don't think most people go, "I got a boner," during sex. So, I think her radar would pick up that he wasn't a guy that needed to be messed with.
There's been a trend in more female-centric rom-coms as of late to have the love interest be these blanket nice guys who only exist to support the female lead. Why do you think we put these guys on such a pedestal?
Bo Burnham (Ryan): It's been a raw and rough few years in terms of the relationships between straight men and women. A lot of stuff has been aired in the last three years, a lot of healthy stuff. I don't want to speak with any authority, [but] I think for some women, this has been pretty traumatizing and maybe it's the sense of like, “I don't even know what I want out of a man. I'm much more certain right now what I don't want out of men."
Christopher, what's your take on your character?
Mintz-Plasse: My character is drunk and he's doing blow. So on set I was like, "I want to unbutton my shirt. I want to get a little sweaty, I want to make my face red." Because that's what people look like at 2 a.m. when they're f*cked up. But Emerald was like, "No. I need every guy to look as nice and as clean as possible." I was kind of confused until I realized you don't want to give any of these dudes an excuse. You don't want to give them the day after like, “Aw man, I was too f*cked up. That's why I did that to this lady.” In this movie, you can't give the guys that excuse at all. I think that's brilliant.
Max, was any part of you nervous to play the character I consider to be the human embodiment of "locker room talk"?
Max Greenfield (Joe): I was like, "Man, this movie is so crazy." It was really hard to pick up on the tone of the movie [reading the script]. I knew Carey [Mulligan] was involved, which immediately gave it so much credibility. But you go, "God, do I really want to do this?" (Laughs.)
What does "nice" even mean, anyway?
Burnham: There's a version of niceness that's just totally conciliatory and condescending. There's something beyond nice, which I try to be in my life, which is genuinely engaging. But there's a version of nice that I think is like actually just totally patronizing. It’s like the thing when people go, "How could I be mean to [a woman] or how could I have assaulted a woman? My mother is one!”
"As the father of daughters..."
Burnham: That's exactly what I think of when I think of nice guys.
On David Foster Wallace, Mixed Reactions To The Film, & Men Backing The F*ck Up
People have thoughts about this movie. What have you thought about the discourse so far?
Greenfield: A really close friend of mine saw the movie at Sundance, and she called me literally walking out of the theater and was like, "Holy sh*t. That movie was..." I was like, "I know the movie is really good, but may I ask you something? Was I the worst person in the movie?" She didn't know how to answer exactly. She thought she was going to insult me. So I go, "You'd be really complimenting me if you told me I was." So I [have been] really pleased to get that kind of feedback.
Mintz-Plasse: One of my close friends went to the premiere and he walked out with his girlfriend and she was like, "Oh my God, it was hilarious!” But he was like, "That movie was the heaviest movie I've ever seen." It just has a different effect [based on gender and experience]. It cracks me up when a man walks away and he's like, "That's the heaviest movie I've ever seen."
It reminds me of when couples walked out of Uncut Gems but reversed.
Mintz-Plasse: Totally, [but] that movie stressed me the hell out.
There's a great line in the film where Chris Lowell's character say something like, "To be accused like this is every man's worst nightmare." Do you think there will be men who are simply too afraid to watch this movie?
Brody: I'm not too sympathetic to the men cowering in fear. Maybe for every Brock Turner, there's someone who was falsely accused and got really harmed from it. No movement is perfect, and we'll never be a perfect society, but that's not my chief concern.
What do you hope men take away from watching it?
Lowell: I love that there are going to be plenty of people who are going to be offended by this movie. There are also plenty of people who are going to feel vindicated by this movie. But you can’t leave it and not talk about it.
Burnham: I think the movie does sort of invite men into the conversation in a way because there’s a sense of humor running through the portrayal of men that is recognizably funny. Where it’s like Chris [Mintz-Plasse’s character] recommending David Foster Wallace and everything. I know when I read it I was like, "Oh God, I can see myself.” I don't think the men are so demonized as to be like, totally unrelatable.”
Brody: I think the entire [movie] has just been a message to men to back the f*ck up.
On Brett Kavanaugh, Complicity, & Revisiting Your Romantic History
There's been a lot over the past few years in the news to mine from for this film. What did you look to for inspiration?
Lowell: I had these flashbacks of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and all the justifications from talking heads in the news or from Kavanaugh himself about things that happened 20 years ago. “We were just kids!” “I love beer!” Or whatever the f*ck it is. This idea that just because something happened a long time ago it suddenly means it's not punishable today. And I'm so glad this [movie] asks those questions.
I remember [Kavanaugh’s] opening speech where he talked about how this [allegation] had ruined his and his family's life. That it's the worst thing to be accused of something like this. I remember in the moment being like, "Oh, boo f*cking hoo." Imagine the sh*t that they just made Christine Blasey Ford go through. Not to mention the crime itself, you know?
If Chris Lowell's character is Kavanaugh, then your character is like Kavanaugh's friends P.J., Tobin, and Squee that Matt Damon so masterfully skewered on SNL. The fratty bystander.
Burnham: Yeah, I see that. But I think college [and high school] partying culture — that very specific, heterosexual college hookup culture that's totally obliterative toward women — has a very chicken-egg relationship with a movie like Animal House. I remember being in high school being like, "Oh, this is just like Superbad." So it's not a coincidence that [these references are in this] movie.
It's not just college-centric films. Watching Cassie "drunkenly" go home with these men reminded me of Leslie Mann's character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin but flipped.
Burnham: Exactly. What's amazing is that Emerald's able to do this without being incredibly self-serious. She's still being light, sly, and dexterous.
Is there anything you learned that surprised you while working on the film?
Brody: It makes every single person think back on every romantic liaison anyone's had in their history and think, “What would you do differently?” While I'm mostly confident in my history I would certainly do things differently. There were definitely [times] in high school where you kind of pleaded a little bit to go further physically. At the time [we weren’t] taught not to do [that]. But I have a son and [that] certainly won't be part of his behavior. It'll certainly be a discussion that I'm looking forward to having.
Burnham: There are gradient levels of being complicit. It needs to be a conversation about the guy that just like politely laughs and looks down at his feet as much as it has to be [a conversation] about the criminal psychopaths. It's just that defensiveness, and I've been defensive. I’ve felt like, "Wait, I'm a good guy. I'm one of the good ones.” But there's really no cisgender, heterosexual men that [shouldn’t be part] of the conversation.
How have you seen this behavior manifest in your own life?
Lowell: I’ve been in meetings with investors or producers where, in the post #MeToo era, a man will confide in me like, "How are we supposed to be on set anymore?" Anytime I get that question I'm like, "What are you talking about? Have you ever spoken to a woman before?" I've also been on "good old boys'' sets where the guys at Video Village are casually talking about how great a woman's tits look in her outfit. I’m in a cold sweat on those sets. So the sooner those go away, the better I'll feel.
Mintz-Plasse: Sadly, I think it reminds a lot of guys about what they've been through in the past [in their] partying days like going out and all that.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.