New Faces: Emma Nelson Is Balancing Acting Opposite Cate Blanchett With High School

Meet Emma Nelson, the 15-year-old star of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Maridelis Morales Rosado for W Magazine

You always remember your first big red carpet moment—especially, it turns out, if you happen to be wearing Chanel. “It was really major,” Emma Nelson, the 15-year-old star of this weekend’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette recalled. “I never dreamed I’d wear Chanel to my first movie premiere. I mean, I’m not somebody who has access to that stuff. It’s a whole new world for me.”

It’s the Tuesday morning after said premiere, and this entire week has been a whole new world for Nelson—her first premiere, her first press tour, and, the glue that’s holding it all together, her first movie. And a major one at that; in Richard Linklater’s anticipated adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name, Nelson stars as Bee, the story’s narrator who is piecing together the mysterious disappearance of her mother, played by Cate Blanchett. Not bad for your first movie ever.

The role came to Nelson through a wide call for young actors to audition. “I had been doing two or three auditions a week, and this was just another audition,” she said. “I knew the title, that it was based on a book, and that Cate was attached to it. When I sent the tape off, I didn’t think much of it. I did so many auditions, and 99.9999 percent of the time, nothing happens.”

Not this time. Soon after submitting her tape, Nelson, then 13, was flown to New York City for a chemistry read with her potential co-stars, Blanchett and Billy Crudup. No pressure, right? “I didn’t know that they were going to be there. I step in and it’s Rick, Cate, and Billy in a room,” she said. “Everyone now is like, ‘Were you scared?’ There was no room for that. That’s self-sabotaging. Cate was so welcoming. When someone exudes confidence in a room, that bounces off and you feel it.”

According to Blanchett, as soon as Nelson left the room, they knew they had found their Bee. Unfortunately for Nelson, however, it was an excruciating few weeks before she heard the news. “Every time the phone rang, I jumped,” she said. But then, the call did come. This part, she doesn’t remember quite so well. “I get asked a lot, ‘What was that moment like?’” she said. “I wish I could remember. It was indescribable. I just felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I still do.”

Emma Nelson photographed by Maridelis Morales Rosado for W Magazine.

Filming began a few weeks later, during the summer between seventh and eighth grade for Nelson. The movie shot all over, including Pittsburgh, Seattle, and, lastly, Greenland. “It’s so beautiful that it was life-changing,” she said of the latter. “I didn’t know the world could be that beautiful. The very last scene, I’m looking out on the rocks and looking out at the sunset, and that actually lasted for an hour and a half. It felt like the world disappeared. It was incredible.”

And, of course, there was also the equally incredible matter of sharing the scene with Blanchett. “I don’t know how I computed that,” she said in retrospect. “What a master class. She gave me so much respect. I’m not an established actor. I’m not anywhere near these giants. I know this was an anomaly. But she awarded me with respect that she would have given any actor.”

The film wrapped shooting at the end of summer 2017, meaning Nelson had to return to her normal life as an eighth grade student in the suburbs of Chicago. The catch? She couldn’t tell anyone about her spectacular summer vacation. “Middle school sucks,” she said. “I went back to eighth grade, and it was bad. I got broken up with the first day I went back to school, and I didn’t really have that many friends. I felt like I had to start from scratch… I wasn’t able to tell anyone [about the film] for a year. I had to keep it a secret. I wanted to be like, ‘I’m doing cool things too, stop making fun of me.’ I do keep my stuff private, but I really wanted to tell my best friends. That year, I made some amazing friends, who are my whole world. I wanted to talk to them about it so badly.”

When she was finally allowed to spill the beans, however, it only made things more complicated. “When I was finally able to tell people, there was a bit of a confusion. People would ask me, ‘Is this going to be theaters?’” It didn’t help that the film’s release date was pushed several times over the course of post-production. “I’m not a patient person,” she said. “Waiting two years for me was like an eternity.”

Suffice to say, no one is more excited that the film is coming out than Nelson—and what a difference those two years have made. “It feels like a separate person,” she said of seeing her thirteen year old self on-screen. “Two years ago was so different.” But come September 20th, she’ll still have to head back to homeroom, albeit this time with a major, and very public, IMDB credit under her belt. “I like to pretend I know how everyone is going to react, but I don’t,” she pondered. “But what can they say? ‘Emma’s in a movie, let’s make fun of her?’ Sure, go ahead. That’s one thing they can’t touch. I think I’ll be alright.”