Katie Chang is currently traveling around the country alongside Emma Watson on a press tour for the release of her first film, Sofia Coppola’s much-anticipated “The Bling Ring.” But when we interviewed her in early June at the Actors Training Center at the Wilmette Theatre — where she cut her teeth as a young actress — Chang was most enthusiastic when discussing another event on the horizon: her high-school graduation.
“It’s the last hoop we have to jump through,” laughed the Winnetka resident that day. “New Trier was a great place to be for four years, but I’m excited to move on.”
With graduation now behind her, Chang is fully focused on the future. “The Bling Ring,” which premiered Friday, June 14 and is based on the true story of LA teens who broke into the homes of stars like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Rachel Bilson in 2011 to raid their wardrobes, doesn’t just mark the 18-year-old’s Hollywood debut. It’s also her first starring role, that of ringleader Rebecca Ahn — something that’s practically unheard of for an unknown actress.
Chang attributes her meteoric ascent to both luck and preparation. At the age of 13, the aspiring actress auditioned unsuccessfully for a community play, which inspired her to sign up for on-camera acting classes at the ATC. She spent five years honing her technique with ATC’s Executive Director, Carole Dibo, who’s now her manager.
“When you’re a kid, you think you want to be an actor, but really, you’re like, ‘I want to be on the Disney Channel,’ ” says Chang. “But the ATC stressed character development, backstory. [Acting] was about the human condition, which I’d never considered before.”
Dibo says she spotted Chang’s raw talent right away. “There’s just something she gives out. She just has that click. And when she got in front of the camera, I just thought, ‘Wow, the camera loves her.’ ”
Geoffrey Soffer, then the casting director for “Ugly Betty,” had a similar reaction during a 2010 visit to the ATC. “He said, ‘I think Katie Chang’s kind of amazing,’” remembers Dibo. The two agreed to co-manage the burgeoning performer, and it wasn’t long before Dibo spotted a serendipitous casting notice. “They were looking for a 17-year-old Korean-American girl with no accent. It was like lightning striking,” she says.
At that point, nobody in Chang’s camp knew of Coppola’s involvement in the film, but they pursued the role for several months, taping Chang’s auditions, then accompanying her as she flew to and from LA to meet with casting directors, and, eventually, Coppola herself. “I’m a huge fan of Sofia’s. I’ve never been that nervous in my life,” says Chang. “But she’s so calming and at ease that the second I went in there, I didn’t feel nervous anymore.”
Chang landed the role in early 2012 and never looked back. “I went from walking home, thinking about a math test I had the next day, to nothing even mattering anymore because something I’d dreamed of for so long was finally coming true,” she says. “I was so scared that it was a mean joke somebody was playing on me. I couldn’t understand that it was actually going to happen.”
But it did, and in March of 2012, Chang set out for LA, where she spent six weeks living in an apartment with a rotating roster of family members and bonding with castmates Watson, Taissa Farmiga and Israel Broussard. “At first, I was so intimidated by Emma,” admits Chang. “Not that she gives off an air of intimidation, but just growing up and knowing her name, to suddenly be in a room with her is really odd and confusing.”
On set, the suburban teen found herself in plenty of similarly surreal situations, like shooting in Paris Hilton’s house (which the real Bling Ring had hit up several years before). “It’s the center of all things materialism and luxury,” she says. “But Paris has such a good sense of humor about herself.”
Despite the high-profile celebs on her periphery, Chang had to stay grounded while on set, keeping up with her schoolwork, corresponding with teachers via email and “learning a lot about time management,” she says. The fledgling film star was also forced to learn the technical side of the industry on the fly. “The scene where we’re about to go into Rachel Bilson’s house took so long to film because I couldn’t understand the concept of lighting a scene. I was so untrained and naïve,” she says. “But everybody was like, ‘It’s her first movie, we’ll give her a break.’ ”
At first, Chang says she struggled to find common ground with her character, a spoiled, unrepentant thief heavily engaged in drinking, drugs and partying. “To get where she was coming from, I imagined she was deeply self-conscious and had very low self-worth,” says Chang. “As a teenage girl, I kind of understand that.”
But that’s where the similarities end. Chang, a self-proclaimed homebody, prefers reading Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath to the party scene, and says she likes to fly under the radar — something that’s become problematic in the face of her newly acquired fame. “In the past few months, there’s definitely been an influx of attention, which I wasn’t really expecting,” says Chang of her peers, who now regularly approach her in the halls to talk Hollywood. “It’s definitely different than before and a little difficult to handle.”
But Chang can understand the excitement. During a recent trip to the Cannes Film Festival to promote “The Bling Ring,” she and her mother found themselves similarly star-struck when they spotted legendary director Steven Spielberg. “We were standing on a balcony, and my mom heard people screaming, ‘Steven, Steven!’ We come from a hockey family, and in hockey, people check each other into the boards. So she checked me into the wall [to get to him],” she says, laughing. “She did get a picture with him, though, so I guess it was all worth it.”
Chang says she’s trying not to fixate on what else might change about her life now that she’s on the big screen. “It becomes a bit of an obsession if you think about it too much,” she says. “I’m just spending a lot of time with my family. It’s important to maintain my foundation here.”
In the fall, Chang is set to attend Columbia University, where she’ll major in creative writing. She says she was partly inspired by Watson, who will soon graduate from Brown, and by college grads Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman. “I really look up to all of them,” she says. “I don’t know if most people in my position would go to college — they would try to ride this acting high for a while. But I think one of the keys to longevity in this industry is diversity of activities.”
To that end, Chang says she hopes to continue acting while studying in New York. “I think it will be difficult, but it’s been difficult so far, so why stop now?” she says. She’s also eager to combine performing with her longtime love of writing. “I’d love to pull a Lena Dunham, combine writing and acting,” she says.
But outside of these aspirations, Chang is unsure of just how she’d like her Hollywood journey to unfold. “I’ve spent a lot of my high school career trying to plan everything,” she says. “Maybe the next few years of my life will be a little less planned.”
Katie’s next act
Chang’s no one-hit wonder: The actress filmed her second movie, “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” just outside of New York last July. Directed by first-timer Rob Meyer, the indie flick stars Ben Kingsley, Kodi Smit-McPhee and James Le Gros. “It’s like ‘The Goonies’ meets ‘Stand By Me,’ ” says Chang of the comedy, which follows a group of young teens as they gather for a weekend bird-watching trip to support their friend David (Smit-McPhee), who’s upset about his father’s impending nuptials.
“It was so much fun to film,” says Chang, who plays David’s love interest, Ellen Reeves. “It was the opposite of ‘Bling Ring.’ We were living in a Holiday Inn, getting to know each other really well because we literally spent every single waking moment together.” The movie premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in April, and Chang is hopeful about its pickup. “A few cool distributors are interested,” she says. “It’s a film that I’m just really proud of.”
At the shoot
Story by Rachel Handler | Main photos by Maria Ponce