- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
This article was created in paid partnership with SK-II.
Actor and singer Lexi Underwood landed the role of Nala in the musical The Lion King during an open-call audition with over 50,000 attendees when she was 9 years old. “I begged my parents to go. I’m originally from DC, so we had to drive up to Jersey. It was one of my first auditions ever — before that, I had no training when it came to acting and singing,” she recalls. Eight years and a relocation to Los Angeles later, Underwood’s career has taken off. Most recently, she’s received critical acclaim for her role as Pearl Warren in Little Fires Everywhere opposite Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, a drama miniseries that explores class and racial divides in small-town Ohio through the lens of motherhood, identity and the dangers of keeping secrets from loved ones. She also landed the recurring role of Malia Obama in Showtime’s anthology series The First Lady alongside Viola Davis.
Underwood’s success is a result of years of work, and at 17 she’s learning to balance gratitude for her success with an awareness that microaggressions and double standards prevail for Black women in entertainment. Upholding emotional boundaries at work and developing a metered relationship with social media help her thrive in an intensely competitive industry, along with a strong support network of family and friends. It’s a topic explored in SK-II Studio’s series of short films called “VS,” the most recent of which, “VS Trolls,” stars Simone Biles, someone Underwood admires.
She looks to other Black women with public profiles, like Biles, to underscore her own belief that maintaining a strong sense of self is the best tool she has to battle critics and her own ego — a crucial pillar in creating the healthy relationship she has with her work today. She spoke to The Hollywood Reporter over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. Read the conversation below.
Was it difficult to start working in entertainment at such a young age?
Yeah, it definitely was. This isn’t an industry for kids at all. But I am so grateful for the fact that my mom, my dad and my family have been there with me every step of the way. There have been times when I have gotten incredibly discouraged. It’s hard when you’re — what, 12, 13? — constantly hearing “no” all the time. That’s very hard. But every time I would get in my feelings or something would happen, my parents would always pick me back up. They would help me see the bigger picture of things and remind me that if this is what I want to do, then no matter what anybody has to say or what happens, I have to always stick to it with the passion, hard work and dedication that I put into every role. It’s definitely difficult at times, but having them with me along the way makes it 10 times easier.
Were the obstacles you faced more external, like rejections, or more internal, like self-doubt?
I think both. I mean, rejection was a big thing. It took me a while to become OK with it. Comparison is very big in this industry. When I was younger, I would very much get caught up in comparing myself to others. But now I’ve come to realize that, ultimately, comparison is one of the biggest stealers of joy. So it’s those two that I really struggled with, and struggled to navigate when I was younger.
I’m not 100 percent wise now — I still have a lot of years and a lot more things to learn — but I’m glad that I’m in this space in my life right now. I can understand that those things don’t have as big of an impact on my life as I used to make it seem.
Do you have any specific instances that you can recall where you had to overcome self-criticism?
I’m into astrology — I’m a Virgo — and a stereotypical thing with Virgos is that we’re very hard on ourselves. When it comes to our work, we want everything to be perfect. So I used to have that, that sense of wanting everything that I put out to be 100 percent perfect. Now, I understand that, at least to me, there’s no such thing as perfect. And that internal negativity is something that I’ve dealt with for quite a while. I’ve been really tapped into shadow work now and all those things to help me navigate those feelings.
I can’t think of any one situation in this industry that would have been the catalyst for saying something self-deprecating or criticizing myself. But I think, as humans, we are always constantly criticizing ourselves — always in our brain overthinking our every move.
I’ve come to the conclusion that every time those things infiltrate my brain when I step on set or anytime that I watch a performance or even go into an audition, I’m psyching myself out and telling myself that I’m not good enough. But those things aren’t true, and I understand that those feelings stem from a place of ego now. I’m really glad that I was able to learn that lesson because ultimately, you can be your worst enemy. And you never want those things to hold you back — especially when they’re not true.
