Looking for Alaska Star Sofia Vassilieva on Bringing the John Green Novel to Life: "It’s Almost Like You Get More Story"
Keep reading to get acquainted with the actress before her new series hits Hulu on Oct. 18.
If you’re searching for a new show to binge, look no further than Looking for Alaska. Based on the novel written by fan-favorite The Fault in Our Stars author John Green and created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage — a.k.a. the duo who brought us Gossip Girl and The O.C. — the Hulu miniseries is certainly one for the teen-drama history books. And it’s not just enjoyable for the YA set.
Taking place in 2005, the show (which drops all eight episodes on Oct. 18) appeals to the inner teen in all of us. It follows Miles “Pudge” Halter (played by Charlie Plummer), a misfit from Orlando who has big dreams about his “great perhaps” when he transfers to an Alabama boarding school. He quickly befriends a group of prank-loving peers and, despite his very obvious infatuation with the titular character, Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), begins dating Lara Buterskaya, a Romanian immigrant who’s crushing on him hard. When tragedy strikes their close-knit group, the teens are left searching for answers. And Lara, portrayed by Sofia Vassilieva, is right in the thick of it.
“Lara is such a tender being who sees the good in people, but she’s also very strong in her own way,” Vassilieva tells InStyle. “She always stands up for Miles and for Alaska, even when he wrongs her from time to time. It’s remarkable to play the role of someone who teeters the line of being so gentle and loving but also so strong. We’re starting to see women who are not just one thing — they’re not just sweet or kind, and they’re not just the love interest. They are full and rich as characters.”
The role was even more meaningful for Vassilieva, who was best known for starring in Eloise at the Plaza and on Medium before she landed the lead role in the 2009 tearjerker My Sister’s Keeper. “Lara comes from an immigrant family and has an immigrant story, and my family is a family of immigrants,” she says. “My parents moved here from Russia before I was born; I’m a first generation American. So [I wanted] to tell the story of what it’s like to come from a different country and what that does to a person. You feel such a responsibility to your heritage and to take care of the people who gave up everything to give you the opportunity to have this life. My family did that and Lara’s family did that, so it was was really cool to honor my parents in that way with this project.”
The poignance of telling an immigrant story right now isn’t lost on Vassilieva, who turns 27 later this month. “It’s absolutely relevant,” she says. “I think Josh and Steph really played into it and gave her a full circle arc, and then I got to breathe more life into her on top of that. It’s interesting because I’ve been in this industry for a hot second, and you see it change and you see the world change a little bit. And yes, there’s all of this trying stuff going on, but people are also starting to embrace each others’ differences. Ten years ago, me being Russian and having my last name that no could pronounce, no one would even try. And now people are engaging; they want to try. People are starting to want to get to know one another and to honor those stories." The impact of such stories isn't lost on her, either: "It’s wonderful when someone gets to see that their family’s not alone in what they went through. Each story is different, but this one was really close to me," she says.
Here, our full conversation with Vassilieva about everything from learning “set etiquette” from Julie Andrews and bringing back early millennium fashion to the Looking for Alaska moment that will leave fans of The O.C. wanting more.
What initially drew you to Looking for Alaska?
It’s really exciting to be a part of something that’s so important to Hulu. And then the project is wonderful — it’s Josh Schwartz and Steph Savage, who are at this point legends of young television. So that was a huge draw, because you know you’re in good hands with people who have made all these massive hit shows. The book also has affected so many people who have fallen in love with it over the last almost 20 years. Josh and Steph have been so careful about it from the very beginning. They’ve stayed loyal to the book, but the creativity has just been remarkable in terms of the detail they’ve put into it, every step of the way.
Had you read the book before you signed on?
I knew who John Green was and I knew about his books and the success of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns. But I read Looking for Alaska after I auditioned and got the part. I read the first few scripts and then read the book in one sitting. I loved it. When I finished reading it, I called my mom on the phone, crying, just to tell her how much I love her. It mattered to me. I’ve become a fan of the book, and I’m a huge fan of John Green as a person and as a writer. It was really special to be able to go to the original source and see how honest of a telling this is and how much of the essence of the story really is from the book, even though we do take some creative liberty.
What do you think will surprise the die-hard John Green fans out there about seeing this story told onscreen?
There are some new things that show up in some stories, but what I think will surprise viewers — and I think what surprised me — was how authentically this show pairs itself with the book. Like whatever else is in there that’s not in the book feels like it’s in the same world and like it could’ve been another page. So it’s almost like you get more story.
Obviously you can’t ask for better people to be bringing a teen drama to life than Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. Were you a big fan of Gossip Girl and The O.C.?
I very much was a fan of Gossip Girl. I don’t think I’ve confessed that on set yet! I don’t think anyone knows this about me. But I was a very big fan of Gossip Girl before college and then in my freshman dorm, we’d actually sit every week and watch the show. And then of course The O.C. was amazing. There’s actually a point in Looking for Alaska where some of the characters are watching The O.C., so that’s a fun little Easter egg for people to find.
