Lexi Underwood Wants to Amplify Black Voices In Film and TV
The young actress and filmmaker is fighting for positive representation of young black girls on TV.
The young actress and filmmaker is fighting for positive representation of young black girls on TV.
Quite fittingly for this point in time, Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere focuses on issues of white privilege and systemic racism. In the storyline, Pearl — the character played by Lexi Underwood — has an encounter with a guidance counselor in her new elite high school that happens to be made up of predominantly white students from affluent families. The counselor doesn’t seem to believe Pearl when she says she has already taken Geometry and wants to switch to a more advanced math course. “You know, when kids commute here from Cleveland, they often think they can handle more than they can,” he says. “I live in Shaker,” Pearl responds, after a moment of hesitation. “Look, Shaker isn’t like your other schools. You need a lot of support at home. Better to succeed in a regular level course than to fall behind in an advanced one.” He then proceeds to look her up and down and ask if she needs subsidized lunch forms.
As if that wasn’t enough, Pearl’s family friend, Lexie Richardson — the eldest sibling of the wealthy Richardson family played by Jade Pettyjohn — steals Pearl’s story about being denied entry into a math class because she struggled with her college admission’s essay prompt to recall a time she had to overcome hardship. Partly due to her white privilege, she hadn’t any to note. Sadly, using Pearl’s story actually helped get Lexie into her dream school, Yale.
Though the movie is set in 1997, more than 20 years into the future, society is still grappling with issues of systemic racism, white privilege and the use of Black culture for beneficial purposes today.
In the wake of current sociopolitical events, we asked Lexi Underwood, the 16-year-old actress, singer, filmmaker and activist, to share her stance on the ongoing protests and Black Lives Matter movement:
“This time has been incredibly challenging. It's so traumatic, seeing videos of my people being beaten and killed for the color of their skin. It's heartbreaking. We are living in a cruel sequel of systemic racism that has infected humanity for centuries. I have found comfort and hope in protesting and being active. It warms my heart to see the world come together to try and create change. We can’t have sustainable, impactful change if we are all divided.”
Before the brutal killing of George Floyd gave rise to active protests all around the country, we spoke with Lexi about her latest project — Little Fires Everywhere on Hulu — as well as what the young starlet has been keeping herself busy with in the past few months. We'll let Lexi take it from here:
V MAGAZINE Are you currently in LA? What have you been up to over the past few weeks?
LEXI UNDERWOOD Yeah, I'm currently in LA right now, and I've been honestly just trying to keep myself sane. I've been painting, writing, really starting to get even more into meditation than I was before... I've been reading a lot, exercising; I kind of became a 'gym rat' at home. I've been cooking, reading scripts, writing scripts, all of that good stuff — just trying to keep myself busy.
V How would you describe your character, Pearl?
LU Pearl is such a complex character. There are so many things that are happening in her brain, every time we see her. She is so much more than people peg her to be, including her mom. And I think it's a beautiful thing towards the end of the series where everybody starts to realize that Pearl has so much more depth than everybody gave her credit for. Yes, the Richardsons were definitely using her in some ways, but I think Pearl was also doing the same thing for them. I feel like she knew exactly what they were doing, she knew exactly the motives behind it but, in her own special way, also kind of used them as well — because as soon as she started hanging out with the Richardsons, she was kind of living this picture-perfect life that she has always dreamed of having.
I think that Pearl [is] just so intelligent. At the end of the day, she's just a 15-year-old girl who is trying to fit in, trying to figure out where she belongs, without the influence of her mom, and living her life without it having to be what her mom wants or needs.
V The story is set in the ‘90s, what was it like for you to play someone from a different generation?
LU I did as much research as possible. I researched things about the ‘90s, 1997 especially — what were the racial tensions during that time? What was like the latest fashion? What were the songs that they were listening to back then, what were the Billboard Hot 100? What were the shows that they were watching, the movies, what a young teen girl would like during that time?
I also created Venn diagrams, between me and Pearl and Pearl and other characters. The first one I did between Pearl and I was to figure out the similarities and differences between us. As an actor, it's never my job to judge the character that I'm playing. I always want to make sure that I have enough information and I'm fully immersed in the characters to the point where whatever choices she's making, I feel like I'm actually making those choices and not judging what the character is doing. I feel like when you start to judge, you start to question the choices that your character makes, and then it starts to become a bit unauthentic.
