Danni Sanders, the unlikable female protagonist in Quinn Shephard’s satire, Not Okay, is everything wrong with social media and influencer culture. Played by The Outfit’s Zoey Deutch, Sanders views social media as a vehicle for the rich and popular, and she’ll do anything for her 15 minutes of fame. When Sanders fakes a trip to Paris for social media clout, a deadly explosion occurs in the French city, and the wannabe influencer poses as a survivor of the attack. Thrust into the spotlight, Sanders’s world begins to crumble when she experiences the toxicity of the Internet.
Not Okay is a sharp, satirical comedy that explores the negative effects of viral fame, and how influencer culture emphasizes likes and reposts regardless of the message within the content. Shephard is not afraid to tackle controversial themes about privilege and how trauma can be weaponized by those looking to promote their personal brand. In conversation with Digital Trends, Shephard discussed the genesis behind the project, her true feelings about social media, and if she feels sympathy for the Danni’s of the world.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: Between all of the research and promotion you put into this film, are you ready for a social media break?
Quinn Shephard: I am. I’m honestly worried that immersing myself so much in the social for this film has made me more online [laughing]. Literally, doing my Gen Z photo set for my press look, I’m like, “What is happening?”
You’re slowly taking some of Danni’s procedures and putting them into your life.
Genuinely, every time I’m shooting one of my press looks, I’m like, “Am I, Danni? Is it happening?” I’m hearing that there’s a new app called BeReal. Everyone’s like, “Are you on BeReal yet,” and I’m like, “I don’t even know what it is yet.”
That’s funny because I’m a weeklong user of BeReal. One of my friends told me to use it, and I just got the notification a minute ago to do my photo now before it’s too late.
So you post every day at the same time?
I think it’s a two-minute window. This is from someone who’s been on it for a week though. It gives you a notification like, “Hey. You have two minutes to do this.” And if not, you have to do it later, but it will say you were an hour or two late.
They’re shaming you for not taking enough selfies.
I don’t like notifications on my phone, but you have to put them on for it.
My gosh. I’ll have to check it out. It seems frightening [laughing].
So Not Okay pokes fun at and satirizes themes about social media and people’s relationship with it. Was there a specific moment you witnessed or experienced within the past couple of years that set this idea in motion?
Oh, yeah. It’s always been really interesting to me the way that utter materialism has intersected with the harsh realities of the world and our country, and the way that they’re always mashed together on the Internet. But then in person, there’s definitely a number of references in the film to things that I’ve experienced. I think if you’ve ever gone to a Fashion Week party or a gifting suite like the tooth whitener influencer party from this film, you cannot make this stuff up, down to the giant tooth prop.
And I don’t know, there was something that was really, really fascinating to me. It still is disorienting, though. I feel like at least I’ve gotten to talk about it through this [the film]. You’ll be looking at and reading an article about Roe v. Wade being overturned or a school shooting. Just like the most horrendous, horrific things that you can imagine, and then instantly, you can distract yourself with something that means nothing. You can’t even blame people for making that content because sometimes, you just don’t want to be confronted with the realities of our world. But there’s a currency to it that is really interesting to me.
I love the promotion of this film. You’re staging photos in the city and filming TikTok trends. It’s real influencer marketing. Was that a conscious decision from you on how to market Not Okay?
It was something that really evolved throughout that we did not expect, necessarily. So our very first day of shooting, we got a lot of paparazzi press coverage because we were shooting outside all around Soho and Tribeca, and Zoey was doing the “Danni fakes Paris” montage. She was dressed in a million outfits, standing on tables, and taking selfies. So we had a lot of very funny photos come out in the press and people were like, “What is this movie?” It was interesting because it sparked something for Zoey and me when we were looking at them, where it felt so meta. It’s Danni’s dream to go viral, and then we go outside for one day to shoot this movie and there are photos of her with the money pieces and selfies in the Daily Mail and Us Weekly.
Immediately, it really sparked something in the two of us. We were like maybe there’s really something here, leaning into the world that the film exists in, TikTok and influencer culture, and all of that in the marketing and being really meta about it. We talked to Searchlight and immediately they were super on board. They gave Zoey and me the password to log into the accounts and start posting. It was genuinely us writing captions and coming up with stuff. Then a little bit into the process, it became clear we literally could not handle it; when the video’s blowing up and people wanted more content, then we brought on Reece, who does our social, and the whole Searchlight team was on it. But you never know who’s captioning things and who’s posting photos.
You’ve spoken a lot about this idea of the unlikable female protagonist. Why did you think Zoey could fill that role?
I think that Zoey has a really amazing resumé of roles like this that aren’t necessarily exactly like Danni, but she’s not afraid to go there as an actor to play characters that might be polarizing, which I honestly find really brave and invigorating. I think that there are a lot of actors who are a little scared to tap into those sides of themselves, and Zoey isn’t. Even though I think this role forced her to go to some really uncomfortable places, it was so generous that she was able to go there with me very much as a partner in the film.
Are you a millennial as well?
I am. I’m a zillennial. I’m right between the two.
I’m a millennial as well so we’ve had a world with no social media, and then we had it later on in our teen years. But for older generations, I’m not sure if they will change their minds about how they view the younger generation and social media. What do you think older generations such as Gen X or baby boomers will think of this film?
You know, there are a few critics that have given me a peek [laughing]… Honestly, I genuinely think it depends on the person, but it is interesting. I’ve definitely noticed a trend where some older viewers view the film as more anti-technology and anti-social media. And the majority of younger viewers really view the film more through the lens that I see it as, which is more so about privilege and the co-opting of trauma on the Internet, and more about awareness and criticism of the Internet rather than like a total rebuking of it.
There is good on the Internet, too. Characters like Rowan in this film really represent how you can use a platform for good and for change. So yeah, it’s interesting. I think maybe I would say that Gen Xers are a little less likely sometimes to pick up on some of the microaggressions and themes Danni is doing purely because the younger generations have more education on it. I guess that’s it. That’s kind of what I’ve seen. But I guess I can’t speak. There might be some Gen Xers who love this movie.
Danni is the kind of a person you look at and say, “How could I be less like her online?” Do you feel sympathy for people like Danni because they’re so lost in social media and in their own vanity?
It’s complicated because I feel sympathy for Danni and the Danni’s of the world, though I don’t think that it excuses them for their behavior. I don’t think Danni is a character who is malicious or psychopathic; I think she is somebody who is willfully ignorant. So it can be hard when you interact with people who are a Danni to sympathize when they have so much access to be able to educate themselves. Because when you don’t, you make it somebody else’s problem.
If you take the time to learn, then somebody else has to teach you, and they really shouldn’t have to. So I think in that way, it can be a little hard when I meet people like this in real life, and to totally sympathize with them. But at the same time, I think if you’re a young white woman today, you have an element of Danni in you. We all have it to different levels, and it’s a choice every day to not be Danni.
Not Okay is available to stream on Hulu.