When Lexi Underwood was 12 years old, she made an ambitious pitch to her parents. She had just finished touring the country as Young Nala in The Lion King (along with a stint on Broadway), and, having returned home to D.C., she explained that she wanted to capitalize on the momentum. “I didn’t want to be home,” she says. “I didn’t want to not do what I loved. I’m super-thankful that [my parents] actually listened to me, because I was 12 years old with big dreams. I convinced [them] to take me out to L.A. for three months … and three months turned into four years.”
Now 16, Underwood is set to appear in her most high-profile role yet, starring alongside Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in the widely anticipated Hulu adaptation of Celeste Ng’s best-seller Little Fires Everywhere. Underwood landed the pivotal role of Pearl Warren, the daughter of Washington’s enigmatic Mia, new arrivals to the Shaker Heights, Ohio, community portrayed in the series, which premieres March 18.
A Dream Preferred
Underwood recalls—at the Midtown hotel where she’s staying with her parents—the euphoric reaction she had after booking the part. “I was crying, screaming, jumping up and down, because it was just really that moment of my dreams coming true.” In fact, the day before the audition, she had considered quitting. “It’s very hard,” she says, explaining her mindset at the time. “It’s a huge sacrifice that everybody’s making. So, at that point, I was just like, ‘Let’s just go home.’ But then my mom was like, ‘You really wanted to audition for Little Fires. Just go in and do it and do your very best. And if you don’t get it and you still want to go home, fine, that’s totally cool. But at least just go in there and show them what you’ve got.’”
To play the daughter of Washington was surreal for Underwood, who grew up in a Scandal-obsessed household. She says Washington is the person who inspired her to pursue acting. “Growing up as a young black girl who wanted to do this, it meant everything to see somebody … that not only looked like me but was also playing a strong female that wasn’t broken, that wasn’t just somebody’s sidekick. She was a boss, and [seeing] that really empowered me,” Underwood says. “It made me feel as though if she’s doing it, then I can do it.” The first time she met Washington for the project, she says she went home and cried for about half an hour. “I was like, ‘What is my life right now?’ I honestly still feel that way.”
“Growing up as a young black girl who wanted to do this, it meant everything to see somebody … that not only looked like me but was also playing a strong female that wasn’t broken, that wasn’t just somebody’s sidekick.”
Washington’s process on set helped Underwood channel her own character, she explains, particularly during the scenes where the two characters find themselves in an argument. “Kerry is a Method actor, so there would be times where in between takes she would still stay in that same mindset and she would yell at me. She would be like, ‘Lexi Underwood!,’ still in character, ‘Lexi Underwood, go back and try it again.’ While that was a little nerve-racking at first … for her to actually care about my performance and about me … meant the world to me. She pulled something out of me that I didn’t even know that I had in me,” says Underwood.
The young actress has a wildly impressive résumé for someone not yet of voting age: last year, she directed the short documentary We the Voices of Gen Z; she started her own production company, Ultimate Dreamer Productions, at age 15, and hopes to begin producing projects; she shadowed the directors for two episodes of Little Fires Everywhere; and she plays guitar and piano, writes poetry, and paints. She may also be the only 16-year-old in the world who limits herself to just an hour of social-media time a day.
For now, though, at least before the show debuts, Underwood is able to maintain some semblance of a normal childhood—the night we spoke, her plans involved meeting up with some old friends to get pizza and seeing Tina on Broadway. Though it’s not quite ordinary 16-year-old stuff: “Last night we were walking out of dinner and I saw the Times Square ad [for Little Fires Everywhere],” she says. “I broke down crying.”
Josh Duboff is a writer and screenwriter living in New York