Charismatic and insightful, Amalia Yoo radiates an infectious positivity as she discusses everything from her Christmas excitement, acting in commercials and playing Leila Kwan Zimmer in her first TV drama Grand Army, the latter which demonstrates, in full, the actress’ burgeoning talent.
The phrase ‘like marmite’ is often used to convey how divisive something can be, you either love it or you hate it. Playing Leila Kwan Zimmer in Netflix’s latest high school drama, Amalia Yoo came face to face with the highs and lows of playing a character that elicited such responses, yet the one thing viewers can agree on is the power of Yoo’s ability in portraying such a complex character.
“The last episode is a doozy” Yoo tells me over zoom, the only method of communication in 2020. I’ve admitted that I binged the majority of Grand Army and as soon as our call is over I’ll be watching the last episode. Adapted from Katie Cappiello’s play, SLUT, which Yoo also starred in, Grand Army follows the lives of 5 teenagers in high school as they navigate their lives through the social, racial, economic and sexual politics of modern-day America.
The show refuses to shy away from the harshness of the world that the characters interact with as they navigate the contradictory life of adolescence; existing too old to be a child yet too young to be considered an adult, try as they might. However rather than glamorise their varying experiences as something that makes up a teen drama, each issue is treated sincerely and authentically.
Serving as Yoo’s first major performance, her portrayal of Leila demonstrates the 18 year old’s bravery and hard graft. Compared to the struggles of the 4 characters, Leila’s story arc might seem the least important but her tale of struggling to understand and accept the skin she’s in as well as the ability that has to bring out the more narcissistic traits in a person is perhaps one of the most important lessons.
Why did you want to become an actress?
When I was little I was really shy, I was one of those kids who would hide behind my mom at every event and wouldn’t leave her side but once I felt comfortable I would not stop talking to them – I guess I’m like that now, but there’s less hiding. I took a theatre class after elementary school cause my friend was doing it and I loved it so much because I always used to play pretend. When I was on stage in front of an audience for the first time, I was just so elated, it was so much fun and I’ve loved it ever since. I never thought of doing professional acting, that came in much later, I started going out on auditions in middle school and then I sort of stopped because it wasn’t fun anymore. When you’re that age it’s mostly commercial stuff and I just didn’t like that it wasn’t the fun acting that I got to do previously, so I took a break.
I knew I was going to a performing arts high school though and when I got there, I was like okay! I’m going to get to do acting for half of my day, every. single. day! I was so excited. I was really lucky and it was so nice to be surrounded by other peers who wanted to do the same thing. When you’re surrounded by artists it’s just so much fun, even when you’re in math class.
Your father is Korean and your mother is Puerto Rican what was it like growing up around those cultures? What life lessons have you learned from your parents?
Well the food is fantastic and that is what I will start by saying. I don’t know what it’s like to not be surrounded by such super-rich cultures, I’m really lucky to have grown up in the way I did and I think my parents just were super chill, they never forced me to get involved, we were never forced to go to certain family events. There was no pressure around it, I have an older brother and my parents would educate us and make sure we felt a connection to all of the sides of our identity which was really great. Both of my parents have teaching backgrounds so we would always learn about Korean culture and then Puerto Rican culture. We would take trips to Puerto Rico, my mom is also Jewish so we would go and do Jewish holidays with her side of the family. It was just a constant immersion of all of my different cultures, which I feel really lucky to have been able to do.
Grand Army is your first major lead role in a production. What is it about the high school drama setting that means both viewers and filmmakers alike keep returning to it? Is it a simple case of being nostalgic for a time when we didn’t have to pay rent?
I think it’s because, and one of my cast-mates said this, when you’re watching a show about high schoolers it’s either a window or a mirror. So either you’re relating to what’s going on because you’re in high school or just got out of high school, or are struggling with one of the issues the characters are struggling with, or it’s a window to your past or a window into a high school experience that was different from your own, which is interesting. The crazy thing about high school, and we would talk about this all the time with the show’s creator Katie Cappiello, how it’s so crazy that there’s a four year period where you have 13 and 14 year olds and 18 year olds in the same building for how many hours, every single day, and you’re just stuck in there for four years. That is a recipe for crazy shit to go down, it’s just such a setup environment, perfect for so many issues to come to the surface.
High school is such a bubble and I think we like seeing people going through an experience that’s super universal. I also think there’s an element of empathy and catharsis that happens, you see these characters and what happens because you were there you were them at some point, that’s definitely an element to why we love seeing high school dramas.
You originally played Joey in Katie Cappiello’s play SLUT which the Netflix series is adapted from. What’s it like playing one character, getting to know them, and then starting from scratch to play a different character but within the same narrative?
I sort of grew up seeing different girls play all the different roles in SLUT. If one girl was Joey she was Joey for one or two years and then she would graduate and go to college. What happened with me is I was playing Jane, which is a character that didn’t end up in Grand Army, but was in the play so I was playing her and watching someone else play Joey and watching someone else play Leila and then I got the amazing opportunity to be Joey on stage. I think I got used to seeing different people in the different parts and seeing how different people breathed a different life into the characters they played. No one ever did it the same way, different girls would play a different role all the time, so I think I just got used to doing that.
When I was seeing Odessa read for Joey and play Joey, it wasn’t weird because I had seen two other girls play Joey and had I played Joey. I was able to have a lot of perspective from an actor’s point of view and it was just a lot of fun. The way Odessa played Joey was a different way that I played Joey, I just think that was amazing and shows how universal all the stories of Grand Army are, anyone can step into that role and Odessa did an amazing job, I am so in awe of her.
