Last month HULU premiered their now-hit show “Little Fires Everywhere,” which is an adaptation of the Celeste Ng novel of the same name. Co-executive produced and co-starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington the writing and acting are top notch, with Joshua Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Jesse Williams and more among the cast. Some of the most impressive acting comes from the young talent on the show — Reese Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, mother to four teenagers and Kerry Washington plays Mia Warren, literally the most opposite you can get from Elena. Lexi Underwood portrays Pearl Warren, Mia’s 15-year-old daughter and we were absolutely blown away by her ability to go toe to toe with Washington in scene after scene. We recently caught up with Lexi to talk about how she’s been enjoying the success of “Little Fires Everywhere” and she gave us a lot of insight about working with Kerry Washington, the challenges of being a young actor and how her former stage life as Young Nala in “The Lion King” gave her a forever family of fellow cubs.
Check out our Q&A below:
BOSSIP: Congratulations! “Little Fires Everywhere” is such an acclaimed series already, how has the feedback been for you?
Lexi Underwood: It’s been crazy. I knew it was going to be something – that I hoped people would like – just on set and reading the scripts. As an actor I felt really humbled to be part of this project. It’s a fantastic feeling when all your hard work, everybody’s hard work, there was so much that was put into this project so the fact that people love it just really makes my heart happy.
BOSSIP: Do you pay attention to the people who are upset because the show isn’t exactly like the book?
Lexi Underwood: I don’t think any project has all good reviews. Also I try not to focus on that. When people have critiques I try to respect them. If that’s how they feel, that’s how they feel. I can’t get mad at people who don’t like the show or if someone is mad that a tv adaptation was made from a book.
BOSSIP: Part of the drama of the series is how realistic it is. You’re 16 and Pearl is around the same age, how has it been having to portray that teenage turbulence? With the dynamic between her and her mom and also dealing with her sexuality, there’s obviously a lot of tension. Trip is pulling Pearl in one direction and Moody is pulling her in another. That’s drama right there.
Lexi Underwood: It is, it’s a lot of drama. It was so fun playing Pearl. She’s 15 in the show, it’s a difficult age. What’s so beautiful about all the teenage characters is they are all going through something. They’re all in a way struggling with identity issues and struggling to see where they fit in. Which I think is part of what is so timely about the show is that, even though it’s set in the 90’s, I feel like any kid can look at one of these characters and relate to them in some way. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is these dynamics with all these actors. First Miss Kerry [Washington]. Working with somebody like Miss Kerry was a dream come true. We had endless conversations about how we were going to portray the relationships of Mia and Pearl. But then adding that layer on, when people read the book, you don’t know what race Mia and Pearl are, so for us to be black adds a whole other layer to the dynamic between them. While they are going through similar things that they are in the book, there’s a different approach that a black mother would have in some of these scenarios, there is a different approach that a black daughter would have in some of the scenarios. So Miss Kerry and I had a lot of conversations about how we were going to portray the authenticity of a black mother and daughter relationship. Miss Kerry was just so helpful. There are a lot of intense scenes in the show. She really just helped me and guided me along the way. This is like my first big project, so when we were on set something that I really admired about her was how she helped create a safe atmosphere, not just for me, but for all of the actors to just be able to have creativity and feel as though they could be free as artists.
Even though we were kids on set, we never felt as though we couldn’t speak up and we couldn’t bring our ideas to the table and if something felt not authentic to our character, we never felt as if we couldn’t step in and say, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’ We could always come and say ‘Hey this doesn’t feel right, can we try this again?” Even if we felt a line needed to be rewritten, Liz Tigelaar was on it. She would send over scripts and she would be like, ‘What do you guys think? Does this feel true to your character?’ Something that Miss Kerry would say a lot was ‘Be your character’s keeper’ so that you are being true to your character, if this is something that you feel your character wouldn’t do, then don’t do it.
BOSSIP: We read that you manifested this role, can you talk more about that?
