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Interview: The Half of It’s Leah Lewis

by Leora Heilbronn

There are a multitude of reasons why I love Alice Wu’s Netflix film The Half Of It and why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I watched a screener of the movie a few weeks ago. To sum it all up, let’s just say that it’s incredibly rare to see a film that doesn’t judge or sexualize its young central heroine, let alone see that central character be a book smart, bespectacled young Asian American woman whose greatest love turns out to be a platonic one for her cis straight male best friend. I was thrilled when the film was named Best Narrative Feature at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, especially as I had gotten a chance to gush about the exquisite movie with its lead actress Leah Lewis just a few days prior.

The following is an edited and condensed version of my phone conversation with The Half Of It‘s Leah Lewis.

Brief Take: Hi Leah! How are you holding up in all of this?

Leah Lewis: I’m good, thanks for asking. It’s a sensitive time but I am just trying to take care of myself physically and emotionally and just be there for my friends and family. How about you?

BT: I’m also trying to take it day by day in terms of my emotional and mental well being. I’m living with my parents, they’re older and immuno compromised, so I’m trying to hold it all together for them too. I related to that aspect, amongst many others, in The Half of It, where Ellie was the support system for her Dad.

LL: Aww, that’s so sweet of you. That is a huge part of the film that I related to as well. I love my family so, so, so dearly and similarly, my parents are on the older side, so I definitely kept that in consideration.

BT: I should start from the very beginning. How did you go about crafting your portrayal of Ellie and what did you like best about playing her?

LL: So Ellie Chu came to me like any other audition. When I went in, I had this idea of Ellie being a bit more energetic, a little out there and bubbly, and Alice saw something in that. But after that initial audition, we actually defined parts of me that were a bit more internal, observant, patient, quiet, and we really worked on that together. Alice got to know me as Leah, and then we were able to incorporate Leah’s quieter qualities into Ellie, mixed with Alice’s experience. Part of what I love about playing Ellie Chu is at first I thought that we may have been different, but I came to find that we are very, very much so alike. I am a huge observer, that’s a bit of a quieter side of me that I don’t really show to people as much because I wasn’t as confident with it, and actually stepping into Ellie Chu has helped me completely love and embrace that side of myself. Just like Ellie, I am a huge music lover, I love reading books – it’s pretty much what I’ve been doing all the time, especially during quarantine. [laughs] I have a huge, huge love for my family, which is what we were talking about earlier. That family connection is just as important to me as it is to Ellie. But yeah, what I love specifically about Ellie Chu is that she’s a hero, she’s the main character, but she holds a lot of unconventional hero qualities. Normally we see the hero as being this outward larger character, but what I love is that Ellie is a hero in a much different way. I think a story like that is so unique and I loved it immediately when I read it. Getting to play Ellie was beautiful, it was really beautiful.

BT: Ellie is beautiful inside and out. I was telling someone recently that I was so relieved that there was no montage towards the end where Ellie lets down her hair and loses her glasses and loses herself really, which is what happens in a lot of YA movies. She doesn’t and shouldn’t change her outward appearance for anyone.

LL: Yeah! I remember at the time going, “hey Alice, am I ever going to put my hair down?”, and she was like “nope!”. That speaks to the fact that not everyone goes through this external transformation. It’s not always about taking the glasses off and taking the hair down, it’s as simple as Ellie feeling good about herself by the end of the film, that is a transformation.

BT: I also appreciated how the outfit chosen for Ellie by Daniel Diemer‘s character isn’t this glam bodycon dress, it’s an outfit that is still very much Ellie.

LL: I love that too and it really speaks to Paul’s character. He’s not trying to change Ellie, he was definitely just trying to elevate her sense of style in a way that was still the same but a little bit more done up for the show.

BT: Speaking of that scene, you got to showcase your singing and guitar playing talent there. Tell me about performing ‘Half Way’?

LL: [laughs] ‘Half Way’, first of all, I think it is such a beautiful song. It was written by Joe Pernice and interestingly enough, it was actually pre-recorded in Britain before I even signed on to the project. It was sung by Brandy Edith but me as Leah, I love music so much, it’s my second language. Ellie Chu is actually a much better guitar player than I am. I had to go through two months of guitar lessons in order to play ‘Half Way’. [laughs] I can strum but I cannot do finger picking. It was really cool just to be on stage performing. Even if it was not me singing, I was still singing. It was a very intimate moment for me and for Ellie Chu. It’s the first time she’s showing the world that she is more than just this girl that writes everyone’s papers at school.

BT: And still so confident within herself, which I think is so important for younger girls to see reflected on screen.

LL: Very much so! I hope it encourages young women out there to express and really follow through with those things that they want to show to the world. And in that scene specifically, I think it’s one of the most pivotal parts of the film because it speaks a lot on the people that are supportive of things like that. You see Paul brings her this guitar and nobody has ever done that for her. Never in a million years would Ellie have ever thought “oh, let me just go grab a guitar and sing this song”, but Paul sees her and is her friend and supports that, and it’s because of that love and encouragement that Ellie is able to take those steps and butterfly out of her cocoon.

BT: Speaking of the character of Paul, I’m super curious, what were the sausage tacos like? Did you eat them?

LL: [laughs] OK. So I don’t know what I expected on set for them to make, but when they came out with the sausage taco, I was just blown away. I was like “WHAT? Someone is actually making this?”, and I was surprised because it was really, really tasty! [laughs] I feel like most people will kind of err on the side of Ellie’s first reaction, which was kind of “no, I don’t care about a taco sausage. I don’t want to try it”, but it is actually such a good culinary creation! Daniel and I actually just did a cook off for MTV where we made a taco sausage and it was so good. If you ever get the chance to make that, I would suggest trying your own. It’s like mixing an apple and a banana and making them one, but it’s so good.

