Every time Lexi Underwood signs on to a new project, she makes a playlist. But to play Isabella on Cruel Summer, and for the first time with any role, she had to make three.
The Freeform anthology series takes place over a three-part period: summer 1999, winter 1999 and summer 2000. As seen with season 1, the uncomplicated lives of the central characters are matched by a literal lightness seen on screen, in addition to a general good energy among the show’s core group of teens. When the show jumps into the winter and the following summer, the lighting grows darker, as does everything else from the story trajectory down to the wardrobe.
“It's not easy to jump if you're on a day where you're filming an interrogation scene and you're sobbing crying from timeline three and then you got to go and jump to timeline one and be best friends with Sadie [Stanley] and laughing and smiling,” Underwood tells Los Angeles Confidential. “Each version of Isabella is a completely new version, new person.”
Underwood credits music to helping her transition smoothly between the different versions of her character, Isabella. She especially gives a big shout-out to the hair and makeup team. The physical evolution of wardrobe, style and beauty made all the difference.
It was just such a collaborative process,” she adds. “Having phenomenal cast members that were so open and, honestly, vulnerable because the story that we're telling, it's not easy and it's challenging, especially for Sadie and I. And so the fact that we were able to be open and vulnerable with each other about how we were feeling, that helps a lot.”
Authentic to its Pacific Northwest setting, filming took place for six months in Vancouver from spring into early fall. The extended duration of the shoot, Underwood explains, was helpful because it allowed the cast to have “the space to really exercise and massage these characters.”
It was also helpful that the leading duo had met before filming. When they were younger, Stanley and Underwood were at the same agency and were in the same friend groups.
On Cruel Summer, Underwood’s Isabella and Stanley’s Megan could not be more different. Isabella is the alluring daughter of foreign diplomats who moves in with the Landry family as an exchange student. From a working-class family, Megan doesn’t mesh with Isabella right away. She’s too worried about making it out of the small town to attend a good college, become a computer coder and support her family. But it doesn’t take long for the pair to become ride-or-dies.
“[Isabella] has mastered the art of shapeshifting and being a chameleon, and we really see that throughout just those three timelines,” Underwood explains. “When we first meet her, she is just someone who seems like she's got it all together. She has everything, but she's also very adamant about getting what she wants and she doesn't back down, especially when it comes to Megan. When she sees Megan and she sees her life and she sees just Chatham in general, it's something that Isabella has always longed for because even though she's had everything financially, she hasn't had that sense of stability. She hasn't had that best friend. She hasn't had the mom that cares for her, the sister that shows up for her, the perfect boyfriend that's going to do anything for her. And so she really, really captivates her. And I think that we see that she's willing to do absolutely anything and go to wherever to make sure that she keeps that sense of stability.”
Read more from our conversation with Underwood below.
Isabella is very confident. We also learn she’s hiding a big secret. Is the confidence just a facade or is there at least some authenticity to her confidence?
I think that it's both. As a young girl who is forced to grow up at a young age with her parents not being around, I think that she's always learned how to be naturally confident, how to naturally advocate for herself, how to show up for herself, but it definitely is a mask. And I think the biggest thing is the fact that she always feels as though she doesn't need people. She doesn't need somebody, but when she gets to Chatham and she sees the support system that Megan has, it quickly drops because she realizes that she doesn't always have to have that together exterior, that hard exterior, where it's like “me, me, me” and I have everything together. I think that it's both. I think that it's very real to her, but I think that deep down it's a facade and it's just to cover up all of her trauma, especially that was created during her childhood.
As you touched on, Cruel Summer takes a magnifying glass to the complexities and dynamics of female friendships, specifically teen female friendships. Why is that important for audiences to see on TV right now?
What I love so much about Cruel Summer is just the fact that, especially with the love triangle that we see between Isabella, Megan and Luke, it's not how it usually plays out in TV and film. It's not two girls that are fighting each other. They come together and they actually realize that they're stronger without the boy. And I think that for people to see a strong, healthy female friendship that isn't thrown off so easily by the validation of a man is really great. And I think that it's so different from the first season because Jeanette and Kate, they were two worlds apart. But in this season, the girls are working together and they're really going through the hardships together and being able to follow that journey of all the ups and downs of female friendship of what it means to fight with your friend and then to make up the next day and let's make a mistake and then to go through something messy together— all those complexities of what it is to just be part of a real friendship is really beautiful to see.
Also in consideration of your role in Little Fires Everywhere, do you enjoy being part of projects that highlight women's relationships?
I do; I think that women's stories matter. And there has been a lack, for so long, of telling complex female stories that don't have trauma or other things attached to it. And I think that it's just really beautiful to be able to, especially when shows have female creatives behind it, as well. I feel like I've been really fortunate to be able to work with some incredible women. With Little Fires Everwhere, Reese [Witherspoon], Kerry [Washington,] the whole team from Hello Sunshine, Simpson Street and then now, Jessica Biel, Elle Triedman, Michelle Purple, having them behind the scenes helps tremendously. Especially Jess and Reese and Kerry, as female actors, they get it and they understand how important it is to be a part of stories like this and how important also when you're a part of stories like this, creating that safe space and advocating every step of the way to ensure that we're continuously telling a story that is impactful for women and that it isn’t just the same old, same old to what we're used to.
Supporting women's stories and stories like this, stories that are complex and that have female leads, that's how we continue to change Hollywood. That's how we can continue to change the art of storytelling.
How do you think audiences will react to the Cruel Summer finale?
I feel like audiences are gonna be shocked. I think that there's a bit of betrayal. Honestly, in the finale, especially like season one, you go on that journey with those characters and you think one thing and you see how it all unravels, but I would definitely say it's shocking. It's not at all what you think how the show is gonna end. And I think that's what I love so much about Cruel Summer is that it takes you on this roller coaster and just when you think you have it, you don't. And as actors, the process was the exact same for us because we actually didn't know what the ending was up until it was time to film it. The whole cast found out maybe two days prior—well, who is this part of the finale, who actually films those ending scenes. So I think the same way that we felt betrayed, shocked, wanting more answers is going to be very real to what the audience feels when they watch the finale.
How did you react when you got that final script?
I couldn't believe it. Honestly, throughout the entire time, we were constantly coming up with our own theories. And so every theory that I had come up with, I thought that I was right, and just to be wrong in the end. And then it also feels like, “Of course that would be the ending” or you feel like, “Man, why didn’t I get that? Why didn't I understand?” And you go back and l you revisit every single little thing and you try to piece it together. You're like, “Oh, that makes sense.” But it's incredibly smart writing and I love the journey that it takes you on.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Freeform/Frank Ockenfels; Freeform/Justine Yeung