Lexi Underwood Traces Similarities Between Her ‘Cruel Summer’ and ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ Characters: They ‘Seek External Validation’

“They’re just two young girls that are looking for a sense of stability,” Underwood tells TheWrap

Lexi Underwood stars in "Cruel Summer" (Courtesy of Freeform/Justine Yeung)

Note: the following contains mild spoilers for “Cruel Summer” Season 2 Episode 1

In Freeform’s “Cruel Summer,” Lexi Underwood stars as Isabella, a wealthy and well-traveled exchange student eager to kickstart the typical American high school experience when she arrives to the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 1999 to stay with the Landry family.

While Megan Landry (Sadie Stanley) is initially hesitant to let the outsider into her tight knit community, their relationship intensifies throughout the coming months — until a sinister discovery threatens to tear it all apart. With her parents abroad, Isabella is turns on the charm as she gets acquainted with the Landry’s — a trait Underwood recognizes from playing Pearl in “Little Fires Everywhere.”

“Pearl and Isabella remind me of each other in a sense, because at the end of the day, when you strip down all the chaos, everything that’s happening in their lives and around them, they’re just two young girls that are looking for a sense of stability,” Underwood told TheWrap in a recent interview. “You see two young girls that I think also seek external validation from the parental figures that are around them that are their friends’ parents.”

Just as Isabella’s parents in “Cruel Summer” are constantly working and have limited involvement in her life as Isabella has been in boarding school her whole life, Pearl’s mother, Mia (Kerry Washington) in “Little Fires Everywhere” is relatively removed from Underwood’s character as a single, working mother. As a result, both Isabella and Pearl seek out validation from their friends’ parents, with Isabella running into the welcoming arms of Megan’s mother while Pearl leans on Elena (Reese Witherspoon).

“Isabella is just like Pearl, [just] a couple years older,” Underwood said. “They’re essentially the same person — Isabella just has like a little bit more damage, though.”

Keep reading to learn which of the show’s three timelines Underwood found easiest to find her character, if she ever thought her character was involved in the twist at the end of the Season 2 premiere and how she leaned into “Cruel Summer’s” Y2K vibe.

TheWrap: Your character grows a ton between the three timelines, how did you first start tackling your character? Which version did you relate to the most?

Definitely over a period of time, I really found my groove when it comes to summer ’99 Isabella — that was the easiest to find out the gate, because you know who she is: she’s very confident, she’s very charming, she’s very alluring. Who she is in her identity in the next two timelines is incredibly mysterious, and there’s a lot more secrets hidden behind that confident, alluring charm that she puts on in the first timeline. I really related to the second timeline of Isabella, because I feel like that’s where she’s coming into her own, and she’s deciding who she wants to be, not even just for the rest of the year, but for the rest of her life.

I definitely used music and my wardrobe as a tool to be able to discover and figure out who she was, and each version of her, what she was going through, internally, and then also what the exterior was that she was showing that everybody else.

During production, you were filming all three timelines pretty concurrently. What was it like switching between these timelines? How did you switch into almost a new character? 

In all of my projects, I make playlists that are tied to whatever I feel like my character is going through in that moment and what she would be listening to, so I had a playlist for summer ’99, for winter ’99 and for summer 2000, and that just really helps me keep on track emotionally and totally where Isabella was during that time.

Hair, makeup and wardrobe as well definitely has an effect on you. At the top of the day, you’re in bright colors, and your hair is like blonde and you have bright like purple eyeshadow, and then at the end of the day, and you’re doing the summer 2000 scenes, and I have like basically no makeup on, and I’m in cargo jeans. You definitely feel that difference when you look in the mirror.

Throughout each timeline, Megan and Isabella have a very intense relationship. How do you understand the root of their relationship?

It’s an interesting friendship dynamic to play out, because they start off very rocky, and then they get to a very, very intense point very fast. At the end of the day, the thing that bonds both of them is the fact that they’ve just never experienced, in my opinion, a healthy female friendship — it’s genuinely like a sister bond. Isabella is an only child, so she’s definitely never felt that before, and Megan is just so used to being the plain Jane that always just like stands in the back, and she’s just cool with that. But Isabella sees so much more potential in her. While they do go through their ups and downs, they both bring out something in each other that they didn’t know that they had in them before they met.

Even though they’re fighting in summer 2000, there’s still something there that makes them still want to root for each other and work together. It’s a messy friendship, just like friendships are in real life.

When Isabella first arrives to the PNW, what do you think are her goals for the summer? What does she first think of Megan?

Isabella is such a go with the flow, carefree person — I don’t feel like she has any sort of agenda. She’s just always wanted to have like a normal high school all-American experience, and she views this as her last chance to be able to do so because it’s senior year.

Isabella is one of those people where she has to charm everybody — everybody has to love her. When she sees that Megan is the only person that’s pushing back … she doesn’t even get annoyed — she just views it as a challenge, and Isabella likes a good challenge. So she just keeps pushing Megan until Megan can no longer help but like her.

What did you first think when you learned Luke is the one who dies? Did you ever think that Lexi was the one who died? 

All of us didn’t know that they were kinda gonna tease it out, and leave that like as a little cliffhanger. I definitely did not think that Isabella dies because I just feel like she’s too cool for that.

The show also dives into the nostalgia of 1999 and 2000. What parts of the Y2K vibe did you lean into?

I vividly remember like after one of my first fittings going online to Garage and ordering so many low-rise jeans because I got so inspired. Because we were living in that world essentially for six months, a lot of it reflected in my everyday life, so I just found myself in my spare time free time listening to Y2K music, or dressing like Y2K. It’s also dope because a lot of those trends are very much alive and well now, so it’s not hard to find some like cute butterfly clips in wedge sandals.