PHOTOS BY RANDALL SLAVIN WORDS BY TAMARA RAPPA
With A Career On The Rise, Elizabeth Lail Exudes Star Quality, Delights Fans, and Leaves Them Wanting More
Tamara Rappa: So you studied acting in North Carolina. What's it like being in school for acting, and were there ever plans to come to New York for school?
Elizabeth Lail: I went to University of North Carolina School of the Arts for high school my senior year, and that molded my whole trajectory because, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by fellow artists. I was surrounded by my people. I didn't really know what the possibilities were in my small town. There aren't very many actors coming out of it. I fell in love with the school, so I wanted to go to college there. I drank all the Kool-Aid. I think I applied to maybe one school in New York, but the dream was to continue at the School of the Arts, and then move to New York or LA---I wasn't sure which.
TR: What do your friends do? Are they other actors? Other creatives?
EL: I would say it's split down the middle. You know, some people are really anti-actor…
TR: They are? Like friends from home, from a long time ago?
EL: I know people who are like, "Oh, I try to be around normal people."
TR: You're very normal.
EL: Oh, thank you. I love actors and I love artists. And then I love dentists and business people....
TR: You have a mixed group of friends.
"It demands the truth from me, and so it's this really intense bullshit meter for me as a person, and as an instrument. It provides intense catharsis, I'm always questioning and challenging myself. It also demands that I be fully present."
TR: How does acting feed your soul?
EL: It's probably my number one source of food. It demands the truth from me, and so it's this really intense bullshit meter for me as a person, and as an instrument. It provides intense catharsis, I'm always questioning and challenging myself. It also demands that I be fully present.
TR: That's beautiful. Have you always wanted to act? I mean, were you a small child dreaming of this? What's your first memory of "I want to be a performer?"
EL: I didn't, again, know what the possibilities were at such a young age, but my sister and I were making home movies, and I would play every character in the movie. We had the board game Clue, and we loved that movie. So I played every character in Clue along with the board game. I'd be the Professor, and then Miss Scarlet. I wore a big sheet. So I guess I've been doing it forever, and I didn't realize until maybe I was 14 that that it could be a career path.
TR: What other things do you do to exercise your creativity, or is all your focus on acting these days? You've got a lot going on.
EL: Well I do take acting class, and I love it. It depends on the class, but if you find a teacher that you really love, it feels like going to church for your artistic spirit. But I feel like everything feeds my acting. Even just riding the subway. The more present I am in my real life, the more inspiration I'm taking in. I like to see theater. I like to be inspired by watching other things. I journal a lot, and also any kind of emotional response or anything I'm inspired by---I write down. I find later that it will tend to tie in with something I need for a character, or you just never know. So the world is so inspirational to me. Travel…everything feeds the actor's spirit, I think.
TR: How do you journal? Do you literally write things down? It's not in a Notes app on your phone? It's a book that you keep by your bedside?
EL: It's a book. I've got one in my bag. I have a light one for walking around, but I have a big, big, heavy one at home. Usually I journal first thing in the morning. It's usually stream of consciousness.
TR: Morning pages?
EL:Yeah. It's a little bit like The Artist's Way, morning pages, but I don't necessarily follow any strict kind of order. And sometimes, it's gratitude. Sometimes it's stream of consciousness, and then sometimes I feel like something is trying to speak to me.
EL: Ideas, yeah. That's why it's always kind of worth going back to the page because you never really know what's going to reveal itself to you. And even sometimes if I'm working on a scene in the morning during that writing time, it just comes.
TR: Wow. That's powerful.
EL: It's what is wanting to be worked on, in my unconscious brain.
TR: A powerful tool. What does the book look like? Where do you get this book? This big, beautiful, heavy book?
EL: You know what's interesting about that one, it was a gift from Ferragamo, so it actually is really beautiful. But normally, journals find you. They're given to you or you buy one and you forget to use it, and then you're like, ‘oh, I have this great journal.’ They are untapped potential.
"I think I was more excited when I got like 500,000 followers. That was a big milestone. And then after that you're like, ‘I'm still figuring this out, how am I going to use Instagram? What does it mean to me? How is this going to be a part of my work."
TR: Describe how your fame came on. What was it like hitting a million followers and acquiring a fan base? What is it like? Do you detach from it in some way?
EL: Oh boy, you know. I'm a little detached from it.
TR: You have to just keep being you, and doing the work.
EL: Yes. I think I was more excited when I got like 500,000 followers. That was a big milestone. And then after that you're like, ‘I'm still figuring this out, how am I going to use Instagram? What does it mean to me? How is this going to be a part of my work?’ I’m a little conflicted, because there's a school of thought that the more people know about you, the more exposure you have, the less believable you are as a character. All of a sudden your mystique goes away.
