Video/Q&A: Winnetka native 'Bling Ring' star Katie Chang

The rising local actress talks about becoming immersed in the L.A. lifestyle, demonstrating how she became her character (and also impersonating "The Californians" from "SNL").

Katie Chang makes a disclaimer: She’s about to use a reference that reveals her youth.

“I feel like I’m Hannah Montana,” says the 18-year-old Winnetka native and star of Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” opening Friday. “It feels like I’m living two different worlds. Especially when I was in school, too. One weekend I flew to L.A. with my mom and my best friend and we went to the MTV Movie Awards, and then on Monday I had a math test.”

The recent New Trier grad and veteran of Wilmette Theatre’s Actors Training Center has reason to be confused. In the last month, she’s promoted her first movie—which she shot when she was 16—at the Cannes Film Festival in France, where she felt like she was on “Entourage,” and has gone on a map-jumping press tour, where constant chatter and changing weather have all but eliminated her voice. This summer, though, she may be working as a clerk in her friend’s dad’s law firm, and she’ll head to Columbia University in the fall with plans to study creative writing.

Is Katie Chang a movie star, or an ordinary (and very intelligent) Chicago teenager?

In “The Bling Ring,” she’s Rebecca, the leader of a group of L.A. teens who break into the houses of celebs like Paris Hilton and Audrina Patridge and help themselves to whatever fashionable souvenirs they like. Based on a true story, the film actually shot in Hilton’s house to re-enact that particular burglary.

On the outdoor patio at NoMi, Chang talked about researching the L.A. lifestyle, being forbidden to watch “The Simple Life” and celeb fixation in the Chicago suburbs.

For “Bling Ring” research, you watched “The Hills” and “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” What stood out there and was useful for the character?
Well, definitely at the beginning, the accent [Laughs] because I’m from Chicago.

Why didn’t you just watch the “Californians” skit on “SNL”?
[Laughs] (in “Californians” voice) “Let’s take the 405 to the 10.” It’s funny now living in L.A. I know what they’re talking about. If I lived there another month, I would have been like, “Mom, don’t take the 10, take the 101.” [Laughs] No, ‘cause that’s a parody. It would have been funny if we all were doing that accent. [Laughs] Initially it was the accent and then it was also ... the conversations that Lauren Conrad and Audrina would have, sitting down and talking about, “Oh, I love that dress.” “Let’s go to Les Deux tonight.” It seemed really foreign, but I think I needed to familiarize myself with the kinds of conversations that people were having during that time period out there.

If you could hang out with any of those people, would you want to?
I would totally hang out with Lauren Conrad! [Laughs]

Why her?
‘Cause I watched “Laguna Beach” before I watched “The Hills.” ‘Cause I’m like a nerd and I needed to have backstory, so I watched all of “Laguna Beach” and all of “The Hills” too.

Yes. For backstory.
Yeah! I wanted to know where she came from. And I’m obsessed with “Laguna Beach” now. [Laughs] So I would totally hang out with her. She would not want to meet me though. [laughs]

Why not?
‘Cause we like robbed one of her friends in the movie! [Laughs]

It’s just a movie though.
Yeah. But some people get really affected by films. I know when Paris was watching this she was freaked out about how real it was.

Did she let you take any souvenirs from her house?
No. [Laughs] Actually, she gave all of us girls a big bag of goodies, like a purse and perfume and stuff. [Laughs] It was actually really nice.

Did you ever previously watch “The Simple Life,” stuff like that, not for the movie? Do you remember your parents telling you anything like, “This is not real life”?
I remember being told that I wasn’t allowed to watch those shows. [Laughs] Yeah, my  mom wanted to keep me away from them as much as possible.

Which shows?
Like “The Hills,” “The Simple Life.” Or scripted shows like “Gossip Girl,” “The O.C.” My mom wanted me to be able to be a little more free-thinking than those girls were.

You previously talked about seeing versions of the kids in “The Bling Ring” growing up in Winnetka. How can you tell when a classmate, friend or otherwise has a celeb fixation like the girls in the film?
After having done the movie ... I had a month left of school when I got home--and reintegrating and going back to classes and taking all the tests and being with my peers again, I found it was really shocking just the questions that I was asked. Because if I knew someone who had gone off and done a Sofia Coppola film, I would have been like, “Did you meet Francis Ford? Did you get to meet Harris Savides, her cinematographer? What was Sofia like?” Instead, the most common questions that I got were like, “Is Paris Hilton mean? What is Emma Watson like?”

Not, “What’s Paris Hilton like?” Just, “Is she mean?”
No. “Is she mean? Is she an idiot?” No, she’s nice and she’s incredibly intelligent. “What’s Emma Watson like? Are you guys best friends now?”

