By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Newcomer Cailee Spaeny received some welcome encouragement from her “Pacific Rim Uprising” co-star John Boyega about handling overnight fame and landing her next gig.
“Don’t sweat it and try and stay in the present,” she recalls the British actor telling her.
Good advice from someone with first-hand experience, who rose from obscurity to international superstar with his breakthrough performance as conscientious stormtrooper Finn in 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
A spunky, petite 20-year-old from Springfield, Mo., Spaeny, who resembles a young Natalie Portman, could follow in Boyega’s famous footsteps with her memorable performance in the action-packed sci-fi sequel to the hit 2013 monster movie that starred Idris Elba and Charlie Hunnam. In “Pacific Rim Uprising,” Boyega plays Jake Pentacost, son of Stacker Pentacost (Elba), the heroic general of the previous film. Set a decade after a ferocious humans vs. sea monsters battle, the film follows a new team of warriors training to operate the large humanoid robots known as Jaeger in order to fight the deadly and destructive sea creatures. One of the new recruits is Amara, a self-taught mechanic, who despite her young age and diminutive size, is as fierce any of her colleagues. Operating large monster-fighting robots from inside is a two-person operation requiring physical and mental acuity so Amara, used to surviving on her own, must adapt and learn how to work as a team. The Jaegers must prepare to defeat a rogue Jaeger and a mysterious organization that has reopened a breach in the ocean, allowing the Kaiju monsters to reemerge. Directed by Steven S. DeKnight in his feature filmmaking debut, “Pacific Rim Uprising” also stars Scott Eastwood, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi, Jing Tian, Burn Gorman and Zhang Jin as part of the international cast.
During a recent sit-down interview on the Universal Studios Hollywood lot, the personable Spaeny spoke about landing the coveted role, working alongside Boyega and the many firsts that resulted as a result of playing Amara.
Q: I heard you wowed the filmmakers with an audition tape that you made yourself.
Spaeny: It was crazy. I’d been auditioning for four years so four years of rejections from self-tapes and driving back and forth from Missouri to L.A. to do in-person auditions. You get to a certain point in your life where you’re like, “I’m going to do anything I need to do to get this role, to get their attention.” Self-tapes are harder because casting directors are sent hundreds of thousands of them. The recommended way to do it is to stand in front of a white wall and have perfect lighting on you so everything is really clear but that doesn’t make sense. This is an action film. I want to show that I’m down to do action even though I’ve never done it in my life. I wanted to show them that I was ready for that.
So, when I did the audition, I slammed my body to the ground. I used an actual pole to fight with and stacked up pillows to hit the person. I used a step stool as a Jaeger to get into and a remote control as the buttons. I rubbed dirt on my face. I went full out on this and, apparently, it was pretty late in the process in finding the girls that they were going to give the callbacks to and the casting director Sarah Finn saw it and showed it to Steven (DeKnight, the director) and he was like ‘Add her to the group. Get her in,’ which was really awesome. I flew out and met with Steven, read for him and thought I blew it then met with John (Boyega), did the actual scenes and it felt amazing. I had so much fun that day. He threw some improv stuff at me. He’s so funny and so kind. He nicknamed me Small-y, which was really fun. I just felt like I was at home. The whole team felt so amazing. Then I went back home for a couple of days, got the call and I booked the role so that was a really crazy experience.
Q: The film must have been really important to you because you put in all that effort. Had you seen the original?
Spaeny: The day that I got the audition, I definitely did my research and I watched the original. I had never actually head of “Pacific Rim” but my brother was like. “Oh my God, ‘Pacific Rim,’ you’ve got to get this.’ And I was like, “Oh, okay.” So I think, at that point, and still, I just want to prove to people that I can do it, even though I have no idea if I can do it. That’s something I hope I can try to continue in my career. I’m always trying to do the exact opposite of what I just did for myself and for other people; to show them that I’m down to do anything and everything.
Q: Was the Amara character described in the script as a petite, feisty girl? What did you know about her before?
Spaeny: I just knew that she went in and out of foster care and that she’d had a rough background and how her parents had passed away in the first attack. I knew she was street smart. I knew she was feisty but I don’t think anybody knew what she was going to look like or how she was going to be until I came into the picture and we figured it out in the make-up chair and during pre-production what she was going to look like. That was really fun to create and find her.
Q: The second day you’ve arrived in Hollywood and meet director Steven S. DeKnight, you’re auditioning with John Boyega of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Were you at all intimidated?
Spaeny: I got the audition and it said I was reading with someone and I didn’t look up who it was and saw that it was John Boyega, and thought, “that sounds familiar,” but I didn’t pay it any mind. Then my mom asked me ‘Who are you reading with again?’ I’m like ‘This guy named John Boyega.’ Then I looked him up and I’m like, “Oh my God. What? It’s the ‘Star Wars’ guy.” Of course I’m a huge “Star Wars” fan. My whole family and I go see “Star Wars” every year and I had just seen “A Force Awakens,” so yes, I was intimidated. Then we got out of the car at the same time going up into the Legendary (Pictures) building and we got the elevator and he didn’t say anything to me and I was really nervous. I was like, “Oh no, he doesn’t like me already.” Then I went to the room for the audition and he was like “Hi. How is it going? and he gave me this huge hug and took me in. He was the nicest. He’s such a welcoming, warm guy. Once I saw that and saw his personality, it wasn’t scary. We just had fun.
