Ensconced in the dim jurisdiction of an outdoor patio heater at a cafe in Los Feliz, Lucy Hale is burning her tongue on a near-boiling cup of tea and telling me about the dark night of the soul. “We all experience it at some point,” she says. “Why are we really here? What’s our purpose? What makes us happy?” We’re talking about the gall it takes to remake yourself from scratch. We’re talking about the difficulties of introspection; we’re talking about the commodification of pain in the entertainment industry; we’re talking about concretizing the mushy bog of one’s soul via the establishment of a regular bedtime routine. The conversation, believe it or not, evolves from talk about a romcom.
The romcom in question? Peter Hutchings’ Which Brings Me to You, Hale’s most recent cinematic undertaking. Adapted from Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott’s novel of the same name, Which Brings Me to You follows Jane (Hale) and Will (Nat Wolff) over an emotionally fraught 24-hour period as the jaded characters meet and immediately take each other through candid recollections of their taxing romantic histories. I tell Hale what I keep telling my cinephile friends: Which Brings Me to You allows complexity in the protagonists in a way that feels like oxygen being delivered to the waning embers of the romcom genre—the film’s earnest absurdities (there is a singing scene, and it’s rather campy) are underscored by a genuine endeavor towards nuance. Hale and Wolff deliver performances that linger on the pitfalls of modern romance, without losing the whimsy inherent to the 24-hour love story format. Hale’s Jane is a far cry from the chaste, single-issue heroines of romcoms past—she’s coy, she’s exhausted, and gloriously relatable. “When I first met you,” she whispers to Will (Wolff) in an opening scene, “I thought that we should have sex in the coat closet.”
Hale is rather used to roles that tend to the modern woman of Hollywood’s imagination: among numerous other projects, she recently starred as a harried protagonist in Puppy Love, played the titular fashionista in Riverdale spinoff Katy Keene, and portrayed a ruthless young professional in The Hating Game. She also, of course, vivified Aria Montgomery on the epochal teen drama Pretty Little Liars. Hale moved to Hollywood from Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 15, and has spent the two decades occupying a unique space in the minds of a generation: As the PLL fandom aged out of high school and into the workforce, Hale’s characters grew with them. As Gen Z looks for love in a world inundated by dating apps and callousness, so does Hale on screen. As millennials fight to be valued in their early careers, so does Hale, on screen. If people claim that the media holds a mirror to society, girls of our generation might look in that rosy Hollywood looking glass and find themselves staring at Hale’s face.
For a long time, that sort of representation affected Hale. “So often women [on screen] go through hard, dirty stuff and then it’s tied up with a bow. You know, men aren’t portrayed that way. And I feel like even growing up in the South, a lot of my life was about this perfectionism,” she says. Now, “any story about a woman who is flawed and fucked up and unabashedly herself— like, just human, attracts me.”
Which Brings Me to You provokes a lot of thought about the nature of romantic comedies. “99% of people on the planet want real, sustainable love,” she tells me, “but you’ll fall in love a lot. You grow exponentially every time you get your heart broken. All of these bookmarks form you into the person you are today.” The actor saw a kernel of herself in Jane. “In my life—particularly in more chaotic periods—I have been drawn to dating men who reflect what I feel internally.” She admits, the kind of story that Which Brings Me to You represents––one filled with messy and unfinished love––might be the future of the genre.
Hale often gets overwhelmed by the chaos that accompanies the state of being in love, the state of living in the modern era, the state of being a prominent actor in an ever-evolving industry. She confesses that the casualties of being human often keep her up at night, which is why she stopped drinking caffeine after 2PM. Actually, she finds that self-regulation helps her stay afloat. She got sober two years ago, after experiencing a stage of life which she describes very beautifully to me as the “dark night of the soul.” Since, she has renovated the ways in which she perceives herself and the world around her.
The practice of spirituality has transformed her life as well as her career. Spirituality, not the “Big Sky Daddy” kind, but the kind that provokes regular questions about the place of the self in the context of space and time—has forced her to reckon with (and, eventually, celebrate) solitude in ways that were previously inconceivable: “I feel that I’m very susceptible to other people’s emotions,” she says. “It’s a lesson I’ve been dealing with. I have to quiet my mind. I have to carve out time to be alone and to figure out what it is that I want. Not what the internet wants, not what my manager wants, not what my family wants. What I want. It’s hard. It’s a skill you have to acquire and work at.”
Though Hollywood is filled with the terrifying, frenetic hunger that can instill panic in the stomachs of even the most seasoned veterans (Hale tells me that she still experiences guttural anxiety after being rejected for gigs), Hale wouldn’t trade her job for anything else. “LA is home to me,” she says. “More than I ever felt in Tennessee. I can’t explain it. I’m so lucky that I found my calling here. I think there was a fear for some of my life that I wouldn’t love it as much as I thought, or that I was on the wrong path. There definitely have been moments where I’m like, What the fuck am I doing? How do I sustain this? How do I stay sane? And keep up with this?, but I experience life through my senses. The work I’ve done over the years has helped me make sense of my life. A lot of actors feel that way. We cope through whatever art we’re doing... It’s the only language I know how to speak, or that I want to speak.”
And, if art is the only language she wants to speak, Hale is certainly a polyglot. She’s expanded out of acting and into producing. In her downtime, she’s getting into archery and horseback riding (“Like Katniss Everdeen” she smirks). She’s an avid reader, and often falls prey to what she calls “airport shopping,” which entails buying nearly the entire shelf of books on display at the terminal side mini-mart. She’s reading Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, per her mother’s recommendation, and tells me that Brian Weiss’ Many Lives, Many Masters, a book about how people can heal ancestral trauma and generational trauma by tapping into past lives. “I had chills the entire time I read it, I cried at one point.”
“That’s back to my woo-woo stuff,” Hale adds of the book. She keeps catching herself using the phrase: Woo-woo stuff. She corrects herself. “I shouldn’t dismiss myself. These are my beliefs.” Woo-woo is broached often, as if Hale is still getting used to showing others how seriously she takes herself and her beliefs. It reminds me of the way people are quick to dismiss romance movies and teen dramas. For as long as romantic media has been produced, it’s been eschewed by critical bodies as an inherently unserious genre—likely because of its gendered consumer base, likely because love is never considered as valorous as war. Love, as transformative a power as it may be, is inherently domestic, in the same way that spirituality (or, as Hale keeps accidentally saying, woo-woo) is largely self-centered. To Hale, thoughts about romance and love, practices of spirituality and solitude, are equally as meritorious as constant interrogations of pain and empty practices of longing.
It’s said that cells regenerate every seven years or so. Our conversation lands on this, as we huddle tightly under this cafe heater, clutching now lukewarm cups of decaf tea, thinking about romance and the universe and how lucky we are to be arbiters of our own experience. Hale is going to turn 35 this year, which means she’s entering into a new cycle of personhood, almost completely cleaved from the person she was seven years ago. She tells me that she doesn’t set New Year’s resolutions, but she does set New Year’s words. Last year, her word of the year was acceptance. This year, as she heads into a new cycle, her word is allowing. “The universe opens up so many doors for you if you don’t limit yourself,” she concludes. “This year, I’m letting things grow.”
Photographed by Max Montgomery
Written by Annie Bush
Production Assistant: Liam Plunier
Location: The Fairmont Century Plaza