The 22-year-old former Disney star talks to ET about playing a boy toy on the CBS All Access series.
Twice-divorced socialite Simone (played brilliantly by Lucy Liu) discovers her husband, Karl (Jack Davenport), has been having secret, illicit affairs with men. Set out to enact her own type of revenge, Simone begins a forbidden affair with her best friend's teenage son, Tommy (Leo Howard). But breaking things off with Karl turns out to be much more complicated for Simone, which could lead to disastrous -- and possibly, fatal -- results for Tommy.
"It's one of those things where Simone is at a point in her life where everything is material, everything is about money. Finally, this relationship, which is so unexpected because here is this young guy and you expect it to be very shallow and physical, which it is, [but] he actually brings out some qualities in her that are impressive," Howard, 22, tells ET of Simone and Tommy's romance. "It ends up being a much deeper relationship than just that."
With the third episode now available to stream, ET spoke with Howard about going from the lead in Disney XD's Kickin' It to the salacious Why Women Kill, the nerve-wracking chemistry with Liu and being naked a lot on the CBS All Access series.
ET: A big portion of your career has been spent in the Disney family, with your biggest break being Kickin' It, followed by Shake It Up. Now, you're on a show, Why Women Kill, that is extremely mature and adult. What has the transition been like for you, starting on tween shows, graduating from them and starring in this?
Leo Howard: Yeah, it was... I tell you what, obviously I'm very happy for it. It's really cool getting the opportunity to work on a show [like Why Women Kill] and making that jump because, like you said, it can be a very difficult bridge to cross. I had a slow transition. I did a show on Hulu for a couple years [called Freak-ish]. It was geared more towards young adults and [Why Women Kill], you're correct, is one of the first things I've done recently that has been geared towards purely adults. So it's been a lot of fun and it was definitely a challenge in its own way but I was really happy.
You have one of the juiciest roles on the show. You're basically the third part of the love triangle between Lucy Liu and Jack Davenport's characters. How was this character, Tommy, initially pitched to you? And did he evolve in any way from this initial conversation?
I've talked to a bunch of people on the show who kind of agree about this but Tommy wasn't supposed to be, he wasn't supposed to be a massive part of that storyline. But Lucy and I really did have great chemistry and it was really easy and natural, and I think that added to it. I think the story ended up becoming more than what they originally planned on which I was happy for -- and it just worked.
It's one of those things where Simone is at a point in her life where everything is material, everything is about money. Finally, this relationship, which is so unexpected because here is this young guy and you expect it to be very shallow and physical, which it is, [but] he actually brings out some qualities in her that are impressive. It ends up being a much deeper relationship than just that.
You mentioned that the chemistry between you and Lucy was there right off the bat, which is so key because Simone and Tommy have a very intimate storyline. What was that first day on set like where you had to film those scenes?
As an actor working on a show, No. 1 on the call sheet can always be a deciding factor on whether the show is a pleasant experience or not. And I was well aware that it could have gone either way, and I didn't know. I hadn't personally worked with Lucy, so walking in I was blind, and I didn't know what to expect so there is a little nervousness. And I'm a young actor walking on the set with Jack Davenport and Lucy Liu and Katie Finneran and all of these people who are well-established and really talented people, so definitely, you always feel like there is something that you have to prove, which is a little nerve-wracking. But as soon as I walked in, I felt really good about it. I felt like these are just people who are here to do their jobs and are very grateful to be there, which is a big thing. Lucy absolutely blew me away. She set an amazing tone on set for the rest of the cast and crew to follow and I couldn't be more grateful for that. Her and I totally hit it off and I love her to death. She's great.
Did you guys do any off-screen work to make Simone and Tommy's affair palpable onscreen?
A little bit of both. We would do a lot of work on the scripts while we were on set or we'd get together off hours to figure it out and run stuff, and we got to know each other really well. You sit and talk about life and we both think a lot alike, so it was very natural. That makes it very easy.
You're naked a lot on the show.
Yeah, I'm used to it. I'm just an object. One of the things Mark said to me... he's like, "Hey could you stand a little bit longer with your shirt off? We need this part of the demographic for the show." "Absolutely. You got it!" (Laughs.)
So you were pretty comfortable with showing skin as you're about to make out with Lucy Liu?
Oh, for sure. I didn't fully know what to expect about those things but oddly enough there is something really -- and this is going to sound crazy -- but there is something real and raw about laying naked on a bed, and you're doing a scene. Like, you can't hide. I mean, you're just you're there, so it was something in the moment where I was like, "Oh this is really cool." Because there is no, like... it's hard to explain, but you're there and it is what it is. I kind of liked that, but that is definitely something to get used to with that part of it. (Laughs.) It's a learning curve.
For Tommy, does he see his relationship with Simone as an endgame? Does he fully believe this could be the real thing for him?
