Bo Burnham on the Unrepeatable Audacity of 'Promising Young Woman'

We talk with the actor about his desire to participate in 'Promising Young Woman' even when he struggled to comprehend its tone.

Promising Young Woman
Focus Features

Promising Young Woman is a movie that will have you clawing at your armrests mere seconds after letting a high crack of laughter escape your throat, and while you’re reacting one way, the folks around you might be reacting in the exact opposite. With a film by Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, such a response should not be surprising, but don’t think because you know her other work, you have any idea what to expect here. The film lures you in with one idea and sends you out with a completely different one.

Bo Burnham wanted in on Promising Young Woman because it immediately stirred a mix of emotions while reading the script. The actor hates to see himself on screen, but a friendly push from co-star Carey Mulligan encouraged his appearance. “It’s an exciting film to watch with an audience,” he says following the Sundance premiere. “You really get a textured reaction from them. We’re like, ‘People are not maybe on the same side here.”

In one corner of the film, there is a tantalizing rom-com flirtation between Burnham’s good doctor and Mulligan’s acerbic, drifting barista. In the other corner, the barista prowls nightclubs, luring self-appointed nice guys into satisfyingly poisonous thirst-traps. How you feel about these characters might shift three or four times before the credits roll, and your flip-flopping continues long after.

Witnessing the crowd see-saw was all the validation Burnham needed, and one he longs to see in his work. “When I showed Eighth Grade a couple of years ago here,” he remembers, “I had the same sort of experience. There are scenes that are very uncomfortable, and they would provoke laughter from some people while other people tried to go, ‘Shhh!’ That’s interesting. Laughter is sometimes just a release of tension. This crowd felt engaged, and the last thing, more than anything, you actually want people to feel is bored.”

Reading the script was a wild experience for Burnham, and while he wasn’t sure how he would have pulled it off as a director, he had to see how Fenell would get it done. “I met Emerald, and all of those tones in Promising Young Woman were contained within her own personality,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, okay. Like this is how they cohere together within you.’ She’s funny with this very dark sense of humor, but also really sensitive and in touch with her emotions. Just very colorful and confectionery. I don’t have a full handle on this, but I’d love to be a part of this person’s vision because it clearly was a very singular type of vision.”

Burnham didn’t quite go to school on set — “I had enough to worry about as an actor!” he says — but when he wasn’t before the camera, he was quietly observing Fennell from the sidelines. The director maintained complete command of her cast and crew, but she was always welcoming, open, and respectful to outside ideas. Try as he might, Burnham is not confident that he could replicate similar wizardry.

“It’s undoable!” he exclaims. “It’s something about the way she is that’s just so her that it is not repeatable. I wish I could say, ‘Yeah, I would love to do that.” But part of what was so exciting about Emerald as a filmmaker is that I felt like, ‘Oh wow, this is so beyond me and what I would ever do.'”

The conversation posited by Promising Young Woman is one that Burnham desperately wants to see had in public spaces, but he also knows that he should not, and could not, be the one to ignite it. Fennell invites men to observe the gradient curve of their predatory behavior. The film doesn’t exaggerate, it doesn’t demonize; it exposes all manner of assault in a cold light.

“You got the dead center of the problem,” explains Burnham, “which is these fucking monstrous rapists — Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein — all those maniacs. And as men, we sort of like to stiff-arm the conversation right there and keep it there, and if it ever goes into anything that is accessible to regular male behavior, we want to sort of stamp it out. So, I think it is important that we recognize that good men can do monstrous things and partake in monstrous stuff because we’re quote-unquote ‘good.’ Whatever that word means. I think a larger problem has been a group of self-identifying good men thinking they’re not a part of the problem.”

Emotionally, the audience better be all over the place with Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell is challenging your culpability in a great many evils, and she’s doing it with a shocking speed of wit and humor that leaves one backlash dizzy. The jokes are there, but they’re stacked on painful, recognizable veracity.

“You don’t have to drug a girl to be a bad guy,” Burnham states what should be obvious. “You can just be trying to be cool with the guys in a flashing moment and not say something. That silence has real effects. This is a group effort. Misogyny is a group effort. It’s not just bad apples.”


Promising Young Woman arrives in theaters on April 17th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.