STEFANIA LAVIE OWEN AT FAST ASHLEYS IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 2017. PHOTOS: JAMES RYANG. STYLING: BRITT MCCAMEY/HONEY ARTISTS. HAIR: SHINYA NAKAGAWA FOR KERASTASE. MAKEUP: KATIE MELLINGER USING GRESSA SKIN.
When we meet Stefania LaVie Owen in Brooklyn for her photo shoot, she is exhausted. She has every right to be; it’s the weekend of the Oscars, and Lucas Hedges, Owen’s co-star in the Off-Off-Broadway play Yen, is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. To allow him to attend the ceremony, the cast has been cramming in extra shows. In spite of her lack of sleep, Owen is extremely affable. She is about to take a trip upstate with her friends, and excited at the prospect.
Written by Anna Jordan, Yen is a highly emotional, painful play. Sixteen-year-old Hench (Hedges) and his 14-year-old brother Bobbie (Justice Smith) live in a squalid tower block flat in Feltham, London. They are unsupervised and almost feral. Their grandmother has run off with a boyfriend, accidentally locking their clothes in her washing machine; their mother, played by the fourth cast member Ari Graynor, is staying with a man the boys not-so-affectionately refer to as “minge face Alan.” They sleep on a filthy sofa-bed because their dog, Taliban, is chained up in the bedroom and they can’t afford to feed him, and waste their days watching porn and playing endless Playstation. As merciless as Yen is at times, however, there are also moments of extreme tenderness and intimacy, particularly in relation to Owen’s character, Jenny, whose childhood nickname gives the play its title. Originally from Wales and now living with her uncle, cousin, and devastated mother, Jenny meets Hench and Bobbie when she tries to rescue Taliban. Where the boys have known only neglect and brutality, Jenny is kind and sympathetic. She connects with Hench immediately.
Earlier this month, Yen wrapped its run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village. Soon, Owen, who grew up in New Zealand, will travel to California to film the second season of Hulu’s Hugh Laurie drama Chance.
A GLOBETROTTING CHILDHOOD: I was born in Miami and I was there for the first four years of my life. Then I grew up in New Zealand. As soon as I graduated high school in December of 2015, I moved to California. I was living with my aunt and my little cousins, and I booked Chance, the TV show, and filmed that in San Francisco. As soon as I finished, I was originally supposed to go back to New Zealand, but I went to New York for some publicity stuff. I knew that I loved New York, but I fell in love with it all over again and so I stayed. Now I live here.
Most of the stuff that I’ve filmed has been in New York, so I feel like I partly grew up here. I have really, really great friends here. I didn’t really know what my path was, and I’ve always been one to just jump into situations for the adventure, so it was still spontaneous, but I did know that I would move to the States after I graduated high school.
IN THE FAMILY: My mom’s Cuban-American, and my dad is a Kiwi. My mom is a dancer and we have a very social family. My dad doesn’t dance; he did one stage play before—West Side Story on the Isle of Man—but that was just a random thing. He’s very social and very good with people, so we grew up in a very loud home. We’ve just always loved to do things together and we’re very outgoing. I never really thought that I’d be an actor; I loved to perform, I loved dancing on stage because my mom was our dance teacher. We signed up to an agency in New Zealand as a family to do commercials and fun things together, and it just kind of happened. My older sister booked a movie called Bridge to Terabithia and then I booked The Lovely Bones. From there it spiraled and I started auditioning for American projects. Once I started doing that, there was this one audition, Let Me In. They ended up flying me over to L.A. and I met with the director and Avy Kaufman, the casting director, was very supportive of me. I didn’t end up getting it, but that gave me the confidence and it made me realize that I really did love acting.
JOINING YEN: Like I said, I loved always performing on stage, and being in New York, the theater world is so electric and just a very important part of New York. As soon as I moved, I had this thought: “I really would love to do a piece on stage.” I called my agent and met with the theater department. They said, “We have the perfect play for you. It’s called Yen, this is the character, just read it and see if you like it.” It was the first play that I auditioned for. It happened so fast. I did the audition, and then the callback, and then they called me saying, “You’re wintering in New York!” I was so thrilled and excited and terrified, but I’m so happy that I did it. It’s crazy that it’s over, but it’s been the most amazing experience of my life.
