Kathryn Newton has the kind of unadulterated enthusiasm that could talk you around to seemingly anything. When the message comes through that my interview with the Florida-born actor will go ahead, I’m completely unprepared. There’s been a flurry of emails trying to tee up a time to speak with her for two weeks — very much in vain, as she’s in the throes of filming a new Netflix series. But now she (very unexpectedly) has a spare 20 minutes to chat. As in, right now. I’m still trying to recall the questions I’d formulated as she picks up the phone, but it quickly becomes apparent that she has the kind of ardour that will carry our conversation through to well over its allocated time.
Within the first five minutes, she’s already convinced me to follow her poodle, Jack, on Instagram (“Let me tell you something, he is a funny poodle. He has a lot of agility”), indoctrinated me in the joys of her current internet spiral (videos of Pokémon parades in Japan;“I’m going to Japan in a week and I’m kind of freaking out about it, not going to lie. What seems like millions of people go to see these characters. I’m so excited”) and piqued my interest in — of all things — golf.
“I’m quite a golfer,” she tells me assuredly. “That’s my side thing. I’m always working on my golf game.” I ask if it’s a novel hobby, but am quickly put right. “No! I’ve played since I was eight, and played competitively in high school. My goal is to have a charity event of my own, and someday a golf line.” An enviable filming schedule clearly doesn’t get in the way of that. “I play as often as I can. I’m trying to get a net put up on set so I can do it in between shots. Then I don’t have any excuses.”
She’s also psyched about an upcoming home-cooked dinner with the cast of her current Netflix project, a yet-unnamed Lord of the Flies-like drama from Spider-Man director Marc Webb. “We’ve been going out on the farm and picking vegetables and arugula and making dinners in my house.” The idea for the dinners, she tells me, she got from Reese Witherspoon, her Big Little Lies co-star and mentor. “[BLL] is the kind of set where we do family dinners and go bowling, so when I told Reese I was going to do my show on Netflix she was like, ‘OK, you’re going to take everyone for a family dinner and take them bowling.’
“Reese really makes me feel valued,” Newton continues with clear admiration. “She’s someone who makes me better all the time. Every time I see her, I think I do a little bit better; I get a little better, not just at acting, but everything. That speaks volumes.”
Newton had already nabbed a handful of TV and film gigs (including a spot part in Mad Men), when her star proceeded to blow up in 2017 with a hat-trick of colossal roles. In just 12 months, she appeared in two of the awards season’s buzziest films — Lady Bird (as Saoirse Ronan’s indignant and bespectacled classmate) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (as the irreverent Frances McDormand’s missing daughter), as well as arguably the year’s biggest TV event, Big Little Lies. Impressively, Newton made it her thing to play characters who, despite their young age, are more than just a footnote in any given story. She played the daughter of Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline in Big Little Lies, where her plans to auction off her virginity online became a notable plotline in season one, while in Blockers, which also stars Leslie Mann, she played a high-schooler determined to lose her virginity on prom night, turning the run-of-the-mill comedy into an unexpected anti-slut-shaming statement. In June, she’ll play the female lead in Pokémon Detective Pikachu (hence the internet rabbit-hole), but for now she’ll appear alongside Julia Roberts in this month’s family drama Ben is Back, as the sister to a young drug addict, the titular Ben. Newton’s young Ivy is no wallflower, and her refusal to blithely accept her brother’s leave of absence from rehab and sudden return to the family home is a stark contrast to his desperately hopeful mother, a role played by Roberts with heartbreaking precision. The film is a testament to the unrelenting nature and insistence of maternal love — often as a parent you cannot not persevere, even when your child has taken you so far down a path you never imagined for them, or you. “The film takes something everybody can relate to and turns it upside down,” Newton says. “They were a normal family and it’s like their house is set on fire, metaphorically.”
Ben is played by another actor-on-the-rise, Lucas Hedges, her co-star in Lady Bird and Three Billboards, who at 22 has already nabbed an Oscar nom for Manchester by the Sea, and this year added to his awards-season clout in Boy Erased, based on a memoir about gay conversion therapy, opposite Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. “I love Lucas so much, I wanna do every movie with him,” Newton gushes. (His father, Peter Hedges, directed Ben is Back.) “Lucas and I had just finished working together on Lady Bird when I auditioned for Ben is Back, and I texted him, “I just finished auditioning for your dad’s movie, what’s up?” and he was like, “Go get ’em, kid.”
“Every time I see [Reese Witherspoon], I think I do a little bit better; I get a little better, not just at acting, but everything.”
When the film hits cinemas, comparisons will likely be drawn to the Timothée Chalamet-led Beautiful Boy, based on books by New York Times writer David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff about Nic’s addiction to meth. But for Ben and his family, there’s no tied-in-a-bow happy ending in the guise of rehabilitation. It’s a gut-punch of a movie, and a timely one: the opioid epidemic is estimated to claim more than 100 lives a day in the US, and here, prescription opioids are now responsible for twice as many deaths as heroin. “I saw it for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival, and in a cinema of about a thousand people I could hear everyone around me crying,” Newton recalls. “Then I remember being backstage, holding hands with Julia, and Courtney B. Vance — who plays my stepdad in the film — grabbed the wall and started bawling. It was a lot.
“I think that’s a goal when you’re making a film,” Newton adds. “As an actor, you want to make people feel something. People go and see a movie to leave different.
“When I heard Julia Roberts was in [Ben is Back],” she continues, “I thought, There is no way I’m going to get this movie. And then when they cast me? It was amazing. ... Before we started filming, Julia invited Lucas, Peter and I to dinner at her house. She was so generous to all of us and I’ll never forget that. It really set the tone for how we worked — it was a result of her.”
One look at Newton’s Instagram feed and it’s clear the relationships with her castmates (including her onscreen ‘moms’ Roberts, Witherspoon and McDormand) are something Newton holds dear, posting photos and messages of support amid a feed that’s peppered with hyper-femme (but never twee) looks from her sartorial repertoire of Valentino, Dior and Chanel — plus golfing clips and snaps of her poodle, Jack, of course.
I point out she’s been among some of the most notable and seemingly close-knit female casts in recent memory, perhaps most of all Big Little Lies, and she says, humbly, “[BLL] is the most professional set I’ve ever worked on. When we get to set, we don’t even rehearse, we kind of just get straight into the scenes.” It’s not lost on her that the series not only has a plotline that is testament to the strength and value of female bonds, but is also backed up by a powerhouse female ensemble cast, with a female director and several female executive producers, based on a story by a woman author. “It’s a good time to be a woman in Hollywood,” she says. “I think the most talented people, the people with the drive, the people with that vision should make [shows and films] — male or female. This season, we had Andrea Arnold [also behind Transparent, I Love Dick and American Honey] direct, and she was the best person for the job. It was a whole new storyline and she has her own vision to carry it through.
“It’s really nice to see people coming together to make a show run,” Newton adds, with a wisdom beyond her years. “It shouldn’t have to be a struggle. In order to be here, I don’t have to do anything but my best work, and it’s because of people like Reese parting the waves that I can.”
I ask whether, when she first came onboard, she had a sense BLL would be the zeitgeist-altering talking point it’s proven to be. “I didn’t know how it would be perceived — it could have been a show no one watched.” Yet, she adds, “I knew it had the potential to be a game changer. I knew the show — with that many female leads and a story that strong — could really do and say something. We took that opportunity and ran with it.”
Ben is Back is out January 31. Newton also stars in a three-part adaptation of Little Women on ABC from January 5.
STILL: MARK SCHAFER; GETTY IMAGES ■