Meet Cailee Spaeny, the Ass-Kicking Breakout Star of ‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ (Exclusive)

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Cailee Spaeny
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

“You know when your throat gets a little lumpy and you feel like you’re about to start crying? That was me, because I was freaking out,” Cailee Spaeny recalled to ET about one of her first days on the set of Pacific Rim Uprising, in which she plays Amara Namani, a Jaeger pilot, in the sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi epic about Earth’s ongoing war with the Kaiju.

Imagine showing up for work on your first big Hollywood role. It’s in a big-budget action sequel, and you’re set to film a fight scene opposite John Boyega, who also happens to be your boss – he’s serving as a first-time producer on the film -- and wants to make the action look as real as possible. He even brought on stunt coordinators from the Star Wars films to choreograph the fight sequence. And if it was realism Boyega was looking for, it was realism that he would get.

“We had done a week of pre-production and it was just specifically to help me get this movement down and make the swings look really real, and make it look like I was carrying a heavy pole,” Spaeny explained. “And [John] came in and I was trying to get into character during this rehearsal and I was super serious about it. I was like, ‘I’m going to impress John Boyega.’ And we started doing the fight scene and I actually whack him in the back of the head.”

After that initial clash in rehearsal, Boyega went from Spaeny’s sparring partner to mentor, helping the newcomer both on- and off-screen. Naturally, who better to understand a quick rise to fame than one of the breakout stars of the biggest franchise in the world?

“I got really lucky to have him as a role model on my first project,” Spaeny gushed. “I was nervous that I wasn’t going to book anything after this. I didn’t want to be a one-hit sort of actor, and I would stress about that a lot. And John would always be like, ‘It’ll happen when it needs to happen. It’ll happen when you’re ready.’”

The actress booked Uprising in 2016 after four years “of not booking anything; four years of no.” Moving from Springfield, Missouri, to Los Angeles, the 20-year-old explains that “I was at the point with [being tired of] following the rules and standing behind a white wall and having the lighting all perfect. I was like, ‘This is an action movie, this is an action audition and I’m gonna go there.’”

That’s when Spaeny got creative. “I actually slammed myself down on the ground to pretend like I was getting attacked. I used an actual pole to swing at a pile of pillows that I built up. I used a two-foot step stool to get to my Scrapper and a remote control as Jaeger buttons,” she describes. “It definitely got their attention, which was great. It was a worldwide casting call for this role, so I definitely wanted to go full-out for that, so I’m glad they liked it.” She says she recalls thinking that “they’re either going to think I’m a crazy person and they’re never going to let me audition for anything for them or they’re going to love it.”

The casting directors definitely loved Spaeny’s unique approach. In an interview with BUILD Series, Boyega explained why she was the one for the role, beating out a number of bigger names in the process: “I’ve always said that the reason why I set up a production company was also for my agenda about opportunity and giving opportunity to those who wouldn’t otherwise get it. And when she came in to audition, she was so nervous and new and fresh. But when she started reading from the pages, she was a completely different person. And for me, I was just like, ‘I think you should give it to her.’ Like, I loved her approach to the character. It was much more subtle than the other artists we had come in.”

Pacific Rim Uprising
Universal Pictures

Cast as a Jaeger pilot, the real work was just beginning. More physically demanding than Spaeny could have predicted, the role required months of intense workouts, fight training and dieting to get into costume. While she had “never worked out in her life” before the film, it was the metal suits that proved to be the most challenging. “You’ve got this Jaeger piloting suit specially made for you, that only you can wear, which sounds super glamorous until you flash forward and you get on set and you’re like, ‘I need five people to help me get out of this so I can go to the bathroom,’” Spaeny recalls, admitting that she indulged with In-N-Out Burger after returning from China, where the movie was filmed.

And as soon as Spaeny was back in the U.S., rejection was a thing of the past. She quickly got to work on a string of back-to-back films. “A month after I turned 18, I booked the role [as Namani] and now I’m filming my fourth project,” she muses.

Following the release of Uprising, which earned $150 million worldwide in its debut weekend at the box office, the actress is poised to be one of 2018’s breakout stars with roles in Bad Times at the El Royale opposite Chris Hemsworth, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson; two star-studded political biopics -- Backseat and On the Basis of Sex; and The Shoes. “It’s been such a long process,” Spaeny reflects. “I saw the [Uprising] posters up in L.A. the other day and I started crying like a big baby.”

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