Jade Pettyjohn on Why ‘Destroyer’ is Important for Female Representation in Film (Exclusive)

We talked to the teen actress on playing Nicole Kidman’s daughter, as well as the one piece of advice she learned from working with Kidman.

Jade Pettyjohn stars as Shelby in Karyn Kusama's DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

Jade Pettyjohn is headed to the big screen!

The 18-year-old actress, who you may remember as Summer from Nickelodeon’s School of Rock, is proving she’s all grown up with her role as Shelby Bell in the new film Destroyer.

Starring Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman, Destroyer follows the moral and existential odyssey of LAPD detective Erin Bell (Kidman) who, as a young cop, was placed undercover with a gang in the California desert with tragic results. When the leader of that gang re-emerges many years later, she must work her way back through the remaining members and into her own history with them to finally reckon with the demons that destroyed her past.

Celeb Secrets caught up with Pettyjohn to talk about transitioning into more mature roles, working alongside Nicole Kidman, and how Destroyer is representing a different side of women in a male-dominated culture. Keep scrolling to learn more in our exclusive Q&A!

Destroyer is now playing in select theaters nationwide. To see if its playing in your city, click here.

You can get a taste of the flick by seeing Nicole (and Jade) in the official trailer now:

Celeb Secrets: Congratulations on your role in Destroyer. It’s something that’s a really big departure for you acting wise. Can you tell us a little bit about the film and your character?

Jade Pettyjohn: The film is about a woman, played by Nicole Kidman, who is this detective in LA, and it really is just about this case that comes up that connects her to her past as an undercover cop. The film really just explores confronting the demons of your past, and what occurs when that’s done. I play Shelby, the main character’s daughter, and she is just a very angry, broken, colorful, rebellious teenage girl who has a bit of a self-destructive tendency that all just comes from wanting her mother to acknowledge her existence, which is very endearing and heartbreaking and kind of beautiful how it was written.

CS: You’ve been candid about making the jump from children’s programming to more mature projects. What’s that transition been like for you, and how would you describe your growth as an actress?

Jade Pettyjohn: “It’s funny, people put a lot of significance on the transition from children’s network to becoming some kind of dramatic actress, and I understand that because there’s been some kind of turbulent transitions in the past for other actors, and it’s a very drastic change in style. But, I think that all actors understand that’s the beauty in acting! Telling different stories and growing, and that’s all part of the growing up process. So for me, there’s been so much growth in such a short period of time, but that’s everything I wanted. I wanted to learn more about myself, and learn more about other people, and about the craft, so this transition has been so incredibly gratifying, and I’m just so happy I get to tell interesting stories that really challenge me as an actress and I’m left with kind of understanding what it would be like to be someone else, and I think that’s what it is all about.”

CS: The film also stars Nicole Kidman. Can you talk about what it was like working on set with her?

Jade Pettyjohn: “She is a force. She’s so incredibly passionate and dedicated towards telling truth and telling stories and it was such an empowering thing to see her fill this space with her ideas, and I learned so much from watching her. To see her play this character, that I’ve never seen her play someone similar to this particular character, and then to have these beautiful discussions with her about developing this relationship between our two characters, a very tumultuous relationship between a mother and daughter, was just a dream, it was so much fun. She’s also such a kind human being in real life, and so passionate about telling stories, that was very infectious. It just made me excited to do my job.”

CS: Was there any advice you took away from being with Nicole?

Jade Pettyjohn: “I learned so much from her, I really did. But, I think one thing I really took away, was watching her so unapologetically create and tell her story. She had so many ideas on the film that you see and she had so much to say, and it was so beautiful. She was not afraid to voice [her ideas] and to try new things, she was very unafraid. I think that was something that was really beautiful to see and I learned a lot from there, and that’s something I take with me on these new projects that I’m doing, just really being unafraid to use my voice, and to tell stories, and to go to darker places, and to truly tell a story.”

CS: Destroyer is really female driven, with Erin Bell being both unlikeable and completely independent at the same time. Why do you think its important to have this representation in film these days?

Jade Pettyjohn: “I think it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ kind of story. I think that this particular film shows the beauty of women in the lowest points. Every woman that’s represented in this film, whether it be Shelby, or Erin, Nicole’s character, or Petra, played by Tatiana Maslany, they’re all very real and they’re all going through their own hardships and their own complexities. I think it’s so important to show the strength and the vulnerability, and everything in between because that is what it’s like to be female. We all go through a plethora of different kinds of emotions and feelings and you make good decisions and bad decisions and I think it’s so important to represent that on film because the unifying properties of film are so important. So when you have a group of women saying something to you on-screen, I think that is such a powerful tool that people need to see all the shades of what it’s like to be female.”

CS: Is there anything you’ll take away from playing your character Shelby?

Jade Pettyjohn: “The preparation process for Shelby was so extensive and specific, and that was such a fun experience for me, and I learned so much. I think just that view-point of when you work on-set, or the preparation beforehand, you’ll do anything you can to learn as much as you can about this character and the behaviors of that character, to just really go all out to really represent that character and what it would be like to be someone else. I think that’s something I’ve always had in mind, but on Destroyer it just really heightened that view and changed the way that I prepare for a role.”

CS: What do you hope the audience takes away from watching Destroyer?

Jade Pettyjohn: “I really just hope that people go to the movies, and watch the film, and feel what every character is going through in this film. I want everyone to root for Shelby, and for Erin, and for all these other characters, and see them make mistakes, and mess up and also see them make better decisions and to feel how they feel. I want them to see that there is strength in vulnerability, and strength in confronting your past, and when that is done, you can change your future and change your trajectory.”

CS: Since we are Celeb Secrets, what’s a behind the scenes secret that we won’t catch when watching the film?

Jade Pettyjohn: “Ooo, let’s see. Oh! This is a random fact, but the hospital scene was shot at the same hospital I was born in. That’s a fun thing that no one knows, a little hospital in Burbank!”

Written by Chelsea Cannon