Mae Whitman is not ugly or fat, though that doesn't stop Robbie Amell's character from calling her that in the trailer for "The DUFF."
"D-U-F-F," Amell spells out to Whitman in the teaser. "Designated Ugly Fat Friend."
That is just one moment which makes the film look like the "She's All That" update no one wanted, right down to Whitman's overalls. But Whitman is proud of this character and feels she's doing something positive for all the DUFFs of the world (a term which is not just the title of this film but a real thing the kids are saying these days).
There has been a lot of criticism and she's heard it all. "That’s been something I’ve had to deal with: people saying it’s negative to put that out there," Whitman said in an interview with HuffPost Entertainment. "I think the whole point is that I'm not that. I'm not an ugly fat friend. When people say, 'You shouldn’t be doing that,' I say, 'Is there someone that you feel is worth of being called fat and ugly?' Like, what is that about?"
There is something icky about the way we recoil at aesthetic insults, as if being fat and/or ugly is the worst thing one can be. It's not. And "The DUFF" is not about Whitman's character being ugly or fat. "I think that’s the whole point of this is: no one is that. So, there are no subjective parameters," she said. "The idea that someone would be fat and ugly enough to play this role is contributing to the problem. I don’t think anybody deserves to be put in that box. It's a lot more about the struggle of people’s tendency to put people that box."
Whitman's been put in that box before. This was most clear in her role as
Egg Ann Veal on "Arrested Development," though it's a form of typecasting that has popped up throughout her career. "In high school, I was bullied a lot. And even now, for jobs, I get categorized as 'the quirky friend' or the 'weird looking one,'" she said. "If there’s anyone that’s not kind of mainstream or whatever there is such a tendency to try and put them in this box. That limits them and that’s a feeling that’s been very real for me."
With "The DUFF," it's right there in the title, though often those adjectives are included in the casting call, blurring the distinction between what is real and fictional. So, how do actors separate themselves from the insults hurled at the characters they play?
For the role of Ann, Whitman saw the character beyond the running jokes about her "blandness" (her school picture said "Not Pictured"), instead focusing on her intense religious views and a desire to indulge in "secular flesh."
"On the surface, people think Ann’s bland," Whitman said. "When you kind of get to know her, though, she’s this weird vibrant pervert, who is repressed and creepy. She has her whole own narrative going on that’s not affected by the way the people on the outside see her."
In a way, Ann's arc mirrors the message of "The DUFF," refusing to be labeled. The tie between Mitchell Hurwitz's classic series and this low-budget teen movie may seem like a stretch. But Whitman does not simply endure the negative distinctions of roles through denial or rationalization. Ultimately, she is comfortable enough to be confident in spite of the labels thrust upon her. It doesn't matter if they are real or fictional.
"I’ve enjoyed being in the place that I’m in and being able to play all these different roles and kind of be a chameleon, representing everybody’s voice and not being stuck in one area," she said. "I kind of like being in this way where I can kind of play anything and be anyone. I never felt plain or ugly or anything like that."
"The DUFF" is out in wide release Feb. 20.