While audiences are taking their seats for “The Library,” a new play at the Public Theater written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, its lead actress, Chloë Grace Moretz, is already onstage.
Playing a high school shooting victim who awakes in a hospital to confront conflicting remembrances of the event, the 17-year-old Ms. Moretz spends these 10 to 15 minutes before each show lying silently on a table, trying to stay in character and tune out the frantic theatergoers she can hear in the house.
“It’s kind of awkward,” Ms. Moretz said a few days ago, adding a sarcastic roll of her eyes. “You hear: ‘Oh, we didn’t get reservations tonight.’ ‘Dinner was $400.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, dude, shut up.’ ”
This is about as much as teenage petulance as one can extract from Ms. Moretz, a preternaturally poised actress with a résumé of film credits — the superhero satire “Kick-Ass,” the period fantasy “Hugo,” a blood-soaked remake of “Carrie” — and a mature demeanor to rival performers twice her age.
In an entertainment industry populated by wild Mileys, run-amok Justins and forsaken Lindsays, where the arrival of one’s 18th birthday means it’s time to lose your inhibitions, your clothes or your relevance, Ms. Moretz may be able to break this dispiritingly familiar pattern.
Her collaborators on “The Library” say she is already astonishingly equipped to handle grown-up realities and ready to be trusted with significant artistic responsibilities.
“She’s so centered and levelheaded, and clear in what needs to be done,” said Mr. Soderbergh, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning director of “Traffic” and “Behind the Candelabra.”
“I’ve seen no indication that she places herself at the center of the process of working on the play,” he added. “She’s there to tell the story.”
As Ms. Moretz, who is making her stage debut in “The Library,” put it: “I’m very confident of myself. But coming into this, I was the most unconfident I’ve ever been, which made me excited.”
On an April afternoon, she was sitting in the Public’s upstairs restaurant (also called the Library), with her mother, Teri, and a publicist positioned a few tables away, while she compared herself to other people her age.
“Seventeen-year-olds deal with, like, emotional problems,” Ms. Moretz said. “They’re flighty, and they’re confused. Everything’s a process with them.”
“I’m not saying I’m not like that,” she continued. “I’m very much like that. I’m moody, and stuff happens, and Mom can definitely tell you that’s very true.” (From her seat, Teri Moretz nodded knowingly.)
What makes her different, Ms. Moretz said, is that she can distinguish “between my life and my job, and I never mix the two.”
She has been learning to walk this line since she broke into show business at the age of 5, and gained notice in movies like “(500) Days of Summer” and “Kick-Ass,” in which she played an adolescent vigilante with an obscene vocabulary.
Promoting that film at the age of 13, Ms. Moretz peppered her answers to a reporter’s questions with her occasional impromptu performances of favorite Lady Gaga songs.
Four years later, she is less rambunctious and more composed, to an almost eerie degree. But other aspects of her life have not changed: She still consults closely with her mother, who raised her as a single parent, and her older brother Trevor, who is also her acting coach, on her career.
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Whatever decisions she makes, in choosing which parts to play and how to play them, Ms. Moretz said the responsibility was ultimately hers.
“No one puts me through that wringer,” she said. “I put myself through that wringer. I am the heaviest hand on myself.”
Mr. Soderbergh said he came to a similar conclusion about Ms. Moretz when he began discussing “The Library” with her late last year and found an actress who wanted more than the piecemeal experiences that movies had offered her.
“Making a film is such an unnatural act,” said Mr. Soderbergh, whose stage experience has been limited to productions for Louisiana State University and for the Sydney Theater Company in Australia.
“Here, she gets to be a character from start to finish every night,” he said. “There’s a pleasure in that, in getting a live response, and finding that every performance has different colors.”
Mr. Burns, who has previously written Mr. Soderbergh’s films “The Informant!,” “Contagion” and “Side Effects,” said he wanted “The Library” to continue their explorations of events whose hidden truths run deeper than what is seemingly known.
