Garnering both critical acclaim and considerable audience intrigue, Freeform’s Cruel Summer is quickly becoming one of this year’s hottest shows. Among its stars is Harley Quinn Smith, who plays Mallory — a complex character dealing with her own issues while navigating a complicated web of friendships and interpersonal relationships. Schön! spoke with Smith about her history in the industry, her activism and, naturally, Cruel Summer.
As a fellow bass player, I have to ask about your musical history. What inspired you to pick up music and bass specifically?
I started playing bass because of Lindsey Way, the bass player of the band Mindless Self Indulgence. I saw pictures and videos of her doing a backbend while playing bass, and I thought it was the most magical, badass thing I had ever seen. I certainly did not see any backbends in my personal future, especially while playing bass, but I just wanted to do anything I could to be like Lindsey. Also, according to the Internet, she didn’t know how to play bass prior to joining the band, which is just incredibly dope to me because I feel like the entire time I have played bass, I haven’t known what the hell I’m doing. She’s such an inspiration to me.
Your band also gave you your first opportunity to direct a music video, “I’ll Go When It’s My Time”. I know your family is very film-centred, so how did you approach your first directing experience? Did you ask for any family help or just figure it out as you went?
I made it incredibly clear from the start that I did not want my dad to interfere with this. He kept joking that he would crash set, and I put a harsh ban on that from happening. It’s super important to me that I show the world my talents and personal value separate from my family and their accomplishments. This music video was just a beautiful introduction into directing for me because the artist agency NEER really took me under their wing and produced the whole thing alongside me. Creatively, I was just going off of my vision and the knowledge I’ve accumulated from working, but they really led the way with all the technical stuff that, at the time, I had absolutely no clue about. I’m so thankful to NEER for giving me that opportunity and having faith in me.
As we mentioned, you grew up in a film-focused family. Do you remember the film that made a significant impact on you? What was it, and why do you think it stuck with you?
To set the scene, the year is 2011 and I am 12 years old. I am not interested in acting and just want to play bass in a band. Then, J.J. Abrams releases the film Super8. When I say I loved this film, do not take that lightly. I mean, I loved this film. For Christmas of 2011, I remember getting a Super8 poster and signed photos of the cast from my parents. I just fucking adored this movie and watching people my age in this sci-fi masterpiece. It’s not even that it made me want to start acting, because I didn’t start acting for a few years after that. However, I think it planted some sort of seed in my brain to be like, oh, these kids are my age and they are in a film that I love. I thought that was the coolest thing. I had obviously seen young people act in various projects many times, but I just thought everyone in Super8 seemed so real, and I saw myself in them. I think it made me want to start acting way before I even realised I wanted to.
Your first major film experience was in Yoga Hosers. What do you think that film taught you?
Ah, yes. There are so many things to say about Yoga Hosers. First and foremost, what an insane opportunity. It is quite a rare situation in which you discover that you want to act, and then someone writes an entire movie for you. It is something I still cannot wrap my head around and that I’ll be forever grateful for. That being said, I had no fucking idea what I was doing. I watch that movie now and I am like, wow, I was terrible. However, I learned a shit-ton. For instance, I learned that I had a lot more to learn. After Yoga Hosers, I then took acting classes for probably three to four years straight from my mentors Deb Aquila and Donna Morong. I also discovered that there was a “craft” and that I didn’t know anything about it. Honestly though, no regrets. It was one of the best times of my life and one of the craziest things my family has ever done. Even though I do not love my performance in Yoga Hosers, I wouldn’t want to change a thing about the experience. It was perfect in its own way and I absolutely loved it.
Let’s talk about Cruel Summer. Can you introduce our readers to your character Mallory?
Mallory Higgins is strong, confident, upfront, honest, passive aggressive, but like, in a funny way — and most of all, she is one of my favourite humans. Mallory is a character I’ve dreamt of playing since I began acting, and I feel like the luckiest person on earth that I got to bring her to life.
So what drew you to the role of Mallory?
Truly everything. It was so hard for me to wrap our first season because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Mallory — that is how much I love her. Over the course of the season, however, I did realise something about her that I didn’t initially put together. Mallory is so much more confident than me, and I really admire her for it. We had similar high school experiences: we were both outcasts and weren’t really liked or even noticed. Unlike me, however, Mallory just doesn’t give a shit. She has her two friends and that’s all that really matters to her. I wish that I could’ve been that confident when I was in school, to just be like, yeah I’m not popular, but whatever — I’m confident enough in myself to not let it bother me.
