Lexi Underwood of Little Fires Everywhere Proves to Regina King That the Kids Are Alright

By
Photography Sophie Hur

Published March 18, 2020

Lexi Underwood is living the teenage dream. After her role as Athena on the Amazon Kids series Will vs. The Future and an appearance on Criminal Minds, the 16-year-old has landed a starring role on the Hulu adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel Little Fires Everywhere alongside Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington—or “Miss Kerry,” as she calls her. All the while, Underwood has been nurturing her passion for directing documentaries and keeping up her background in singing and dancing—on top of school, of course. (She doesn’t have much time for TV herself, but she’ll make sure to pencil in her own show). Balancing academics and a burgeoning Instagram presence isn’t easy for a teen, let alone one with a star turn on a much-anticipated TV show. But it’s all still in the “exciting category” for Underwood, as she tells Regina King, another life-long TV titan; the Oscar winner and star of HBO’s Watchmen has been gracing America’s television sets since her breakout role as Brenda Jenkins in 227 at age 14. If Underwood’s talk with King—about generosity, Black history, and political engagement—proves anything, it’s that the kids are indeed alright.

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REGINA KING: Are you excited? Because the show is premiering in what, a week, two weeks?

LEXI UNDERWOOD: Three weeks! It’s so surreal. I’m super excited.

KING: What type of excited are you?

UNDERWOOD: I’m nervous excited, but I’m also just really anxious. I’m super excited just to see everybody’s reaction to the show because we all worked super hard on it so it’s a great feeling to see your hard work being paid off and for the rest of the world to see it.

KING: Definitely. I remember when I was directing Kerry [Washington] in Scandal, they were really big with live-tweeting and all of those things. Have you guys prepared any things like that?

UNDERWOOD: We’ve had a couple of conversations as to what we have to do when the show premieres, and I’m currently in New York doing a bunch of press for the show. It’s all just so new to me since this is my first big thing, but it’s been a blast.

KING: Right. You’ve never had to have the responsibility of social media and promotion. Is it very time-consuming, or is it still in the exciting category?

UNDERWOOD: It’s still in the exciting category. I love doing photo shoots and interviews. I never feel like I’m wasting my time or I never feel tired. It’s all just been fun.

KING: Have you connected with any other young actors that have already experienced a bit of this that have given you any advice?

UNDERWOOD: Yeah. Shahadi Wright Joseph, who was in Us, she’s been giving me some tips. And then also Miss Kerry. She was giving me tips when it came to planning my publicist. Her and Reese [Witherspoon] were super helpful when it came to that. So I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of helpful advice when it comes to the journey that I’m about to go on.

KING: And Kerry and Reese, you can’t get any better than that.

UNDERWOOD: Right? They’re just two incredibly amazing human beings. I’m honestly just so grateful how they’ve just been so open and warm to not only me, but all the kids. They’ve been there for us every step of the way, ever since we started the process. Miss Kerry’s like a second mom to me now. They’re both so incredibly sweet. I love them.

KING: Aww, that’s so sweet. Have you always felt comfortable around them? You never did feel that kind of starstruck feeling?

UNDERWOOD: No, no, because they’re both so down to earth and so humble, and you really felt that come across, even when we were on set doing scenes. Something that I absolutely adored about them was the fact that they weren’t just interested in making themselves look good. They wanted to make sure everybody else in the scene looked good, especially Miss Kerry. She’s just such a generous actor. She’s so giving in every scene that she does, no matter who she’s playing opposite. Working with them was an absolute dream.

KING: That’s one of the greatest lessons you can get at an early age in a career—when you’re in a scene, it’s not just about you. If the other people in the scene are good, then your performance is going to be even better.

UNDERWOOD: Yeah, exactly.

KING: It’s very important to make sure you nurture the entire scene or the entire process, especially if you want a good outcome. That’s a great lesson. Lucky girl.

UNDERWOOD: Right?

KING: I heard that originally, in the book [Little Fires Everywhere], the story plot didn’t include black characters.

UNDERWOOD: Yeah, it did not.

KING: So Mia and Pearl existed in the book, but they weren’t black.

UNDERWOOD: Yeah. There was no race assigned to them, actually, which I think was so interesting for Miss Kerry and I to be able to play with. When I got attached to the project, we both sat down and had a conversation with each other about how we were going to convey an authentic black mother-daughter relationship that took place in the ’90s. And while Miss Kerry has experience with that because she grew up in the 90’s and she’s black, I didn’t. So being able to portray that dynamic was super fun. We stayed true to the book, but we took them and played them like a black mother and a black daughter would play them. 

KING: Do you think an example of that is that scene in the first episode, when the police come up, and how that played out?

UNDERWOOD: It feels super impactful for the first time that you see me in Pearl’s world, for that to be an encounter with the police. I feel like it really captures the essence of what it’s like to be black in America, no matter what time period it is. I and a lot of black teenagers can relate to that too, because my parents had to have the talk with me when everything started happening with police brutality. As soon as Pearl hears the words “hands on the dashboard,” she absolutely knows what Mia’s talking about. And it feels almost like it’s a routine. This happens a lot, especially because most of the time they live out of their car. So I feel like for that to be the first scene for me and Pearl was super powerful.

