Where did you grow up?
I grew up a bit of a nomad. I was an Army brat, so I spent the first few years of my life in the south going from base to base, and eventually settled in Kansas City. I am so happy to have grown up in a place that is so grounded and rooted. It has given me a place to center myself and take a breath away from the crazy life I love so much from time to time. I also give a massive amount of credit to the theater community in Kansas City for teaching me work ethic and how to create without ego. There is such a beautiful group of artists there who create, perform, and innovate for the pure love of it all – every person does every job and just simply plays. I owe so much of who I am as an artist to these wonderful individuals.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actress?
Actually being an actress was a real surprise. When I was a kid, my big dream was to grow up to be an economist – a developmental economist specifically. I loved math and was even more excited when I discovered a fascination with the real world application present in the world of economics. My ideal occupation at the time would have been traveling the world working with the economic leaders and locals in communities to help them find ways to shape and mold their economic practices to most strategically position them for long term success in the global market.
However, life had other plans for me. I ran into a family friend who was directing a community theater production. I was also a dancer as a hobby and she needed someone to help out – I thought “why not.” The rest is history. I stepped on stage on opening night and had one of those rare moments of clarity one hopes for in life – I new, beyond any doubt, that I was put on this earth to tell stories. Now, I couldn’t imagine being truly happy doing anything else for the rest of my life.
You’ve had a pretty diverse career at a young age. Your first role was on broadway alongside Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Lansbury and you followed that up with several stints on TV and a role in the block buster hit “New Years Eve”. Tell us about that journey.
Landing the role on Broadway in A Little Night Music was a whirlwind to say the least. I had the audition and callback hours apart, got the call later that evening at the airport, and a week later I was living in the middle of Manhattan walking to my first rehearsal at the Walter Kerr theater on 48th street! Never in my life did I expect this – especially not at 14 years old. After doing that show for a year, I started auditioning for film and television jobs which took me to the New Year’s Eve film working for a few days pretending to ring in the next year in the middle of March, and then to Los Angeles working on a musical pilot for Disney Channel. 8 years and several jobs later, I’m still here in Los Angeles.
Do you have a preference between theatre, film, and television?
My only preference between these media is the fact that I like to keep moving between them. In my opinion, stagnancy is death for an artist – one should never be fully comfortable. I always try to be on my toes pushing myself to grow and improve. Film, television, and theater all call for a completely different technique, tasks, energy, way of working etc. As such, it inherently keeps me on my toes and allows the different styles to influence and better each other. Besides, variety is the spice of life, is it not?
You’ve worked with some pretty heavy hitters. Who has left the biggest impression on you?
Indeed, I have had the pleasure and the honor of working with some pretty incredible and iconic folks. However, I think the one that always comes to mind as being the standout is Elaine Stritch. She played my grandmother in the second half of the run of A Little Night Music and she was nothing less than a force to be reckoned with. She was well into her 80s and still doing 8 shows a week keeping up with the rest of us and loving every moment. That woman lived for her craft and lived to the fullest. I adored listening to her antics and her stories – she had a way of recounting events that made one feel as though they were constantly watching a version of her one woman show. She also had a habit of spouting one liners right before we were about to go on stage. Beyond her entertaining nature, she taught me a great deal about how to be a leading lady and a formidable woman in the entertainment industry. The longevity, respect, and success of her career speaks for itself that she has a piece of wisdom or two to impart.
What has been the craziest/surreal Hollywood moment for you?
Living and working in this world, everyone tends to have their fare share of chance encounters, celebrity sightings, and other such moments that make you realize just how bonkers our world actually is. A few of my favorites are the time I bumped into Amy Adams in the shoe section of Nordstrom Rack and we discussed our summer travel plans, the time I made awkward eye contact with Blake Lively as I was admiring her goddess like nature at a Golden Globes after party, or when I was unknowingly talking to Rita Ora for 30 minutes at an after hours shindig at the Chateu Marmot. Oh and there was also that time David O Russell nicknamed me Young Isla Fisher at a screening of one of his films and I was so floored I forgot tot tell him my ACTUAL name… then a year later, I saw him again and I finally properly introduced myself – he still remembered me as Isla.
However, I think the most surreal moment for me was the first time we went as a cast to New York Comic Con. We had just arrived on a private jet (thank you ABC/Disney) from wrapping the first season of SHADOWHUNTERS and were whisked into the convention center. Before I knew it, we were backstage behind a massive screen waiting for our sold out panel to begin. We could hear the crowd buzzing as they awaited our arrival. Then suddenly, the lights went dark and they played the first seven minutes of the pilot episode for the first time ever. We hadn’t even seen it yet and were watching (in mirror reverse mind you) from backstage. The enthusiasm with which the crowd reacted to every character, every moment, seeing our work up on scene on such a grand scale, all of it – I was extatic, overwhelmed, speechless. I was shaking, buzzing with the energy of it all. Then, we stepped into the light and onto the stage for our first ever panel. That moment was unreal and unforgettable. One of those bits of magic we all live for. The moment you realize you have become a part of something special, something meaningful and something much greater than yourself.
