Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
For number 23: It’s 16-year-old Lexi Underwood, who stars as the daughter of a free-spirited African American artist who becomes intertwined with a white family in a small, suburban community in the race-fueled drama, Little Fires Everywhere. (Premiere date: Mar. 18, 2020 / New episodes Wednesdays on Hulu)
Little Fires Everywhere
Acting Advice Tip #1:
If you’re going to land your first major role as a teenager, do it in a series for a top streamer (Hulu) starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington — who also happen to be executive producers on the project.
Acting Advice Tip #2:
For extra insurance, make sure the series is spawned by great source material like a best-selling novel (of the same name) by Celeste Ng.
Acting Advice Tip #3:
Stand out rather effortlessly in the adaptation, in a way that begs people to start Googling your name feverishly. (Not coronavirus feverish — the other kind, the good kind.)
That’s the enviable situation actress Lexi Underwood found herself in after landing the role of Pearl Warren in Little Fires Everywhere.
In this story that takes place in the late ’90s, Underwood plays the precocious teen daughter of a single mom, Mia Warren (played deftly by Washington) who wanders around from place to place with Pearl before landing in the model small-town community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Even as Mia and Pearl settle in, you get the impression they won’t be there long. But that’s before they meet the Richardsons, a family of six that Witherspoon’s character (Elena Richardson) is the matriarch of.
Much like in Big Little Lies and The Morning Show, we get to watch another expert performance by Witherspoon as a journalist/mom of four, desperately trying to befriend Mia while renting out a house to her. After a few stumbles, Elena even offers Mia a job — all while fighting her own preconceived notions about race.
The series really begins to shine in moments when the two families start to intermingle. That’s when Pearl develops a natural bond with their youngest teenage son, Moody (played by Gavin Lewis). In one revealing scene, the two teenagers get high at Pearl’s place and start talking about their parents.
That’s when we get an inkling of what Pearl thinks of her mom after Moody praises her for being more “chill” than his mom. That’s when Pearl confesses in a seemingly honest moment, “She hides stuff just like everybody else… why she does what she does, why we go where we go. Who she sleeps with.”
After the “three-episode” premiere, it’s evident that the intersection of the Richardson and Warren families is laying the groundwork for something more combustible. Especially after Mia takes a job at the Richardson home as a “House Manager,” which leads Pearl to get more enamored with the Richardson family — ultimately, leading her to accept things that make her mother uncomfortable.
Underwood does a remarkable job embodying Pearl’s plight, trapped between her ambitions to grow and her mom’s overbearing ways. Amid the turmoil, “little fires” get set by Mia that threaten their new reality. Throughout it all, it’s a joy to watch the young actress do her thing, even as Pearl’s heart breaks time and again.
A great testament to the nuanced performance she strings together to play Pearl.
When it comes to kickstarting a Hollywood career, there are many paths to success. For some, it can take years and many bartending jobs to get there.
For Underwood, it all began in 2014 when she was 10. That’s when she landed a part on stage in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theater in D.C. She then got to play Young Nala in The Lion King National Tour (Gazelle Company) in 2015. Along the way, she tested TV’s waters with small roles in CBS dramas Person of Interest (2014) and Code Black (2016).
With her future bright, the D.C.-born actress landed in “the future” for a dream role in the Amazon Original pilot, Will vs. The Future (2017). Despite her learning martial arts for the role, the show didn’t get picked up. But that didn’t discourage Underwood from plugging away that same year, eventually landing guest stars on Disney’s Raven’s Home and Walk the Prank and Nickelodeon’s Henry Danger, three shows a tween can tell you all about. After a guest star on the ABC drama The Good Doctor (2018) as a patient with heart trouble, Underwood eventually returned to CBS for the FBI crime drama Criminal Minds (2020).
That’s when the all-female production team behind Little Fires lit the spark that would ignite the young actress’ career after a couple of auditions. Now, thanks to her eight-episode arc on the Hulu show, Underwood’s future looks brighter than ever. But is that enough to keep the homeschooled singer/dancer busy? No way.
She’s also taken to starting her own production company, Ultimate Dreamer Productions, where she’s set on developing her projects such as a documentary she directed called We, The Voices Of Gen Z. Underwood also hopes to secure music rights to do an Aaliyah biopic, according to this interview with Regina King.
Based on all she’s got going on, it would seem that the Little Fires star is ready to explode onto the scene.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.