'Crawl' Star Kaya Scodelario on the 'Skins' Fib That Launched Her Career
Kaya Scodelario’s Crawl is one of this summer’s most pleasant (and most terrifying) surprises. The project is the rare studio film that didn’t screen for the vast majority of critics (usually a bad sign) but still wowed them, nonetheless (it holds an 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
Crawl has been a long time coming for Scodelario, who is known for the Maze Runner franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and her breakout role in the British teen drama Skins. It’s a genre film that puts a woman front and center and allows her to kick ass a la Terminator's Sarah Connor, one of her childhood heroes. The story centers on Haley (Scodelario), a collegiate swimmer who must save herself and her father (Barry Pepper) from a horde of killer alligators amidst a Florida hurricane.
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The actress grew up in working-class London, where she struggled with dyslexia and suffered bullying at school. An acting career seemed far out of reach, but a chance audition for Skins in 2007 changed everything. The then-14-year-old student lied about her age to audition, saying she was 16, which was the minimum age requirement. (She ultimately fessed up about her true age when she was informed that the age of 16 would be too old for the character of Effy Stonem.)
In a recent conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Scodelario discusses her interaction with Crawl producer Sam Raimi, her bond with Skins castmate Daniel Kaluuya and the unreleased Paramount film that changed her life by introducing her to her husband, Benjamin Walker.
The legend is that you auditioned for Skins at the age of 14 without any acting experience. Did you already have aspirations of being an actor, or did you just audition on a lark?
It was a dream I had all my life. It was the only thing I was ever good at. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was quite young, and back then, we didn’t really know a lot about it. There wasn’t a lot of support offered at school or anything like that. I was really bullied as a young child, and I changed schools a couple times. But, I always had this dream that I wanted to act. I would do it in school plays, and it was the only thing I was ever brave enough to put my hand up and put myself forward for. Growing up in England, being very working class and having an immigrant single mother, I didn’t think that people like me could do things like that. I knew I’d never be able to afford to go to drama school or have any coaching. So, I kind of accepted that it wasn’t going to happen at the very mature age of 14, which is quite depressing. (Laughs.)
One day, my drama teacher at school said, off the cuff, that they were doing open auditions for this show [Skins], and it happened to be on my way home from school. So, I went to have a look at the people in line, see who was auditioning and just sit there and dream that it would be me. I was sitting across the road, and this producer [Bryan Elsley] came outside to have a cigarette. He saw me across the road and for some reason, he came over and asked me if I wanted to audition. I said, “Yes,” but I knew I was too young because I was told you had to be 16 and up. So, I lied and said that I was 16 and a half, and he let me audition. Then, they called back and said that I was too old. Then, I admitted that I lied about my age. Luckily, they gave me the opportunity. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
You’ve led TV series and indie pics, and also had lead roles in franchise ensembles. However, Crawl is the first time you’ve toplined a studio film. Since women-led studio movies are still far too rare, is Crawl as fulfilling a job as you’ve ever had, given the circumstances?
Yeah, definitely. For some reason, within genre movies, there aren’t as many opportunities for women to carry a film. Growing up, my kind of heroes were Sarah Connor — women in these kind of kick-ass, male-dominated movies that turn that around on their head. I remember thinking that Sarah Connor was so much more interesting than the Terminator. There was something about her that was so human still. From a young age, I knew I wanted to do that. I didn’t want to be the girlfriend, the wife or the girl in her underwear for no reason. I’ve always looked for those roles. I’ve been very fortunate to be in franchise movies, but like you said, I’ve never had the opportunity to carry it myself. Even with Maze Runner, I look back and I wish I’d had moments to really show who Teresa was. Obviously, that was difficult because it was such a large ensemble cast.
When Wyck Godfrey — who was actually a producer on the Maze Runner films and is now an executive at Paramount — came to me with the offer for Crawl, he said that "you’ll headline your own studio movie, you’re in every frame, and there’s no boyfriend, no kissing or any kind of nudity." To me, it’s one of the most feminine scripts I’ve read in the last 10 years, which is very depressing again. (Laughs.) It felt like an opportunity to show my son one day that I can be pretty fucking kick-ass and not need someone to save me. Haley has the strength in her already. Her dad motivates her at some points in the movie, but she’s the one that makes the decision in the first place [to check on him in the midst of a hurricane] and I really like that about her.
Was Crawl the first time you didn’t have to audition?
Yes, Wyck came to me with a straight offer. That was really quite overwhelming to me, and I felt quite proud of that. So, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a catch — and there wasn’t. (Laughs.) He’d seen my work in the Maze Runner films, and we know each other personally. He knows how strong I am as a person and what my ambitions are. So, I think he just kind of saw me in this. The only prep I had to do was swim on an Olympic level, which was a lot, but I had some wonderful coaches from England and Serbia. They trained me in the pool every day for six weeks up until we started shooting.
Since the role of a producer varies, what kind of interaction did you have with producer Sam Raimi?
