Drew, who? 'Firestarter' dad Zac Efron and his scary good 12-year-old co-star Ryan Kiera Armstrong talk new Stephen King thriller

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“It was honestly, truly my favorite experience ever in my career,” Ryan Kiera Armstrong says about making Firestarter, the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s best-sellling 1980 novel about a girl with dangerous pyrokinetic abilities originally brought to the screen in 1984 with Drew Barrymore in the lead.

Considering Armstrong is only 12, it’s hard to fathom the preteen has much to compare Firestarter to when assessing the breadth of her career. But she is actually something of an old pro in Hollywood, experience-wise, having already appeared in one Stephen King movie (2019’s It: Chapter Two), a Marvel movie (2021’s Black Widow), a Chris Pratt action fick (2021’s The Tomorrow War) and six episodes of American Horror Story (also in 2021), not to mention various other credits since she started acting in 2017.

It’s no wonder Armstrong is scary good as Charlie McGee, the girl who goes on the run with her father (Zac Efron) when the shady government operation that experimented on her parents forces them out of hiding.

“There was something immediately that you brought to this role,” Efron tells Armstrong during our virtual interview with the pair (watch above). “You were very grounded, but just so real. … The hard part for any actor, when you have a superpower on a movie, is believing it. On the day it can feel a little silly when you’re standing there making your powers happen, but you are so committed and you did so good after the first day we worked together, I was so excited … it just made me so motivated to come in and believe this and make it awesome. So that was all you.”

FIRESTARTER, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, 2022. ph: Ken Woroner / © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
Ryan Kiera Armstrong in Firestarter. (Photo: Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Director Keith Thomas was immediately taken with Armstrong, too.

“She just blew me away from the first audition with the kind of depth of emotion that she could register and show,” he says about casting Charlie, aged up from 8 in the novel to 12 in the movie. “She’s in middle school. That’s a very difficult period for anybody. When you’re 12 years old, everything's changing. Life is changing. What I was most fascinated with Ryan was her ability to embody that kind of inner-turmoil without even saying a word, like she can do it just with her eyes.”

Armstrong also does it with a loud scream, which is one attribute the young actress brought to the part when it came to manifesting her power — and with the expectations that inevitably come taking on a role initially made famous by Barrymore in her first role after breaking out in 1982’s E.T.

“I always knew the movie,” says Armstrong of 1984's Firestarter, again sounding wiser than her years. “I never actually watched it, but I knew it. But [Drew] kind of built this Charlie for me that I could only build on. … I kind of put myself into her Charlie and built from there. [It was] really amazing work from her.”

Barrymore would likely say the same thing about Armstrong.

Firestarter opens in theaters and streams on Peacock beginning Friday.

Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee