Kaya Scodelario is simultaneously incredibly open, and incredibly polite. When we speak on the phone, the first thing she does is thank me for taking the time to talk to her, before jumping into a conversation rife with casual swear words, addressing me like I’m her best friend. She calls me “love” so many times that it almost feels like we’ve known each other for years — as if she's calling from around the block, and not London, where she was raised and where she’s currently based with husband Benjamin Walker and their three-year-old son.
“It's where all my friends and family are, and my dog,” she says. “I love being able to dip into Hollywood and L.A. life, and then come home to the pub.”
It’s easy to imagine being able to sit down with Scodelario for a pint at the end of a long day, venting, trading gossip, and having a laugh. There’s a down-to-earth energy she’s carried since her breakthrough as Effy Stonem in Skins, the gritty British teen drama that ran from 2007 to 2013 and launched her career, as well as those of Nicholas Hoult, Daniel Kaluuya, and Dev Patel, amongst others.
Still, Scodelario, who was raised speaking Portugese by her Brazilian single mother, says she initially didn’t have much in common with the ultimate cool girl she became famous for playing.
“At the beginning, I was the opposite of Effy, I was so shy and I would never sneak out of the house, I was trying to be the grownup and to look after my mum and look after my friends,” she says. “And then in the later seasons when we go into her depression, that's when I realized that I had stuff going on that I needed to address too. And I've had so many wonderful messages from people saying that it helped them understand a part of themselves or at least question a part of themselves. And those are the kind of roles I want to play. I want it to matter.”
In the years since, she’s made a seamless transition from TV to film in a range of projects big and small: the Maze Runner trilogy, the fifth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and, more recently, a role as Ted Bundy’s ex-wife in Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. And now, Scodelario is making her return to TV in her first big series since Skins as Kat Baker, an up-and-coming ice skater in Netflix series Spinning Out.
Read on as Scodelario discusses advocating for mental health representation, her annual “Frismas” reunion dinners with the Skins cast, and her identity as a proud biracial woman.
InStyle: The story out there is that you auditioned for Skins at the age of 14 without any acting experience. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Scodelario: Yeah, I always knew I had a deep passion for acting, and from a very young age I was very shy, quiet child. I was bullied a lot. I had dyslexia, and never found my place in the world until at the age of 11, [when] my school put on a production of Oliver Twist, and they auditioned all the boys and they wouldn't let any of the girls audition for any of the parts. And I went up to the teacher and asked her, "Has anyone auditioned for Oliver?" And they were like, "No, no, you can't do that. But we'll let you audition for one of the orphanage boys." And they gave me one line to say, and I said it the best that I could. And then the next day they told me I could play Oliver.
I think from then on, that gave me such a sense of accomplishment, joy, and happiness, that I knew that's what I wanted to do, but I thought you had to come from a rich family, or be connected somehow, or be blonde and perfect looking [to be an actor]. But I was really fortunate that when I was 14, I was walking home from school and they were holding open auditions for Skins near my house [in London]. And I stopped and stared, and wished I'd had the courage to go in. The creator, Bryan Elsley, was outside having a cigarette at the time, and he spoke with me and asked if I wanted to come in and read. I was really, really lucky. That's how it all started.
Spinning Out is your first big TV series since Skins. Had you been looking to do more TV when it came along?
Yeah, it's weird, it's been 10 years [since Effy’s arc on the series ended]. I really enjoy making movies. I really like that everyone gets to focus intensely for five or six months, and then this thing comes out, and it’s quite contained in that sense that you visit a character and then you leave them. But I've always missed the hustle of television, shooting seven to eight pages a day as opposed to one to two.
I was reading different scripts for movies and TV, and then my agent sent me this one. I've been looking for a story about mental health for a long time, especially bipolar disorder, as that's something that's very close to my heart in my personal life. I felt like this was the best representation of it that I'd ever seen on paper, and I knew that no matter what it was, whether it was TV or film or not, I wanted to do it. I wanted to bring Kat to life and I wanted to sink my teeth into her and her situation.
Your character Kat lives with bipolar disorder, as you mentioned. How did you prepare for that aspect of the role?
I have a lot of personal experience with family members and friends who have been through varying degrees of mental illness, and it's something that I've suffered with myself. It's fascinating, because I feel like my generation was the last generation to not really talk openly about it. And I'm so in awe of the new generation that [is talking], and I think it's such a great thing.