TR: Right. There are some actors that could never do certain roles, because they're so known for ...
EL: ...for something. And they certainly can do those roles. But it might take the audience a minute to readjust their brains.
EL: But obviously I have Instagram, and mostly I'm just really grateful. I think kind of hitting the million mark, in a way, could be really wonderful for my career. But I don't know that yet. You know, the hope is that people cast you based off of your work. And if you can serve the project with any kind of following ...
TR: 100%. And, visibility.
EL: Visibility. Yes. Then it’s a great thing. That's always a great thing. Especially if you're making something smaller that really means something to you, that maybe needs a platform to get the word out. So it's exciting.
"I would be in LA in the Beck getup, and people would recognize me as her and they would get so excited. That's something that's really different. Obviously when we were shooting season one, people were, you know, 'what are you making? What's happening here?"
TR: Well, I will say, you have some lovely fans. And they've got some wonderful questions for you that we’re going to get to.
EL: I do. Oh, exciting!
TR: How are we seeing Beck in season two of You? And how is the series different this season?
EL: I mean, she’s back-ish. Right? Beck is back-ish. What was really cool about shooting season two though, is that we were in LA, which is very different than New York. And I would be in full Beck gear.
TR: Let’s talk about that. What is "full Beck gear"? What is Beck's look?
EL: Excellent question. Beck has curled hair that's meant to be kind of undone, yet done. It's a little shorter than mine at the moment, and she always wears lots of jewelry. She has a staple necklace that's beautiful.
TR: What is the staple necklace exactly?
EL: It is a half moon with a diamond in it. It's made by Melissa Joy Manning.
TR: I love Melissa Joy Manning. She's a friend of mine. I love her jewelry.
EL: She's amazing. No way. I’ve become such a fan.
TR: We should go meet her. I could use a new piece from her!
EL: Yes we should go to her shop in Brooklyn. I've never been and I've been wanting to go, and I have really beautiful pieces from her. And obviously Beck would not be able to have a Melissa Joy Manning necklace, but in the world of television, she does! Beck is very much jeans. She likes a French tuck, and some kind of jacket. She's a little bit more small-town-dresser, I think, for someone who lives in New York. Keeping it pretty simple and as affordable as possible is Beck's look. And then boots, she's a boot girl. I would be in LA in the Beck getup, and people would recognize me as her and they would get so excited. That's something that's really different. Obviously when we were shooting season one, people were, you know, ‘what are you making? What's happening here?’
TR: In which parts of LA would you shoot?
EL: We were in Los Feliz, when we would go out in the world. And then in the Atwater village area.
TR: So that's a main difference between season one and season two, location.
EL: Yeah. And those are pretty defining. New York and LA are very defining cities, experience-wise. Have you spent a lot of time in LA? I have. I feel like I've lived there.
TR: I'm a native New Yorker and I lived in LA for years.
EL: My thoughts are that in LA, they have great food. Because I'm a vegan, and it's lovely to eat there.
TR: You can find fantastic food in LA.
EL: Healthy food everywhere. But I prefer New York. I'm much more inspired by New York.
TR: Everyone can watch you in the wonderful indie film, Unintended. It's currently on cable, Direct TV, Prime Video, iTunes, Google play.[Everyone] should see this film. It's terrific. Was it draining playing someone so mentally tormented and well, drug addicted? She was sort of addicted to her medication.
EL: Yes. It is draining, but I think acting is draining in general because you are giving so much of yourself. And that aspect, yes, because she is kind of always in this state of distress.
TR: That's what it is. It's more than being mentally tortured. Your character Leah is in a state of distress.
EL: She’s kind of figuring out her life. I would really have to go home and just do absolutely nothing every day.
TR: Is that right?
EL: That's the key. You just go home, you shower, you eat a little dinner and then you read, you do something else. Something nice for yourself.
TR: The production itself is beautiful, and I love how it contrasts with some of the difficult subject matter like physical abuse, alcoholism, painful divorce. Where did you shoot? It was beautiful.
EL: We were in Kingston, in and around Kingston, in upstate New York, in Minnewaska State Park. I love it up there. Since we've shot there, I go visit that area twice a year.
TR: It's a magical location.
EL: It's beautiful and all those little towns, you know, Woodstock, and Kingston---they all have cute restaurants. And then there's nature. I think when you live in New York you forget that.
TR: All of it is...
EL: ...so close by.
"My hope is that she becomes an author of a novel. My hope is that she goes to therapy and moves back to nature, moves out of New York, becomes an author, and writes this story."
