Cailee Spaeny | No Shade from Starlight
“I have a chance to say something important,” Cailee Spaeny tells me, almost incredulously, as we chat in a sun-strewn Los Angeles backyard. Still only twenty-one, Spaeny’s had the kind of year that most young actors dream about. She landed the lead in a big-budget blockbuster (Pacific Rim Uprising), a major part in a star-studded auteur-driven ensemble film (Bad Times at the El Royale), and smaller roles in two vitally important and timely political dramas (On the Basis of Sex and Vice). That’s not even counting a series regular role on director Alex Garland’s (Ex-Machina, Annihilation) new television show (Devs), and any number of other upcoming projects. Most surprising of all? Only eighteen months ago, she had never appeared in a widely released project.
Onscreen, Spaeny casually commands attention. Instead of getting lost in the clamor of CGI explosions and robots- fighting-aliens or shrinking next to more famous co- stars, her characters buzz with a natural ferocity. But in person she’s gracious and immediately likeable. She sits curled up in a chair and speaks with a slight Midwestern twang, with the kind of blue eyes that you’d swear were photoshopped. She’s unusually kind to the craftspeople working around her, and when she discovers that the photographer roots for her favorite football team, she invites him to come watch a game at a local fan bar.
Spaeny grew up as one of nine children in Springfield, Missouri, where she bristled at the life that seemed to be laid out for her. “I grew up in a very religious household, where things were black and white, you know?” she tells me. She describes how everyone followed the same path: school to college to a job to marriage. It was a path that never felt right for her. “Schooling wasn’t the foremost thing in my mind. It was always like: Okay, I don’t fit in this box of, ‘You have to be good in school.’ I’m not. I’m failing every class and I’m in sixth grade!”
“I knew at such a young age that I was going to commit my life to something else,” she says when I ask her how she got into acting. “I don’t know where that came from. It felt like there was some higher power or being that touched me and said, This is what you’re going to do,” she laughs. “That sounds so corny, but I don’t know how else to explain it.” At eleven, Spaeny began piano and guitar lessons, and quickly started a band, recruiting a group of boys to play birthday parties and local festivals with her. She describes the feeling of empowerment she gained from being the frontwoman. “There was something about bossing boys around from 11 to 15—telling them what songs I want to do. Boys did not faze me at all.” By her teens, she was acting in community theater projects, and enduring 25-hour car rides between Missouri and Los Angeles for auditions, a grueling process that didn’t dim her enthusiasm.
And then everything changed. She got the part in Pacific Rim after dirtying herself up and building a homemade replica of a giant robot cockpit for her self-taped audition. She applied for her passport and left the country for the first time to promote the film. And from day one, she’s found herself surrounded by a cavalcade of stars. She’s shared the screen with the likes of Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Felicity Jones, and Armie Hammer. She nods animatedly when I ask her if it’s ever a challenge to be such a new face amongst so many established actors. “I feel like I’m always running to catch up. I never took an acting class growing up, so being on set is like taking an acting class. Except it’s filmed and immortalized forever on screen and you can’t take it away.”
These days things have settled down a bit. She moved to Los Angeles. Got a boyfriend (at whose mention her eyes invariably light up). She reads a bunch. Takes cooking classes. Goes to the laundromat. All the classic Stars, they’re just like us! stuff. Despite that, she doesn’t feel completely at home in the Hollywood bubble. “I don’t think I have any actor friends my age, really,” she tells me. “You just talk about the same things over and over.” She went home for the first time in a year for Christmas, and is eager to maintain a sense of self outside of her profession. “I don’t want to identify myself as just, like, ‘I’m an actor.’ When people think of me, I hope that they think of something bigger than that.”
But when we start talking about what exactly she wants to be—how she wants to be seen, what she wants to be known for—she pauses. “There’s this thing happening inside me, I don’t know what it’s going to be, or what I’m going to turn into, or what I’m going to stand for, but it’s kinda hitting me, like, ‘Oh shit,’ I’ve been doing these interviews for a year, and in the beginning, I just wanted to get through them—I didn’t know what to say. But no, let’s fucking find something to say, and let’s say it. I’m just trying to find those things.” She talks about working with actors like Alison Pill and Jeff Bridges whose outreach work inspires her. Hearing about their causes has motivated her to find her own.
Spaeny tells me that growing up, she never learned about politics. Stepping onto set for the first time also marked the beginning of her political education. Shooting On The Basis of Sex—a film based on the life of Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—was eye-opening. “We were on our third day of shooting when the Harvey Weinstein stuff came out, so there was a huge sense of, ‘Oh fuck, we really need to make this movie.’” The film was directed by Mimi Leder—a deeply personal project for a woman who’s faced the ruthless double standards that plague Hollywood (and, you know, the world) first-hand. “There’s a different energy on set with a woman director who knows this story so well,” Spaeny says. When I ask her what roles she’d be excited to portray, she lists off a few male roles—McConaughey in True Detective; Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke—before cursing in exasperation. “This is the fucking problem! Every time I think of these awesome characters, I’m like, ‘Why aren’t any of them women?’ So yeah, let’s do a woman Paul Newman-esque film. I want to do that.”
Then she turns the tables, starts asking me questions. What am I passionate about? What excites me about my work? Where have I travelled? The sun keeps moving, passing through the leaves, lighting up Spaeny’s face and blinding her. She squints, but nonetheless faces the sun head-on. It’s a fitting moment. From here on, there’s no hiding for Cailee Spaeny. And though she’s still figuring out exactly what she wants to say, she can’t wait to speak up.
Photographer: Robin Harper at Opus Reps.
Film by Seannie Bryan
Edited by May He
Stylist: Yana Kamps at Defacto Inc.
Hair: Kylee Heath Using Serge Normant at Starworks Group.
Music “Bamel Clues” by Suff Daddy
Production Assistants: Jake Harrison and Andres Gudino.