I kind of used that as my main tool of research, I looked for blogs, I looked for YouTube videos, especially with former skaters discussing their mental illnesses and abuse within the athletic world. So I've done a lot of online research that way. I then spoke to a charity called Mind that is based in the UK that I actually worked with 10 years ago when I was playing Effy and she had a breakdown. It was very important to me that we tried to present a very honest depiction of mental health. Not only the manic side, but also the day-to-day side of taking your pills, who you trust enough to talk to about it, and all of those little details that you don't often get to see. So I really did as much research as I could. It's probably the most I've ever researched for a role before, because I wanted to be fully prepared when I got on set.
It was weirdly triggering to me, at times, as well. I tried to make sure that I was looking after my mental health during shooting. I had my therapist in London on the end of the phone whenever I needed her. I had my best friends fly out and spend some time with me when I started to feel quite overwhelmed by being embedded in that kind of role for so long. Because, as an actor, I think people forget that we are living that experience sometimes, and it is important to look after ourselves as well. So I tried to make sure that I got home in the evening and I talked to my friends, or I'd play with my son, or I'd try and re-channel myself. Because it's f—king exhausting playing manic for 12 hours a day, and emotionally very, very triggering to me.
Were you able to protect yourself and keep yourself from being triggered when you were filming Skins, as well? I know you were much younger then.
It was a different time. Probably not. Probably not as much as I should have. We were teenagers and we weren't ready to face the realities of our situations. And Skins was so odd because we were experiencing things in real life as we were filming them. We were all going through our first loves, or our first breakups, or leaving home and arguing with our parents, and suddenly trying to look after our finances, or finding a place to live. And it was extremely stressful for all of us. I think it's the reason why a lot of us are still friends now, because that experience was so strange. And now we finally talk about it — when we have dinner and sit around, we discuss how we felt at the time when we were filming.
On Spinning Out, it was really important to me to have an intimacy coordinator [someone who ensures the well-being of actors who participate in sex scenes or other intimate scenes], I requested one on set because that was something that didn't exist during Skins, and I know that it's something that would have actually really benefited a lot of us at the time.
Skins also contained really nuanced depictions of mental health, particularly with your character, Effy. Do you think the perception of mental health issues has changed since your time on Skins? Has the stigma has lessened?
I think we still have a long way to go, but that's the case with anything that is important. We should never get to a point where we're content. We should always be pushing for more conversations, especially with young people.
You look like such a natural on the ice in Spinning Out. What was your physical preparation like for that?
Oh my god, I started from the very bottom. I was one of those people that get on the ice rink at Christmas, and holds onto the edge. Go around two times, and then get off. I don't think I'd ever been in the middle of an ice rink before.
But I had an amazing coach here in London who worked with me. I trained for an hour every day for three weeks. When I got to Toronto, we would do five to six hours a day with Sarah Kawahara, who's this incredible skate coach and choreographer. She did I, Tonya and Blades of Glory. She's scary, but in a really good way. She really kicked my butt into gear.
How much of what we see is stunt doubles and how much of it is you?
Well, because of the level that Kat and Justin are at in the story, there’s no way that we as actors would ever be able to get to that level in two or three months or even two or three years. And so all of the big stunts, the things that look so impressive, are done by amazing doubles, like national-level doubles that we had out in Canada. All that sh—t was definitely 100% them, they're amazing.
The season ends on such a big cliffhanger. Do you have any idea of where you want to go next if there was a season two?
I think for me, what I really found the most intriguing is the relationship between Kat, her mother, and her sister. At the end, we're left with these three women that have made very different decisions, some good, some bad, and they're now trying to come together to help each other out and figure out what to do next. And I would love to see some more of that. I want to know if that relationship is going to stay as strong as it ends in the season or if it's all going to fall apart.
You worked with [directors] Samantha Stratton on Spinning Out and you worked with Andrea Arnold on Wuthering Heights and with Leonora Lonsdale on The Pale Horse. Obviously you can't control who you're working with each time, but has it been a priority for you to work with women?
Definitely, hugely. And I've been really fortunate, like you mentioned, to work with Andrea Arnold, Jessica Gregorini [on The Truth About Emanuel], some incredible female filmmakers and storytellers, and I feel so comfortable working with a woman on set.