TR: In Unintended, Leah travels upstate with her father at one point in the film, but ends up spending her days there with longtime friend, Sam. How did she explain that to her father? We see her traveling upstate with her father, and he's going off to do a conference of some sort, and then she ends up spending a few days with Sam. Does she just decide that that's how she's going to spend her time upstate, because she needs some questions answered?
EL: Exactly. I think that her relationship with Sam is maybe closer to an actual father than her relationship with her dad. Sam was a little bit older. He was always kind of around, almost like a babysitter at times for her when she was young.
TR: And he was nurturing to her in some ways. He would feed her.
EL: He nurtured that wild and uninhibited spirit. And not that her parents weren't there. I just think that once the divorce happened, that was her breaking point, and she kind of shut down. That's the beginning of the shut-down, as early as their divorce when she's 11, or I guess she's 13. She's young. I think her relationship with her dad is strained. With her mom there's not a whole lot of communication going on, especially from her side, reasoning-wise.
TR: Did Leah shoot Bill? I wasn't sure.
EL: She didn’t. She did shoot the gun. I think it's meant to be unclear, but my understanding is that she didn't actually shoot him. It was just the fall that was so harsh for him, and so was being stuck down there. He basically was scared by the sound of the gun, and fell back into this cavern.
TR: What became of Leah's mother? Do we know?
EL: No she doesn't come up.
TR: I found that to be intriguing.
EL: I think it speaks to her current state. Her mother is somewhat villainized in the beginning, because she's the one having the affair. So she is essentially the one who breaks the family. And so I think that from Leah's perspective, her mom is not someone she wants to be close with. It’s such a painful break, especially if you felt like things were so stable for most of your life. So, yeah. We don't really know.
TR: What happens to Leah, do you think, after she finally understands this devastating time in her past and makes peace with Bill, what does she become? What does she go off and do in life?
EL: My hope is that she becomes an author of a novel. My hope is that she goes to therapy and moves back to nature, moves out of New York, becomes an author, and writes this story.
TR: Do she and Bill become a couple?
EL: I don't know. That's wishful movie magic thinking. Because he's got some issues. If they do become a couple, there are some struggles coming their way.
TR: And does she reconcile with her father?
EL: I hope so, I hope so. Sometimes I feel like the people we love the most are the last ones to get our grace and forgiveness and patience, so who knows?
TR: You also star in Countdown, recently in theaters. The horror film genre is hugely popular with people. What's the set of a horror film like?
EL: It's so fun. This one was so fun. It was exciting for me, because horror isn't necessarily my genre---I get really easily scared. And so if I'm going to watch a horror movie, it's got to be at home, where I can turn the sound off and block my eyes. But making one is really exciting because you get to do a lot of stunts, and there's all this incredible hair and makeup. Everyone was just so happy and grateful to be there. That's always the best set to be on, in any genre. To be with people who just love making movies.
TR: You were also a series regular on Video Syncrasy from David Fincher, based on the music industry and music videos in the eighties. Your character is a stylist’s assistant.
EL: But my character wanted to be a singer. She wanted to be Stevie Nicks.
TR: How did that project with David Fincher, a genius, come about?
EL: The show never saw the light of day. Sorry guys! You can't watch this.
TR: I watched a scene where you were unpacking garment bags and there's a garment rack behind you. I was like, ‘look at Elizabeth, living the story of my life’.
EL: I was so sore that day.
TR: The schlep of the fashion editor and the stylist...
EL: My shoulders were in pain. I think I got a massage therapist on that show, because it was so painful, carrying all the garment bags. And now when I see that in New York, I have a newfound respect.
"You just start saying no to moments of single use plastic or straws. I'm at the beginning of that journey and that's why I'm obsessed with it right now, because I'm exploring. I'm becoming very aware, and hoping to do so much more."
TR: How did you first get interested in sustainability, and what do you do in your day to day life to create change?
EL: I became a vegan first and foremost almost four years ago, and that was really when I realized the environmental impact of animal agriculture. I was already vegetarian, because I love animals, and I thought, ‘I can do this, this can be my contribution’.
TR: Is there something specific that made you go from vegetarian to vegan?
EL: I saw Cowspiracy. It's a documentary.
TR: That's on my list. I haven't seen it yet.
EL: And of course everyone who watches says, ‘I'm going to become vegan.’ And maybe they do it for a week. It can be very difficult to do. And everyone I watched it with were like, ‘we're all going to do it’. I think I'm still the only one doing it. That was my beginning of living a more mindful life. It immediately requires you to be more mindful about what you're eating, which before, was a pretty mindless practice for me.
TR: For a lot of people I think.
