Producer Julie Ansell knew Abby Ryder Fortson was the perfect girl to play the title character in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. before the young actor even opened her mouth. “I remember on the tape just looking at her face and immediately loving her,” Ansell recalls. “There’s an intelligence behind her as well, which I think is very much Margaret from the book.”
But even though Ansell, director Kelly Fremon Craig, and producer James L. Brooks wanted Fortson, they had to get one key sign-off: author Judy Blume had to see her as Margaret as well. “We loved her and then very nervously sent her tape to Judy, and Judy loved her. Thank God, because if she hadn’t, we certainly would have listened to her,” Ansell says.
In order to finally make a movie of Blume’s beloved book, 53 years after it was first published, the filmmakers knew they had to find the right Margaret Simon: the 11-year-old whose suburban soul-searching has enthralled generations of kids. The movie, like the book, follows Margaret as she adjusts to life at a new school, all while dealing with the onset of puberty. “We definitely would not have made the movie unless we found our Margaret,” explains Ansell, a longtime associate of Brooks’s who also worked on his previous collaboration with Craig, The Edge of Seventeen.
It was a detailed search that canvassed both well-known child performers and complete newbies. But Fortson, now 15, wasn’t privy to any of that. When she first auditioned, she wasn’t even really aware of how huge Margaret was; at that point, she hadn’t read the book. “I started diving deeper into the role and really researching Judy Blume and the book,” she says. “I started to realize, ‘Oh, my God, this is a really big deal.’”
Of course, as soon as Fortson—who first auditioned when she was on the verge of turning 12—tucked into Margaret, she had the same experience so many have had over the years. “I remember turning to my parents and just saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is the experience. How did someone write this out?’”
Fortson was no acting neophyte when Margaret came along. The child of two actor parents, she’s spent more than a decade in the business, appearing in the likes of Ant-Man and the HBO series Togetherness. But she knew this role was special. She even brought her own props to an in-person audition, coming equipped with cotton balls for the scene where Margaret stuffs her bra. Brooks bursted out laughing, she remembers.
“We were really laughing because she put them in there and she did the little dance,” Ansell says. “That just felt like what Margaret would do.”
As outgoing as Fortson is, Ansell says that she really captured Margaret’s internal qualities. “The character of Margaret is, especially in the first half, kind of quieter, and she’s reacting to people,” Ansell adds. “It is a lot of what you can see on her face…and that’s what Abby was just so great at. She’s not even saying anything, and you’re looking at her face, and you’re just feeling what she’s feeling inside.”