You recently watched the SK-II Studio short film “Simone Biles VS Trolls” that touches on some of these themes. Did you find the film relatable?
I found it incredibly relatable. I mean, whether it’s actual internet trolls or it’s just your own ego and your own thoughts telling you you’re not good enough, I wholeheartedly get that. For me, it’s more of my ego and my own inner thoughts trying to tell me that I’m not good enough. And in those moments, you’ve got to look at all the good. All those good comments in the video, you’ve got to really home in on that, and the fact that internet trolls don’t know us. They don’t know me. They don’t know Simone. They don’t know you.
That film was incredibly relatable, and it helped me gain even more empathy for Simone because I wholeheartedly understand, especially as a Black woman being in that field — any field, honestly — but when you are in front of the entire nation, doing incredible in a sport that isn’t dominated by Black women. I can’t even understand the scrutiny and the tools, all the comments that get thrown at her on a daily basis. So for me seeing that, honestly, it made me appreciate her even more. She’s just so dope. And I hate the fact that she goes through that — that all of us go through that. But I also love the fact that even in those moments, her, myself, all of us — we find light in the positive comments. We find light in the positive thoughts and all the good things that are in our lives, which I think is important. We’ve got to focus on the good rather than the bad.
Have you ever had to deal with internet trolls?
Not hard-core, just like little things here and there. But like I said, I really come to this understanding now that somebody’s perception of me or an opinion that they have of me is only really a reflection of them. For my early teenage years, so like 13 to 15, I feel like I got so caught up in what people would say about me. And so it always kind of made me dim my light or my shine or just kind of hold back and not be vulnerable or authentic, especially when it came to social media. Now I’ve come to the understanding that literally everybody feels the exact same way. Every time that they post a picture, I promise you somebody’s feeling the exact same way. Everybody’s constantly caught up in the fact that, “Oh, what does this person think of me if I do this? Are they going to think that it’s weird?” So now honestly, when it comes to internet trolls, I don’t let it faze me. I just understand that their opinion of me is more about how they feel about themselves inside. And ultimately, I’m sure that they feel the exact same way — they’re worrying the exact same way that I’m worrying about how somebody is going to perceive them, whether it’s when they walk out on the street, or when they post a picture. So that kind of mindset helps get me by when it comes to dealing with negativity and internet trolls.
How has your identity as a Black woman of color impacted your work?
There have been times where I have been told that I’m either too much or not enough. And that, especially telling a Black girl that at a very young age … For me, it was understanding that a lot of that was microaggressions, or microaggressions rooted within this industry. And for me, I’m just continuously trying to figure out how to navigate them. With whatever I do, I always want to be 100 percent authentic. I stand very firm on the fact that I don’t want to change myself for anybody or anything. But it’s also the understanding that when I operate in certain spaces, I do have to shapeshift.
My mom and I were literally just having this conversation yesterday about the fact that there are times where you step on set and my non-Black counterparts — there are things that they’ll do that I simply know I can’t do because it’ll be deemed as disrespectful or not paying attention. So while I want to make sure that I’m being authentic with every space that I’m in and I don’t want to trade my authenticity as a Black woman for anything, I also do understand that you have to code-switch, and you have to shapeshift and able to seem sometimes a little bit more likable, if that makes sense.
And so for me, I’m just really navigating that and figuring it out. It can be really hard. But I’m grateful because I haven’t necessarily had too many of these instances where I feel as though I’ve had to change myself or shapeshift for people to like me. But I definitely think that [discrimination] is an issue. It’s something that still exists within this industry, whether it’s microaggressions, the way that we tell our stories, comments in the hair and makeup trailer — all of those things that women of color specifically, actors of color have to go through on a day-to-day basis. It can impact your work if you allow it to. But ultimately, like I said, I’m just standing firm on the fact that I know who I am. And anybody’s perception of what a Black girl should be or should act like, that isn’t true to my own experience as a Black girl. So I’m going to continue to authentically show up and be myself. And, you know, if anybody doesn’t like that, then I’m sorry.
