The Freeform psychological mystery Cruel Summer follows two young women – Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), the popular girl who others look up to, and Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), the nerdy girl who dreams of being popular – and what happens to the life of the latter when the former goes missing. Set over the summer in 1993, 1994 and 1995, the story’s shifting points of view change the perception of events, as more and more questions arise about who Kate and Jeanette really are.
During a virtual junket to promote the new series, Holt spoke to Collider for this 1-on-1 interview about what most excited her about this project, establishing the different versions of her character, her reaction to the season finale, why she didn’t want to read the last script, whether she feels any closure for her last series Cloak and Dagger, and how her love of acting developed.
Collider: When this came your way, what was it that most excited you about it and what did you think would be most challenging?
OLIVIA HOLT: I just really fell in love with every single aspect of it. I read the first two episodes before I got the part and I was just so drawn in. I was captivated by every single scene and all of the characters and how many layers there are to each character. I was drawn in from the first script and so grateful to be part of this show and this sort of storytelling because it is really unique.
Did it really help you get a sense of what this show would be, with those two episodes you got to read?
HOLT: 1000%. I was really nervous because it is a very specific way of storytelling with the two different perspectives. I was nervous to see how the rest of the season would evolve, but it is just so interesting. I was really lucky to read those first two scripts because it really gave me an idea of how the tone and how the story was gonna play out.
Does it feel really different and unusual to tell such an important story, when it comes to the relationship between these two girls, but then not share very much screen time together?
HOLT: Yeah, it’s interesting. Chiara [Aurelia], who plays Jeanette Turner, and I talk about it all the time. We never see each other. What’s gonna make the audience question their opinions that they have is seeing every single layer and detail of each of these girls’ stories and who they are and where they come from and what their evolution is. That’s why it’s so important that we’re telling the story this way.
What most helped you in setting each version of your character apart? Were there aspects of her wardrobe or just even something small you had with you, that helped you get into each version of Kate?
HOLT: It was interesting because in the beginning, I was still trying to find it. I had solidified a few things, like the hair and make-up and the wardrobe. Those were all set in stone. But when it came to characteristics, at the beginning of shooting, I was still trying to find it. And then, I got into a really good rhythm of transporting myself back into the ‘90s and listening to ‘90s music before every work day, or making sure that my communication with the incredible team of leaders that we have on this show was really on point. Some days we were shooting three different years in one single filming day, and so it was really important for me to be like, “Okay, what was the moment before? What did we establish before this scene?”
There were little things, like the Southern accent. In ‘93, it’s very distinct for Kate because her mother is so Southern and her mother really is controlling, in the way that she wants Kate to be just like her. Kate feels that and feels some sort of connection with her mom, where she has to follow in that path, so the Southern accent and the little bit of twang that I had in ‘93 was very prominent. And then’ after the traumatic experience in ‘94, where she hasn’t seen or been around any people, that accent loses its twang. And then, in ‘95, she is molded into her own self, where she doesn’t feel any control from anybody. That’s when she’s actually solidified who she is, in this rebellious stage of her life. That was something that I had really tied onto, with the way that she spoke and the way that she carried herself. There was the physical representation, but also the way that she would speak was something that I made the choice very firmly on, in what I did with Kate.
Because you’re filming in three different years and sometimes doing so in the same day, was there a day that was most challenging for you, or was there a scene that was most challenging to do?
HOLT: The ‘94 scenes were probably the most challenging because of the Kate and Martin relationship. It was really heavy. That’s something that people, when watching the show, should be a little guarded for. It was really challenging to film, some days. The basement set was not a really inviting, friendly set. It was actually very terrifying. I think everybody on our crew felt that. When they saw on the callsheet that we were gonna be filming in the basement that day, everybody’s energy was a little bit different. The ‘94 scenes were probably the most challenging and emotional to film. It was tricky.
Jeanette idolizes Kate and is envious of aspects of her life, but we also get to see ways that Kate is also maybe a little bit envious of Jeanette and the relationship she has with her family, as opposed to the one she has with her own mother. Was it fun to also explore that and really look at how these girls maybe could have been friends, in a different world?