EL: All of a sudden you become a little more mindful about, ‘What am I buying? How much waste am I creating? What am I only using once? What am I doing with my clothes?’ The whole world opens up, and all these questions come at you.
EL: On my Obsixed list, is the Package Free store. It opened in my neighborhood and I walked in, I was like, ‘this is amazing’. You start picking things up and you're like, ‘I didn't realize there was another option for cotton swabs, for taking off my makeup’. I didn't realize how much waste I was creating in my beauty routine. That's a huge thing. I'm definitely a victim of the skincare obsession. The good news is, like anything, you just do little things at a time. I think the first thing I got was a reusable mug and I love it. I have a KeepCup. Aesthetically, it's very pretty. And I have a S’well water bottle. Those are the easiest changes to make because, especially in New York, you just put them in your tote bag and the coffee shop remembers you. They know your order, they're like, ‘here's the girl with her own cup’. You'd be surprised, everyone is very down to make those kinds of changes. You just start saying no to moments of single use plastic or straws. I'm at the beginning of that journey and that's why I'm obsessed with it right now, because I'm exploring. I'm becoming very aware, and hoping to do so much more.
TR: We have your Obsixed list of current obsessions [listed below], but let’s also do a lighting round of favorites. Favorite food?
TR: Favorite way to spend date night?
EL: Reading on the couch by a fireplace.
TR: Favorite way to prepare for a first day of shooting on set?
EL: Eye masks. I use a lot of Skyn Iceland
TR: Favorite movie? Can you even pick?
EL: In Bruges or The Road to El Dorado.
TR: Favorite skincare item?
EL: I love Dr. Hauschka's Rose Day Cream. I love the way that it smells. It makes me happy. You have to press it into your skin, so you have to go slow, and you're like, 'oh, this is a moment for me'.
TR: Favorite type of shoe to wear?
EL: Flat. My initial instinct is flat, but really comfortable. Comfort boots probably, that you can just slide on.
TR: Go-to dress up look?
EL: High waisted pants and some black pretty shirt and boots.
EL: Favorite holiday tradition?
EL: I make cookies with my grandmother. We make sugar cookies with decorative icing. It's actually really hard, because we make hundreds of cookies.
"There are moments in every job where I have real moments of truth; where lightning strikes. I'm always proudest of those, because I think ‘you were there, and you were available to be worked through'."
TR: Now we're onto some fan questions. From @kpaoletti19: “What's something you're proud of, that's happened this past year?”
EL:Those questions are so hard for me. Someone recently asked me what I was proud of and I didn't have an answer, but I realized they were asking me specifically about work, and it's because I can be my worst critic. But I will say, what I'm realizing is there are moments in every job where I have real moments of truth; where lightning strikes. I'm always proudest of those, because I think ‘you were there, and you were available to be worked through’.
"Have your opinions, have your likes, have your dislikes, and have them without shame."
TR: Also from @kpaoletti19, “Do you have advice when it comes to relationships? “
EL: I would say the best thing you can do is be super true to yourself and advocate for yourself really early on, so they know what they're working with. As opposed to, you know, when we first start dating someone, we want to be really pleasing and the perfect girlfriend. We just want to be easy. Maybe you are easy, but you're not always going to be easy.
TR: Be who you are.
EL: Have your opinions, have your likes, have your dislikes, and have them without shame.
TR: @elizabethlailfans asks: “Which of the characters that you've played, do you think most closely relates to you, and why?” I mean, you've played some pretty intense characters. Maybe the answer is, none of them? Are there any who have a personality trait that you feel is like one of your own?
EL: They're all pretty different from me. I want to say Beck from You is the closest, but she's not really. Her choices are not really my choices. The things we have in common are age, that we’re artists, New York--- the really basic things. But when my mom was watching it, she was like, this isn't the woman I raised. She was like, ‘get some self esteem!’
TR: Another one, “What's your favorite memory from any set you've worked on?”
EL: Oh, I have so many. It's always the people. I create such joyful moments with all these incredible people and then they become your close friends. So I don't know if I can name a single one. There was a moment on Countdown where we came onto the set, this is kind of funny and gross, and it smelled like fish and we were like, what is going on here? Why does it smell like fish? Someone had used a set toilet, a fake toilet.
TR: That’s a really funny story. @elizabethlailfans also says “take care of yourself. We love you, and are proud of you always”.
EL: Aw right back at you, right back.
TR: @elizabethlailbr had a ton of great questions for you, including "Any new projects you can hint at?”
EL: Yeah, she's great. I don't know if I'm allowed to hint at them yet. But yes, don't worry, they're coming.
TR: One from me now: why did you change your Instagram handle?
