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Kathryn Newton Doesn't Know Who She Is. Or Does She?

Photography by Cole Sprouse

Kathryn Newton asks if I know what agility is, in relation to poodles. She has three, and she writes out their names in my notebook: Duradal Jack King Ruler of ALL (aka “Floof”), Danfour Lady Bird Keep the Madness Rolling (aka “Little Bittle Baby Kiddle”), and Starlight Rosebud Hella Good Boy Gonna Need a Big Bank (aka “Buddy”). In a recent interview, her Lisa Frankenstein costar Cole Sprouse had to guess their names from memory, a task he mostly accomplishes. “He called Jack, ‘Jeff,’ which is extremely offensive, but I will let it slide,” she says. “That's a good friend right there, remembering your friend's dogs’ names. I hardly do that.”

But agility — like exercises? She bristles. “Oh, it's not like exercises. That sounds terrible. But they really are work dogs. Poodles were used in war, and then they were replaced by German Shepherds because the fur was too much maintenance. They're hunting dogs, they're gathering, they sheep herd, and they love agility.” She shows me a video of Jack jumping over hurdles, going through a tunnel — in short, exercising with a purpose. “We look like we’re in that movie Best in Show … he loves it. They’re like horses.”

The poodles have become a signature of Newton’s, along with her amateur golf career. She talks about both subjects frequently in interviews. The poodles have appeared in Vogue and Interview Magazine, the latter shot by Sprouse years ago in a setup where Newton dressed in wigs and Valentino gowns and pretended she’d killed her previous husbands and amassed poodles in their place. She’s intent on this fantasy persona, since she knows people think of her as a “fluffy poodle” of a person even though that isn’t really correct. “I love playing that part. I love playing her,” says Newton, as we sit in the corner booth of Sarabeth’s, facing Central Park and splitting eggs benedict and lemon ricotta pancakes. She grew up outside of Miami, Florida, always seeing people who are “extra” and embracing that in herself. But maybe the poodle comparison isn’t too far off; you don’t look at a show poodle and think of a war dog. The fluffiness, the glamour, the showmanship — and underneath, a competitiveness, a playfulness, a bite.

“I don't know who I am,” she says with a tone that hints she may know who she is, but she also wonders if we ever really know anyone at all. “I'm whatever is the next thing I think of. I'm whoever I'm with.” She rolls with the bit. “I'll leave this interview and act like you.”

<cite class="credit">Photography by Cole Sprouse</cite>
Photography by Cole Sprouse

Newton doesn’t miss Florida and has been in Los Angeles since high school, but here’s what that childhood was like: trawling the golf course she lived on with her best friend Natasha (who she also modeled with as babies), climbing trees, beach trips, boat days, hot sidewalks. She pulls out a photo of the pair of them, blonde like sisters, from an old David's Bridal campaign. “That commercial ran for 12 years,” she notes. They’re still friends. “She's the best friend I call and listen to her advice and then I never take it.”

All the while, she was golfing with her dad and starting to compete in tournaments; before she was an actor, she was an athlete, and it shows in her penchant for sports metaphors. (Example: Sprouse was the “true champ, MVP” of Lisa Frankenstein for sitting in the makeup chair for five hours a day.)

Her acting career began around four years old and followed a trajectory of short films, guest spots, recurring network TV roles, and TV movies. After the move to LA at age 12, the work picked up: a starring role in Paranormal Activity 4, a memorable stint on Supernatural, and small roles in critically-acclaimed movies such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Ben Is Back, and Lady Bird. Her career has consisted of various mini breakout points, like when she played Reese Witherspoon’s daughter in HBO’s Big Little Lies and led the Netflix show with a cult following The Society for one season in 2020, before it was cancelled due to COVID-19-related delays. She’s had the big box office moments in Detective Pikachu and Ant-Man, but she’s at her most interesting when she plays characters whose motivations are murky, and who act out in a shocking fashion. When she can play upon the sweetness implied by her smile and blonde hair and manipulate you with it.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Lisa Frankenstein — directed by Zelda Williams (daughter of the late Robin Williams) and written by Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body, Juno) — is her most interesting work yet, and that she wears a reddish-brunette wig. “I don't think it would've been the same film if we had used my hair,” she says. “Having the wig created a personality… I believe that the vanity of a character is so important.”

<h1 class="title">LISA FRANKENSTEIN</h1><cite class="credit">Michele K. Short/Focus Features</cite>

LISA FRANKENSTEIN

Michele K. Short/Focus Features
<h1 class="title">LISA FRANKENSTEIN</h1><cite class="credit">Michele K. Short/Focus Features</cite>

LISA FRANKENSTEIN

Michele K. Short/Focus Features

In the film, a character looks at Lisa — with her wild curly hair, offbeat remarks, and a sort of mysterious awkwardness — and muses, “You’re kind of absurd, aren’t you?”

Every character in this movie is, admittedly, kind of absurd. Lisa is a grieving teenager who finds she has a taste for murder and and assembling the perfect boyfriend with her sewing kit. Sprouse’s character, who has no name other than Creature (á la the Black Lagoon), is an undead Victorian musician who communicates wholly in grunts and cries disgusting green decomposition tears. Lisa’s stepsister Taffy (the hilarious Liza Soberano) is a popular girl with a misguided heart of gold whose prized possession is the tanning bed she won from a Miss Hawaiian Tropic pageant. Taffy’s mom Janet (an incisive Carla Gugino) is a parody of an empath, weaponizing her emotional “intuitiveness” into cruelty and a love for porcelain figurines. Lisa’s father Dale (Joe Chrest) is benignly ambivalent about everything.

