Leah Lewis is having a moment. The actress currently stars in two major projects that couldn't be more different from each other: Netflix's well-received LGBTQ teen romance The Half of It, where she plays shy, friendless, A-list student Ellie Chu, and The CW's pithy detective dramaNancy Drew, where she portrays the sarcastic, edgy, lipstick-rocking George Fan. Lewis, who began acting in kids' programs like Paloozaville and a handful of Disney shows, has graduated to projects where she's now the star of her own young adult tale.
"Just hearing you say that out loud is still unbelievable to me," Lewis, 23, tells ET of her 2020, during a recent phone interview for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. "I've been acting since I was a kid, probably since I was 8 years old. This last year has just been really unexpected and also an absolute dream and privilege. To be able to not only be working, that's awesome, but to be playing characters that are so specifically written for Asian Americans or just Asians. I had never had opportunities like that before this year. The fact that I am able to now give life to these characters and all these opportunities are opening up this year, I'm speechless. I hope that feeling never goes away, because it's been a really, really unexpected, beautiful year."
Adopted from a Shanghai, China, orphanage and raised in Florida by white parents, Lewis grew up in an "Americanized household," she says. Even so, she credited her parents for trying "to keep the Chinese culture alive as they possibly could," her upbringing affording her a unique perspective as a Chinese American actress that has fueled her approach to her latest work.
In a candid conversation with ET, Lewis opens up about engaging with her Chinese heritage through The Half of It, the stress of learning how to speak Mandarin perfectly, discovering that food is a love language in Chinese culture -- and yes, we had to ask about that crazy freshman finale cliffhanger on Nancy Drew.
ET: First of all, you started acting at a very young age. When did you get the acting bug?
Leah Lewis: It's something I always wanted to do from early on because of watching Disney. I feel like every kid has gone through this. I was constantly singing and dancing around the house and acting out scenes from my favorite Disney movies, literally sitting my parents down and being like, "OK, Leah's going to give you a show now and you guys are going to have to watch this." It wasn't until I was 8 when my parents saw that I wanted to take this seriously. I started in theater, then I got very, very lucky. My father's co-worker's brother was a talent manager who lives in Los Angeles, and my parents decided to give it a shot. I will say, even though I've wanted to do this since I was a kid, I had no clue that this would actually come to fruition. When you're a kid, you say you want to be an astronaut or the president or a skydiver. It wasn't until later on that I realized that this is my creative home and my passion completely.
What did you get out of acting that you weren't getting anywhere else in your life? What kind of a void did it fill for you?
For me, acting is one of the biggest ways that I can express [myself]. Also, I know me as a consumer, and the way that I take in films and television shows, I know how much that affects me. To be able to do that for other people, that is what gives me that rush. Artistic expression has always been something that has spoken to me and come to me in a way that is like nothing else. I'm not a basketball player. I'm not really that good at math or science. But acting and music and things that have to do with emotional expression speak to me on a godly level.
How did your upbringing or childhood affect how you approach your roles?
It's interesting because I am full Chinese, but I was adopted from Shanghai, China, by my parents, who are Caucasian. So I grew up in this Americanized household, while my parents tried to keep the Chinese culture alive as they possibly could in an American household. They definitely tried to keep me educated on what that might have been like. But, for me, starting out acting very young put me in a position to grow up a little faster than I might normally wouldn't have, had I not been acting as a child. It varies with each role. I feel like my upbringing and my family plays a huge part in the way that I prepare for roles just because they are the most sensitive parts of me. They are the most emotional things that get me to A, B and C when I come at a role. But, it's always interesting when I have to step into the role of someone who has experienced the full Asian and Chinese family dynamic because I, myself, have never really experienced that. Even when I am in roles like that, I'm constantly learning about my culture that I didn't even know about growing up because that's not where I was raised.
In The Half of It, your Mandarin is seamless.
Oh my God, thank you! I practiced so hard for that! That was one of the specific parts of the film where I was very aware I do not speak Mandarin. Because of that, I wanted to give as much accuracy and life as possible to that language. It's literally this character's story and so many people across the world's stories. That was a huge thing that [director] Alice [Wu] and I worked on really getting it right. I remember when I first started speaking the Mandarin back to her, she would be like, "OK, so that's how you think you would probably say it. But it's much different when you're speaking the language of Mandarin and you're not using American emotions." I was trying to put emphasis on certain syllables and Alice was like, "It actually ends up not making sense in Mandarin because you're pushing on other syllables."
We had a complete other session doing these scenes in English so that I could really understand what was going on and how to internalize Collin [Chou]'s, who plays my father, emotions and acting as well, which was really interesting too, because Collin didn't really speak that much English. But I just felt very a-part-of when I was with him. I don't really know how to explain that. It just felt very natural.
Ellie Chu and George Fan are such polar opposites. Are there elements of each that you see in yourself or that you really were drawn to?
What's really cool about them is, as different as they are, they're very alike in the way that they move in the family, the way that they take care of things and the way that they communicate with their parents. I noticed for both of them, it's not really about the verbal conversations they have, more the silent actions that they do to take care of one another and their family households. I find that the quieter side of myself is very similar to Ellie in the way that it's very observant, very patient, very internal. She soaks in everything around her and then decides what she's going to do. I feel like that's what I'm like behind closed doors.
