Emma Cline’s The Girls was always going to be an odd kind of summer phenomenon. The quietly sinister novel, which was published this June to outstanding reviews, may have changed the names of Manson Family members and transplanted their story up to Marin County, but it still tells the familiar story—with one telling exception: rather than focus on the group’s leader (“Russell,” in this version of things), Cline follows Evie Boyd, an unformed young woman who is seduced by the group’s eerie charisma but who now, years later, struggles to reconcile herself with her past complicity—however small her role.
The book arrived on the scene like a blockbuster—celebrity endorsements and all—and it sold like one, too, but in the end it’s a quiet book that asks more questions than it answers. It is, in other words, the perfect book club book. And who better to join us in this first FLOOD Book Club than Marguerite Moreau. In addition to a number of other roles (including Katie in Wet Hot American Summer), Marguerite played Susan Atkins in the 2004 TV adaptation of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. In The Girls, the Susan Atkins character has morphed into “Suzanne,” the object of Evie’s greatest affections, and although she is granted more depth and personality than Susan Atkins is in Helter Skelter, the identity is still very clear. Suzanne is Susan.
Marguerite and I chatted about The Girls, adolescence, the weird relevance of the 1960s, ISIS, and of course, book clubs. I’m not sure we ever got to the bottom of the Manson phenomenon, but it was nice to talk with someone who, like Emma Cline, seems eager to go beneath the surface.
How familiar were you with the Manson Family story prior to your work on the series, and what did you have to do by way of research?
Honestly, I was in my early twenties then, and my research for that show introduced me to that whole time period. I went as deep as I could: I read Helter Skelter, I was talking to Vincent Bugliosi whenever he was available, I read Susan Atkins’ book—which she wrote in prison, I believe—and I also went to CineFile in LA for obscure videos on the subject. I rented every single thing I could find.
You’ve spent most of your career playing fictional characters, but Susan Atkins is as real as the murders themselves. Did that fact change how you prepared for the role?
I’m always trying to find areas where my characters and I overlap. You don’t want to judge your character; you want to find out why she’s doing the things that she’s doing. A lot was changing in the late 1960s—the dynamics of the nuclear family, sexual mores, women’s rights, civil rights. There was a lot of pushing back against the old norms, and almost all of it was for the better. And I shared in the benefits of all that. So for me, it was trying to see where she was coming from, and trying to understand what she was still lacking and what it must have felt like for a very neglected young woman to have this guy come in and just sweep her off her feet. She was just looking for something to make her feel like a woman and revitalize her.
I think these themes are also in the book, too: being seen (or not seen) and being on the precipice of life, the way a fourteen-year-old feels. Girls especially. You’re ripe for the picking if the right someone comes along. You want to be part of something bigger, you want to stand for things, and when you want to live a principled life, dogma’s pretty hard to resist.
Full Interview: floodmagazine.com