He was on set a lot more than I thought he would be. He was there a bunch at the beginning and then he came again at the end. You can tell he just has an eye for what works and how to build tension. I was never behind the monitors, since I was either in the tank the whole time or soaking wet from head to toe, but I would hear his input for [director] Alex (Aja), the crew and the other producers. Whenever he spoke, people listened, and that’s because he’s extremely good at what he does. He’s also very unassuming; he’d chat with my husband and play with my son. So, that was really nice to see as well.
When you learned that Aja would shoot Serbia for Florida, were you astonished? Or, are you unfazed by Hollywood magic at this point?
I was quite astonished, actually. I thought it was really exciting, because it meant that Alex was going to take the time to build the sets and build the tanks. That’s the important part in the movie because the water is its own character, the hurricane is its own character. Having it all in one place meant that we could save money. We were in complete control of the water that’s sinking the house. We literally built a full-scale house, with a tank, and slowly filled it up with water week by week. That’s just something that you need the space and the manpower to do, and it made a lot more sense to do it in Serbia, knowing that they could get it done properly there.
I’ve heard a number of actors and filmmakers say that Hollywood feels much smaller once you’re in it. When you reunite with someone like Maze Runner’s Barry Pepper on Crawl, do you tend to believe that premise?
Yeah, definitely. I think that’s kinda cool. You end up with this weird family of people that you hear about and have mutual friends with, and then all of a sudden, you’re finally in the room with them and you see them every year. It was wonderful having that rapport with Barry. It’s such an important relationship; the father-daughter is the heart of this story. I was terrified that an actor would come in, have his own ego and not be willing to allow me to play it how I wanted or have some kind of animosity against me. But, Barry just didn’t, and I knew that about him. I know he’s a kind soul, a good actor and a selfless actor. He leaves his ego at the door, and it was wonderful to already have that connection.
I also think that Hollywood is as small as you choose it to be. I don’t usually hang out with a lot of actors. I’m quite a homebody, and my friends are the friends I’ve had from school. They’re just normal people. When you find the ones within Hollywood that you have that with, like the Maze Runner boys and Barry, you kinda feel like, “Okay, you’re a person and not just a Hollywood actor.” That’s the family you choose within it all.
Crawl puts you through the wringer. Is Haley the most physically demanding role of your career?
By far. I was broken at the end of every day. We were shooting 16- to 18-hour days. I was on set all day, every day. I lost about 12 pounds shooting the movie, but I gained some of it in muscle, which I was quite impressed with. I broke a finger; I came home every day bruised, bloodied and cut open. I was tired most of the time, but that’s what I wanted. I wanted it to cost me. I wanted to give myself to it. I didn’t want to do a movie where there’s a pretty girl walking around with lip gloss in a fucking hurricane. I didn’t want to wear any makeup; I didn’t want protection on my feet. As a girl who’s a swimmer, she’s going to wear flip-flops and once she has to crawl around, she’s going to kick them off. It was important for me to have all those details, and yeah, that means you’re going to get bruised, beaten up and hit your head a thousand times in the crawl space. To me, that’s still the fun of it. I want to give every part of me, but it definitely almost killed me by the end. (Laughs.) I don’t think I’ve ever been so exhausted in my life. I had my mom with me the whole time because I needed someone to just look after me when I got home. She would cook for me, make sure I’d eat and was healthy. She also made sure I had someone to talk to because it was very isolating as well. It was the first set I’ve been on where I’m almost completely alone for most of the movie. So, I needed that human family contact. It was by far the most demanding role of my life.
How did you simulate the alligators?
We varied between a pillow with a green piece of fabric over it on a pole and a Serbian stunt guy wearing head-to-toe lycra in bright green. I called him "the human condom," which left very little to the imagination. (Laughs.) I definitely had to try and imagine the alligators for myself. Alex had a lot of previs stuff and 3D drawings that he’d shown me, but most of the time, I had to be able to completely let go of my reality and act against a giant condom.
When you don’t have an actual scene partner to help you keep the tone in check, is there a tendency to overact, or at least be self-conscious about overacting?
We tried to build Haley up quite slowly. There’s a genuine fear in the beginning, and then there’s a moment of realization that she just has to get through this. I wanted to show that through her eyes more than anything else. There’s always a fear of overacting something like that, but at the same time, it’s a 12-foot fucking alligator, so it is terrifying. Alex was really helpful in letting me find out just that, and telling me when to tone it down or bring it up again.
Freaks and Geeks is often credited as having the most talented cast of young unknown actors, since many of them proceeded to have great careers. However, there’s a contingent of the media that challenges that notion by bringing up Skins. Do you have any possible theories as to why so many of you went on to have successful careers (e.g. Dev Patel, Nicholas Hoult, Daniel Kaluuya)?
