Lexi Underwood was fifteen when she was cast as Pearl, a rebellious teenager, opposite Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere. As a young Black artist, she felt women like her had to walk onto set ready to accept someone else's vision of who they are and what they can do.
Washington and Witherspoon taught her otherwise.
"Oftentimes as women, especially women of color, it feels like we are expected to be timid and bite our tongue, like we can't really speak up for ourselves or our character," Underwood says. "But that set was the complete opposite. They created a space where I could dive in and create a character of my own. It was a gift to be trusted like that."
She found that trust again on Showtime's The First Lady, where she starred as Malia Obama alongside Viola Davis as Michelle. Now she plans to carry that torch for others. "I want to be the person those actresses and women were for me," she says.
Underwood started in theater, playing Young Nala in The Lion King on Broadway. She wanted to be a ballerina, but fell under the spell of musical theater and acting. She recently tapped into her dance roots with the Disney+ movie Sneakerella, but TV drama has been her ladder to success.
Along with Sadie Stanley and Griffin Gluck, Underwood is now leading Cruel Summer, a breakout anthology thriller for Freeform in 2021. Its second season, premiering June 5, again employs a flashback framework to tell a new Y2K-era mystery.
Underwood's Isabella is a confident, cultured teen who comes to live with Stanley's character's family in the Pacific Northwest. The daughter of foreign diplomats, Isabella delights in the stability of her new surroundings — until things spiral out of control.
"She's really ambitious and open to giving it her all, which intimidates people," Underwood says. "But it's something I love and admire about her."
It's how Underwood walked onto set every day, just as she was taught. The actress notes, "Now I always arrive unapologetically open to this process."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2023, under the title, "Torch Bearer."