How did you answer stuff like that?
I would just smile and—what’s that movie? It’s in “Madagascar” when the penguins go, “Smile and wave.” [Laughs] That’s what my mom told me to do. I was really freaked out about going home. She goes, “Just smile and wave.” [Laughs] I tried to be gracious, but at the same time I don’t think you can know how invasive and obsessive they can come off as. So those questions were really difficult to deal with. [It’s not] in my nature to ask those type of questions and be that forward about it. But people seemed excited about it and, yeah, I saw those obsessive qualities in them and it bothered me, but they weren’t mean. [Laughs] People weren’t like rude about it.

What about before you did the movie? In general, how can you tell the celeb fixation is going on?
It’s hard because it’s such a normal thing. To have Perez Hilton bookmarked on your computer. Or my brother, his background on his iPad is Ariana Grande, do you know what I mean?

Ariana Grande?
She was on that TV show “Victorious.” Nickelodeon. Again, revealing my age. [Laughs] I think it’s just such a normal thing to be obsessed and to have that be a part of [your] life in terms of like, “Oh my god, I love that show” or “I love that actress” or “I’m going to have her as the background on my computer or my Twitter icon” or something like that. So it’s difficult to tell when people are being obsessive I think because it so permeates [society].

Have you ever posted something on Facebook that you weren’t sure if you should be posting?
[Laughs] No. Some people use Facebook really weirdly. They update every hour about their lives. Their cat’s doctor’s appointment. Things like that.

“Long wait at the grocery store.”
Yeah, yeah. “Don’t take State Street.” But that’s actually kind of helpful. [Laughs]

Not judging there.
No. I don’t know. On Facebook no; on Twitter yeah. Because Twitter’s public. Facebook is still relatively public too, but Twitter is like whoever follows you can see what you’re doing. I’ve definitely had a lot of thought about, “How do you use Twitter if you’re going to promote your movie and be professional? Do you post personal things on there, or do you keep it for more work-oriented things?” There’s been stuff on Twitter not that I regretted posting but that I thought, “I probably should keep this [to myself].”

Like what?
Just like, “Going to the grocery store. Hope I find some edamame.” [Laughs]

Because people think actresses should be snazzier than that?
No, because I think Twitter for people that are working and using it to promote their movies, that’s what it should be. So I’ve been trying to keep it more work-oriented. Not to over-manage myself--I think there needs to be some line between how public you want to make your private life and how public you want to make your work life.

Has it crossed your mind at all that “I’m going to be known worldwide now—
No! [Laughs]

Well, and how it will impact your followers? Not in a self-serving way …
No, because I won’t let myself think like that yet. [Laughs] At some point if you reach that level there has to be some self-reflection about the way you’re going to present yourself and the people that are looking up to you and following you. I don’t think I will ever consider myself big enough to take that step back and think like that.

Was there a moment promoting the movie at Cannes when you thought, “I can’t believe I’m here” or “This reminds me of something from home”?
[Laughs] On the red carpet at Cannes, they’re really strict about who can go on the red carpet. So my mom had to go with all the other moms, and they weren’t allowed on the red carpet and they had to and they had to go take their seats in the theater. So me and my publicist--who’s like my best friend at this point because I just cry to her all the time [Laughs] --

Why?
No, just like because they work you so hard. It’s either, “I’m so tired” or it’s like, “I love that dress and I want to keep it.” [Laughs]

Have you really been reduced to tears because of it?
No, no. I’m over-dramatic in any part of my life. She’s just the best. So we were riding over and I had this moment where I was sitting in this beautiful dress and I had these crystals in my hair and we’re riding over in this special car to go walk the red carpet at Cannes. I started getting teary-eyed because I couldn’t believe that A. it was coming to an end because that was kind of the beginning of the end of our press. And also B. that I was even there to begin with. And then we got up on the carpet and we were waving, and I felt like I was in that scene in “Entourage” when they’re at Cannes. And then of course I got really freaked out because when they go to Cannes they bomb, and so I was like, “Oh my god, I’m in ‘Entourage.’ Oh my god, the movie’s going to suck.” But it didn’t; People liked it.

I think “Medillin” was so awful that no movie could be that bad.
It’s just like, they shouldn’t have made that movie. [Laughs] Just do “Aquaman 2.” Make the money, and then you can do whatever movie you want.