“In the aftermath of a trauma, we all gravitate toward a narrative that is healing or congruent with our belief system,” he said. “That pushes us apart, rather than bringing us together.”
Drawing from the author Dave Cullen’s nonfiction book “Columbine,” about that 1999 Colorado school shooting, and the experience of one survivor, Valeen Schnurr, Mr. Burns created a fictional story about a young woman fighting to convince her family and community to see the truth in her account of a similar tragedy.
Mr. Burns compared his protagonist to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, who he said is “young and yet incredibly knowing, and very exacting in what he demands in the world around him.”
For this role, Mr. Soderbergh said he was drawn to Ms. Moretz based on “the list of everything she’s done in the last three or four years,” and a generally sterling reputation she holds in Hollywood.
Still, when Teri and Trevor Moretz were approached with the offer for her to appear in “The Library” (whose cast also features Jennifer Westfeldt and Lili Taylor), Ms. Moretz said they told her the play was being presented in Chicago — just to make sure she was genuinely interested in the script, not its A-list creators or a trip to New York.
Before she knew the full truth, Ms. Moretz said she responded to a story that dramatized the repercussions of a mass shooting rather than the shooting itself, and was not a diatribe for or against gun control.
Later, during rehearsals, she said: “I came home one day, and I just couldn’t stop crying. I’ve never been that affected by a movie. It’s only a play that can affect you that much.”
Julianne Moore, who played Ms. Moretz’s ill-fated mother in the 2013 “Carrie” remake, said she was surprised by her ability “to look for the connection, rather than the repulsion, in the scary mother-daughter dynamic.”
“I was really struck by her emotional maturity and her willingness to explore the complications of the role,” Ms. Moore wrote in an email. “Often, young actors have anticipated their responses or have been coached into a performance. Chloë is available, emotional and present.”
The filmmaker Lynn Shelton (“Humpday,” “Touchy Feely”), who directed Ms. Moretz in her coming movie “Laggies,” said the actress has not lost touch with her youthful side.
“She can totally tap into that,” Ms. Shelton said of Ms. Moretz, who in “Laggies” plays a troubled teenager who strikes up an unusual friendship with an aimless woman played by Keira Knightley.
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“She can make you think she’s not really a teenager,” Ms. Shelton said. But when Ms. Moretz is working with other actors her own age, she said, “all you did was turn the camera on and put them together in a slumber-party situation, and bam, they’re teenagers.”
Still, Ms. Moore wrote that she hoped Ms. Moretz would get enough time in her life “to have fun and not work too hard,” which Ms. Moretz said was not a problem for her.
“I have a very serious work ethic,” she said with a laugh that seemed to ask, “You think?”
During her time in New York, she said, she has also been ice-skating in Central Park and snacking at Serendipity 3. The public may see her in a certain, put-together way, she said: “But when I go home, I’m like, ‘Let’s turn on “Little Mermaid”!’ I’m a total nerd face.”
Of the half-dozen movies she made last year, Ms. Moretz seemed especially excited for “If I Stay,” based on Gayle Forman’s young-adult thriller about a young woman who is left comatose after a car accident. “It’s the kind of movie I like to watch — silly teen dramas about the boy and the girl,” she said. “But it’s so much more interesting.”
Allowing her voice to reach an unnaturally high octave, she added with an exaggerated squeal, “Oh my God, it’s so good.”
When she completes her home schooling, receives her diploma in the mail and turns 18 next year, “I’m not going to do 50 sex scenes with total nudity,” Ms. Moretz said. “That’s not going to happen.” She said she would continue to seek appropriate film roles that further her transition into adulthood, and was eager to continue to keep working with her mother and brother.
“I don’t feel suffocated,” she said. “I don’t feel like I haven’t experienced anything — I’ve experienced more. I would be an idiot to be, like: ‘O.K., peace, guys! Thanks for nothing!’ ”
Still, she said she would attend a friend’s high school prom, if only to see what one is like.
“I don’t need it,” Ms. Moretz said. “It’s typical. It’s fun.”