HOLT: Absolutely. One thing that I think is really important for the audience to know is that Kate is not a mean girl. I think that’s what a lot of people would expect, but I know that’s not the case. Kate is not this malicious, mean human being. She is kind and compassionate, and she sees Jeanette and sees this sweet, innocent, free bird who is completely herself. I don’t think she sees the layer of envy that Jeanette has towards Kate, but I don’t think that Jeanette sees the layer of envy that Kate has towards her. It’s so easy for us, as humans, to completely judge somebody by their appearance or by their past or by their environment and who they surround themselves with. But in this specific show, the way that we’ve grounded it is by completely living those realities of what we do as humans. I think that there could have been a world where they could have been friends, but that’s just not the case here.
Now that you’ve gotten to the end of the season and have seen how things turn out, how different or surprising was it than what you thought it might be?
HOLT: Oh, my theories were so wrong. They were so, so wrong. I was so mad too because I was so confident in my theories. I am very satisfied. I think the audience will be too. I hope that they are. I think the evolution of this mystery is just so special and wildly adventurous, and people should prepare themselves for a pretty wild ride. What makes this show so fun is that you make up theories along the way, and sometimes you’re totally right, or you’re completely wrong, like me. Being able to struggle with the opinions, and who’s the victim and who’s the villain, really makes up for this kind of good storytelling that we’re doing.
How scary was it to get that last script and actually read it? What were the emotions you were going through?
HOLT: I didn’t want to read it. I was like, “I’m not doing it. I’m not shooting the last episode.” It was terrifying because it really is a journey. We deal with a lot of heavy topics in this show and I was really nervous to finish this story off. I think the audience is gonna be really satisfied. Reading through it, I was just so excited with how this show has been written and how you really feel transported back into the ‘90s. All of the layers that these characters have are just so specific and so special that I think people are really gonna fall in love with it, the way that I did.
You did Cruel Summer after having come off of Cloak and Dagger. How hard was it for you to say goodbye to Tandy after not being able to really fully finish out that show to a conclusion? Was it difficult to find a sense of closure and move on from her?
HOLT: Yes and no. I feel like it’s always hard to do that. When you’re so passionate about a character and about a project, even if it is completely sealed off with a ribbon, it’s always very difficult whenever you feel so strongly about something, and I did. I was so incredibly passionate about that character and about that project and the stories that we told, but I have found closure. Everything that we had to say in that show really impacted me, in a real way, and I’m very grateful to be a part of something that was based in fantasy, but also in reality, and made such an impact on so many people. As an actor, doing storytelling that moves people that way is the ultimate goal for me. I was very grateful to be a part of that experience.
What was it that originally made you want to be an actor? Was it a specific project or a performer that you saw, and did you have a moment where you realized that it could actually be a real thing and that you could do it as a career?
HOLT: I was maybe about eight or nine years old when I started acting, not professionally, just doing local theater in my hometown, and I just loved it. It was so exhilarating. I remember being on stage and feeling like that’s where I belonged, but I lived in a small town, so the idea of making it a career was never legitimate, until I got an agent. That experience was so bizarre in itself because, at that point in my life, I was 10 years old and it didn’t feel real. It didn’t feel like it was actually happening. It was just so fun. I’m so grateful for my parents because it never felt like a job. It never felt like work. Even still, if it ever felt like a job, I wouldn’t do it anymore because I want my life to be filled with fun and challenging experiences.
I remember the first gig that I booked was a sitcom on Disney Channel and I was working with the best people. I was working with a cast and a crew that really made it feel home away from home. That experience was just so spectacular and so special, in its own way. It was like my own little playground because I was so young and I was just having fun with the people that I was working with. I was also doing school on the set and I was learning so much about being an actor. I didn’t really have any experience, so I was learning from my co-workers. I also was learning about what writers did. We had a writers’ room upstairs on our soundstage, so I would go up there and be like, “How do you do this?” I even did that with the different directors that came in. My whole experience has been an adventure. I’m so grateful for this creative outlet because I don’t know where else I would put this creativity. I don’t know where else I would put it, unless it was into the incredible stories that I’m able to tell.
Cruel Summer airs on Tuesday nights on Freeform.
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