EL: Everyone's upset! So my team was afraid that people weren't able to find me, because I had a random handle. [@elizaboon] And I will say, sometimes when someone contacts me on Instagram, they end up calling me Eliza, which is totally fine. That's like a nickname. They’d assume my name is Eliza, which was kind of fun. That's fine, I'm open. As long as it's not Beth, I'll respond to it.
TR: Do you have any nicknames?
EL: Some people call me Lizzy, Liz. Most people call me Lail, especially on a set; they go to sporting last name vibes. And then my best friend calls me Bell. It started out as Liz Bell and now it's just Bell. And then E Lib is the new one that's catching on.
TR: @elizabethlailbr asks: “How was it shooting with Story + Rain?”
EL: So fun.
TR: Fun and cold.
EL: Very cold, but it's much colder today, so I'm grateful for the day we had. It was cold but it was sunny.
TR: "Can you recommend theater to see or books on acting?” Also from @elizabethlailbr.
EL: Yes. Books on acting. I would read Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting. I would read Larry Moss, The Intent to Live, those are two incredible ones. They’re kind of old school and new school. Theater to see: I would see Jagged Little Pill on Broadway if you can. And then The Sound Inside, with Mary Louise Parker and Will Hochman. That's a wonderful play. And Sing Street, at New York Theater Workshop. I haven't seen it yet, but I really want to see it, and a friend of mine is in it. So that's on my list.
TR: One more: “Are you working with any new organizations within sustainability, or otherwise?”
EL: I’m working with the New York City Department of Sanitation. It’s cool because these are the real deal people. They want to make sure everyone knows how to get rid of waste, how to dispose of compost and garbage correctly, what is actually recyclable--- and all those sorts of things. And they're doing a Refashion week in February. They do upcycling fashion shows and have designers create sustainable looks.
"There are a thousand things that I still want to do in my career, so I'm hoping this is just the beginning. I want to be an actor until I'm 89."
TR: Last question, still from @eilzabethlailbr: “What do you still feel like you need to accomplish in your career?” You have a huge career ahead of you, but is there something on your immediate list that you're thinking about these days?
EL: I've been thinking about these things because it's almost the new year, and it's time to write out a manifestation list.
TR: Do you put it in that big notebook, or is there a separate manifestation bible?
EL: I used to just rip it out of the notebook and put it away in my little box. And this year, I read that you should burn it. You should trust that your desires have been heard and are being met in the best way. So that's my plan this year. We'll see how it goes. There are a thousand things that I still want to do in my career, so I'm hoping this is just the beginning. I want to be an actor until I'm 89.
TR: How do you feel about film versus television? Things have changed so much in terms of TV.
EL: I really love both of them. I will say there's nothing like being in a movie theater; it changes the experience. It demands a little bit more of your attention, for better or for worse.
TR: There's ceremony attached to it, ritual.
EL: I like ritual, so I like that. But I love being a part of all of it: film, television, and theater. They're all worthwhile.
TR: How do you feel about fashion in general?
EL: I am a fashion appreciator. I’m not necessarily that knowledgeable about the inside of the world of fashion, but every time I go to a fashion show I'm always blown away.
"What your character decides to wear is, I think, very informative. So I think fashion in that sense is extremely important."
TR: Which shows have you seen?
EL: Self-Portrait. That one was so good. And then last year I got to go to Vogue CFDA. That was incredible. I just love being at the shows. I like the performance. It’s not surprising that, of course what I respond to, is the performance of fashion.
TR: How do you feel about your costumes, how important are they?
EL: Very important.
TR: When you put on a costume as a character, even as Beck, in jeans and a sweater, or as Leah, do you transform instantly?
EL: 100% yeah. What your character decides to wear is, I think, very informative. So I think fashion in that sense is extremely important.
"It was a gift from Ferragamo, so it actually is really beautiful. But normally, journals find you. They're given to you or you buy one and you forget to use it, and then you're like, ‘oh, I have this great journal.’ They're untapped potential."
"I have really beautiful pieces from her. And obviously Beck would not be able to have a Melissa Joy Manning necklace, but in the world of television, she does!"
"Eye masks. I use a lot of Skyn Iceland."
"I love Dr. Hauschka's Rose Day Cream. I love the way that it smells. It makes me happy and you have to press it into your skin, so you have to go slow and you're like, Oh, this is a moment for me."
Listen to our interview with Elizabeth Lail on the Story + Rain Talks podcast here
JANUARY 2020 COVER
ASSISTANT FASHION: LYDIA BINFORD
SPECIAL THANKS TO LIZ VAP, FERALCAT PRODUCTIONS