PREPARING TO TAKE THE STAGE: I was pretty nervous because the first day, I knew that we had to do a table read, and I hadn’t worked with the dialect coach yet. I had just done my own research on the Welsh accent and it wasn’t tippity-top. Also, because I’d never done a play before, I didn’t know how prepared I should be or if I should be off-book. I remember I met Lucas in the bathroom. We were both in there and he goes, “Oh my god, hi! I’m Lucas!” And I was like, “Oh, god. This is our first encounter? In a freaking bathroom?” Anyway, we had a lot of people watching that first table read and when you’re in a situation like that—you’re meeting people for the first time—you’re wanting to do a good job and trying to be confident but there’s so much going on and it’s a little bit chaotic.
What I’ve learned about doing a play is that you have to forgive yourself. In that first read-through, I didn’t feel 100 percent at all. I didn’t have the accent down; it was the first time reading it out loud to a group of people. I was able to learn how to forgive myself and let myself not put too much expectation or pressure. I learned that throughout, looking back on it now, but I was pretty hard on myself. [laughs]
PLAYING WELSH: It didn’t really frighten me that I’d have to put on an accent; I grew up around people with a different accent. I think it adds to the challenge and it makes it more exciting to have to learn a dialect. When I read scripts, I’m looking for something that I’ve never done before, and something that has grit and layers, so as soon as I read it, I was like, “There’s no way that I can’t do this.” I was so excited. I knew that I could tackle it. It was very challenging, but I knew that I could do it. I went in, and they requested either an Irish, a Welsh, or a Scottish accent. I looked at all three online. I was like, “Okay, Welsh is terrifying. I can’t do that. Scottish is going to take way too long to learn.” So I did the audition in an Irish accent. Once I got the role, I thought that I’d be able to continue with the Irish accent. I wasn’t that scared of it. But then, Trip [Cullman], the director, told me, “You’re going to have to learn a Welsh accent.” The Welsh accent is so specific and I was a little bit freaked out, but we had the most amazing dialect coach who was so helpful. Also watching a lot of Gavin and Stacey, I was able to get good at it. [laughs]
RELATING TO JENNY: I grew up with two sisters, and we always look out for each other and we care a lot about each other. I am very empathetic towards people and want to know how they’re feeling and I’m curious about their stories and their life, and I think Jenny is similar in that way. She does make light out of situations, and I think that I do that as well—I make light out of situations to keep chugging along.
She grew up in a more broken family, and she has been through a lot. Her dad passed away, she lives with her mom and her uncle and her cousin, who thinks she’s a freak. She’s sort of an outcast in that way, and she’s struggling with her own personal stuff. I mean, I have my own personal stuff that’s hard, but it’s very different from what Jenny’s going through. We have very different personal issues, which was really fun to play around with.
CAST BONDING: We did get close. Me, Ari, Lucas, and Justice all went out to dinner, and that was really fun. We would always get food together when we had a break. Once I went to Lucas’s place with Justice, and we ordered takeout and talked about the script. There were definitely [bonding] moments, but I think as time went on, we just really got to know each other. You’re with each other the whole day, so you’re seeing every side of that person: when they’re anxious, when they’re sad, when they’re happy. We were able to really learn about each other and understand each other. Now, I can’t imagine life without those people; they’re always going to be a huge part of my life and I know that I’m going to be seeing them forever.
THEATER LESSONS: Every day, you have to use what you’re feeling for the play. One day, you’ll feel really happy; one day, you’ll feel really depressed or maybe anxious. That’s why every play is different. Also, the audience is different. You just have to act as if it’s a new day, a new performance. The biggest challenge for me was letting go of expectations—how I thought something should be and how the audience was perceiving my performance—and instead focusing on the connection between other people on stage. I used what I was feeling our last performance and it was very overwhelming, but as soon as we finished, we all knew that we were going out partying and going to have a good time. Straight after the performance, I was just filled with adrenaline and excitement to go out with these people and celebrate the fact that we made something special. But man, I’m tired. Last night, I had over 12 hours of sleep.
SEASON TWO OF CHANCE WILL BE AVAILABLE ON HULU LATER THIS YEAR.