You’ve talked about trying to figure out why Sofia saw something in you in your audition tape, where you talked about dinosaurs and were yourself, and you said you turned the switch on and off in the tape to become Rebecca. What did you do to become her and turn off Katie?
I think I kind of broke that wall down between [Laughs] me and my moral center and Rebecca and her lack of a moral center. Everybody can be mean and everybody can be selfish, but we try not to be those things. But Rebecca doesn’t really try not to be selfish; that’s just who she is. Once I let go of that inhibition and actually started to have fun with being domineering, [a] really two-faced, fake character--because it is fun to play a character like that--then it became this whole new thing of assuming this character and falling into her instead of trying to contrive a character out of who I was. Once you completely let yourself go and become the other person, then it becomes so much more real as opposed to trying to build on top of yourself, which sometimes works, but for a character that’s so different from yourself you just have to completely let yourself go.

Can you give me a sense of what that transition looks like?
[Laughs] [As Rebecca] “Well, for one I wouldn’t want to sit here in the sun. It’s so disgusting out. I don’t like your shirt.” She’s mean. It’s not that she says whatever she wants, it’s just that she thinks whatever she wants and doesn’t have a conscience about thinking or doing.

“This water is dangerously close to room temperature. We need some colder ice.”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this right now. This is so stupid.” She’s mean! I would never want to be like in a room with her.

The cast participated in a mock-robbery, your first chance at being the ringleader. How did you fare?
[Laughs] I think I was a little nervous. I got an email from our production assistant Katie and she was like, “Here are the directions. Here’s the list of stuff. Figure out how to get there. Good luck.” And I was really nervous, but I think I did OK. I was really bossy. I was like, “You guys! You have to get this together! Stop laughing; stop being goofy!” Which you don’t really see much of in the movie. I had to tone it down a little bit, my bossiness. But I think I did OK. What was interesting was when we were doing that mock break-in, we all realized the different roles that the kids had played. And also that the group [wasn’t] really trying to do a heist or anything. They were just having fun and hanging out and being goofy and silly and ridiculous.

Was there something that surprised you because you couldn’t believe you acted that way?
[Laughs] I remember seeing a bag and thinking, like saying out loud, “Oh my god, that’s so cute.” [Laughs] And then I stopped myself and I was like, “No, Katie, ground yourself, no!” … When we were breaking in there was a bag that was hanging that wasn’t on our list, and I was like, “I want that!” [Laughs] But hopefully that’s the response that Sofia can elicit with this film is that people are watching the movie and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, that looks like so much fun. I love that bag; I love that hat that she’s stealing.” And then the kids get arrested and you’re like, “I can’t believe I was getting into this.”

So you feel like the character took over.
Yeah. I guess. Or maybe it was just my inherent female qualities. [Laughs] Liking a bag.

Plus:
On RedEye: “I’ve been on the website. I’m aware of it. I was excited to see you guys on the schedule.”
On her Blackhawks fandom: “I get the updates on my phone. A couple days ago during an interview I was just like, ‘Yeah, Sofia was great …’ (checks phone while speaking mindlessly) It’s been difficult. It’s been hard. Last year, when we were filming the movie and the playoffs were going on, obviously we lost in the first round to the Coyotes which sucked, but being on set, one time we were shooting until 1 a.m. and I was just watching on a really crummy live-stream on my phone. Shouting at the screen. People thought I was crazy … They all think I’m so weird, too, for liking hockey. They don’t understand it. You have to live in Chicago. Or Toronto or something.”
If she asked Emma Watson anything about “Harry Potter”: “[Laughs] Because my parents were with me on set, I remember asking her when she was younger if her parents had been on set with her and had been supportive and everything. The cool thing about her is she doesn’t have a big head and she’s not guarded. I think in her position you have to be kind of guarded, but she’s not totally closed off and so she’s really easy to talk to … I didn’t [ask about ‘Harry Potter’]. I feel like she’s not necessarily trying to run away from it, but it’s like that part of her life is over and she’s ready to move on and do new things and be known for other things.”
What she’d want to do with Lauren Conrad: “She’s dating one of the guitarists from Something Corporate. [Laughs] So I would actually want to go and hang out with him and ask him about warped tour and early 2000s or something like that. I think he’s in Something Corporate? I don’t know. [Laughs]”
A movie that scared her as a kid: “Mouse Hunt.” (Which she initially calls “Mouse Trap.”) “That one freaked me out, but I don’t know why. I remember seeing it when I was 5 and really just not liking it. Oh! There’s this Scooby-Doo movie. [Laughs] Where they go to an island and the people turn out to be zombie cats or something. That one really scared me. I also remember watching ‘The Sixth Sense’ and not totally getting it and therefore being really scared just by all the throwing up and the ghosts and the hanging and everything.”

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

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