In Sophia Coppola’s new caper “The Bling Ring,” newcomer Katie Chang plays Rebecca, a teenager living in Hollywood who begins a crime spree with friends by breaking into the houses of well-known celebrities including Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan. The film is based on the real-life crimes committed by high school student Rachel Lee and friends she enlisted to steal what would amount to over $3 million in cash and valuables over the course of 10 months.
During an interview with me, Chang talked about how she imagined her character would act in real life since there was not much public information on Rachel Lee, and explained why she doesn’t envy someone like her “Bling Ring” co-star Emma Watson.
Your character Rebecca, of course, is based on Rachel Lee, the ring leader of the real-life Bling Ring. What attracted you to this character and how much research on Rachel herself did you put in to create the role?
What initially attracted me to the role was the chance to work with Sophia [Coppola]. As I learned more and more about the project and what would be required of me, I really became interested in playing a character that was so two-faced and selfish yet seemed really friendly at the beginning. I was really interested in that progression. As for research, I really tried to find as much stuff about the real-life case and real-life girl. There’s not much out there about [Rachel]. After I exhausted my research on her, I started researching things about fashion and started watching reality television set in L.A. I imagined that’s what she did – read fashion blogs and watch reality TV.
What about the more psychological aspects of her personality? I know you said there wasn’t a lot of information about Rachel, but did you want to try to understand the reason she chose this life of crime?
Yeah, absolutely. I think I first wanted to just realize that at the end of the day she was just a teenage girl. Even though she did all these terrible things, she was still this typical teenager. Once I realized that she probably went through what all teens go through like self-consciousness and lack of self-worth, then I was able to bring that to the character. It’s really easy to play a mean mastermind, but she is more complicated than that.
Were you able to empathize with her character in any way? Are there traits that you share with her since you’re about the same age she was when she broke into these houses?
There’s not much that is similar between us, but I think there is a quality in her where she wants something more than the life that she has. Growing up, I think every kid experiences that. I’m no stranger to that.
I have to admit, it’s hard to like any of the characters in the film. Did you worry that people might disconnect to the story because of that? Did you want people to like Rebecca?
I wasn’t really concerned if people liked her or not. My main focus while shooting the film was the relationship between Marc (Isarael Broussard) and Rebecca. I was less concerned about the audience liking her and more concerned if Marc would like her. It was really important to me at the beginning that they have a genuine friendship and connection and then it starts to deteriorate as the film goes on. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they hated my character. I think that’s probably a good thing.
In real life, Rachel Lee seemed to be obsessed with the lives of celebrities, which lead to the thefts. How do you personally feel about how much emphasis is put on celebrity culture today? Do you feel like people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian should be given so much attention?
You know, I think people like Paris have done a really great job of building an industry around themselves, so for that I give them credit. They are smart business people if you think about it. But I think there should be more emphasis on celebrities that are out there actually changing the world instead of those who are on reality television shows.
Now, you said you watched a lot of reality TV for research on the film. Were those types of shows something you watched before the film or did you only take an interest in them for the job?
I remember watching reality TV when I was little, but I really wasn’t allowed to. My mom wouldn’t let me. Sometimes I would sneak it in, but I was easily frustrated with it because it was so mundane and not interesting. I only watched it to play my part. It was definitely great material for this movie.
As someone who is very new to this industry, how do you think you would handle that kind of fame? And would you want it?
Would I want it? Probably not. One of the great things about this movie is that I got to work with Emma [Watson] and she has this mania surrounding her wherever she goes. I was able to see all of that from behind the scenes. It’s great that so many people love her, but I don’t think I would want that every day.
Do you think celebrities deserve privacy or should fans be able to keep up with everything they are doing 24/7?
I think acting and being in movies is certainly a passion for many people, but at the same time it is a job. In many ways, it’s the same as getting up and going to an office. Obviously, there is more attention placed on actors. For what reason, I’m not entirely sure. People should have just as much right to keep their lives private as they would if they were an accountant.
If you had the opportunity to ask Rachel a question you didn’t know the answer to, what would you want to know?
I would ask her why she became friends with Nick Frugo (played by actor Isarael Broussard as the character Marc ) in the first place. I’m really interested in their relationship. My interpretation is probably completely different than the real reason, so I would be interested in how that relationship worked and why she was interested in being his friend.