The show follows 5 high school students as they struggle with navigating sexual, racial and economic politics and social media plays a huge part in how they navigate these politics. How does social media affect these experiences?
With Dom it helps her with her business, she’s able to promote her products in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to before and I think that shows how great social media can be, she is able to get praise and it helps her out. Then you have situations with Joey and Sid; where Sid’s essay was posted online and that’s where everyone sees it and where everyone is able to comment on it and that’s when you get the great responses and the horrible homophobic responses. With Joey, she ends up deleting her Instagram because it’s too much. She used it as a way of being an activist and as a way of promoting her ‘Free The Nipple’ protest, which was great and amazing, and then this platform that once helped her and empowered her, she has to delete, it’s too easy for other people to give their opinions on social media and so she has to delete it. I think for Leila, it’s that classic case of she’s killing herself by comparing herself to everyone else because she’s 14 and thats what she does, she’s comparing herself to Joey and other people that she’s seeing on her feed. I think it’s a really nice, realistic portrayal of how social media feeds into our daily lives, especially when you’re a high schooler.
When I started watching Grand Army I found myself initially resonating the most with your character Leila Kwan Zimmer. She’s desperate to fit in somewhere and be accepted and it’s fair to say it fuels a lot of what she does later on. What was it like playing such a character and how much of yourself went into the role?
I always think there’s a little chunk of me that gets put into every character that I play. With Leila, because she’s adopted, I did a lot of research. I watched a lot of Youtube videos of other girls who have been adopted and learnt their stories and the feelings that might come up that you don’t expect to come up when you’re adopted. At her core, she just wants to feel like she is loved, she wants to feel like she is accepted and that what she’s going through is valid and normal. I think she really really wants to be liked and wants to be cool, there’s a genuine want to be cool like how Joey is cool and I think she sometimes gets blindsided by that. She’s also so young, she’s only like 14 and so sometimes her judgement gets clouded.
I really had to put myself back into my freshman year shoes. When I started filming I was near the end of my junior year so I was 16 when we started filming then I turned 17 and I’m 18 now. So I put myself back into the headspace of freshman year, just trying so hard to be this ideal. To be what other people want you to be and feeling like all eyes are on you all the time, when they’re really not, everyone is so focussed on themselves no one’s really worrying about you, but she doesn’t know that, you don’t really know that when you’re a freshman.
With fans, Leila is quite a polarising character. What would you do if you came face to face with her?
I would give her a hug! I would give her the biggest hug and sit her down and be like it’s okay, you won’t have to be liked by everyone, that is not how you should live your life because that’s never going to happen. I would also say just slow down a little bit, everything is going to get better with time and also tell her to start meditating.
I don’t think I expected or was ready for the amount of hate that she got. I knew that because of some of the things that she does she’s an annoying freshman, like every freshman. I was trying to figure out why people were having such adverse reactions to her and I think it’s because, and I’ve seen people say this, they hated her so much and she made them feel so uncomfortable and they realised it’s because they were exactly like her. Leila is seen at a lot of her ugliest moments and that makes people uncomfortable because it reminds them of times when they were at their ugliest moment and we don’t want to relive that you know? It’s also hard for people to see a 14 year old girl not be cute, perfect and cheery all the time, I realised that was probably what was happening. It sucks to have people be like ‘I hate you, I hate your character’ but I can understand.
She just makes you uncomfortable but I also think she’s great, credit to Katie [Cappiello] for writing a character like that.
As mentioned, fans either liked or disliked the character of Leila but you received a lot of recognition for your portrayal of her in Grand Army. Do you look at the comments online? What’s it like to see this?
It’s weird. I’m like wait why am I getting upset? It’s the character, I know that. It was really interesting but I wasn’t ready for that, I’m glad it’s not directed at me.
At first it was really hard not to shut it out because this is my first big thing, of course, I would read the comments. Later I realised that I can’t do that and I was encouraged by the cast, they were like ‘you have to stop’ and I was like ‘you’re doing the same thing though!’ we all look at the comments, get upset and then say why did we do that! It’s not fun at all but I do have to remind myself that Leila isn’t me you know. I have to remind myself of that as a normal person. But it makes it better when I get comments from people who are so grateful and feel really seen by my character and that makes it for me. I don’t care about the other comments because I have a handful of people who have sent me the most amazing dm’s about how they’ve never felt seen by a character on TV before and they related to my character so much and they’re so thankful that they were able to see a show like that, I have to remind myself of that.
If there was a second season, where would you like them to take your character?
She’s probably going to be a sophomore. I hope she maybe takes a little bit of time for herself, in an ideal world she would maybe chill out for a little bit. It could go so many ways I feel like she could feed into her darker side you know? I want the best for her, I think maybe finding a hobby or something extracurricular that she can throw herself into, I hope that she takes some art classes and keeps going forward with her drawings and starts meditating.
Which actor would you love to work with in the future?
There are so many! Let’s see, I love Saoirse Ronan so much. I don’t know if I could work with her though because I would be fan-girling the whole time, she’s so talented.
What’s next on the horizon?
I am not going to disclose anything but, exciting things! and Christmas!
‘Grand Army’ is on Netflix’s now.
Interview Eleanor Forrest
Photographer Shane McCauley
Stylist Enrique Melendez
Makeup Elie Malouf