On paper, 16-year-old actress Lexi Underwood and her Little Fires Everywhere character Pearl Warrenhave little in common. For one, Underwood hails from Washington, D.C. and now resides in Los Angeles; meanwhile, Pearl has moved around so many times in her young life that she has no actual roots anywhere. She is also raised by a single mother, the bohemian artist Mia (played by Kerry Washington), and Underwood is not.
But the actress, who created a Venn diagram to delve deeper into her character, said that the two have one vital thing in common that unites their experiences and informs how they react to the world around them. “We’re navigating what it’s like to be a young Black girl in America,” she said. That includes learning how to maneuver around “backhanded compliments,” which Underwood describes as ranging from “Your hair is so pretty. Can I touch it?” to “You’re so beautiful. What are you mixed with?”
These types of microaggressions fuel the drama in Little Fires Everywhere, Hulu’s series adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel. Set in 1997 in the Ohio suburb of Shaker Heights, the story begins when Mia and Pearl move into the affluent white neighborhood where their presence rattles people like the Richardson family to their core. Mia contends with matriarch Elena Richardson’s (Reese Witherspoon) racism and privilege. But Pearl, basking in having her own room and boys’ attention—including from the Richardson sons—for the first time ever, tries to adapt to her new surroundings.
The way Pearl chooses to engage in the pervasive white culture, spending more and more time with the Richardsons, begs the question of whether she’s trying to assimilate. But Underwood, who instantly recognized Pearl’s actions, sees her for who she really is. “Pearl is a 15-year-old-girl that has never had a normal teenage life,” she explained. “In her eyes, Elena and the Richardsons embody a life she always craved—the picture-perfect mother that makes all the meals and is always there for her kids.”
Underwood further expounds that this has little to do with Pearl’s relationship with her Blackness and its proximity to her white friends and their family. “She absolutely understands the racial tensions,” she continued. “The first time you have a look into Pearl’s worlds is through an encounter with the police. The first line that comes out of Mia’s mouth is, ‘Hands on the dashboard, baby’ and Pearl never even questions that.”
But that idolatry Pearl has for the Richardsons, especially Elena, puts a strain on Pearl and Mia’s relationship, exposing Mia’s insecurities as a mother as well as the secrets she’s tried hard to hide from her daughter. Far more assertive than in the novel, which even Underwood admits is surprising for someone with a Black mom, Pearl confronts Mia on several occasions.
“In my household growing up with a Black mother, Black aunties, a Black grandmother, I definitely would never fix my lips to talk like that,” Underwood said. “But I think that Pearl is picking up on mannerisms she has seen Lexie Richardson (Jade Pettyjohn) possess. Being around Lexie and the Richardsons definitely affects the way that she sees her mother and she starts to question her choices.”
That made space for some magnificently explosive scenes between Underwood and Washington, challenging the rising star to go toe-to-toe with the Hollywood heavyweight (who she respectfully refers to as “Ms. Kerry”). “The dynamics that we created on set were, if there was anything that Ms. Kerry needed from me or that I needed from her, we would push each other to make sure that we performed our very best,” Underwood said. “It never really felt like a seasoned actor and this new actor doing this big fight scene and there’s just chaos everywhere. It felt more like a partnership.”
That sense of camaraderie extended across the entire production of Little Fires Everywhere, including showrunner Liz Tigelaar and the late director Lynn Shelton, who Underwood said encouraged an empowering work environment for everyone including the teenage cast. “Liz Tigelaar and Lynn Shelton were so kind and loving and warm and receiving,” Underwood added. “Especially for the kids, we never felt as though our voices weren’t heard. If there was something that didn’t feel authentic or if we would be like, ‘I don’t necessarily know if our characters would do this,’ they would listen to us.”
It’s a remarkable opportunity for Underwood, whose career began in D.C. theater at age 10. When she was just 12 years old, she played young Nala in Broadway’s The Lion King. With 16 other screen credits and the Great White Way under her belt, the actress approached her first major TV role like a veteran artist. “Sometimes I forget if I mess up, I can do it again,” she said about the major difference between live theater and screen acting. “But I always want to make sure that I’m on at all times.”
When Underwood watches herself as Pearl on screen, she’s most proud to have helped breathe life into a character with whom many—including herself—can identify. “I felt seen,” she said. “Like, ‘Somebody gets what it’s like.’ It touched my heart reading comments [from people who wrote] that they can really relate to Pearl or that they felt heard. Pearl is such a special, complex character. And I’m so grateful to have had this chance.”