Cailee Spaeny Is Getting Used to Hugs From Strangers

Photo: Emma McIntyre/Contour by Getty Images

The global pandemic has left many people theorizing how they would spend their time if the world came to an end. For actress Cailee Spaeny, there was no avoiding the question as she spent the early days of COVID-19 working on her latest project, the apocalyptic comedy How It Ends. The film stars Zoe Lister-Jones as a woman making amends with all the people in her life (including her metaphysical younger self) before an asteroid destroys Earth.

Spaeny, 23, reunited with Lister-Jones (who also served as the film’s writer-director) after being directed by the actress in last year’s teen reboot The Craft: Legacy. It has been only four years since the Springfield, Missouri, native booked her first role in the big-budget sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising after years of traveling between L.A. and the Midwest for auditions. Spaeny soon found herself in such critical darlings as Bad Times at the El Royale, Vice, and On the Basis of Sex as well as in Alex Garland’s mind-bending FX on Hulu series Devs.

Earlier this year, the former local-theme-park employee got her first watercooler moment opposite Kate Winslet as the murdered high-school teen at the center of HBO’s Emmy-nominated limited series Mare of Easttown. The Cut spoke with the rising star about how she would spend her final day on earth, improving her comedic skills, and what it’s like to receive unprompted hugs from strangers.

You reunited with Zoe Lister-Jones for How It Ends. Talk to me about this bond the two of you have formed since first working together?
We got so close when we filmed The Craft: Legacy. It was the first time I ever led anything, and it was a big directing opportunity for her so we were in this whirlwind together. Then, going into lockdown, I was talking to her almost every day. So just as a friend processing this, she was someone I was very close to and giving me advice and talking me through things. During that time, she was reading this book about healing your younger self and what that meant, and I sent her and [her husband and writing-directing partner] Daryl Wein a text saying, “Let’s make something,” and we were sort of synched up in that way. Zoe and I made two movies together within a year of knowing each other, so it was a very intense, fast bond that just doesn’t really happen that often. So I cherish that.

Was it cathartic to have a project like this to channel the stress and chaos of the pandemic into?
Every day that we showed up to set, Zoe was always like, “Wherever you’re at right now, just use it.” We filmed a fight scene in the street on a rough day for me — I was already in tears, and the quarantine blues had gotten to me — and we used it in that scene. At first, it felt more like therapy than making a movie for me. I was one of those people that when quarantine started and you saw all these people on Instagram saying, “This is the moment to better ourselves and become the best versions of you,” I could not do that. Every day, I tried to be that person, but I just couldn’t. So I just feel very fortunate to have had this project to inspire me. It was very healing, and it saved me in a lot of ways.

What was it like doing a very improv-heavy film with an ensemble that included Fred Armisen, Olivia Wilde, Helen Hunt, Nick Kroll, and Whitney Cummings?
It was really scary because I was like, I don’t know how to do that. I’ve never worked in that world ever, and I’m not funny. But they just gave me that space to play, and I was with some of the gods of comedy so it was a real challenge. I hope I can do more comedic stuff; it’s such an incredible world to live in and play in, and it’s just a blast.

What has been the biggest “pinch me” moment of your career thus far?
Whenever they made a cheesesteak for Mare of Easttown, that was when it hit me. Like, whoa, there’s a sandwich named after the show! It was also the first time I got recognized, and people wanted to come up and give me a hug because my character was found dead in a river and they felt bad. It’s like, I’m not dead!

What advice would you now impart to the Missouri teen with big dreams that you used to be?
She hustled, she was just doing everything she could to get there, so I’m proud. It can be a bit overwhelming because it’s only been four years. It hasn’t been that long since she was out there doing theater or working at a theme park. But I would say to relax a little bit more and breathe through it. I was always thinking one step ahead, which I think is a big reason why I got to where I am, but I also was never enjoying the moment. I’m still a kid; I’m only 23. I just want to take it all in because it goes by so fast.

How would you spend your final day on earth?
I think I would just chill out, have all my closest friends, eat all the good food and then take a group nap.

Cailee Spaeny Is Getting Used to Hugs From Strangers