KING: In the show, you guys move around a lot, and you were saying there were some things about Pearl that you weren’t familiar with. What types of things did you have to do to help you embody a young girl that has to move around and change friends often?

UNDERWOOD: First, I created a playlist for her. Each and every single episode she had a different playlist. I felt as though that really just helped me tap into the emotions that I had to portray in every single episode. Also, I had a journal and I would write journal entries as Pearl. I took excerpts from the book and tied them into the script so that I could keep the same feel that Celeste Ng wrote for Pearl. When I wrote the journal entries, I felt one with Pearl, and every day listening to her playlist really just got me in the mindset and the zone so I can sympathize with her and tap into what she was feeling in those certain moments.

KING: What does she listen to? What would have been her favorite movie in the ’90s, or a favorite song?

UNDERWOOD: I feel as though definitely the Spice Girls would be her favorite. We actually referenced the Spice Girls a lot in the show. Maybe her favorite movie would be a bit of a rom-com corny type of thing. 10 Things I Hate About You, something cheesy like that. Fashion wise, too—that’s truly what she wants to look like: preppy, all-American, well put-together. But due to money and circumstance, she can’t really pull off those things.

KING: Which were a lot of kids in the ’90s. Not having the resources, but finding ways to make it them themselves.

UNDERWOOD: Yeah.

KING: Little Fires Everywhere is an adaptation, and it definitely is a favorite of a lot of readers. Some people are really looking forward to the show and are ready to criticize. How do you take that all in? Do you feel like you have a responsibility? Is it a lot of pressure?

UNDERWOOD: There is a bit of pressure. But at the end of the day, I’m very proud of the work that everybody put in, and there’s a bit of comfort in knowing that Celeste Ng, the author, was also a part of the process the whole entire time. I feel as though if there was anything that wasn’t authentic to the story that she wrote, she would definitely come in and say something. I find a lot of comfort when I hear that she’s super pleased with how it came out, and she’s pleased with everybody’s performance. I just hope that people aren’t too harsh because we definitely do change some things, but I feel like we change it for the better.

KING: Did you read the book before?

UNDERWOOD: I didn’t. I started reading the book during chemistry reads actually. So when I finished my chemistry reads, I went out and purchased the book, and I read it in, I believe, two days.

KING: Oh, wow.

UNDERWOOD: It was so good. I couldn’t put it down. Even without auditioning for the show and the eagerness and excitement that I already had for the project, it’s such a good book and such a good story. If you ever read the book, it’s super hard to put it down. Celeste Ng is such a gifted writer.

KING: One of the cool things about adapting a book into a series is it gives you more time to kind of dive in and use a lot of that source material. I know you said there were some things that you guys changed, but do you feel like you did a good job of preserving those characteristics about the book that moved you?

UNDERWOOD: Yeah, absolutely. What was actually super cool was that we got tone notes from Celeste and Liz Tigelaar, our show runner. We got tone notes before each and every single episode from Celeste that she wrote personally. Just little things to keep in mind when she wrote certain chapters in the book, to make sure that we added those elements to the actual show. It was super helpful in making sure that we stayed true to the story.

KING: Oh, that’s awesome. That way you don’t fall into being Lexi, but remain Pearl.

UNDERWOOD: Yeah, exactly.

KING: I hear that directing is something that you’d like to do as well.

UNDERWOOD: Yes.

KING: Maybe another Celeste book would be interesting. What would be something that you would want to direct, other than her other book, Everything I Never Told You? [Laughs]

UNDERWOOD: I actually opened up my own production company for my 15th birthday and—

KING: Oh wow.

UNDERWOOD: Yeah. So with that, I made my directorial debut. I had my own documentary that I filmed in D.C., which is where I’m from. It’s called We, The Voices Of Gen Z, and it was a roundtable discussion full of diverse Generation Z voices, and we were talking about important topics that were happening in America at the time and they’re still happening right now. And it was so cool because we had different voices and different perspectives and people clash. But at the end of the documentary, everybody came together to kind of create a solution to all the problems that we discussed. So I would love to do more things like that. Just more passion projects and more documentaries.

I’m currently working on a documentary about this place called “the Square” back in Gastonia, North Carolina, which is where my entire family is from. And the Square was a little square that had all black-owned businesses from the ’40s to the ’70s. I feel like right now, I’m kind of more focused on documentaries and just spreading the word of things that I’m very passionate about and more of just wanting to make sure that the projects that I put out are things that are going to ultimately make a difference in this world.

KING: Wow. Very impressive, Lexi.

UNDERWOOD: Thank you.

KING: You’re making my heart smile. I’m very curious about this town. It’s in Gastonia, you said?

