At 21, Abigail Breslin has outgrown the roles that launched her career, like her Oscar-nominated turn as pageant hopeful Olive in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” But while the public has seen her transition onscreen from kid to teen to young adult, the actor’s performances have been shaped of late by a re-examination of a more innocent time.
Earlier this year, Breslin starred in the Off-Broadway world premiere of Erica Schmidt’s “All the Fine Boys,” playing a 14-year-old whose sexual awakening involving an older man takes a dangerous turn. She also starred in ABC’s May 24 television adaptation of “Dirty Dancing,” taking on the role of Baby, made famous by Jennifer Grey.
In both instances, Breslin explores the complex balance of naiveté and curiosity in a girl younger than her as well as those qualities’ wide-ranging consequences—from thrilling to devastating. Breslin had only one year on 18-year-old Baby when “Dirty Dancing” filmed, so she was able to tap into her own experiences at that time.
For “All the Fine Boys,” however, the process became much more involved: “Once you go through real-life shit,” Breslin tells Backstage, “it’s hard to go back to a place where you weren’t aware of what goes on in the world.”
Breslin has experienced her share of “real-life shit,” but there was one particular element of “Dirty Dancing” that real life hadn’t equipped her for, and it’s in the title.
“Zero. Literally negative zero,” she joked as she described where her dancing was before working on the movie. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I can’t walk in a straight line.’ ”
Breslin would give herself a few points above a zero now (“maybe a four or five”), but more importantly, her training—led by Tony-winning “Hamilton” and “Bandstand” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—gave her a sense of appreciation for both her peers and herself. “I have such a respect for dancers now. I don’t envy them. The pain that their bodies go through is insane. But it definitely gives you more confidence and makes you more in touch with your body.”
READ: How to Become a Dancer
Not unlike Baby’s, Breslin’s rehearsal process relied on trust—trust that she wouldn’t fall when her partner held her 7 feet above the ground. “We had to start on the floor, just playing airplane,” Breslin explained, laughing as she recalled the beginning stages of what would eventually become the movie’s iconic lift during “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”
“We had one final rehearsal [before filming the scene], and I finally got up there. Basically, I told Colt [Prattes, who plays Johnny Castle], ‘If you let me drop, I’m going to murder you.’ I instilled a lot of fear in him. I think that aided in it.”
The lift is one of several memorable moments from the original film revisited in the small-screen adaptation. Breslin knows these details will be scrutinized by fans (including her own mother, who played the 1987 feature for her daughter when she was 13). But she asserts that the remake tells the story in a way that is uniquely suited for the cultural conversations of today.
“There are new things in this version that are more at the forefront of what society is talking about now. Bringing those elements in is a way to tell the story from different eyes.”
One way Breslin hopes Baby’s experience resonates in 2017 is the perception of privilege. “Baby has a good heart, but she’s been sheltered her whole life,” Breslin explains as she considers how her character initially treats Johnny and Penny. “She’s not fully aware of why they would get annoyed with her offering suggestions; she has no idea what they’ve dealt with their whole lives. But what I like about her is that she’s not complacent in what she already knows.”
There’s a fine line between compassion and blind empathy, and Breslin believes it’s a line that remains tough for those in a place of privilege to navigate. “People have a tendency to just say, ‘I get it,’ but you have no idea,” she says. “It’s like when girls get catcalled. Guys will be like, ‘Yeah, I get it. It’s annoying.’ But you’ve never experienced it. And there are a lot of things in the world I’ve never experienced, either.”
Breslin is quick to consider her own privilege—and deems Baby’s realization of hers a turning point in the movie—but the actor also emphasized the significance of opening up about her own struggles while talking to Backstage.
“Anxiety has been a part of my life since I was younger. I obviously have ways of dealing with it; I manage it every day. Some days, it’s better than others.”
Breslin recounted a recent incident during her run in “All the Fine Boys” in which she experienced a panic attack onstage. “I remember it being the second-to-last scene, and realizing I was having a panic attack. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell yourself, ‘I know what this is.’ It doesn’t help. I told the stage manager, and I finished the show.”
After the curtain call, stagehands ensured she felt safe. “They got me tea, and in 20 minutes, I was calmed down. [Co-star] Alex [Wolff] sat down with me and helped me take some deep breaths.” Her gratitude for those who guided her through that night parallel what she said about Baby’s treatment of Johnny and Penny: “I really appreciated how open they were, because it’s sometimes really hard for people to understand when they haven’t dealt with it.” Breslin briefly mentioned the incident on Twitter, and, to her surprise, several media outlets published stories discussing her mental health.
“I’m glad me talking about it made people feel less weird,” says Breslin. “It’s important for people who have platforms to talk openly about things we have trouble with. If I don’t talk about it, I’m just not being honest.”
A week after talking to Backstage, Breslin posted an image on Instagram that read, “You are not obligated to have sex with someone that you’re in a relationship with. Dating is not consent. Marriage is not consent,” alongside the caption “I knew my assailant.” On April 22, after receiving ill-informed responses questioning her post, she shared a follow-up, explaining that while she did not initially report her rape, it was no less legitimate.
In both instances, Breslin took to social media to share her personal experiences, and both times her message resonated with fans facing similar struggles. “It’s just proof that anxiety is something that so many people deal with, and it’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed of,” wrote Teen Vogue. “Abigail Breslin had the perfect response to someone who said her rape didn’t count,” read an Elite Daily headline.
Those seeing her posts may not fully grasp her struggle—nor should they—but through sharing her experiences, Breslin feeds a fundamental curiosity that she sees in herself, in Baby, and in others: “I’m always trying to get into different things and learn about different people. [Baby]’s actively curious about everything that’s going on, and she really wants to get insight on these people’s lives.”
To fellow actors working through similar mental health afflictions, Breslin offers the following advice: “As performers, we’re already hyperemotional people. The best thing to do is channel it into whatever you’re doing. But make sure you’re taking care of yourself before you take care of your work. No job is worth losing your mind over.
“If you need to take a minute and relax, you have the right to do that. The last thing you want to do is freak out and blow everything. Put your health first, for sure.”
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Hair by Niko Weddle; makeup by Dahlia Warner; Michael Helms, assistant