'The DUFF' author Kody Keplinger gets real with us about YA, loving Mae Whitman, and being the DUFF IRL
Kody Keplinger was only 17 when she wrote The DUFF. The book was hot from the get-go — the rights for the movie were optioned before it was even published — but Kody says she tried not to get her hopes up until the movie actually happened. Well, happened it has, and it’s hilarious. It’s in theaters today and starring the oh-so-awesome Robbie Amell and the always-wonderful Mae Whitman (more on why that bit of casting news was extra special to Kody in a bit).
Kody was nice enough to chat with us about her inspiration for the book (yes, it was inspired by a real moment in her real high school experience), her movie debut (she has a cameo in the film) and why The DUFF would have probably been rated-R if the movie were just like the book.
HG: What inspired you to write the book?
KK: I started writing the book when I was 17 and what inspired it was I walked into the cafeteria one morning and I heard this girl at my usual table talking about her weekend and she was saying that she hated it when guys referred to her friend as “the DUFF.” And I didn’t know what it meant. I’d never heard that word. So I asked her and when she told me it was the “designated ugly fat friend.” I was totally taken aback. At first, I thought it was really funny and then I thought, “no wait, it’s really mean.” And then I thought, “Oh crap. That’s me. I’m the DUFF here.”
But when I was telling my friends this, I realized they all thought they were the DUFF. Everybody in the group thought it was them. And I kind of jokingly said, “Oh well I’ll have to write a book called “The DUFF.” But unlike in every other cliche story, she won’t take off her glasses and take out her ponytail and be a supermodel. She’s going to be the DUFF throughout and she’s gonna be kind of snarky about it. It was a joke. I actually didn’t think I would write the book, but then one day the story just sort of hit me and I started writing and I didn’t stop and I wrote the whole first draft in about a month and a half.
It’s so interesting that all of your friends thought they were the DUFF. It really speaks to how girls see themselves and the cycle of self-shame we tend to go through, especially in high school.
Oh yeah, I feel like sometimes there’s almost a competition between girls of, “No, I am uglier!” You know I don’t know why, it’s very strange. But in my group, it was more like, after I introduced this word, we started using it as a joke and just took it in stride and kind of took the word back for ourselves, which I loved. That was one of my intentions in writing the book, to have the word be reclaimed in a sense. And, by the end of the book, there’s kind of that attitude too where the main characters all kind of use the word as a joke and don’t let it hurt them anymore and that was always my intention.
What was the filmmaking process like? Were you involved in that?
So, the movie was optioned before the book even came out, which was completely mind-blowing to me at the time. But I didn’t want to get my hopes up, so I really didn’t think about it for a long time and then all of a sudden it all started to happen very quickly. The movie went into production and Mae was cast as Bianca which was what I’d always hoped would happen actually. And then I got to go visit the set. I wasn’t involved with the film, but I did get to go to set and meet the cast and some of the crew and I got to be a cameo in the movie, which was really fun to do. It was one of the best experiences of my life to get to visit the set and see that coming together.
That’s so cool! What’s your cameo?
Towards the end, when everyone’s saying, “I’m the DUFF,” I’m one of those people! There’s a clip of me where I’m standing against a wall and I look up and I say, “I’m the DUFF!” That’s me.
Congratulations! That’s awesome.
I was so excited. I think it’s kind of been a cool tradition that’s happened recently of YA writers making small cameos in the movie adaptations of their books and I’ve always thought it was a really cool thing and I always secretly hoped that I’d get to do it. Then, when they told me I’d have a line, I was so excited. Particularly to be in that specific part, which really hammers home the message of the book, it was such an honor to be in that segment of the movie.
You mentioned that you’d always wanted Mae to play Bianca. Did you have any other dream cast in mind?
Well I dream-cast everything. Every book I ever have written, I’ve had my dream cast and usually they’re completely unrealistic and not age appropriate. It’s usually like “this person — but twelve years ago!” But Mae was actually always my number one choice for Bianca. I remember seeing her in Parenthood and just thinking she was perfect. It was more her attitude than anything, just how funny she could be and how she carried herself and how she could deliver some of these kind of sarcastic lines and still be so endearing. So when I got the call that she’d been cast, I actually kind of thought I was being messed with at first. My agent called me and she knew how much I loved Mae — everybody knew — and she was like, “You’re not gonna believe this, but Mae Whitman just got cast as Bianca.” And I couldn’t believe it. I squealed a little bit. I also felt a little smug like, “Yeah, nailed it. I called that.”
So you also have a future as a casting director if you ever decide to stop writing.
Exactly! I can have that as a side job. When I’m not writing YA novels, I should be a casting director.
What did you think of the movie and seeing your book come to life?
I loved the movie. I saw it for the first time a couple of months ago in a screening full of teenagers, which was awesome because no one reacts better to this movie than a bunch of teenagers — you should have heard the screams when Robbie Amell came on the screen. I thought it was great. It’s really smart and really funny and I think the screenwriter did such a great job with the humor. I thought the director just nailed it and the cast is perfect.
It left me feeling like Easy A, actually. That’s the last movie I saw that gave me that feeling. It made me feel pumped and happy. I love teen comedies and I think this movie really embodies my favorite teen comedy genre. I think it really speaks to that same kind of tone as those movies that I grew up loving did.
Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?
So my favorite scene in the movie, which is not in the book, but I think it actually captures some of the tone of the book in a way, is there’s a scene in the movie of Mae and Robbie sitting on a rock and they just have this conversation. It’s kind of a heartfelt scene that’s also very funny. I think that it really does a lot to build up the relationship of Bianca and Wesley’s characters and the way they talk to each other in that scene really reminds me a lot of the way they speak to each other in the book.
What’s the biggest change that fans of the book will notice in the movie?
The biggest difference between the book and and the movie is that the book also deals with sexuality. The book is a little more risque and it also deals with other labels, besides DUFF, like slut. It deals with slut-shaming quite a bit actually, and if the book was translated entirely as is on screen, it would probably be rated R and would really miss some of the audience that I think the message can really apply to. So, my attitude has always been that as long as the message is there, as long as this theme that everyone is the DUFF, that we’ve all felt this way and it’s something that should unite us instead of tearing us down, I would be happy. And it is. It’s a very strong message in the movie and I’m really glad to see that.
What’s your advice for people who feel like the DUFF?
My best piece of advice for people who feel like they are the DUFF is just to own it. If Kylie Jenner can wear a shirt that says, “I’m somebody’s DUFF,” we’ve all been the DUFF. And if we can let that unite us, then it can’t be used as a weapon anymore, so just own it.
(Image via here.)