There's almost nothing more magical than prom. A bunch of sweaty, lanky teenagers awkwardly slow dancing in front of teachers and parent chaperones. Corsages poorly pinned on rented tuxedos. Posed photos with cheesy props in the makeshift photo booth. The only experience that can top it is after prom.
“I went to prom with my best friend for my junior and senior year,” actor Lily McInerny says, “I lived in LA for these two years, so it was at the beach in Malibu. Just the aftermath of us girls eating pancakes at a Denny’s in all our prom getups was pretty memorable.” She jokes that she could tell better prom stories than chowing down on a Grand Slam combo in a floor-length gown, but she doesn’t want those juvenile shenanigans forever documented“on paper.”
Though now 24 years old, McInerny had to tap into those universally awkward, sometimes emotionally grueling, high school memories for her latest project and first feature-length film, Palm Trees and Power Lines. McInerny plays focal character, Lea, a 17-year-old who doesn’t quite fit in with her friend group. Throughout summer break, Lea finds herself in a relationship with a man in his 30s who promises her an alternative to her unsatisfying adolescent life. As things progress, she becomes isolated from her friends and family and finds herself in a situation she could never have imagined.
The film is unsettling. It’s uncomfortable and raw. Some scenes are almost too hard to watch because of the story’s authenticity. “I think it’s unflinchingly truthful,” McInerny shares. As uncomfortable as certain scenes may have been for the audience, the film newcomer diligently prepped herself for the film’s heaviest moments. “I spent a lot of time preparing for this, both creatively and emotionally. And so I had walked myself through each day and each scene several times, so there were no surprises. I also had a really, really strong friendship with my co-star (Jonathan Tucker) and my director (Jamie Dack, who won the Directing Award for Palm Trees at 2022’s Sundance Film Festival), and a lot of other crew members on set. So it made the hardest days so much easier. It was, it sounds kind of weird to say, but it’s probably a lot harder to watch back now than it was actually to perform.”
To tap into the mind of Lea, McInerny used her 17-year-old self as a jumping-off point. “I definitely use myself a lot as you kind of have to as an actor,” she shares. “I used a lot of my own playlists and music tastes from when I was 17 to build my character. And I use a lot of the, like 2014, 2015 Tumblr aesthetic as a personal kind of reference. I was listening to a lot of Fiona Apple, Amy Winehouse, Liz Phair, and Mitski—these sorts of strong female vocalists who often speak about their trauma in a really powerful way.”
Blaring “I Bet on Losing Dogs” or “Paper Bag” in a pair of headphones can undoubtedly unleash strong emotions, but what really makes McInerny’s performance sparkle is her talent and dedication to the art. She started acting in elementary school plays when she was just a little, scared eight-year-old. Scoring the role of Peter in the play “Peter and the Wolf” was the highlight of her little self’s acting life. Now, a decade and a half later, McInerny gets to showcase her abilities to audiences much larger than a gymnasium full of school staff and PTA members with camcorders. “I was always a timid kid. And I think I grew into a relatively shy adult. So it’s ironic that my favorite thing in the world is to just throw myself in front of hundreds of strangers and show them my deepest vulnerabilities,” she says. Transforming into a different person for each project she works on allows her to express herself uniquely, although it can be exposing. “But I think that’s what I find so liberating about it as well is that it pushes me out of my comfort zone, and I feel less self-conscious in character.”
The experience of truly stepping outside herself for a role helped McInerny land her audition into lauded Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts at age 13. For her audition monologue, she acted out a story about her entire family perishing in a tragic death by a tornado. As a New York City native, it wasn’t often that strong gusts of winds threatened to become a tornado. “I don’t know what drew me to that,” she laughs. “I don’t have much experience with tornadoes.” Nonetheless, that monologue must have been convincing enough for her to get into Timothée Chalamet and Jennifer Aniston’s alma mater.
After graduating high school, McInerny moved to Vermont for college. She pursued a degree in performing arts before the pandemic pushed classes online. She didn’t feel like she was getting the experience needed to become an established actress through virtual courses, so she stopped attending school and moved back to NYC to try and make her dreams come true. Palm Trees and Power Lines was the first feature film she had auditioned for. “I have it pretty lucky, even though sometimes starting a career at 24 feels like I’m behind when so many people have been in it for so long. I never take for granted how lucky I am to have gotten this.”
In addition to the film, the actor recently returned to her stage roots for the play Camp Siegfried at 2nd Stage Theater in New York. Another project is underway, but she has to keep it hush-hush. There’s no doubt that McInerny has a bright future ahead of her, a future almost as bright as the disco lights at a high school dance, or maybe a glass of sparkling Coca-Cola at Denny’s.
Photographed by Sophie Elgort
Styled by John Tan
Written by Audra McClain
Hair: Jerome Cultrera
Makeup: Jessi Butterfield
Director of Photography: Katie Colwell
Flaunt film by Sophie Elgort