In Up Next, Teen Vogue talks to up-and-coming talent about their journey to fame and the influences that have informed their extraordinary work.
Name: Lexi Underwood
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Big break: In 2015, playing Young Nala in The Lion King National Gazelle Tour.
Up next: Playing Pearl Warren in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, based on the best-selling book by Celeste Ng.
About two years ago, Lexi Underwood thought she finally had the role that would take her career to the next level. It was to be her first series regular role, on a sci-fi action comedy pilot called Will vs. the Future, which opens with Lexi jumping out of a time portal, flipping through the air, and split-kicking a killer robot from the future on her trail. She learned XMA (extreme martial arts) for the role and grew close with the cast, but the series didn’t get picked up. She took the discouraging news and moved forward. Then she nabbed guest roles on Disney Channel’s Raven’s Home and Nickelodeon’s Henry Danger, two networks that are practically the holy grail for kids everywhere. Now she’s gearing up for the premiere of Little Fires Everywhere, a project that’s sure to catapult her to stardom.
Lexi plays Pearl Warren, the teen daughter of a nomadic artist named Mia, played by Kerry Washington. They’re used to moving around often, whenever Mia finishes her latest creative endeavor, paying the bills with various gigs. Finally, Mia decides to plant roots for a while in Shaker Heights, Ohio, much to the delight of Pearl. Soon, the lives of the Warrens become entangled with that of the Richardsons, the wealthy white family that owns the house they’re renting. Pearl starts hanging out with the Richardsons’ youngest son, Trip, becomes enamored of the mother, Elena (Reese Witherspoon), and dives deeper into the Richardsons’ world as tensions flare between her and her own mother. Suffice it to say there are some extremely fiery exchanges between Mia and Pearl, even within the first episode.
“To have those intense, emotional scenes in almost each and every single episode, it was hard. I'm not even going to lie,” Lexi tells Teen Vogue. “In the beginning, I was putting pressure on myself because I'm a perfectionist. This was my first big thing, and I hadn't worked with actors of their caliber before. What I admire about both of them was that they were always so open to play and listening to my ideas.”
The 16-year-old notes that the mentorship from “Miss Kerry” (as she refers to the Scandal actor) is what helped pull out the raw emotion needed for filming, including her Method acting techniques. Embracing the adrenaline in between intense scenes, Kerry would stay turned up and sharply call Lexi by her full name or say “Go back to the start.” She would try different things every take. It all kept Lexi on her toes.
“I didn't know that I could emotionally go there, as Lexi. She pulled something out of me that I didn't know that I had in me,” Lexi says. “After filming Little Fires Everywhere, she taught me that I do have that in me, that I can do whatever I set my mind to. If I just keep going and if I work hard, then I can achieve it. So for that, I'm forever grateful.”
Although Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the ’90s, the cast has been vocal about how the social issues it explores are more salient than ever. Lexi points out that Pearl and Mia weren't assigned a race in the book originally, so the first time she and Kerry met they went out to lunch to discuss how to portray the authentic relationship between a black single mother and daughter.
That dynamic weaves itself into the fabric of the television adaptation. For example, the first episode puts a spotlight on how black people are often treated differently by law enforcement. When the Warrens are pulled over, Mia instructs her daughter to put her hands on the dashboard. It’s a grueling scene, but one that thankfully doesn’t end tragically, which is often the case with series that attempt to create a dialogue about what it means to be black or brown in today’s world.
“When I first read that, that made me cry because we don't see that type of representation in the media right now,” Lexi says. “These issues in the black community have been around since the beginning of time, and police brutality has been a thing for a while. Our moms and dads have had to have these conversations with us.”
Additionally, Little Fires Everywhere puts a spotlight on less acute forms of violence by talking about microaggressions, ones that are often dropped by Elena or her teen daughter Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn). Lexi shares that she and Jade were just recently talking about a plot point that happens between the two of their characters in a later episode that parallels cultural appropriation. The Richardson sibling might not have tried a black hairstyle, but she does co-opt something from Pearl for her own personal gain.
To flesh out her understanding of Pearl, Lexi also connected to the character through their mutual love for poetry. The young artist has been writing poetry since first grade, so she wrote poems for each episode that summarized Pearl’s experience. It helped her better imagine what was going through Celeste Ng’s mind while writing the book or showrunner Liz Tigelaar’s head when she was adapting it for television.
“Honestly that in itself, I feel like that truly helped me to become one with Pearl,” she says. “A way into a creative mind is to really step into their shoes. Do what they love most or try out their art.”
Lexi might be in front of the camera for this project, but she has aspirations of being able to put "director"on her résumé one day, a goal she’s gotten some pointers about from her onscreen mother. For her 15th birthday, Lexi took a step closer to the director’s chair by starting her own production company, Ultimate Dreamer Productions, founded on the idea that an ultimate dreamer is an “audacious visionary.” UDP creates digital content, television, film, and music that tell inclusive stories from the perspective of underrepresented voices.”
There’s a whole lot on Lexi’s plate at the moment, but beyond being stunt-trained and chilling with her Little Fires Everywhere cast, she’s found the activities she likes to fill her free time with. There’s painting, playing the guitar and piano, and singing. The young poet is obsessed with r.H. Sin’s work, having read one of their books “a good five times now.” Then there’s also playing Sims 4 and Fortnite and listening to Megan Thee Stallion and Jhené Aiko. Of course, there are also other typical teen worries. Homeschooled since 7th grade, she’s now in her junior year, enrolled in all honors and AP classes, learning to find a balance during what is notoriously the most difficult year. She’s always wanted to go to college, so if that means taking a little break from acting, she can live with that. She’s eyeing New York University and the University of Southern California, universities in cities that would have acting opportunities for her while she balanced classes.
For now, Lexi is seizing opportunities while also remembering the importance of education in her household. That being said, Lexi does have her sights set on something.
“I would absolutely love to play Aaliyah if they ever do another Aaliyah story,” she says. “That's at the top of my list.”
Stylist: Erin Walsh (@erinwalshnyc)
Photographer: Emma Trim (@emmatrim)
Writer/Producer: Gabe Bergado (@gabebergado)
Hair: Ben Skervin (@benskervin)
Makeup: Nick Barose (@nickbarose) using Giorgio Armani Beauty
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue