Exclusive: Emily Ratajkowski on John Updike, Acting and Getting Naked

A chat with the star of We Are Your Friends.

Let’s just stipulate from the outset: Emily Ratajkowski is a very attractive woman. From a purely visual standpoint, she’s got it going on.

That said, it’s not just her looks that make us love her. We’re not that shallow. Looks are pedestrian. They’re earthbound. They’re just looks. Get over it!

No, what makes the 23-year-old iCarly veteran truly hot is how she carries herself. It’s not just an attitude or a posture, either; it’s a sort of grace, a finely distilled brand of nonchalance that allows her to frankly recognize the sexual desire that all of us humans sometimes feel (you know who you are) and then endorse it with a gleeful shrug and utterly transcend it.

It’s this quality, more than anything, that allowed her to turn a one-day gig on a music video—paid to prance around nude while ogled by a trio of preening bros—into a career as a superstar model and sought-after film actress, set to follow her stunning turn in Gone Girl, with a leading role opposite Zac Efron in the upcoming EDM coming-of-age drama We Are Your Friends, opening Friday.

What’s her secret? Simple. “I don’t consider the audience,” Ratajkowski says. “I just consider myself and what I’m comfortable with. I’m not trying to act sensual or sexy. I’m just letting myself be natural, and if that happens to be sexy, I’m not embarrassed of that.”

We spoke to @emrata about her new movie, what it’s like to be a sex symbol, and the influence of John Updike (yes, the novelist) on her approach to acting and modeling.

So there’s no sugarcoating this: you’re very pretty. How does it feel to have your appearance evaluated?

That’s not something I’ve figured out yet. I think it’s a complicated thing, and it’s getting more and more complicated with the Internet and how we let people into our lives and how models and actresses and sex symbols take that. One thing that I can say is that I think it’s important that there’s some sort of celebration of beautiful women that isn’t just exploitive. I hope that with my modeling and with the things that I do, I’m able to walk that line and show young women who are developing and becoming sexual that they don’t have anything to be embarrassed about, and instead of being exploited, it’s something they embrace and feel empowered by.

[Check out Maxim’s Visual History of Emily Ratajkowski.]

It’s kind of amazing that you’ve been able to not only strike a blow for female empowerment but do it while nude.

I don’t know that I’m necessarily 100 percent doing the right thing, but I don’t think that anyone ever knows, and I’m left in this sort of specific situation. I’m a model who has a sexy look and feel pretty good about it, so what I’m talking about is limited to that space in pop culture and in my performances and what I can get out through the means that I have, but it’s really sweet that you’re saying that it comes through.

It absolutely does. It’s also interesting that even after having this success as an actor with Gone Girl, you’re not trying to distance yourself from modeling (ahem, Cara Delevingne).

I enjoy modeling. I feel that acting is more fulfilling for me, and you definitely have a lot more to contribute as an actress than you do as a model, but that being said, when I shoot with a really incredible photographer, it’s exciting and inspiring. And also, it’s something I’m good at, so why would I not like doing it? But I don’t feel any shame or wanting to distance myself.

Any concern that people won’t take you seriously as an actress? 

It’s not a worry. I always have sort of been someone who has contradictory parts, and I haven’t tried to uncomplicate myself. I’ve sort of let things seem contradictory, and sometimes it really confuses people. I don’t know if it’s working all the time, but I’d rather do that than try to sell myself as one thing or another. I’d rather just be who I am and get the kind of movies that I want of the kind of modeling jobs I want based on who I am really.

What do you think is the difference between nudity that’s exploitive versus nudity that’s empowering?

I’ve thought about that a lot, and yesterday I spent a good amount of my day looking at Art Forums and trying to figure out what young, feminist artists have to say about this, because I don’t think that there’s a clear answer. I think it’s really hard, because you have girls and women who are doing porn and are like, “Hey! This is empowering to me.” When I see that, I don’t necessarily think that’s empowering, but it’s a constantly in-flux thing. But I will say that one really great thing is that it’s my choice. The more you do, say, images that are sexual or nude, as a subject, you are dictating what you are comfortable with and what feels empowering or nonexploitive to you. That’s really personal, but it’s also really political, and it’s changing so much and so quickly that it hasn’t really been decided yet, and certainly not for me.

You used the term “subject,” but a lot of people use the term “object” as well. You don’t feel that, though? That just by looking at you, someone can turn you into an object?

Look, when I came out with “Blurred Lines,” people came out and said that it was the ultimate objectification. I’m making eye contact with the camera. My head’s not turned away. There’s no voyeurism involved. If anything, it’s a real direct connection with the camera and sort of ignoring and dismissing the men in the video. I mean, that’s just one example. There are many images people could point to of me and say, “Well, this is voyeurism, and you’re being objectified,” but, I’d say that, in general, the people I choose to work with and what I choose to talk about in interviews is bringing those things into question. Sometimes, I think it’s the best I can do. As a woman who’s become a sex symbol, it’s not as simple as A or B.

It’s funny watching that video now. You clearly own that set, and the guys look ridiculous. They’re trying really hard to look cool.

Yeah. For me in that video and in all work that I do, like in Gone Girl where I’m topless for five seconds, there’s sort of something important to remember — I’m trying to word this very carefully — I don’t consider the audience or the viewer. I consider myself and what I’m comfortable with. And I’m comfortable with myself naked. I like my body. Since I was a young person, I haven’t thought that nudity was something that should be ashamed of or my body that happens to be sexual should be something I’m ashamed of. So, when I do roles that happen to require me to feature that sexual aspect of my body, I don’t think of it that way. In the way that I own my own body and don’t let anyone else take possession, I’m not trying to act sexual or sexy. I’m letting myself be natural, and if that happens to be sexy then I’m not embarrassed of that.

You’re very analytical about your work. I’m guessing you grew up in a fairly intellectual household.

Yeah, it absolutely, of course comes from my parents. But, for whatever intellectualization I’ve learned from my parents, they ultimately are just glad that their daughter is successful and happy. But I definitely step back and rip it apart and think about things. People read my interviews, because they are kind of curious what this girl has to say. What do I have to say? It’s become something that I’ve begun to think about a lot more.

A lot of what I think about feminism and owning your body comes from my mom. I remember this one time, I was 12 years old I did a play and by then I was already pretty developed, believe it or not. And they had put makeup on me for the stage and after the play we went to dinner with a family friend, and when we sat down to dinner, she said, “I’m really worried, because on the walk over here, all these men were looking at Emily, and she needs to be careful. She needs to be careful, and this is not good. She shouldn’t be wearing makeup.” And my mom was like, “You don’t tell my daughter what to wear or how to be a woman.” And that really made a huge mark on me.

That’s awesome. 

And there’s a John Updike story I always love that my mom gave to me when I was 13 that’s about the daughter of this guy, and her female friend comes over and is wearing a tank top or something sexual, and the father makes her leave. It’s about the guilt and the shame that she feels for something she doesn’t understand. And to me, that’s always been so huge, because so much of our culture is about how women are supposed to behave in men’s eyes, and it’s never just a celebration of who they are. Like, what a wonderful thing to be a beautiful, sexual woman. How terrible that young women in our culture have to look towards pornography or over-sexualized versions of themselves to understand how to embrace their beauty. So, that’s sort of where I come from, and that’s definitely something my mom instilled in me.

Updike hasn’t always been considered much of a feminist, so maybe that will change now. 

It might…

Tell me about We Are Your Friends.

It’s a coming-of-age drama. A lot of people are talking about it as the EDM movie, which I think is fair, but it’s just as much an EDM movie as Saturday Night Fever is a disco movie. It really is a coming-of-age drama that happens to be in a certain cultural setting with this sort of aspirational kid who wants to be a DJ. My character sort of goes through the reverse Benjamin Button. She’s trying to be very adult in the beginning, and then by the end realizes what she needs to be doing with her life at the age she’s at.

Can’t wait to check it out. 


Photos by Getty Images