V Do you have a favorite piece that Pearl has worn in the show?
LU I absolutely love Pearl's jeans! (laughs) I love all of her jeans that she wore. But when it comes to that era, it would definitely have to be the entertainment side of it — just the music in itself is something so special and so beautiful. You know, even though there are incredible artists out there right now that are keeping R&B and soul alive, I just feel like ‘90s music will always hold a special place in my heart. It'll always be something that's so special and near and dear to everybody's heart.
V Could you personally relate to any of the issues that this series has touched upon?
LU The beautiful thing about this story and these characters is that no matter where you're from, what race you are, how old you are, what language you speak — everybody can relate to one of these characters in one way or another, especially the teen characters. And at the end of the day, all of them are just trying to figure out where they fit in and where they belong without the guidance or the influence of the people around them. That's probably the biggest way that I can relate to Pearl.
Also, just the different microaggressions or cold phases with friends — you know, her friendships go up and down and she's trying to figure out these friendships, just like any normal teenager would. Trying to figure out who your true friends are, but then also being lightly influenced by what's popular, what's acceptable and what's considered cool. There are just different things that all these young characters are going through that I think that anybody can actually relate to.
V Can you give us a run-through of what a typical day on Little Fires Everywhere set was like?
LU The first thing, something that I always admired is this chemistry, is just a simple fact that it could be super early in the morning, but everyone would still come in with just this infectious energy. They would just smile and brighten everyone's day and make it a point that no matter how early it was. They would look everybody in their eyes and make everybody feel comfortable. I think that's super important because the way that you walk into the set is what sets the tone and energy for the day.
The second thing is filming — We would go on set and it would just be incredibly fun, especially if it's all the kids filming together, we were like one big happy family. In between breaks, we would be in each other's trailers; lunchtime, we all sat together and ate lunch... Sometimes it didn't even feel like work, it felt like we were just doing what we love and having the privilege and opportunity to do it with people that we really enjoy being around and that we admire. I feel like after Little Fires Everywhere, I gained four new siblings. We'll always have each other's backs no matter what.
V What kind of shenanigans did you guys get into?
LU We would all joke around Jordan [Elsass] who played Trip, he's like the biggest jokester of all. We would be on set and just playing with different set items and crack jokes. Something that was really fun was that one time when we were in the Richardsons' house in the living room, by the TV, and there's like a bunch of DVDs of these old movies. Reese quizzed us on our ‘90s knowledge with the movies and I think all of us only knew about one or two movies out of like 30 or 50, which was really sad. (laughs) Reese has it on film somewhere, so I have to see if she will put it out there or not.
V How do you see your career growing and developing in the coming years?
LU With my career, whatever I do next, I hope to continue to create and be a part of stories that push narratives forward, and uplift people, and make others think — like Little Fires Everywhere. Especially with my production company, Ultimate Dreamer Productions, I want to make sure that I'm continuing to be a part of stories that shed light on issues and topics that need to be talked about. Something so beautiful about Little Fires Everywhere that I admired was just conversations that it started and how it made everybody sit back and think about everything happening in the world right now. Even though it's set in the ‘90s, we're talking about topics that are still relevant right now. My hope is to continue to tell stories like that.
The biggest thing with my production company was just the fact that growing up, I didn't see much of the positive representation for young black girls on TV. No matter what race or gender you are, I want to make sure that no kid ever grows up seeing themselves portrayed in the media in a negative way and not in an authentic or realistic way. I want to create projects that you wouldn't normally see, I want to do what somebody else would never think of. With whatever I do, whether it's a film or TV show, I want the audience to leave the project kind of feeling like, 'Oh my gosh, what did I just watch?' — like Little Fires Everywhere did. I want my projects to spark discussions and I want my projects to help push the narrative forward. You know, these issues that we're talking about are extremely important, and I don't ever want to sit back and bite my tongue and be afraid to tell a story because I'm scared of what somebody will think.
V Is the second season of Little Fires Everywhere on the way?
LU As of right now, I genuinely don't know. But hopefully, fingers crossed!
V Do you have any projects lined up for the coming months? What should we expect?
LU I actually have some stuff lined up that I can't really talk about right now, but when I can — I got you! (laughs) I would absolutely love to do some film work. I recently did one, did a film back in 2018 with Meagan Good. It was an indie film, that was super dope — it should be coming out soon!
*These images were shot within CDC-approved social distancing guidelines.