The show is set in 2005. The characters use a payphone to call their parents and the fashion is very 2000s. What was it like to revive that period?
I made my own fashion mistakes in that era, so it was slightly traumatic to revisit those moments. Our costume designer [Matthew Simonelli] is brilliant with how he did it. I remember popping into the trailer and him being like, “We’re going to do flared low-rise jeans with a dress.” And I was like, “Matthew, please, no.” Somehow he made it look great, because he’s so good. The payphone is delightful because it’s so authentic; I remember calling my mom from a payphone and crying because I couldn’t go to some birthday party! But even though it has these sort of tokens of time, the show itself is still really relevant because the feelings are the same. Things change and technologies develop, but growing up — first love, first kisses, all these things — that’s universal.
This show is based on a book, and of course you did My Sister’s Keeper, which was based on a book by Jodi Picoult. What is it that you like about bringing these literary stories to life onscreen?
Now that you mention it, it goes back to even before My Sister’s Keeper, because Eloise at the Plaza and Eloise at Christmastime are based on children’s books, too. There’s such an honor in playing characters that are beloved, and there is a stake in them because they’re so loved. They’re a little extra special and you take a little bit more care because you really want to do the character justice. People love them and you love them, too. At the same time, it’s also finding the authenticity of it and really figuring these people out from the inside.
Since a very young age you’ve worked with amazing actresses — alongside Julie Andrews in the Eloise films, Cameron Diaz in My Sister’s Keeper, and Patricia Arquette on Medium, to name a few. What have you learned from them?
Every one of those women are remarkable people. There is such importance in being a good person, especially when you’re dictating the energy on a set. Those women make the set a warm, positive, and collaborative environment. That’s a skill and a talent, and it’s a testament to good people. I always say that Julie taught me set etiquette. She was really the first woman who I [saw at work] and went, “Oh, this is how you behave on a set.” You stand up for your crew, you take care of every person on the call sheet — no matter what their number on the call sheet is — and you treat everyone with kindness and respect. That has stuck with me.
Cameron and Patricia have been the same in that regard. Patricia, she’s a super nurturing person, but she’s also a rule breaker who takes a stance for what she believes in. She’s making amazing projects, but she’s also helping make this world a better place one step at a time. She uses her voice in a time that we, as women, are now using our voices. She’s an incredible role model. And then Cameron is brilliantly smart. To see intelligence respected and loved in those women at a young age, I was really lucky. Looking back now, as a woman with a voice, I can’t tell you how much that has built me up.
You seem to gravitate toward parts that are emotionally heavy. In Looking for Alaska, your character isn’t the one in peril, but the show centers on a tragedy. In My Sister’s Keeper, you played a cancer patient. And you’ve guest-starred twice as a victim of assault on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. What draws you to such dark, dramatic parts?
First of all, Mariska [Hargitay] is another one of those women who entirely should be should be applauded. She is the heart and soul of that show, and I’m just so honored that SVU had me back again. They actually worked to figure out how to bring me back. We shot in New York at the same time I was at school [at Columbia University]. There I was, getting my degree and living my happy dorm life, and they loved me on the show and wanted me back. I was so honored by that. But it’s weird because I started in comedy. Eloise was arguably comedy, it’s on the lighter side. The Brady Bunch film I did [in 2001] was comedy. That was where my spunk lived, as a kid. But I’m a very emotionally open person. So that material that we might call “heavier” or “dramatic” or “darker,” I don’t shy away from it. I’m okay in that space. I tackle things head-on, and I love digging into characters and marinating with them. I’ve also found that on projects that are heavier, often there’s a really light set. Like on My Sister’s Keeper, we joked all the time and had fun. There’s a balance that happens.
Do you have any interest in returning to comedy?
I am very much ready for a comedy! [laughs] I would love to play a quintessential dumb blonde — which is now probably politically incorrect to say — but I would love to do that. Cameron has done some of the quintessential comic roles, and I just think it’d be so much fun to play something like that and balance the darkness. Maybe not quite so soon, though. There’s a little more dark in the making.
Speaking of what’s in the making, you have The Little Things movie coming up with Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto. What can you tell us about that?
It’s shrouded in secrecy. I’m just so stoked. Someone literally had to sit me down and be like, “You do realize you’re doing the movie with three Oscar winners, right?” And it was like, “Oh, yeah, I am! Wait a minute!” It’s a thriller. John Lee Hancock is the amazing director, who also did The Blind Side. It’s set in the early ‘90s. It’s dark, and the character I play is fun, but she’s also a very strong, smart woman who’s fearless. To be in the company of Rami and Denzel and Jared, it’s just so exciting. It’s a great crew, there’s a good energy on set. It feels great. So I’m giddy.