Lexi Underwood has always loved Disney movies. She’s currently telling me about one of the production company’s latest releases, a Pixar film called Soul about a musician attempting to reunite his spiritual soul with his life on Earth. “My biggest takeaway from that movie,” says the 17 year old, “is that my only goal is to be happy and to surround myself with things that bring me peace.” This zen response is surprising from an incredibly driven teenager.
At age 11, when most kids are considering whether they are ready for sleepaway camp, Underwood embarked on her first Broadway tour, singing, acting and dancing as Nala in the Lion King. She was enchanted by the show after seeing a performance two years earlier in her hometown of Washington, D.C. “I remember the first time that my parents ever took me to go see Lion King. I looked over to them and told them that I was going to do that,” she says, the passion still audible in her voice. “I was going to play Nala.” On a school day off, her mother and grandma drove her to New Jersey for the audition. She beat out 1,000 other kids for the role.
However, the actor’s big break came just last year when Reese Witherspoon cast her in her second book adaptation turned television hit Little Fires Everywhere, co-produced by Underwood’s now mentor, Kerry Washington. Underwood plays Pearl Warren, the daughter of a nomadic artist mother, who becomes caught up in the comings-and-goings of an enterprising upper middle class family. The thrilling suburban drama explores white privilege, racial politics and motherhood.
Released in March just five days after the U.S. was declared in a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, the show became eerily appropriate for 2020, as it preceded one of the largest racial justice movements in the nation. “Racism and microaggressions are very familiar to the Black community and other minorities. It’s not like after the show came out that I had this realization as to the story that we were telling,” the actor reflects. “Growing up I went through the same things that Pearl went through. I still go through the same things that Pearl went through.”
A natural leader, Underwood has drawn attention for her activism. Last summer she made an impassioned speech at the Los Angeles Black Lives Matter march, addressing the LAPD Commission directly: “All we’re asking is for the same respect as our white counterparts. That’s it.” In 2018, she started Ultimate Dreamer Productions to help tell the overlooked stories of Black and brown folks. “Over the past few years Hollywood has gotten so much better when it comes to diversity, but I think there needs to be more work done,” she says. “Because now we can start to get into not only just the representation aspect of it, but also touch on issues like colorism and featurism.”
Her latest film project, If Not Now, When?, focuses on a troubled mother and the group of women that keep her afloat. Out today, it is the directorial debut of Think Like A Man’s Meagan Good, and Underwood plays Good’s teenage daughter, Jillian. Like for her role as Little Fires Everywhere‘s Pearl Warren, she approaches her character with sympathy. “As an actor, it’s never my job to judge my character or the choices they make,” she remarks. “Playing Jillian, I feel as though I gained compassion for people and it helped me foster forgiveness.”
Though she was only 15 when the movie was filmed, she shadowed Good and co-director Tamara Bass on set and towards the end of the project was allowed to direct a scene. The experience prompted a self-discovery. “Directing that scene, there was something in me that was like, ‘I want to also do this,’” she says breathlessly. “I don’t want to just be an actor.” On the road to her future happiness, perhaps it’s a new role to play for the tenacious young star.