Lexi Underwood: I did. About a year before, a friend of mine had told me about the project. I put it up on my vision board. It’s in my notes in my phone. I was like, I’m going to audition for Pearl. But actually a day before my audition for “Little Fires Everywhere,” I lost a pilot and I was ready to pack up and go home. And I told my mom, that you know, if I did audition for “Little Fires Everywhere” it would be the last audition that I did.
I’ve been out in L.A. for five years now and I’m originally from DC and my family is bicoastal so it’s been a journey. It’s been a lot of sacrifices we made. We left behind everything that we knew. My parents took a big leap of faith for me to be here and be able to do what I love, I got to the point where I felt I was being selfish in a way. My mom encouraged me and she was like, ‘You’ve been wanting to audition for “Little Fires Everywhere,” just go in and give them your all show them what you’ve got and if you don’t want to do this after, then fine we’ll go home. So I went in with the expectation that I wasn’t going to book it, in all honesty, but because I went in with the mindset that it was my last audition, I did give it my all, so I went in there carefree.
I did my research on Pearl. I had already started cultivating a playlist for her, like early auditions, which is something I never do. I always make the playlist after the fact. I just really wanted to make a playlist for her. I think the playlist started off with five songs. I have 88 songs on the playlist. It’s all music that came out before 1997 or that was released in 1997 because the story is set in 1997, so things that would have been available to Pearl. I felt like Mia is such a free spirit. In later episodes we kind of get a glimpse into what Pearl’s life has been like and so you really get to see. I think Mia was just so open to teaching Pearl about certain artists and musicians. There’s a lot of Prince on here, there’s a lot of Fleetwood Mac, Alannis Morisette, Aaliyah, John Lennon, Elton John, The Beatles, TLC, Vanessa Williams, Biggie, Tupac, the Velvet Underground, Mazzy Star. Going into the classics, Donna Summer and Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill and Sade. All those people that I felt as though Pearl grew up having listened to. That influenced me and I felt influenced Pearl.
I just felt really one with Pearl throughout the audition process. I am very spiritual, I believe everything happens for a reason, and I was praying and I was meditating and I was trying to manifest it, but I wasn’t trying to put a lot of pressure on myself. It’s really easy to get caught up in the process and think that a project is going your way and then it doesn’t so when I booked it I just really couldn’t believe it.
BOSSIP: Is it safe to say you won’t be moving back to D.C. now? What have you been doing during the quarantine?
Lexi Underwood: I actually have some exciting stuff coming up, so I can’t go back to DC. I don’t think that I will even when this exciting thing is done. Growing up, I think that I’ve always wanted to be out here and I think seeing the impact that this show has made me feel more comfortable being out here now. I’ve just been working during this quarantine. I have my own production company so I have been writing. I’ve been kind of having pitch meetings and meetings with other fellow young female filmmakers, cultivating relationships and making sure I have something to do when this quarantine is done. Something I’ve been loving doing is just being able to take a beat and focus on my production company.
In November 2015, Underwood landed the musical theatre role of her lifetime as Young Nala in the Disney Theatrical Productions The Lion King (musical) created by Julie Taymor. Underwood performed with the Lion King Gazelle North-American Touring Company from January to August 2015 and covered Broadway in the same role.
BOSSIP: We noticed that you’re really close with Shahadi Wright (‘The Lion King,’ ‘Us’), do you guys have any plans to work together in the future?
Lexi Underwood: I absolutely love Shahadi, I’ve known Shahadi since I was ten-years-old. We were both Nala [in
‘The Lion King’]. She’s been my best friend for so many years. We can only hope we can be on a project together. Fingers crossed. I’m an only child, but Shahadi is like a sister to me. We’ve been manifesting that we’re going to work together some day. We weren’t Young Nala at the same time, but we got to meet each other, like Caleb McLaughlin, like Jahi Winston, if you’re in ‘The Lion King,’ there’s a family that was somehow formed. Once you’re a ‘Lion King’ cub you’re like forever family. So yea, we’re hoping that we get to work together some day.
A new episode of “Little Fires Everywhere” airs every Wednesday on HULU.