I don’t know. We all kind of talk about it a lot. We’re all still friends, even the ones who are aren’t acting and are pursuing other careers. We actually had a barbeque the other day; there were 12 of us. We’re a very tight group of friends. We weren’t actors going into it; there was no competition; there was no cutthroat-ness or bitchiness. We’re just genuine British kids who had a passion for something. We were given an opportunity and were told to just be ourselves … to be teenagers or what it was like to be a teenager. We experienced that all together. Behind the scenes, we were going through breakups, leaving home and having all these existential crises that teenagers do. We all had each other, and we kind of looked after each other. That taught us that on a film set, you’re no better than anyone else. We’re all still really good friends with most of the crew, too. There was no ego; we weren’t suddenly dropped onto an MTV red carpet. We were all still living in shared apartments and going home to beg for money from mom and dad on the weekends. There was nothing Hollywood about it. It was real. When it ended, we knew that we’d been given an incredible opportunity, and if we wanted to continue with it, we had to work for it. So, we’ve always taken it seriously; we don’t take it for granted. We all feel extremely determined, and it’s still about the work; we love the work. I think that’s kind of what it is.
According to the internet, Daniel Kaluuya is your son’s godfather. I find this quite interesting since the two of you never interacted on the show. I don’t even recall your characters ever being in the same room.
We were all just a family. Even if we didn’t have screen time, we were still in Bristol [England] together. We’d go to a shitty British chicken restaurant chain every week, and we would all hang out. I was the youngest at 14, and they all took me under their wings and looked after me. By the time I was 16 [in season three], I was pretty lonely [since the original cast left the show], but they all made sure I was okay. Daniel grew up two doors away from me; his mother is also a single mother and an immigrant to England, so we have that in common. We’ve always been really protective of each other. When the second generation of the show came along, some of them crossed over, and we’re all one big happy family now. But, you’re right, I’ve never thought that before: Daniel and I probably didn’t have any screen time together at all.
After playing such a memorable character in Effy, were you immediately offered a bunch of Effy-like roles that you ultimately had to turn down?
Definitely. Fortunately, I had a great team of agents who knew that the smart thing to do was find something completely different. I was lucky enough to fall into Wuthering Heights (2011); Cathy was completely different from Effy in every way. For us, it was also making sure that all the roles weren’t copying the same makeup or the same hair. I have found before on shoots that they’ve tried to recreate Effy, and I’ve had to put my foot down and go, “Nope. This is a different character, and she’s just as important. We can build a whole new person out of that.” But, I have been very cautious not to re-create her because I think it would be impossible to. She was so iconic because she was on that show and it was that time. I don’t think we could re-create her, but I’ve never wanted to. I’ve never wanted to play a similar role. I kind of like to leave her as she is.
With your first studio lead in the books, what’s next on your list of aspirations?
At the moment, I just wrapped a Netflix show called Spinning Out. I’m playing a bipolar figure skater. Mental health has been a very important part of my personal life for a long time. I have a close family member who I’ve cared for a long time and seen in manic states. I wanted to be a part of something that shone a light on mental health in a realistic way, especially for young people. The show came to me, and I fell in love with it. January Jones plays my mother, which is really cool, and she was wonderful to work with. I wanted to get back to TV for a little bit. I wanted to have the time to really build a character, find an arc and find her story.
Now, I’m in New York; my husband is on Broadway at the moment. We were just having some family time. Hopefully, towards the end of the year, I’d really love to go shoot a new project back home in England; I haven’t worked in England for a long time. I want to work with a female director and female producers. I want to find a project where I can tell the story and be part of the conception of that project. I eventually want to move into producing, so that’s something that I’m keeping my eye on now.
I read that you met your husband Benjamin Walker on Paramount’s The Moon and the Sun [retitled as The King’s Daughter] with Pierce Brosnan. However, the film still hasn’t been released, for whatever reason. Given the circumstances, is there any hope that the two of you will get to see it someday — even if no else can?
Funnily enough, the producer sent us all the behind-the-scenes footage, and it’s actually us falling in love without realizing it. It’s all the moments right before "action" and right after "cut" where we’re kind of giggling and flirting with each other. Our first kiss is actually onscreen, and since the producer sent it to us, we played it at our wedding. That first kiss onscreen was the moment we both fell in love with each other, because we’d been best friends up until that point. When we kissed, we kinda both went, “Oh, dear … I think I love you.” Since we have that footage, it’s kind of wonderful that it hasn’t even come out because it’s just ours and no one gets to critique it. I love that.
Regarding my earlier point about Hollywood feeling small, I also read that your husband chose a starring role on Broadway over the part of Hank McCoy in X-Men: First Class. The latter role ultimately went to your very first scene partner as a professional actor, as well as your onscreen brother on Skins, Nicholas Hoult.
Yeah, they’ve had a chat about that before over a couple drinks. It’s wonderful, though, because if he had taken it, I never would have met him. So, it all worked out the way it should.
Crawl is in theaters now.
by Graeme McMillan
by Richard Newby
by Pamela McClintock