It feels like the kind of movie that would have killed on Tumblr in the 2010s. A mix of Heathers, Weird Science, and Jennifer’s Body, it’s a love story masquerading as a revenge thriller, a coming-of-age story disguised as a romance. Rolling Stone wrote recently that it’s about giving yourself permission to grieve. It’s also about giving yourself permission to be absurd.

“Aren't we all always struggling for that?” Kathryn asks. “To just have permission to go home when we want to, permission to just wear whatever we want without telling anybody that we're going to do it. We don't owe anything to anybody … [this movie] is really about a girl who feels like no one hears her and she literally gets a friend who can't speak. All he can do is listen.”

Growing up, Newton was obsessed with Taylor Momsen at the beginning of her Pretty Reckless era and Britney Spears, “with people who were full-on themselves. I find that very rebellious … I know there's a little rebel in me, but it's hard to be a rebel. It's hard to do what you want to do.”

She felt that anxiety when thinking through how she’d approach the character of Lisa. “It required someone who wasn't going to hold back, who was going to be able to take a risk, be funny, be honest,” she says. “And it was easy to do when I met Zelda, because the first thing she said was, ‘I'm sick of seeing movies that look the same. I'm sick of the high school tropes and the same high school walls and characters.’ She's like, ‘I want to do something absurd. I need someone who's going to go there. Do you want to do something crazy?’ And I was like, ‘Yes.’”

Sprouse will get the praise for the physical comedy in the film — “I would love to do a rom-com with him where maybe he speaks,” Newton says — but the way Newton embodies Lisa is intensely physical as much as it is the dialogue. In one scene, she sort of shuffles into the room, hunch-backed, all gaudy black lace and resentment. She moves like a character who has just found out she can do whatever she wants.

“I ate the ground on that scene in one take,” Newton says. “When I ran out, I tripped over a girl, and then fell over my skirt, and literally slid into the wall. I need to calm down. Sometimes I think I give a little too much, and it's not needed.”

<cite class="credit">Photography by Cole Sprouse</cite>
Photography by Cole Sprouse

There’s a line in Lisa Frankenstein in which Janet goes off on Lisa for damaging the house during Creature’s rampage; she argues that Lisa is recreating the circumstances of her mother’s gruesome death in a ploy for attention. “Maybe it was the first time anybody looked at you,” she bites, and it stings — it might be true.

“I think maybe the first time people see you is when you finally see you,” Newton says now. “Because I don't think anyone ever sees anybody. I don't know anybody. You could know someone forever and never really know them.”

That’s why she’s insistent she doesn’t know herself. Hence: the acting. “It's very easy for me to be other people. It's not easy for me to be myself,” she says. It’s why she’s drawn to fashion, to Halloween, to New York City. “Every day I can step out and be someone else.” After this interview, she’ll head to a Marc Jacobs show, and in a couple weeks, to Fashion Week. We discuss the recent Maison Margiela show in Paris, which she notes is very Lisa Frankenstein. “Those people, their physicality, their dresses, the vanity, they were other people. They were total creatures, right? Creatures of the night.”

When she played Allie Pressman in her ascent to power in The Society, Newton used Catherine the Great as a reference point, given to her by showrunner Chris Keyser. Embody someone royal, someone who always has a trick up her sleeve — who keeps something close to her chest, just for herself. “Which is something I should learn,” she says, a tinge self-deprecating. “I'm kidding, but I'm really not.”

But it is sort of a trick, the openness, she says. She knows it works the opposite way of how you intend it to. “My heart is on my sleeve, unfortunately or fortunately. I'm very much an open book, and because I am so like that, people don't think I am. Do you know what I mean?” There’s something in her eyes that makes you think you’re not getting the full story. Maybe we never get the full story.

In addition to Lisa Frankenstein, Newton’s 2024 films include a biopic of FBI informant Reality Winner called Winner (she plays Reality’s sister Brittany) and a vampire ballerina horror flick Abigail. After Fashion Week in New York she’ll go home to LA for a bit. She describes her existence there as “boring.” She’ll boil chicken for the poodles, get them their individual hot water bottles to cozy up with for sleep and they’ll all pile into the same bed.

“Are you going to eat your freaking pancakes?” Newton demands in the corner booth. But my eyes catch on her ring, gold and black, a high school golf championship ring with a tiny “69” for one of her lowest golf scores. The inside is inscribed with the words “dream within a dream” — neither of those dreams is acting. One is going to high school, the other is playing the sport she loves as part of a team. She remembers one year she was a lead in a movie and had to miss a ton of practices, and one of her teammates told her it wasn’t fair if she played in the championship. She sat out, and it was the one year they didn’t win. They let her play the next year.

“It's not because they couldn't win without me,” she says, though it’s implied. “But I think that a team is a team because it has all the right pieces, and if a captain is a little doubtful, it lessens the morale of the whole thing.” Kathryn Newton says she’ll cool it with the sports metaphors, but after one more: “It's the same on a set. The best movie stars that I've worked with are so positive and supportive and I never doubt them for a second that we're making something that's great and powerful and important. That's how you get the best movie. That's how you win championships.”


Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue


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