Diana Silvers on “Birds of Paradise” and Chasing Perfection

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·10 min read
Diana Silvers on “Birds of Paradise” and Chasing Perfection
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Diana Silvers is a perfectionist. It's something she's working on, building up the fortitude to view a mistake as something other than a weakness. There is beauty in those blemishes, or so she's been told. The 23-year-old actor, best known for her role in the hit comedy Booksmart, isn't quite there yet. She's still too hard on herself, too beholden to her own near-impossible standards of perfection, too scared of "f*cking up," she tells Teen Vogue while promoting her latest film, the intense ballet drama Birds of Paradise.

In it, Diana plays Kate, an American dancer competing for a single spot in the company at the prestigious Opéra national de Paris. She's naive to the cut-throat world of ballet, but under the hazy tutelage of her frenemy Martine (Kristine Froseth) she begins to blossom into a star ballerina. Yet, greatness comes at a cost, and Kate has to decide how much of herself she's willing to lose to chase her dream.

That competitive fire burns in Diana, too. She's a skilled tennis player who, in another life, would have gone pro if not for acting. Actor, athlete — they're more alike than not. Both disciplines are taxing on the mind, body, and spirit; and both have helped Diana reconnect with herself. Growing up, she always felt too tall and too awkward in her own skin, but Birds of Paradise gave her the fluency over her own body again. And the strength to understand the meaning of the film's singular mantra: "Blessed is she who falls. Blessed is she who rises again."

Below, Diana opens up to Teen Vogue about reconnecting with her body, learning to ask for help, and the transformative, magical power of storytelling.

Teen Vogue: I saw on Instagram that you recently posted how you learned a lot about your body and your spirit while filming Birds of Paradise. What did you learn?

Diana Silvers: I'm really tall [5'10''], and I grew really quickly. I actually kept growing until the age of 22. I thought I was going to be done [growing] at 17 or 18, and I grew another two inches, which is so weird. When I was younger, I had two huge growth spurts. At 13, I had my second one, and I stayed at 5'7'' for a bit. I felt really out of my body. I was really awkward. I didn't know how to use my limbs. I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin. Doing the musicals at my high school, everyone would make fun of the way that I danced. I have these really long arms and these long legs, and I didn't know how to use them. So working with Celia [Rowlson-Hall, choreographer] helped me connect to my body. I feel way more in my body now than I ever did before. It's nice to not feel so awkward.

Teen Vogue: When you're taller, it's harder to find your center of gravity while dancing.

DS: It is! Everyone always says, "It must be so great being tall." And there are the perks of being tall. I can reach high shelves. It's great! But the downside is that there's a lot of disconnection because everything is so far away from your center. It's a bit strange.

Teen Vogue: What was the ballet training process like for this film?

DS: I was living in New York. I had just moved into a new apartment in Chinatown with two of my friends, and then I booked Space Force and came back to LA. It was a challenge to fit everything around my shooting schedule. I only had three months to train before I got to Budapest [for Birds of Paradise]. So between takes, and during lunch, I was always doing something ballet related, whether it was with my Theraband or doing pilates or working my core and practicing my port de bras. I had to unlearn all of these different posture things that I had picked up from years of tennis. It was really challenging, but choreography was one of my favorite parts because Celia is just so much fun to be around, her and Jason [Kittelberger] and Ida [Saki]. I feel like I spent most of my time with the dancers because I wanted to observe them and I didn't want to be disrespectful to the dance community. This artform is hundreds of years old, and they dedicate their lives to it. Half the time I felt like such an imposter, like, "Who am I to step into these pointe shoes?'' I didn't earn them. Why did they pick me to do this project? But that's just me being an artist, too — that feeling of "why am I here?"

Teen Vogue: You can never escape imposter syndrome, no matter who you are.

DS: You almost feel guilty for feeling like you deserve to be here. Because then it's like, "Am I being egotistical right now? Am I being arrogant?" It's so weird.

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Amazon Studios</cite>
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Teen Vogue: You have this incredible work ethic. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like it's been this way since you were young. You're a trained cellist, a skilled musician and singer. You nearly pursued professional tennis. You love academics. Have you always been someone who's juggled a lot of things?