Mallory’s journey is hinted at in the first few episodes — first she’s friends with Jeanette, then something unknown has caused their relationship to sour. First, how did you develop chemistry with Chiara and Allius?
It was a non-issue [laughs]. Chiara and Allius became two of my best friends so fast, I can’t remember a time without them. I’ll just take this opportunity to talk about what I love about them. I’ll start with Chiara. She has a heart and a soul of gold. She just wants to make others happy, and she comes from such a genuine place. Not to mention, she’s so talented that I literally cry every time I watch or talk about her performance in the pilot because she’s absolutely stellar at her job and my heart explodes with so much pride every time I watch her do her thing. Now Allius. He is so authentic, which is my favorite quality in a person. He’s also one of the most patient and peaceful people I have ever met. Working with him is so incredible; he’s so real and subtle in his acting, which makes him one of the most believable actors I know. I love these two so much.
We would imagine going from acting as friends to enemies back-to-back must have given you some acting whiplash. How did you prep for the various versions of Mallory?
I like to describe this show as the greatest challenge I have ever been gifted with. There are so few opportunities like this as an actor to play something so complicated. To play any character in three different years of their life is a challenge, but especially when the years that you’re playing are such important, developmental years of someone’s life, such as teen years. It takes a lot of mental organisation and preparation for me personally. I would come to set with pages full of notes and ideas I wanted to try. I would have a lot of conversations with the producers, directors and our show runner to run ideas by them and to make sure I was on the right path and not going totally astray. Mallory maintains a lot of herself throughout the years, but definitely also changes in ways any teen would.
This is a show that could inspire a lot of fan theories and discussion. Are you following the conversations about the show online since its release? Any comments or theories that stand out to you?
This is not something I’m proud of, but I read a lot of the audience’s reactions on the Internet. It just interests me so much, and I can’t look away. It’s so crazy that people care enough to even theorise what happens in the show. I’ve never been a part of something that has this much interaction with the audience, and it’s so cool to me. It’s also so exciting that everyone has different thoughts and opinions on what happens in the show. I read some comments and I’m like, oh okay, you completely guessed the ending, and then I’ll read others and I’m like, well, that’s not it, but that’s a dope idea. It’s all so wild. My favourite thing is reading people’s discussions about the show and conversing on different theories. It reminds me of nerd culture and I love it.
What can you tell us about Mallory in the rest of the season?
I can’t really say a lot, but you watch Mallory go through some incredibly tough times and some very beautiful times. I’m just going to leave it at that.
Can you talk a little bit about your work for various animal rights charities/advocacy groups? How and why did you first get involved in that world?
My journey with veganism started with my rabbit, Cinnamon Bun. When I adopted her, she was in a terrible condition. Her ear was ripped in half, she had a bunch of metal stitches that were unattended to, she was covered in pee and she was terrified of everything. Before she was surrendered to the shelter I adopted her from, she was with hoarders who had about 100 other rabbits — so of course I understood why she would be so standoffish. It broke my heart that she was so scared of me, though. But after months of showing her so much love and making her certain that I would never hurt her, she came around and started to open up to me. Seeing what human compassion could do to an animal changed everything for me and made me question my own actions. I decided to go vegetarian and then about a year later I went vegan, and it was the greatest decision of my whole life. I’ve always been interested in animal rights, and going vegan just made my drive to make a difference a million times stronger. I feel it’s my life’s mission to help make the world a kinder place for animals, and I’m so grateful that acting and music gives me the platform to speak to a larger audience about the issues closest to my heart. I’ve loved working with so many incredible animal rights organisations, but my favourites are Farm Sanctuary and Mercy for Animals.
What are you looking forward to right now?
I am currently counting down the days until I get to go to Disneyland now that it’s open again!!
Cruel Summer is currently airing on Freeform.
photography. Gina Gizella Manning
fashion. Veronica Graye
talent. Harley Quinn Smith
hair + make up. Emily Dawn
creative direction. GIZELLA
film development. Digital Photo Printing & Studio
lighting direction. Mike Pecci
pr. Maria Candida @ imPRint
words. Braden Bjella