You may have only recently noticed actress Kaitlyn Dever, but she’s far from an overnight sensation. Acting professionally since she was 13, Dever, now 23, is coming off a monster year that saw her nominated for the BAFTA Rising Star award, and earning her first Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television for Netflix’s searing and powerful drama, Unbelievable. That performance, paired with her first starring role in last year’s feel good indie smash, Booksmart, has made everyone sit up and take notice of this young actress with a seemingly unlimited range. I recently had a chance to talk to Dever about both projects, what she’s doing during quarantine, how much Lynn Shelton meant to her and how she, just like the rest of the world, fangirls out around Toni Collette.
AwardsWatch: Good morning!
Kaitlyn Dever: Good morning, how are you?
AW: I’m fine, all things considered, of course.
KD: Where are you quarantining?
AW: I’m in Los Angeles, are you here as well?
KD: Yes, I am very happy to be here, with this weather. I’m just grateful to have a healthy family. And, honestly, when are we ever going to be able to do this again—to be able to read and watch movies, so I’m trying to look at all the bright sides of it. I’m getting to spend so much time with my family right now, and it’s amazing.
AW: I wanted to ask you a little about that, but I wanted to get difficult thing over with first. It’s been a hard period for the whole film community, and for yourself, with Lynn Shelton’s passing. Some may not know that you were actually in one of her films, Laggies. Was there anything you wanted to say about what she meant to you? I know she touched so many people.
KD: She really did. That was the one of the many amazing things about her. She touched people in a bigger way than just working together and moving on. I like to say that she was a spreader of so much love. I did two movies with her, actually, Laggies and Outside In. She was such an inspiration to me, she was the one that I constantly talked about and brought up all the time. She really meant a lot to me because, obviously, yes, she’s an amazing creator and filmmaker, but she was also just such a real friend to me. I worked with her for the first time when I was 15 and I never once felt like a little kid who didn’t know anything. She always made me feel like the smartest one in the room, she always made me feel welcome and she always made me feel cool. You were cool when you were with Lynn Shelton. I will miss her forever. It’s a huge loss to the film community, but I feel she was a real friend to so many people and she let people know that too. She was the type of person to send random messages, out of the blue, just to let you know that she loved you. I think that’s a beautiful thing and I think she is just such a beautiful person.
AW: I’m sorry for your loss since she was a friend to you. As if we don’t have enough to deal with. You mentioned you are with your family. I understand you and your sister are writing a lot of music?
KD: We are. We write a lot. We’ve got so much time on our hands now. We’re usually so busy, it’s difficult sometimes to find the time to sit down and be creative and write. It’s hard to write a song with a short amount of time, it’s the kind of thing that has to come naturally. So now that we’ve had so much time to just sit and hang out with each other, we’ve been writing a lot and I think we might be releasing something soon. We were working on an EP right before this all went down. We will be really excited to get back into the studio once we have the ok to.
AW: So this is more than a hobby…Do you have a band name? Can we find your work?
KD: Yeah! We just released our first single and you can find us on Spotify, we’re called Beulahbelle. Music has always been such a passion and love of mine, and same for my sister, so we thought it would be this cool way to show our work to the world, the way we collaborate together at home and it’s been something that definitely I want do in conjunction with acting. We’re going to be releasing a lot of music.
AW: That’s exciting! Speaking of acting, you have said that acting was your passion and that you knew you wanted to act from the time you were really young. You are still young, but now that you’re in it and acting is actually your profession, has what you loved about acting changed?
KD: Whatever my thoughts and feelings were when I started, it’s definitely gotten better. The reason why I wanted to do it from the very beginning was I was able to fulfill some part of me that seemed like it was missing, like I was able to really work my creative juices and the constant urges to play somebody else. I have no idea how I knew what I wanted to do at such a young age, and I know that’s a total rarity, but I did and I don’t know why. But it just was something that continues to make me happy.
What I’ve learned is that there are so many ups and downs with acting and I’ve gotten used to that. I guess I got used to the amount of “no’s” I was getting at the beginning and I’m still getting “no’s” every single day, so I think just basically being aware that you can have work for a couple of months and then nothing at all, it’s a roller coaster. It’s been a nice prep for this pandemic time because I’m used to this in a way…doing a lot and then doing absolutely nothing! [laughs] My love for it has gotten so much more intense and I’ve become more eager and the only thing that’s really changed is I’ve discovered what you can do with the work you do. It cannot only be fun and fulfilling and meeting new people and learning from them can be so incredible, but you can also do good with the work you choose. And I’ve learned in the past couple of years, with the work I’ve been a part of, I feel like I learned a lot from it and that the people seeing it have also gained so much knowledge and that’s something really cool and I don’t know if I necessarily knew that starting out.
AW: Speaking of doing something meaningful, your most recent two roles, in Booksmart and Unbelievable, were amazing. I want to of course get into Unbelievable, but I first want to touch on Booksmart. I first wanted to say thank you. I’m gay and we have not had many representations on film of gay characters that weren’t tragic or whose sole defining characteristic was more than just being gay or coming out. What was it like working through that with [director] Olivia [Wilde] to create that kind of groundbreaking character?