DS: My dad wanted my siblings and I to be well-rounded. He thought it was important to use all parts of your brain. So my work ethic comes from that. I'm one of six children, so automatically there's a hustler mentality, a sort of Hunger Games mentality. You need to find your place amongst so much chaos all of the time. I'm just a very curious person. My parents were really strict and disciplined, my dad especially. He was a disciplinarian. Growing up, I felt like there was very little margin for error. So that's how I fit into the world. I don't really like making mistakes. I know you have to make mistakes and screw up to learn. But I'm really hard on myself, so when I do make mistakes it's really hard for me to come to terms with it. It's a blessing and curse. Sometimes you have to be okay with — excuse my French — f*cking up.

Teen Vogue: I'm like that too. When I make a mistake or I'm struggling, I don't like to acknowledge it. It's like the "this is fine" meme.

DS: I will die before I ask someone for help. It's totally a curse. But these are things that I'm learning. It's not a sign of weakness to admit that you need help. It's a strength more than a weakness to realize when you need help with something.

Teen Vogue: Could you relate to Kate's own sense of discipline?

DS: I feel like Sarah [Adina Smith, writer-director] wanted to make Kate more like me, but I was like, "No." We're very different. I don't think being competitive in an athletic space is an individual quirk. A lot of people are like that. If you grew up doing individually competitive sports like dance, figure skating, and tennis, anything where you're not part of a team, then you probably practice a lot of self-discipline. I don't think it's unique to me. Kate is an underdog. She has to work that much harder than the people who started off ahead, and that feels so much more universal than particular to me.

Teen Vogue: I've noticed that you enjoy a lot of solo activities. Tennis is an individual sport. You also like photography, and there are videos of you on Instagram where it's just you playing the guitar in your home. What is it that you like about being alone? What do you find in solitude?

DS: I don't want to botch her quote, but Michaela Coel was recently talking about how it's okay to disappear and to find parts of yourself in those moments of silence. I really value that time where I'm by myself figuring out stuff. I've always felt like an outsider or a nomad, in a really good way. In school and in the competitive tennis space, everyone was friends with each other and I was that weird girl with the crazy brother who throws his racket. I didn't feel like I fit in with other groups. So that's how I found my place in the world: by being okay with being by myself. It makes sense that I've picked up solo hobbies because I feel really comfortable and safe being with myself. Some people are really afraid of that, but I'm really okay with being alone. I'm a Scorpio with Sagittarius moon and rising [astrological signs], so I feel like there's that duality of wanting to be out around people and retreating in and just being with myself. I have to find a healthy balance.

Teen Vogue: As someone who has many interests across different fields, when did you know you wanted to be an actor?

DS: When I was 12, I went through my "oh my god Leonardo DiCaprio is the cutest person on earth" phase. I think I saw Titanic with my parents, or maybe just my mom, and then I was like, "I need to watch everything Leonardo DiCaprio has ever done." My mom had recommended What's Eating Gilbert Grape. I saw it, and it blew my mind. It made me retreat internally and reflect on the way I interacted with the world. You never really know what people are going through, and I felt like there were certain things that I could do better [as a person]. That's when I knew I wanted to be part of that whole world of filmmaking. I wrote my first screenplay that summer. It was terrible. It was a play on The Chronicles of Narnia, where there were fairies who lived above this cupboard. We didn't have wifi that summer, so I just wrote and created a bunch of stories. I would draw maps of towns I envisioned and places I wanted to set a movie in. I made comics with my friend. I loved storytelling so much. It was an escape too. Storytelling is where I could explore my identity, explore the world… It was magic.

DS: You have a lot of artistic outlets for all of the stories living inside of your head. So, what's next?

Silvers: I have no idea. Time will tell, I guess? I need to take one thing at a time. When I try thinking of everything all at once, I freeze and I get nothing done. If you keep starting a million things and you don't finish them, then you have nothing. Just pick one thing and see it through. I wrote this short film, and I really want to make it. It's just timing. It's also weird being in this pandemic. A lot of people feel creatively stuck. I don't think the four walls of my bedroom are all that interesting or inspiring at this point. Hopefully, a change of scenery and a return to some normalcy will help dictate when my creative endeavors are. As of right now, I have no idea what comes next or what I will do next. It's all about opportunity. And as they say in Titanic, "A real man makes his own luck." And then they all die. [Laughs.]

Birds of Paradise is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue