There are a few important things Madelyn Cline would like you to know about her: Emerald green is her favorite color. She’s thinking of buying a horse. She loves bamboo pajama sets. And she’s having a rough eclipse season.
Analytical to a fault thanks to a moon stationed in Virgo, the 24-year-old Glass Onion actor has been knocked off-balance by the recent lunar shenanigans. “I don’t know what’s going on with me,” she says when we meet for lunch in Malibu. With her gaze fixed on the Pacific Ocean and immaculate chrome nails absently scratching at her collarbone, she continues: “My decision-making has been so out of control.” Just as quickly as she zones out, she snaps back in, a mischievous ember glowing in her eyes. “My therapist will be hearing about this,” she half-jokes.
In addition to cosmic forces at play, Cline has been burning the candle at both ends on an international press tour to promote Glass Onion, the second installment of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out series. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. In early 2021, Cline joined the cast of industry heavyweights including Daniel Craig, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, and Edward Norton. Details about roles in the social-satire whodunit were kept under wraps, but they were highly coveted nonetheless. When Cline found out from Johnson that she had nailed her audition for the part of Whiskey, she was crouched in a corner at an airport’s baggage claim. “I was actually shitting my pants,” she says, eyes bulging. (Cline, a disciple of the Gen Z School of Hyperbole, will repeat this phrase several times over the course of our lunch.)
Glass Onion, which takes place a few tax brackets above Knives Out’s affluent Thromby family, centers a crew of self-proclaimed “disruptors” on a mid-pandemic private-island retreat that devolves into murder. Characters — the self-aggrandizing tech billionaire, the has-been celebutante, the girlboss politician — are all jabs at today’s most obnoxious movers and shakers. Whiskey’s introduction may not evoke a certain woman, but she is definitely reminiscent of a certain kind of woman. “I love my boobs. Sorry, feminists,” she boasts on a livestream run by her boyfriend, Duke (Dave Bautista), a streamer who lands himself in hot water for hocking rhino-horn boner pills to teenage boys. “I went down a very deep, dark rabbit hole of Dan Bilzerian parties and YouTube bodybuilders, like, Okay, this is who she’s dating,” Cline says of her character’s partner.
To get into Whiskey’s mind-set, Cline turned Sunday jaunts to the Melrose Trading Post flea market into reconnaissance missions. The character is an homage to the hallmarks of Los Angeles influencer culture, with visible hair extensions, Instagram spon-con deals, and Coachella-core style woven into her DNA. “She never quite made it out of 2016,” Cline explains. While Whiskey’s personal aesthetics are crucial — she is a Taurus, after all (Cline, a fellow Earth sign, is a Capricorn) — there is more to her than meets the eye. Like all Knives Out players, our impression of her as a vapid trophy girlfriend is all smoke and mirrors. As the pieces come together, the audience is forced to reckon with how we may have misjudged — and underestimated — Whiskey. Cline leans over her plate of hummus and crudité, almost conspiratorially, as if letting me in on a secret. “The funny thing about Whiskey is she’s playing her own games,” she says. “She’s observing everybody around her. She has a façade as well.”
Whiskey’s beauty, and the attention it earns, draws ire, namely from fading star Birdie (Kate Hudson), who views Whiskey as the new, shiny toy she was in her own heyday. Their dynamic is analogous to ongoing intergenerational clashes and pokes at the conversation about what kinds of social currency are afforded to beautiful people. Neither Johnson nor Cline seeks to settle the pretty privilege debate, but they do paint a sympathetic portrait of a woman who knows that if she’s not at the table, she’s on it. Whiskey is collateral in Duke’s personal quest for success, as he parlays her sexuality for his professional accomplishments. But Cline doesn’t see Whiskey as a victim; instead, she is just a cunning young woman playing the hand she’s been dealt. “There’s so much power in being underestimated, and I think Whiskey is fully aware of that,” Cline says.
Cline is no stranger to being underestimated herself. After growing up in South Carolina, she followed the well-worn path of abandoning college for Hollywood. She recalls being patronized for everything from clothing choices deemed too sexy to career moves written off as unserious. “I had adult men telling me that acting wasn’t a real job and how it’s a good thing I didn’t need to be too smart,” she says, galvanized by the idea of exceeding other people’s expectations. While she tends to relinquish any personal feelings of spite toward the universe, still, even she must admit, “The best feeling is proving motherfuckers wrong.”
The actor had been earning guest spots on shows like Stranger Things, The Originals, and Vice Principals before landing her big break: the starring role of queen bee Sarah Cameron in Outer Banks, a Netflix drama about a group of teens entrenched in class conflict (while also finding themselves mixed up in a treasure hunt–slash–murder mystery). Outer Banks’ release coincided with the early days of the pandemic, and overnight Cline found herself suddenly, overwhelmingly famous. “It brought out my introversion,” she tells me. “I respect privacy and anonymity a lot more now.”
While Cline shot to overnight stardom, vigilante paparazzi stoked by the celebrity gossip behemoth DeuxMoi continued to proliferate. The semi-anonymous Instagram account, while heralded for holding the rich and famous accountable, has also fostered a culture of entitlement and invasion of privacy. “I started following DeuxMoi when they first started, and I was so into it,” Cline says with a hint of amusement in her voice. “I remember the first time I saw myself on it. I was flipping through Sunday Spotted and I saw my name. Then it wasn’t fun anymore.”
Ever the people-pleaser (“Hello, Libra rising!”), Cline wants to be liked and admits that she does sift through social-media comments. “It’ll be like one negative comment and I’ll get my feelings hurt, because I never want people to have a wrong idea of me,” she says. That particular compulsion is a generational marker for those who entered adolescence in an era dominated by anonymous forums like Formspring, Ask.fm, and Yik Yak — all unrelenting spigots of gossip and strangers’ opinions. “Yik Yak was awful. Awful. I was violently addicted to it,” she recalls. However bad faceless internet trolls are, though, Cline is her own worst critic. “What’s really infuriating is my own self-perception,” she says. “It’s like having a really mean baby in my mind.”
The actor physically cringes at the thought of watching herself onscreen, and even refuses to finish Outer Banks. “I can’t watch anymore of myself,” she confesses. As for what’s next, she promises to not reveal anything about the long-awaited third season, due in early 2023. (She already accidentally spilled the show’s February release date at Glass Onion’s London premiere and doesn’t want to become a repeat offender.) But that doesn’t mean she won’t dangle the carrot a little bit: “There are certain places on earth that I would avoid at all costs, and we shot in one of them.”
Days after the Los Angeles premiere of Glass Onion, I meet Cline again at the Malibu home she shares with her boyfriend and dogs, a sprawling yet cozy estate set against the backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains. She has another long day of photo shoots and press ahead, but she is a burst of positivity, playing spa music over the speakers and greeting everyone who walks through her door with a warm salutation. Rave reviews for Glass Onion are beginning to trickle in, and Cline can finally exhale. “I’m just really happy that people are seeing Whiskey as the multifaceted person that I felt like she was from the first time I read the script,” she says.
Cline is still riding the high on what she now considers her favorite premiere of all time. She wore a resplendent Versace gown and celebrated with her castmates beneath a massive replica of the glass onion itself. But truly momentous was the presence of loved ones from all walks of life, including her boyfriend, agent, Outer Banks costars, friends, and even her former roommate from her early days in L.A. “I keep pinching myself,” she tells me. “It just keeps getting better.” The sun, it seems, has finally reemerged from behind the moon. All is well in Madelyn Cline’s orbit.