Absolutely. What I liked about playing this character is the sort of the young love that we've all had. Like, the first person we fell in love with, it typically is this overpowering thing and everything in the world can't exist without them. And that's what Tommy is going through. Tommy has been in love with her for years and he gets this opportunity to actually be the man that he feels she needs in her life. So absolutely, this is all he wants and his life goal at this point -- and you'll see later on -- is he wants to make this work with Simone. He wants to do everything in his power to be there and to have her be happy. The mature thing about Tommy, which I like, is that it's not just that he wants to be with her. He really just wants her to be happy. I think that comes across early on.
This storyline has been compared to the gardener romance on Desperate Housewives...
Oh yeah, definitely. I've heard that similarity a few times and I told my mother about my storyline -- she's a big Desperate Housewives fan -- and she was like, "Oh my god, you're just like Jesse [Metcalfe]! You're just like the gardener!" and just started laughing. But what Marc Cherry is really great at is he really understands how to write these heightened versions of women and he's really great at understanding what goes on in relationships and it definitely shows on shows like that. He's definitely found his niche.
Right now, Simone and Tommy's tryst is a secret. But hypothetically speaking, if Tommy's mom, Naomi, found out, how much of a dumpster fire do you think it would be?
If you've seen the first episode, it has to come out at some point. We start out in this sort of fantasy life between these people but the assumption is that it spirals downward into something a lot darker. There are definitely some things that happen and they don't disappoint, I will say that. It's a really great wrap on the story.
In the third episode, there's a scene where Tommy confronts Simone about why she's not moving heaven and Earth to divorce Karl. He's lied to you. He's slept with several men. Why are you still staying with him? That was an example of a key moment where it really showed insight into Tommy.
I appreciated that quality with the character. Not only is he in love with Simone, but he also wants her to be happy. I do think that if she told him, "I don't want to be with you, I'm happy with Karl...," I do think he's mature enough that he would accept that and he would give up and move on. I think that that adds a deeper layer to the character and it's a more mature take on the typical 18-year-old.
It seems like there could be some sort of a confrontation brewing between Tommy and Karl down the line. What can you tease?
It's a really interesting storyline because what do you do when you have two people who aren't necessarily sexually attracted to each other but they've built this great friendship? How does that remain in a marriage? And what happens when all of a sudden Simone has someone else she's sexually attracted to but yet she has someone at home that she is best friends with? That adds a really interesting dynamic onto it and you'll see that later on in the show between Karl, Simone, and Tommy.
One of the mysteries is who does the killing and who is killed. How worried should we be about Tommy's fate? Does he survive the season?
The funny thing was starting this show I didn't expect to be on the killing table because I didn't even think about it. But then as we went down the road, I knew who I thought was going to end up doing the killing. But halfway through, I was like, "Oh sh*t, this can end up any which way, you know?" It definitely has a powerful ending.
You're spending all your time in the '80s, but you weren't even born then. What fascinated you about the gaudiness of the fashion and the style of that time period? Do you have a favorite look?
Hollywood has a way of making eras like that iconic, especially the '80s. I always feel like the '80s and the '60s were two eras that they always like to romanticize in film and what it was like. It was cool to put myself into what it would be like to be 18 years old in the '80s in Los Angeles. I like the music. I love the clothes. Our costume designer, Janie Bryant, just knocked it out of the park.That makes it easy when you walk on set and you kind of put on the clothes and you're there. Lucy especially had some stunning looks, some pretty ridiculous looks.
I don't necessarily want it in my closet but in episode three, I have a pretty interesting outfit that when I read it I went, "Oh god, here we go. We are in it now." On this show, I'm either naked or wearing bizarre outfits. That's just how it goes.
You have quite a following from your Disney days. How have your fans reacted to Why Women Kill?
I've been fortunate to have these fans grow up with me a little bit. Even though this show might be older than some of the fanbase that I've had, it's not too far from what's appropriate for these people to watch. I like the fact that I've had a lot of people who have stuck with me. People seem to really like it. It's one of those shows that you know pretty quickly if it's a tone that you like or not but I always respect anyone that has a strong vision and goes for it, and this show definitely is not scared to go there.
Do you show off your martial arts skills in future episodes?
It's funny, I don't think they had any idea I did anything like that. I had a sequence where I had to jump over a hedge and I decided to add a little flair on it and I did, like, a little flip over it and everyone's jaws were on the floor. I don't think they'll end up using because it doesn't make sense for Tommy to have those sort of skills, but it was fun.
What else are you working on?
I have a show called Legacies that I'm on right now, so I'll be on that coming up. I play Ethan. There is a new sheriff that comes to town and I may or may not have something to do with her. My first scene is... I meet Hope and in true CW fashion there might be a crush or two, there might be a love triangle.
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