A star is born? After time away, Maisy Stella makes her film debut at Sundance

Maisy Stella poses for a portrait to promote her film "My Old Ass" during the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — “Who’s that girl?” has been a common refrain from Sundance Film Festival goers walking out of “My Old Ass” this week in Park City, Utah.

Its star Maisy Stella, 20, will be a familiar name to some, for her years on “Nashville” playing Daphne Conrad, for her viral video singing Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” with her sister Lennon Stella (31 million views and counting), and for being someone Billie Eilish has said inspired her to start singing. But to a certain subset of cinephiles, Stella is a complete discovery and an exciting one at that.

Both designations work, in a way. Stella is reintroducing herself in her first film role after taking a few years off to just be a normal teen. She started on “Nashville” when she was 8 years old. At 15, she took a break from acting.

“I went back to school and made sure my head was like nice and screwed on and just went to prom and did all that stuff,” Stella said in an interview with director Megan Park this week at the festival. “The second I turned 18, I was just like, I missed it so much and found such a new appreciation for it.”

Her turn in “My Old Ass,” the sophomore feature from Park, is about a girl heading off to college who finds herself in contact with her 39-year-old self (played by Aubrey Plaza). The film is a funny and emotional charmer that has left more than a few moviegoers wiping tears away for the last 30 minutes. Much of that has to do with Stella’s authenticity as Elliott, who is figuring out how she wants to be in the world.

“I think the best thing she ever did was take a break for a second after Nashville and just, like, be a normal human,” Park said. “A lot of kids that have been acting from such a young age, that’s the only thing they know, and they don’t have as much life experience. And Elliot is just like a normal girl. Maisy has that perfect mix … she is one in a million.”

Park met Stella through their mutual friend Maddie Ziegler, who plays one of Elliott’s friends in “My Old Ass.” Ziegler and Stella have been close since they were children.

“I think about her and Maddie and I’m like so it was like two 8-year-old prodigies just hanging out,” Park laughed. “You singing and her just chaîné-ing across the floor.”

Stella downplays this, as she does many things (we’ll get to Eilish later). She and Ziegler, the Dance Moms alum and Sia music video star, are just best friends. Their extracurricular talents don’t come up very often. But they do get to perform together in this movie, alongside Kerrice Brooks. Without spoiling too much, there is a bit of a dream sequence in which Elliott performs Justin Bieber’s “One Less Lonely Girl,” a song she suggested and that Bieber and his camp had to approve.

“It was a big deal for our generation,” said Stella. “It like changed who I am today as a person.”

The film as a whole was a dream re-entry for Stella to work on material that she loved with a supportive group, including “Wednesday” actor Percy Hynes White and Plaza, who was only there for a few days but made a big impression.

“She’s the most legit and the most genuinely profound actor,” Stella said. “She genuinely taught me so much about how to be a good scene partner.”

Plaza would ask what she needed from the day and then afterward make sure to text and give her a boost, saying how well she had done.

“In future projects like I will take that with me and like always try to give other people what she gave to me,” Stella said. “It literally made the biggest difference.”

Both Park and Stella have been overwhelmed by the response to the film at Sundance.

“It has been like the most surreal couple days of my life,” Stella said. “My eyes well every 10 seconds when I talk about it. I’ve definitely felt the genuine excitement.”

Park is already thinking about releasing the full “One Less Lonely Girl” performance at some point, but when is still up in the air. As of the writing of this article, “My Old Ass,” produced by Margot Robbie’s Lucky Chap Entertainment, has not yet been acquired for distribution. But that’s likely to change soon. As is Stella’s open schedule.

“A star is born,” Park said.

She also said to “check in in seven days” and Stella will be booked for the next four years. For Stella that wouldn’t be a bad thing — she’s genuinely missed working.

“Maisie’s such the real deal,” Park said. “She’s been very patient and specific … I think everyone’s really excited to see, at least I’m excited to see your long career and what you choose to do, because you’ve been silently influencing so much of culture.”

Stella: Oh my god.

Park: Billie Eilish became a singer because of Maisy. I know this for a fact. Finneas confirmed it.

Stella: She would have done it with or without me. I’m not the reason for Billie Eilish … She is a genius.

Park: I’m your hype woman.

Stella: You really are, to the point where I just sweat.