Exclusive interview: Olivia Holt teases the twists and turns of the psychological thriller Cruel Summer

Olivia Holt from Cruel Summer
Olivia Holt. Pic credit: Freeform/Frank Ockenfels

Small towns can be the worst when it comes to judgment and that is what Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) discovers in the new Freeform psychological thriller Cruel Summer.

Taking place over three summers – 1993, 1994, and 1995, in a small Texas town, the story centers on the mysterious disappearance of Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), a popular high school girl with a seemingly charmed life.

Once she’s gone, the formerly nerdy Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) seems to take over Kate’s life – and boyfriend, and when Kate is found, Jeanette is accused of having had something to do with her disappearance.

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And that is the crux of the story: While everything may seem to point to Jeanette’s guilt, is Kate really who she seems to be? Or is it a case of hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?

“I think as an audience member to be able to go back and forth and to have those conversations with yourself, or the people that you are watching with, it just keeps you on the edge of your seat,” Holt tells Monsters & Critics in this exclusive interview. “It makes you actually want to watch the show and be a part of that story.”

M&C had the chance to speak more with the former Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger star about the twists and turns of her new role in the Freeform thriller.

Monsters & Critics: What initially attracted you to the show and how did it stand out compared to your previous projects?

Olivia Holt: This show was just so unique, honestly. I remember reading the first two scripts before I was a part of the project and I was just so captivated by the mystery of the characters and the timeline, the ‘90s era.

It’s just so unique and so special from the music to the fashion, to the way that this mystery unfolds, and how honest and real the characters are. All of those elements made me really want to be a part of it. I am very grateful to work with a team of incredible collaborators and creatives.

M&C: How would you describe this character? What makes her different than other characters you’ve played?

Olivia Holt: I think the idea of eliminating the stereotypical type of human that we feel like Kate probably would have been. Yes, she may be popular, and her world may seem perfect, but there’s a lot of complex layers lying underneath her. I think that that is what we females are. We’re not just one note. We have a lot of layers to us.

I think especially as a teenager trying to figure out who you are, what your path in life looks like, and when you have people in your family who a) may not be accepting, b) are very controlling, or c) you don’t really have any guidance, you don’t have that person in your life — a mentor, a friend, or a family member — who can help you figure out what that future holds for you.

I think that’s what Kate is ultimately struggling with in her story, and when she goes through this traumatic experience, it just makes matters so much worse because as a teenager already trying to figure out what light you shine the best in, she’s lost all of those tools to be able to do that, and so she has to find a way to gain all of them back.

Then come ’95, we see her in a whole new realm and that rebellious angsty teenage grunge side of her that we see is a sign of confidence and embracing a little bit more of who she’s becoming.

M&C: There are a lot of red herrings – or what could be red herrings — that could explain why Kate is lying, but then they also could explain why she’s telling the truth. As an actress, how do you approach that to keep the audience guessing?

Olivia Holt: To bluntly answer your question, I actually had no idea what the finale episode was at that point, so I made a decision on my own without any communication with our creatives to just approach it in a way that was honest and in a way that felt like it made sense in that time, meaning in the time that the audience is seeing.

Then once I got a little bit more information as filming the season went on, I did have a better understanding of what her trajectory would look like and what her truth was.

What makes for good storytelling is to be able to question as an audience member your own beliefs and to go back and forth on them. I think each age episode, I was like, “Oh, this is now my theory,” and then I would get another script and I’d be like, “I was wrong. That’s not it at all.”

Olivia Holt and Chiara Aurelia in Cruel Summer
Olivia Holt and Chiara Aurelia in Cruel Summer. Pic credit: Freeform/Frank Ockenfels

M&C: What does telling the story over three summers and various points of views add to the storytelling aspect and what did it add for you as an actress?

Olivia Holt: I think it’s a unique way to tell this story. 1) With the era of being in the ‘90s, you really feel transported back in time, and 2), it’s based over three years in the ‘90s, but what happens in these three years is so drastically traumatic and each year so different that I think it really plays a major part in each character. I think that that’s why we all change so drastically.

I think a lot of people would say you don’t change that much, but when you’re a teenager and you’re trying to figure out who you are, especially in a situation like this, it just makes matters so much worse.

I think it really impacted me in a real way because I’ve never been through something like the thing that Kate has gone through, so for me, I really had to make strong choices as an actor within my character to be able to truthfully play that role. I think that that was one of the greatest challenges of this show.

M&C: Is it more challenging to play a character like the one in Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, where everyone knows the backstory, or like Kate?

Olivia Holt: It depends. I have never played a role like this before, so it’s an incredible challenge for me, but I think it really has to do a lot with the communication that you have with your creative team behind the camera. We had a lot of great communication and I had a lot of time to prepare for this role.

Right after I got the part, we were supposed to immediately go into filming Season 1, but then the pandemic hit, so we had to keep postponing. So, I had a lot of time to prepare and really think about what Kate’s back story was.

You rarely get that opportunity because most of the time, you book a part and then like three days later they’re like, “Alright, pack your bags. You’re going here for the next six months of your life.” So, you don’t have enough time to actually process what you’re doing, who your character is, and where they come from.

I really had a lot of time to think about it and it made me feel more confident going into it, and I also felt like I had a little bit of creative control coming up with the back story for Kate, whereas in Cloak & Dagger with Tandy that was already created and we already visually saw what her story was and so I got to be creative from that moment forward, whereas with this role, I got to be creative from the past, the present, and the future, and that was just so liberating and exciting for me.

M&C: Are we going to get an answer by the end of season 1?

Olivia Holt: I can guarantee that a lot of the questions that you have will be answered. Of course, there is a main theme question: Who do you believe? Who is the victim, and who is the villain? Those can be the theme of the show, but I think that there are a lot more questions than just that, and you’ll start to come up with them as you see the season progress, and I think that a lot of those questions will be answered.

M&C: You did an advice column for Tiger Beat when you were younger. What advice would you give these two girls?

Olivia Holt: I had no idea what I was doing when I did that. I was 15 doing an advice column. I’m not a life or love guru in the slightest. It’s tricky because the reason I love this so much is because it is a she said-she said story, where who are we believing?

But I’m such a girl’s girl, and I love female friendships, and I root for them so much, so in some world, I wish that Kate and Jeanette could have been best friends and I think there could have been a world where that happened.

But as far as advice goes, I would probably hope that they could just be like, “Let’s make up.” Just make up girls. It’s fine. You’ll get over it. You’re only 16.

Cruel Summer airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET/9c on Freeform and is available next day on Hulu

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