UNDERWOOD: Yeah, Gastonia, North Carolina. Look it up, there’s literally nothing on it. I just recently found out about it. Maybe like a year ago, me and my cousins, we were sitting down with our family and they were just telling us how my great-grandfather was actually the neighborhood pharmacist for African-Americans there, since they couldn’t go to any of the white pharmacists or the white doctors. Basically, people would come to our family house from the ’40s through the ’70s, and they would just come in the middle of the night, sick. And they would say, “Hey, I need medicine. I don’t have any money, but I have these collard greens.”

And my grandfather, he was such a kind and a warm person, so he would let them into our house and he would treat them until they were better. And they didn’t even have anything. In that moment, it was community where everybody looking out for each other. I feel as though we’re not always looking out for each other now. And so I feel like it’s super important to tell those stories and to kind of reminisce on the good days and hope that that sense of community and togetherness comes back around.

KING: Right. That reminder of, this is where we’ve been.

UNDERWOOD: Exactly.

KING: So you’ve got a rich history. What is your grandfather’s last name? The family name.

UNDERWOOD: Smith. His name was Norman Allen Smith. And actually, when Dr. King would come to North Carolina, he would work alongside him. So I’m super proud of where I come from, and I can’t wait to tell my family’s history because we have some lovely stories.

KING: I can’t wait for you to dig in. I’m sure you’re going to find just so many nuggets of gold in your history. When can we see the first documentary that you did?

UNDERWOOD: I have a YouTube channel, so I’m planning to drop it there right around the election. I feel like that that can inspire a lot of young people who are newly 18 to go out and vote. And I just want people to know that no matter how young you are, your voice matters and your opinion matters. Don’t be afraid to speak out about what you’re passionate about because your voice matters and your voice can, at the end of the day, make a difference.

KING: Lexi, you might want to drop it before, and I’ll tell you why. A lot of young people aren’t aware of what all it takes to gather all the information you need to make an informed choice. You know, we have this primary coming up in California on Tuesday, and there’s a lot of information to read up on on council members and things like that, people that are up to be elected. And I feel like somebody like you will have even more influence after Little Fires Everywhere has premiered, and people can watch that documentary and become inspired, then go and do the research so that come election time, they can actually make an informed decision. If you release the documentary too close to election time, then people don’t have the time to react and actually gain more information.

UNDERWOOD: Yeah, definitely. Thank you so much for that. 

KING: Well, I will be looking out for it. You have to make sure you keep me posted if you are going to release that on your channel. What are you reading right now?

UNDERWOOD: I’m currently reading If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. He’s one of my all-time favorite authors. So I’m trying to read each and every single book that he’s ever written.

KING: Well, isn’t it ironic that you’re talking to me on the phone right now.

UNDERWOOD: Right? Exactly. And I’m also reading Sacred Woman by Queen Afua. She is the Egyptian woman who basically wrote a whole entire book about just womanhood and growing up in times like these. It’s super inspiring. So for any young female that’s going through a big transition in their life, I absolutely recommend that book.

KING: Do you have any favorite TV shows? Are you binging anything?

UNDERWOOD: I don’t really watch TV, but I currently just finished High Fidelity, which was absolutely fantastic. And then I always find myself going back to watch A Different World reruns. I bought each and every single season of A Different World, so most of the time, if I’m watching TV then I’m watching A Different World.

KING: There’s not a lot of time to watch a lot of TV, I’m sure.

UNDERWOOD: No. I’ve never been much of a TV person, in all honesty. I prefer reading or writing over watching TV, but when Little Fires Everywhere comes out, then I will be watching that.

KING: What would you like to do next, acting-wise? Or do you already have something lined up?

UNDERWOOD: A dream role of mine that I’m currently talking to some people about—I’m trying to get an Aaliyah biopic made, but a proper one, and see if we can get the family’s permission and get all the rights to all the music.

KING: Because you sing and dance, right?

UNDERWOOD: I do. She’s one of my biggest inspirations, so I would absolutely love to play her and to tell her story, portray it correctly.

KING: Right. I know that she was an inspiration of yours, but do you know much about her story outside of the R. Kelly part of it? 

UNDERWOOD: Yeah. I watched a documentary that they have on Amazon about her, and I feel like just what is so inspiring about her is just the ambition that she had at such a young age, and at that time she was just a young black girl from Detroit. But she was number one during the ’90s, which was just so big for us as a people at that time. And she started off at the same exact age that I started off, fifteen. 

KING: So I have a couple of things to be following with you. A proper Aaliyah film and a new documentary. Those will be what I’ll be speaking into existence and helping you attract.

UNDERWOOD: Yes, ma’am. Thank you.

KING: Very very exciting. Well, I cannot wait to watch the entire season of Little Fires Everywhere. I’ve only seen the first few episodes, but-

UNDERWOOD: Oh, wow.

KING: Yeah! I’m so excited for you sweetheart. I am. Man, the sky’s the limit for you, young lady.

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Lighting: Ashley Markle
Makeup: Nick Barose at Exclusive Artists for Giorgio Armani Beauty