Given the profession that you’re in and the vulnerability you need for it, how do you balance code-switching with also being yourself?
It’s hard, but I mean, for me, I’ve always kind of been a private person. I’ve always been a bit more reserved. And so honestly, I allow people to see the parts of me that I want them to see. That’s it at the end of the day. I don’t necessarily want to operate in these spaces; I don’t feel like I owe anybody to show them all of me, because the only people that see that are my family. I do show them an authentic version of me that feels good. But the way that I operate is just the understanding that I don’t owe anybody anything.
Right, I think there’s been a lot of talk lately around setting boundaries, and what you’re describing is doing exactly that.
Yeah, and honestly, now that I am almost 18, I feel like I’m starting to operate in these spaces where I really am seeing the microaggressions now. Growing up, I went to a predominantly white school, so I experienced it. I saw it with my mom. I saw it with my Nana. I’ve seen it with my dad. But within the past two years, it’s really been the first time where I have really seen it firsthand for myself. And I think it is important especially for women of color to understand that it’s OK to set boundaries, and it’s not our job to make anybody feel comfortable. We shouldn’t have to change ourselves to be able to seem more fit for certain positions — we shouldn’t have to change ourselves. Or let people walk all over us to be able to have seats at the table and to operate in the same spaces as our white counterparts.
I really have my tribe to thank [for helping me grow in this way]. My mom, my dad, and even just the people that I’ve met over the past couple of years I’ve surrounded myself with. They take the steps to really dissect the way that I see things and dissect the way that I see the world. I feel like I owe the people around me for pushing me to really view things the way that I do now. I’m also an only child, so it’s really just me and my parents. Because of that, our unit is so tight and so close. I really do feel like they’re my best friends; I would not be able to do this without them.
I also think the performing arts is such a mentally strenuous field, and sometimes folks don’t realize that putting yourself out there is really vulnerable.
It’s scary. It is 100 percent scary, being vulnerable for all of those people to see. It was a hurdle that I had to jump through. I always tell my parents — I just feel like Little Fires Everywhere was a project that was so needed for me as an actor. Because that was the first time where I felt as though I really had the space to be able to be vulnerable, and it pushed me completely out of my comfort zone. I walked away from that experience being more comfortable in myself as an actor and my choices, so I’m forever grateful for that.
Do you also feel pressured to maintain or show a certain image of yourself online?
Yes and no, I don’t like social media at all. I really don’t. I log out of my main account literally every week, as much as possible, I try to escape. But it goes back to what I was saying earlier, it’s just me standing in my truth of the fact that I don’t owe anybody anything. And I feel like social media, phones, all that in this day and age has made people feel a bit more entitled. For celebrities, especially, I don’t consider myself one. But for anybody with a platform on social media to share what they’re doing 24/7. I mean, at the end of the day, I’m a human being before anything, and then my needs and the things that are in front of me and not on a screen — those are more important to me, that’s just kind of the understanding that I have. So honestly, if you ever look at my Instagram, you’ll notice I do not post that much because I just honestly try to live in the moment as much as possible. I don’t like social media as a whole, I think that it can be a very toxic place. But I also think that it can be a very beautiful place to amplify things that are important to us and that’s really how I use social media.
Oftentimes, if I’m posting, especially on my story, I’m amplifying things that I’m passionate about, or I’m trying to spread awareness to a cause that is important to me. But other than that, I don’t feel any pressure because I just have the understanding that I don’t owe anybody anything. And, you know, I’m living in the moment right now. And I don’t have to compromise that for people to like a picture or all that stuff. But social media is cool. It’s all about balance.
Learn more about the “VS Series” and SK-II’s ongoing #CHANGEDESTINY initiative to support women pursuing their dreams to create positive change at SK-II.com.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day