For me personally, I work so comfortably with women. I feel like creatively, it opens me up on a different level. I feel safe with them. I trust their vision, and I feel like the working relationship is more honest, and more level and more equal. My end goal is to produce eventually, and I want to elevate other women's stories because I've seen these great female directors I've worked with who've produced great work, and then haven't continued to. Whereas male directors I've worked with, who have been completely mediocre, get given opportunities left, right and center. So I want to be someone who can elevate women's stories for this industry because that is still a huge imbalance.
Spinning Out is very much a mother-daughter story as well. As someone who grew up with a single mother, did that factor into your performance at all?
Yeah, definitely. I've been raised by a woman, completely, solely. And so when I read Kat and Carol's [January Jones] relationship, I understood the ins and outs of it, that it's not perfect all the time, and that in fact sometimes it can be incredibly intense and even volatile. And I really liked the honesty. It wasn't afraid to show a female dynamic that wasn't perfect, or that was complicated. For a majority of the season they don’t get on, but when they need each other, there is no one else in the world to understand their individual situations like the other one. And they have a safety in that, that's how I feel with my mum and how I'm sure a lot of kids with single parents feel. No matter how tough things can get, no matter how many arguments you have, you two have been through something unique together, that no one else can ever understand.
I think something that's also really interesting is that you are half-Brazilian and half-English, but I don't think you've played a mixed woman before.
No, I haven't. And do you know what, during the Pirates of the Caribbean press tour maybe three years ago, I spoke to a journalist and she addressed me as a biracial woman, and it was the first time that I had been seen that way, and I was quite disappointed in myself that I haven't tried to put that forward more. It's something that I'm so proud of. I was raised more Latin than English by far. The food that I cook, the music I listen to have definitely all come from my Brazilian side. But I think in England there’s that outdated class system, we expect actresses to be very middle class and very British. And so that's how I’ve always been projected, but it's not [what I am]. I definitely want to explore that. I want to play a biracial character because that is who I am. I may not look it on the surface, but we don't all look a certain way anymore, and that's really beautiful.
A big ambition of mine is to work in Brazil, to find a story out there and embrace that side of me. Because I'm also fluent in Portuguese and I've never got to do that onscreen.
You've also discussed having annual Christmas get togethers with the Skins cast. Is that something you guys still do?
Yeah, every year. Most of us enjoy it more than real Christmas. We call it “Frismas” — Friends Christmas. There's about 12 of us that are still in touch, and we see each other all the time, but Christmas dinner is a big thing, because obviously [Nicholas Hoult’s] always working away, and Daniel [Kaluuya’s] always working away, and I'm always away, so it's hard for us all to get together during the year. But at Christmas, we're all coming back home in England, so the week before Christmas, we always do [get together]. But there's like five babies in the group now, so all the kids are growing up together and they're all best friends and it's lovely.
Obviously we had Skins Fire, but do you think you'd ever do another reboot with the entire cast together?
I don't know. I feel like what was magical about Skins is that it was so focused on the two years of British college, which is from the age of 16 to 18, and there's something so special going on in that time in your life where you're feeling things for the first time, you're discovering who you are for the first time, and you're experimenting and trying to find your place in the world. And like I say, I think that time was like special that it would be really hard to replicate it now.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Orlando Bloom. He was in the makeup truck next to me [while filming Pirates of the Caribbean], and I was shaking.
Did you tell him you had a crush on him?
No, of course not! I had a poster of him in my bedroom. But he seems like a nice normal guy, and I was like, okay, I'm a piece of that now.
What is the weirdest fan interaction you've ever had?
Trust me, they're always weird. People ask me to draw them a picture… and there was one lovely gal in Brazil who asked me to sign her arm so she could get it tattooed, and I was like, “no, please don't do that, do something else,” and she was like, “no, no, I really want it, I really want it.” And I was like, “OK.” I drew it as neatly as I could, and she came back the next day and it had already gotten infected and looked really gross, and I felt awful about it.
What is the last thing you binge-watched?
You. I'm not afraid to admit that I love You.
What is the wildest thing you've ever read about yourself?
I try not to read anything about myself because I'm terrified of it. But I think my aunt has a Google alert set up on me, which I find really embarrassing, and she'll call me every now and again and say, “what country are you in? And you're getting married? Are you pregnant again?” And I'm like, “nope, nope, don't believe any of it.” But I try to not look at any of that stuff.
What do you wish more people knew about you?
That I'm a biracial woman. You've inspired me.