KD: Thank you so much for saying that, that really, really means a lot. I am just overwhelmed with the amount of love that film has gotten. I mean it’s no surprise to me because I loved this script the moment I read it and I knew it was going to be, obviously, a fun and exciting movie to go see in the theater. But in general it was a movie that society really needed. It was vital. Playing Amy was something that I felt needed to be done. Obviously, I wanted to play her, but I also felt it needed to be done. Playing a queer character in a leading role and, like you said, it’s not about coming out or they’re not the butt of the joke—even seeing a queer girl and a straight girl in a friendship together. In the past you may have seen the queer person falling for the straight person. There’s absolutely none of that at any point and I’m forever grateful that I was able to bring that kind of character to life and I hope we continue to see roles like that because it just needs to happen. I just feel really grateful. It was so clear to me early on how important the role was. I remember being in press early on, promoting the movie, and I was speaking to a journalist who was a queer woman and she said, “in the past, I’ve had to seek out films like this in order to see myself on screen,” and it’s just amazing to know that this film has been seen by so many people and it wasn’t a little movie, it wasn’t a small release— It was a very big release and a lot of people saw it and are continuing to see it and love it and it just feels really good to be a part of telling that story.
AW: It was such a great film too. It was so widely regarded as such a wonderful film, both for Olivia in her directorial debut, but for all of you. It was your first starring role, wasn’t it?
KD: Yeah it was. It was so great because I was able to do that with Beanie [Feldstein] by my side, who is also going through the same thing for the first time. We both got to do it together. It was so crazy, the timing of how it all happened. She was leading for the first time, I was leading for the first time and we got to do it together and then I went on to do Unbelievable and she went on to do How To Build a Girl. What Beanie and I shared, I’ve been thinking about it a lot just because I miss traveling the world with her and talking about this movie. It was the most special time I’ve ever had. I’ll never have that kind of bond with someone and be able to live with someone like that and create such a special friendship on screen. I just love her. I miss her!
AW: And also to have the two back-to-back. What it’s like to make a switch like that, two such completely different pieces back-to-back.
KD: Playing different roles and being a part of completely different stories is my jam— I love it so much because, at home, there’s a whole other side of me that only my family sees. [laughs] I feel like it’ll stay that way because I do so many different voices and I’m always screaming and yelling and then I revert back to being normal again. So I’m constantly going back and forth and I love doing that with the work that I do.
Booksmart was a little bit of a slow burn—I was attached to it I guess five years ago now, and it was on my mind all the time, but it was in development and I was just so excited for it to get made. And then once it was finally being made and we were doing it, I wasn’t paying attention to anything else, I was really just putting all of my focus into Booksmart. And then once we were on our last week of filming, I got the email from my agent about an audition for Unbelievable and the script immediately broke my heart, like, Jesus, this happened so recently and it feels very timely—and I now hesitate to say it’s timely or relevant because it’s sexual assault and that’s been an issue forever. But I wanted to be a part of shedding light on that issue and to be a part of telling Marie’s story. And it was definitely a complete turnaround because I had to finish Booksmart and then pretty quickly after we wrapped I was in prep for Unbelievable, a week or two later.
AW: What kind of prep did you do for Unbelievable? Did you meet with Marie?
KD: I’ve always liked to know the story really well. I was reading up on all the source material that I had and I felt like I had enough, but obviously, as an actor, you know the opportunity to play a real person doesn’t come around too often. Of course the first thing I thought of was to talk to her, but I was also very conflicted because I know it was already a privilege that she is even allowing us to tell her story in such a big way—putting her story on Netflix and the whole world is going to see it. So I really wasn’t sure what to do, because I only wanted to do what she was comfortable with. I talked to [series co-creator] Susannah Grant and [executive producer] Lisa Cholodenko about this early on and we all decided that we just really wanted to do what she was comfortable with. And a very important thing to Netflix and the whole team involved in Unbelievable was respecting her privacy and her space, because this is something that is still affecting her. It’s something that affects someone for the rest of their life, so I wanted to be respectful of that and I decided that I had enough source material to tackle it and to do it right.
AW: It’s a detective story at its heart, but it taps so meaningfully into the importance of believing women, which is such a part of our culture now. It’s not just the abuse but it’s after the abuse—being heard and being seen. How did you approach that?
KD: I really just wanted to make sure that I was being as authentic as possible to Marie and her truth. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, this role. It’s such a heartbreaking and tragic story, and I really did learn so much from making it. One of the bigger things that I learned was the fact that trauma affects people so differently. People put a general tone on how someone should react to sexual assault and it really just depends on how you were brought up and no person is going to react the same way. That was a really profound thing that I learned from making this whole thing. It’s extremely important that we believe women from the very beginning and believe people—this is not just a woman’s issue, this is happening all over. That was something that was really important to me and really important to the whole team involved.
AW: I have to say you were just brilliant, the whole show was, especially the performances. I can’t let you get away without asking you about Toni Collette. You said her role in The Sixth Sense was the reason you wanted to be an actor, and now here you are, in a show with her. I can’t remember if you had any scenes with her, but did you ever tell her? Did you fangirl out with her at all?
KD: I did! I didn’t get to work with her, though. Merritt [Wever] and I had a little scene at the end of the show. When I first read the script, I thought, oh, I’m never going to interact with Toni Collette and that is completely okay. If I get to just be associated in any way with her name, that’s all I need. I just was excited to meet her. We met at a dinner that Netflix put together before we started filming and I told her how much she means to me and she was just so cool about it. And she seemed really flattered. She’s just the coolest. She just gets it done and she pulls off the most amazing performances and she makes it look so easy. So, yeah, it was kind of a mind-blowing thing, just to see her name on the email that came in from my agent when I initially read the script and I was just so excited to just be auditioning for something that Toni Collette was in but then to get it and then to meet her… We were always shooting next to each other at the same time and I’d always see her in the make-up trailer but it was always in passing. But then I really got to know her in press. It was so great to learn from her and from Merritt. Both of them are such incredible women—all of the women involved in it were incredible, there were a lot of women involved in this story. We had incredible men on set with us too, but it was really a powerful thing to be surrounded by women making a story about a woman who wasn’t believed and it was a really life changing experience for me.
All episodes of Unbelievable are currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.