So far, what has been the biggest challenge to proving yourself in the industry?
I think very often after several years in this industry people can become jaded and they assume that nice is equivalent to soft. I have had a few experiences where someone assumes they can walk all over me or manipulate me because I operate from a place of kindness as opposed to competitiveness. Something I have had to prove time and time again – especially starting in this industry as a young girl is that I am not a pushover – I’m a team player. I am a business woman with an artistic passion and a moral compass. I value working with others as opposed to in spite of them and sometimes people take any perceived “sweetness” as an indication of a weak person. I literally went to university for business administration, I have a fairly savvy modicum of knowledge at my disposal with which to handle my career. I just choose to handle myself with openness and joy as opposed to a jaded sense of self preservation. To each their own, but I choose optimism and teamwork. On that note, I have found that with tenacity and a little kindness, one can often show people that there is great strength and value in working together.
Shadowhunters really put you on the map. Were you a fan of the books prior to landing the role or had you seen the movie? Were either of these influences over how you approached your character?
I owe a lot to SHADOWHUNTERS in that it did indeed help put me on the map. The show has garnered quite a large international following but quite a lot of that has to do with the immense amount of love out there for this story and these characters which comes from the source material. I have seen first hand the impact these books and show have had on the folks that are so passionate about it and I am so grateful to have been a small part of it. The fact that the fandom welcomed me so warmly, came on this journey with me so readily, and trusted me so wholeheartedly with a character that means a good deal to them is a gift I will never forget.
While I have always been a fan of the YA genre and thus was familiar with THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series, I had not yet read it when I began the casting process. As such, I began reading the book immediately but also watched the film to get a grasp of the world as quickly as I could. I instantly fell head over heels in love with the mythology of the Shadow World, its characters, and the story of the (not so) little girl with the sight who fell down the rabbit hole into a world of magic and mayhem both dark and beautiful. Being a Lily Collins fan myself, I knew I had big shoes to fill in taking on this role but I was ready for the challenge. The television series was a new life for the series, a reimagining separate from the books and the film, with just enough changes to provide me space to make my own creative choices while still paying respect to the original. I give massive credit once again to the Shadowfam for being intelligent and savvy enough to understand this and take the leap of a fresh start that SHADOWHUNTERS became.
You’ve spent over four years filming Shadowhunters in Toronto and recently you’ve joined the cast of Arrow which films in Vancouver. Which city do you prefer?
One of my favorite aspects of my job is the fact that I get to travel to and live in a myriad of different locations. Each place influences not only the way I live, but the way I work as well. What I do is so subjective that environment is always a factor. That being said, I truly cannot choose between Toronto and Vancouver. Gun to my head, I guess I would say at this point I am much more attached to Toronto but only for the reason that I know it so much more intimately at this point. I spent the better part of four years living in and exploring that city while shooting SHADOWHUNTERS. I’m sure I will grow to love Vancouver the same way in the process of working on ARROW there.
Jumper Alexander Wang / Trousers Phillip Plein / Boots Chloe
As a woman working in Hollywood what has your experience been?
Perhaps I have an extraordinarily thick skin, or perhaps I am lucky, but I feel as though I have had a largely positive experience as a woman working in Hollywood. In truth, I have been surrounded by some pretty wonderful individuals who have not only guided me on a good path, but have educated me as to the dangers and pitfalls that can come to a person in my position. Yes, I have had my fair share of folks who underestimate me, several slightly creepy encounters, and days or nights of painful footwear, but I have learned very quickly to handle these situations with what I hope is a modicum of grace. I make it my personal mission to exceed the expectations of those who think less of me, I draw very clear boundaries when I feel I must, and have learned the tricks of the trade of “working” any pair of shoes.
What depictions of women would you like to see more of in Hollywood?
I have been fortunate enough to play mostly women who are seen as strong, powerful, scrappy, and badass, giving me that perception when I step off screen as well as making my perspective in the industry one of empowerment. I thank those who have gone before me for paving the way to make this possible and for changing the narrative of female representation on screen and off, in front of and behind the camera, and beyond so that we can keep art as diverse as our world and its people to properly hold a mirror to society. As we continue this, I think Sophie Turner had it right when she commented that some day the “empowered female” character will be so normalized that it will no longer be the headline of every piece in which this instance occurs. Women are strong, they are empowered, and they are often the agents of their own story whether or not they realize it at the time. I think it is important to continue to tell diverse stories of women and of all people that are real, raw, and human. We need to tell stories that exemplify – even if in a stylized, heightened, or otherwise artistic way – the human experience.
What has been your most rewarding acting experience to date?
