She whooped butt in the Kick-Ass series, but now 17-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz is aiming for your heartstrings with her new movie If I Stay, in theaters now. In the film, based on Gayle Forman's popular young-adult novel of the same name by, Moretz plays a college-bound musician whose ghostly spirit must decide whether to fight for her life after a car accident kills her family and puts her body in a coma. Here, the actress talks with TIME about the role, learning to play the cello and why she's "the worst" at pop culture.
TIME: Your character, Mia, is a cellist who falls in love with a punk rocker. Are you a classical person or a punk person?
Chloë Grace Moretz: I’m kind of both. I don’t really have a biased opinion on exactly what I like. It’s really whatever is my mood in the moment, whatever I’m feeling in that second.
At shows, do you hang in the back and avoid the mosh pit like Mia?
Oh, no, I’m not shy at all when it comes to concerts. I totally make a fool of myself.
So this movie is quite the tear-jerker.
Definitely. I cried the first time I read the book.
Is it cooler to make people sob in movies now?
For sure. I think it just happens more than it used to.
Looking over your filmography, you sure do a lot of movies about death.
They have pretty heavy subjects. Acting for me is not just being happy-go-lucky. That’s my real life. Acting for me is doing the opposite of who I am.
You learned to play the cello for this movie. Did practicing drive your parents crazy like in the movie?
Yeah, my mom was like, “I have to deal with you fake-playing an instrument for this long? It’s kind of painful.”
But you look good!
I got better at it than I figured I would, but it wasn’t me most of the time.
You had a hand double?
I had a body double.
Wait, they can digitally do that in movies??
Yeah, they just put my head onto it. It’s super crazy.
You’re a high-school senior. Has playing a teenager stressed out about college made you more or less interested in applying?
I think I’m going to take two years off to see what it’s like and then go to school for film editing and cinematography.
Allow me to nag: What will you write for your application essay?
I’d probably say I’ve had my job since I was 5 years old, and I’ve been able to hone it and create a career.
Hard to argue with that.
I think colleges look for people like that, who have had a passion for a long time or have been able to make themselves incredibly diligent and grounded when most people can’t do that at a young age.
This movie has a great soundtrack. Did you get to contribute your picks?
You know the cello moment when the girl does a cover of [Beyoncé’s] “Halo”?
I found that artist online and send it to [director] R.J. Cutler and she made it into the movie purely because I found her online and fell in love with her music.
What else is on your radar?
Honestly I am the worst at pop culture. I think I’m really abreast of pop culture and then it turns out I’m not. I meet 13-year-olds and they’re talking in a lingo I totally don’t understand.
So you can't tell me what's hip with the kids these days?
Exactly. I have literally no idea.