Q: Going back even further. Why did you decide to become an actress in the first place? Was there a movie or some actor that sparked this interest in you?
Spaeny: One thing led to another. I was on stage at a real young age. My mom put me into dance classes, found out that I can’t dance to save my life. I told her I wanted to be a singer. I started a kids’ rock band and we played covers around Springfield and did festivals and that kind of stuff and then I started writing my own music. Then I started doing community theater. Then I made a reel of community theater and my original pop music. Then I went to L.A. trying to get into the music side of things and people were like, “Just try acting,” and I was like, “Really? I don’t know.”
But I tried it and fell in love with it, felt like that was what I was meant to do. Then I just started auditioning. But, I remember one month before I booked this I was calling my agent asking her if I could be in the background of something. It never occurred to me or popped in my brain that I wanted to be a movie star. I just wanted to be a part of something, make something, be a part of art and film. I was like, “I’m okay with not even being an actress. I just want to be in it.” I want to say “I was a part of something bigger than myself and I made this with a group of people.” But, thankfully, it went the other way and thankfully I got into the industry. I’ve been blessed with all these amazing opportunities and got a lead in an amazing franchise. I’m sitting here (thinking), “This is not what I was planning on but cool! I’m rolling with it. This is amazing.” I’m super-excited.
Q: Do you still live in Missouri?
Spaeny: No. After I got done with six months (of shooting “Pacific Rim Uprising”) in Australia and China, I flew directly into L.A. and started staying at a friend’s house until I got my own place. Thankfully, I have a place where I’m living. There was a time where I thought, “Maybe I should stay there (Missouri) for a little bit.” But, no, I’m just going to go straight to it and try to get my next job.
Q: Were these your first trips to Australia and China?
Spaeny: I’d never gone out of the country ever in my life. I never had a passport. I’d been on a plane maybe a couple of times but I’d never done anything like that so my whole life changed (from when I got the role), being on a movie set for the first time, acting on film for the first time, going on a plane across the ocean, getting a passport. So many new beginnings. It was crazy.
Q: What are you working on now?
Spaeny: I’m actually on my fourth project right now. I’ve wrapped two political thrillers: one about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (“On the Basis of Sex”) and another about Dick Cheney (“Backseat” with Christian Bale). I’ve also got a thriller called “Bad Times at the El Royale” that I’m shooting right now. I’m excited for everyone to see that because it’s very different than this.
Q: Did you have to do any extra physical training for this?
Spaeny: (laughs) I had never worked out in my life. If someone said they were on a diet, I’d laugh so that changed really quickly when I found out that that was going to be a requirement for this role in this movie. When I went to L.A. I had trainer there, worked on Parkour and boxing to get my body used to working out every day. Then, when we got to Australia, we had a trainer that we went to the gym and, as a full cast, work out together. She gave us a diet, specifically, to each one of us. That was heavily a part of this film. That was something that the actors who played the cadets would all joke about. We’d make sure we all ate the right things and were staying on it. So that was crazy and really hard. We were also doing stunt training once a week which is a whole other thing but it was fun because everyone was all a part of it.
Q: Amara’s fearlessness is reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in “Alien.”
Spaeny: Thank you. That was one of my biggest references for this role. I feel that she did something that no one had ever seen at that time. She led that movie also because that was a sci-fi film and I was trying to figure out how actors acted in those films? How do people do this? She was one of the trailblazers. All those people that did that gave me the opportunity to play a role like this too. She was fun to watch so I stuck to Sigourney Weaver the whole time I was working on this.
Q: Do you see Amara as a Ripley for the Millennial generation?
Spaeny: I so want that and I’m so excited for that. We can get so caught up in what everyone has to say but the biggest thing for me is what the kids see, how it makes them feel. I had those people (like Weaver) when I was watching movies and I want to be that for young girls and young kids in general so I’m really excited to see how that turns out.
Q: Operating the Jaegers requires teamwork. There are two pilots in a Jaeger so I imagine there was some choreography required on set in doing that. Was it a challenge? Did being a dancer early on help?
Spaeny: Sadly, I’m not a very good dancer at all so it was a lot like dancing which was really hard for me because I have two left feet. But, another difficult thing was one step for John Boyega is like three steps for me and we couldn’t look at each other (they are side by side) so we took a lot of time to make sure everything was perfect when we were in the “drift” together. That was a fun thing to explore for my character because she had only worked with herself. She’s a very independent person. She had a lot of trouble “drifting” with people and just connecting with anybody out there. That was fun to play around with too.
Q: John Boyega went from unknown to a huge star with “A Force Awakens.” In a few weeks, everybody is going to want to know who you are. Did he or anyone give you advice in handling the sudden fame?
Spaeny: I did most of my scenes with John and John was so good. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with on my first project. On set there were times where the green screen would get too overwhelming for me and I was like, “I don’t think this is connecting in my brain. I can’t see a giant Jaeger right now,” and John would take me to the side and talk to me and break things down for me. I’m like, “You’re an angel!” He’s such a beautiful person. Then, off-set, I’d be worried about the business side of things like “Am I going to book a job? I haven’t gotten my next job. Everyone’s booking,” and he’s like “It’s okay. You don’t need to think about that right now. It’s all going to fall in place when it needs to.” He did see a little bit of himself in me when he was going through with all that and he still checks up on me. He still messages me, “You doin’ all right? Are you okay? How are you liking it?” He’s amazing.