This question is particularly tough for me to suss out as each job becomes rewarding as it brings with it challenges that spur growth as I find ways to meet and exceed them. Overall however, I would have to say that SHADOWHUNTERS has been – through the process in its entirety – the most rewarding experience I have had in my career so far. From the rigorous audition process in which I had to prove myself and my potential in this role, to being thrown into the fray (yes, pun intended) of making the show and finding a family with my cast and crew, to being enveloped by the fans and sharing the experience with them, meeting them, hearing their stories, and seeing the impact globally the show has had on people – it is truly an experience I will cherish and one I will carry with me the rest of my life.
Who are your industry role models?
I have an endless list of people I look up to in this industry simply for the reason that I find immense value in diverse influences in my life and work artistically, personally, and professionally. By allowing myself to be influenced by a myriad of sources, my hope is to glean a well rounded perspective of what I wish to be in my own life and career. Following however is a list of a few that come to mind as important role models of mine. Viola Davis – for her beautiful blend of strength and vulnerability and the sheer force of nature that she is. Lin Manuel Miranda for being a modern genius of our generation, a kind soul, and for taking a moment to inspire a certain young Broadway kid (me) years ago. Cate Blanchett – for her incredible standard of excellence in her work and for being an icon of grace, class, and style. Jordan Peele – for being an innovator in our industry and for being fearless in using both ends of the spectrum of emotion as a social commentary that truly moves people. Jessica Chastain – for finding a pillar of strength in every character no matter how ingenue, for her impeccable taste, and being so lovely to a fellow ginger lass (me again). Matt Damon – for being an example of how to grow up in the industry and create a career with diversity, ambition, and longevity. And finally, my dear friends and big brothers Isaiah Mustafa and Harry Shum Jr. – my Papa Wolf and my Warlock Godfather who listened to my countless questions over too much coffee, guided me by word and example, advised me, and gave me confidence to move through the industry with integrity and passion. Thank you all.
You have a huge social media following. Do you feel pressured to keep up with your instagram?
I wouldn’t say pressured necessarily but I do understand the importance of it from a few perspectives. As a business major, I understand the value of it from a marketing perspective as well as an assessment of audience when it comes to producers. I also see the value in connecting with viewers and people in general globally. When information is shred and perspectives are broadcast, it becomes easier to unite and connect people across the globe. It does get a bit busy when attempting to keep up with my weekly posts of #MondayMotivation and #FanartFriday in the midst of international travel and shooting schedules, but its all worth it in the end!
Jumper Alexander Wang / Trousers Phillip Plein / Boots Chloe
As someone with a large fan base do you feel you have a responsibility with what you post?
I do feel a huge responsibility when it comes to what I post on social media. However, the responsibility extends beyond that into everything I wear, say, and do in every aspect of my public life. I am fortunate enough to do what I love for a living and in this age of celebrity culture and social media, it just so happens that it gives me a bit of a voice. As such, I don’t want to waste that opportunity to have a positive impact on the world. There is so much negativity and divisiveness in the world at present and I would love nothing more than to play a part in dispelling that. Also, having traveled and met so many fans and seen their posts on social media, I know that many of them look to their role models online to cheer them up or guide them in some way. While I feel absolutely no authority on any such subject, I do feel as though It would be remiss if I didn’t put out messages of positivity, love, and kindness – with the occasional pun or dad joke.
Social media can be a great platform but it also can be a very negative environment. How do you deal with that aspect of it?
I have learned to have a very thick skin when it comes to social media. Largely I have had a very positive experience with it thanks to the Shadowfam and Arroverse giving me such a warm welcome into their worlds. However, when it comes to the negative side, I try to take everything with a grain of salt. In the end, social media is all just ones and zeroes floating around the ether. If someone says something negative, it probably has something to do with a larger issue for them more than just a personal issue with me. As such, I dismiss it as much as possible. Also, I do everything in my power to be a positive force on the internet and promote an uplifting, inclusive, and optimistic outlook whenever possible. I was raised to look for silver linings in every situation. Life is too short to focus on the negative.
What do you hope young people can take away from the projects you’ve worked on?
My favorite part of my job is that I get to play make believe for a living. I get to be a storyteller – to play dress up – for the rest of my life. This sense of play and whimsy opens up the door to something so much more important. It allows for a chance to reflect the human experience. To find ways through the roles I play and the stories I tell, to hold a mirror up to society. My hope and my goal is that through my work, viewers are able to take a look at their own lives and experiences and ask questions, re-consider established opinions, and open themselves up to new ideas. In addition, we currently live in a world in which we are often encouraged to cover up the ugly, uncomfortable, or imperfect parts of ourselves and our minds to fit society’s “ideal.” I feel it is the job of the artist, no matter the medium, to smash that mold, to celebrate the imperfect, and find the beauty and unity in every part of the human experience. It is my job and my goal to move people, to transport them to other worlds, to inspire compassion in those who are completely different, and to remind people that to think, to experience, to feel, is to truly live.