BT: Alice had said that her favourite scene was the hot springs scene, where you really conveyed the loneliness of Ellie in losing her mother and her loss of faith. Did you have a favourite scene to shoot?

LL: You know, I have two, but I’ll speak to that one because that is one of my favourite scenes as well. Kind of like what Alice said, this is the first time where you really see where Ellie comes from and why she is the way she is. It’s one of the first times that she really opens up to somebody. I don’t think these are things that Ellie really talks about with people. We see that she’s a very observant character but the fact that the conversation flows so naturally between these two, it was very much like that with Alexxis and I off-screen. That was our audition scene together. To see that come to life, I mean it was just breathtaking just because we had been working on the scene for the longest time and we’re telling Alice’s story. It was a really, really cool day. It was also the last day of shooting so it was very nostalgic.

Another one of my favourites is when Daniel’s character, Paul, and my character, Ellie, say goodbye at the very end where Ellie leaves for college. I think that scene is where you really see these characters begin the rest of their lives and accept what happened to them and love each other for the first time, really embracing that love. As you see Paul run after the train and Ellie accepting it for the first time, laughing and calling him a moron, but still accepting it. That day was so important to me as well because I’m so close with Daniel and I love him to death, so it really felt like I was saying goodbye to Daniel as well in real life. [laughs] That scene was incredible to shoot.

BT: That scene was incredible also because it completely turns the typical rom com ending, of the love interest running after the train, on its head and subverts your expectations in the best way possible. The great love of your life doesn’t have to be romantic love.

LL: Of course. The idea of platonic love is so important and it’s something that people should devote more attention to. Love is not always about romance and it’s not always about guy meets girl, or girl meets guy, or girl meets girl, it’s really about what you learn along the way and who you become friends with and the things that happen to you. I think that’s specifically what this film touches on.

BT: What did you like best about working with Daniel, Alexxis Lemire, and Alice?

LL: What I loved best about working with Daniel was, and I don’t know if this is because Alice really helped us start off our friendship this way, but Daniel himself, like Paul Munsky, has a way of just seeing into my soul. [laughs] I remember Daniel and I hanging out on off days and not really having to talk to each other, we just were. The friendship between us was that strong and it was completely platonic as he has a girlfriend and I have a boyfriend. And I think that’s what I love the most about it too – our relationship on-screen was completely near off-screen. He was such a supportive scene partner. And then with Alexxis, heck, her and I became like sisters. [laughs] It’s the same thing,  I really enjoyed every single time her and I got to work together because it was like working with your best friend, there’s no greater privilege. The life that she brought to Aster, she was just so authentic and so vulnerable in what she brought to the table, it made it really easy for me, as Ellie and Leah, to react and give back to her. And then on top of that, other than Alice being the director and the writer, she has become one of the closest confidantes and loves of my life. [laughs] I feel like her and I know each other on such an intimate level. There’s no going back from there, you know? Her and I still text every single day. I tell her this all the time – she is the first of my career. You know I have dreamed of starring in any kind of movie since I was a kid, and the fact that I get to star in a movie that centres around an Asian American lead? She really is the first of my whole experiences, and I think her and I will always share that forever. I’m so grateful to her and I love her so much. She’s a Mom/confidante/friend/sister/everything, and I never would have expected that I would have walked away from this with a full fledged family.

BT: What was it like working with Catherine Curtin and Becky Ann Baker?

LL: Oh my goodness! Catherine was so supportive through the whole thing, and I mean she is just so talented to begin with. I watched her on some of her other shows, so I was just really jazzed to be there with her. And same with Becky. Becky, in a way, is the same as Mrs. G, in that she’s totally honest, badass, [laughs] pardon my French, and I really enjoyed working with her and Catherine. I feel like every single person on the set really believed in the message of the film and that was the underlying factor of what brought us together to work our hardest and just love each other throughout everything.

BT: Have you seen the movie? Is there a specific moment that you’re really proud of? 

LL: I have seen the movie and I’m really proud of the moment where Ellie is observant. For me, as Leah, sometimes I struggle with wanting to speak all the time and label things and say “oh this is happening and this is how I feel, and now this is how I feel”, and so it was a very interesting feeling just observing as Ellie. I didn’t have any clue what that looks like on camera, Alice never really showed us anything, and I’m glad she didn’t, but after watching the movie I was like “wow, there’s so much emotion in being observant that I hadn’t really realized I was portraying while I was in it”, and so that was interesting. And also seeing how the bike scenes ended up because I’m not the best biker. [laughs] Ellie is a very good biker because she cycles every day of her life, so I was really relieved to see that I held down the fort and didn’t cycle like an old person. [laughs] Every time I did bike on set, it was either really hot outside or we were on some insane hill. So it wasn’t necessarily hard to bike, it was hard to gain traction and make it look like I was actually riding. But Alice was so good at coaching me through that and being like “it’s gonna be ok, you’ve got this!”, and same with Daniel.

BT: You mentioned earlier that you had been reading a lot during quarantine. Do you have any book recommendations?

LL: I just read The Kite Runner, have you heard about that one? So yeah, I just read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and that book completely changed my life. I mean the interweaving of characters in this and getting to see what the Afghan experience was like. It was a really incredible book and also a big learning experience for me. So if anyone out there wants to read about someone who grew up in Kabul and cry their eyes out, please go and read that.

The Half of It is now streaming on Netflix. To find out more about the movie, read our interview with Daniel Diemer

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