Then there is also the side of me that is a little more sarcastic, loud and out there, which is where George Fan comes into play. Like George, I am very fierce and I will fight for what I love and what I believe in. She has this sarcastic edginess to her, which I find, in public, I have a lot of. I love humor. The way that George takes care of her sisters, similarly in the way that Ellie takes care of her father. I feel strongly about my family, and I'm very protective over them as well. I would do absolutely anything to make sure that they are safe and loved. That's really easy to tap into when I step into both of those characters, because that is something very important to them as well.
Both of these characters were meant to be Asian. Did that make a difference for you when you read the character breakdowns? Did that make a difference, the specificity to which they were written?
It makes a huge difference when a character is supposed to be Asian American or Asian in general. Recently, we started to make a lot of waves in the Asian community, and that is incredible. Just to know that these roles are specifically about these people, it almost feels like for Leah, as an Asian, "Oh my God, my story is being told." Even if it's not my exact story, people are now starting to recognize the importance and the significance of each nationality having its own story to tell. That being said, you look at the fact that these two characters are Asian and they are completely different. It's amazing seeing storytellers want to tell the different sides of the Asian experience, because I feel like society is so used to seeing the Asian girl as the best friend, or the best friend's best friend, or the brother's little sister, or, honestly, even the girl at school who writes papers for people. These characters are so much more rich than that. To see them have this full life, it's really amazing.
Was there a moment during filming The Half of It where you had an "aha" moment or where you learned something about Chinese culture that you weren't aware of before, like the dumpling scene?
That is something that I learned about because my parents don't make dumplings at home. Actually, funny enough, they did try to make dumplings when I was a kid. They wanted to teach me how to make dumplings and egg drop soup. When Alice was setting up the dumpling scene for me, she explained to me how these characters don't say "I love you." The dad doesn't say, "Congratulations, you're going to college." But it is a simple act of making food together. This communal act of taking care of one another and communicating without words that I didn't realize a lot of Asian families go through. Alice was able to share with me her experience about how her family, they were never very verbally active with each other, but making food for each other and actions speaking louder than their words was something that I didn't even know was part of the Chinese culture. I just thought that was a specific character choice.
Growing up, I did have a lot of friends who had full Asian families who acted very similar in that aspect. It wasn't until even later on when something really intense happens to George Fan in Nancy Drew that, after a very, very long day of intense things, her mother has nothing to say to her. You just see her making her noodles and that was like, "Oh, wow. It's something that I never would have thought about and I'm really grateful that I know that," because I was never able to experience that. But I know food is their version of loving, hospitable communication.
In The Half of It, we're also seeing a girl come into her own and discover who she is, while also exploring her sexual identity. What's your takeaway on Ellie's personal journey in the movie?
What I love most about Ellie's story is that it paints a very realistic picture of what could happen in love. It doesn't always end up with boy gets girl, girl gets boy or, in this case, girl gets girl. Just speaking from personal experience, I have grown up watching so many different TV shows and movies where they do get the "happy ending." Me and my life, I have thought that love is supposed to be a certain way. As I'm growing older and experiencing different people, and especially with my boyfriend as well, I have noticed that love is completely different from what I thought it was. What I took away from this movie is that love is not just romance.
Love is finding your own unique voice and being able to stand up at a church in front of a hundred people that you don't know and speaking the truth. Love is telling your father that you want to go to college and him silently accepting. It is realizing that maybe it's not about your other half. Ellie finds her other half in Paul, in this platonic love that I think is so important and needs to really be encouraged too. Sometimes we can miss out on the best parts of the journey because we're trying to look at the end. It's a journey that really makes us who we are today. Ellie leaves this movie with a better sense of self and just a twinge of confidence, which you never would have seen in the beginning of this film. I think those internal rewards are so much richer than the latter.
Switching gears to Nancy Drew, George and Nick didn't exactly start out as love interests. What is your take on the evolution of their relationship over the first season?
It is so easy to be acting with Tunji [Kasim], who plays Nick, because he is like my brother. He is my bestie on set that I go to for all of the heartfelt matters. I found it very strange at first when the two got together because I, as Leah, was like, "Nancy, Nick. Nancy, Nick." But the more that we started to see these characters evolve, you see George soften a bit more. You see Nick become this new person you would have never expected to see with him because he was with Nancy, who is a little more put together and less of a wild card. As their relationship has gone on, I've noticed that they fill in the cracks for each other. Where Nick might need a little bit more outspoken energy, George is right there and fits right in. Where George is a little bit more aggressive and a fighter, I feel like Nick reels that back, so both of them level each other out. I've seen some people online be like, "No, I don't like Nick with George." I'm like, "Actually, now, I'm really, really with it." I think the two complement each other and are both very, very determined characters in different ways. When they put their heads together, it's something very beautiful and balanced.
What did you make of the finale where George and Nick saw visions of their deaths as the truck filled up with water? How intense was that?
I think the finale is a bit sad because these two lovers finally find each other and then they look in the truck and it's not looking pretty for the future. It's like, "Yay, we found the golden egg, but, oh my God, there's a really big crack in the egg. What are we going to do now?" It's like, can these two ever get it right? I just want George Fan to have a break. I think George and Nick deserve a break. I think everyone in Nancy Drew deserves a break. Kennedy [McMann] and I would joke all the time, "Nancy needs a nap. Nancy just needs to go to the spa and take a nap." We've actually had concerns and wishes from our fans that are like, "Hey, can we start with an episode where these guys all have a slumber party?" Before everything went down, there were definitely talks of a storyline focusing more on relationships rather than the larger [mythology].
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the U.S., which celebrates the contributions and influences of the Asian community. To capture the current state of representation in entertainment, ET Online will be spotlighting Asian performers and projects all month long.