Young actors have been turning in great performances in the past few years, and this is no different for Matilda Lawler. She started out in theatre, making her Broadway debut in 2018 in The Ferryman before turning her attention to television. She had a small part in Paramount+’s Evil before being offered a starring role in HBOMax’s Station Eleven, based on the Emily St. John Mandel novel of the same name, which follows the life of Kirsten as a global pandemic devastates the world. Lawler plays the young version of Kirsten, who finds herself under the care of a man named Jeevan (Himesh Patel).
I recently spoke to Lawler about her role in the series, how it feels to transition from the stage to the screen, and what it was like working with Himesh Patel. She also spoke a little about her upcoming projects.
Tyler Doster: I wanted to start by asking: what was the audition process like for Station Eleven?
Matilda Lawler: The audition process was stressful for me because of the scenes they gave mainly. I first got the audition, and it was a self-tape, and it was a very hard hitting scene where Kirsten was getting pretty emotional about how… The scene where she doesn’t know how many days it is until Christmas anymore. It’s a whole meltdown scene, so that was heavy. And when you get a scene like that, you’re like, “okay, I can either half do it and probably not get the role, or I can go all the way and really put myself out there.” And so that’s what I did. In the self-tape I just put myself out there, and then luckily they did like the tape. They flew me out to LA to do a camera test with [creator] Patrick [Somerville], Hiro [Murai] and the casting director who was amazing. And then after that, I put myself out there again, and it was really hard because I was in a room full of people I didn’t know, and I was sobbing and Himesh [Patel] was there. But it worked out well. Yeah.
TD: Where were you when you got the call that you had [gotten the part]?
ML: I think I was… Oh my gosh, I forgot. I think I was at my house, to be boring. Oh wait. No, I think I may have actually been out to dinner and I was… I remember now. I was out to dinner and I was with my friends, and then I had to go out to the side and take the call and I had not been expecting to get the role really. I had put it out of my mind and wasn’t counting on it, because that’s what you have to do. But then I got the call and was so excited.
TD: Was there anything about Kirsten that you were nervous about when you got the role?
ML: I mean, obviously the very emotionally taxing scenes, and just the whole… It felt to me like Kirsten was a really special character and I, as a person was just like, okay, this doesn’t come around a lot. I have to do well. I have to show her story. For me, the way that I think about it is I don’t have to impress anyone else. I just have to do justice for my character, so that’s what I decided I needed to do. And so I was really scared that I wouldn’t be able to do that, but I think I did.
TD: You started out in theatre. You made your Broadway debut in 2018 in The Ferryman. What’s it like transitioning to more television roles?
ML: It was so weird. When you’re on stage there’s no camera in your face all the time, and you can’t do it again. When you’re on stage, you’ve got to roll with the punches every time, and there’s a whole audience there watching you, but it’s easier to separate yourself from the audience, I feel like when you’re on stage. This is for me personally. When I was on stage, it was a lot easier for me to separate myself from the audience. But when I was on camera, it became a little harder for me to separate myself from the camera and the crew.
Because I had known these people that were parts of the crew and I had formed relationships with them. But in the audience, obviously I didn’t really know most of the people, so that was a hard thing. But then I got used to that and got past that. And obviously it’s a whole different animal, so it took some getting used to, but I feel like I was able to recognize that it would be different and I had to accept that it would just be a different thing and roll with it.
TD: Will you keep doing theatre or are you focusing on television right now?
ML: I love theatre. I love theatre, and I will always be looking out for theatre coming around. Right now I’m more focusing on television, but in the future, if a really good play comes along, I’d be happy to do it.
TD: What was your preparation like for those big emotional scenes for Kirsten? I’m thinking specifically about when she gets the text from the hospital that says her parents are in the morgue. What was that process like for you?
ML: It was a lot of trying to tap into some things that I hadn’t ever tapped into before by taking a lot of time alone and just thinking. And I had a lot of reflection time and a lot of help from my dad who helped me with a lot of the channeling, some… Well, he calls it substitution. Substituting things from my personal life that could help me channel Kirsten. It was a lot of that. And then on set, the day I had to do that, it was one of the first days of filming when we came back to Toronto. And I was terrified because there’s a whole new crew that I didn’t know. And I was like, okay, I can’t hold back. I’m just putting myself out there. And so I did. I spent some time alone, thinking alone in that room before we started filming. There was an iPhone that I was going on, and I was looking at the text and reflecting and trying to channel my own life into Kirsten, trying to personalize everything. But at the same time I was also playing… You know Memoji?
ML: The only app on the phone was texting, so I made Memojis. In the meantime I made ridiculous looking Memojis, like alien Memojis, because I just needed some brightness in that time. Even though I spent some time reflecting, I also just made some really random looking aliens on Memoji.
TD: Would you say that was the most challenging scene for you to film, or is there another scene that stands out in your mind?
ML: Honestly, the scene in… I don’t think that was the [hardest] one to film for me. Because I’m pretty good at accessing my emotions and I’m a very passionate person, so I can just let it out. And sometimes, even though it’s scary, I can do that. But something that’s harder is the scene that me and Mackenzie were in the closet when they were outside, and that whole thing was going on. One of the reasons why it was so hard was because I was hyperventilating. And so I was getting lightheaded while we were filming, and that made it a lot more difficult to film because I was getting a headache and I couldn’t think straight, and I was just losing it completely, but I was like, “okay, I have to stay in the scene.” That one was hard physically too, which made it more difficult.
TD: Was there any discussion or collaboration with Mackenzie about Kirsten?
ML: Well, we had some meetings beforehand, but we didn’t really talk about Kirsten. We just got to know each other as people. And I feel like that helped because we were familiar with each other. And then, we didn’t really talk about it, but I know she was watching me. She took some of my things, my mannerisms or whatever. But no, there wasn’t really communication beforehand, but what Patrick, the showrunner, said was that we are at just such different parts in Kirsten’s life, so I’m at the beginning. And there’s just so much that goes on between, that just makes a completely different person, so that was helpful. We didn’t have to be exactly the same at all.
TD: Your scenes with Himesh are some of my favorites in the series. Can you speak a little bit about what it was like working with him?
ML: It was amazing. I have nothing but amazing things to say about Himesh. He was just a joy, and he is such a grounded person who is so genuine in everything he says, and you know he’s not going to lie about anything. He thinks through things so thoughtfully before he speaks, and so I appreciated that so much. And I always appreciated our honesty and collaboration and how he never treated me like a child, he just treated me like an equal. I learned a lot from him by just watching him. And the way he treated other people was amazing too. I don’t know, such a good listener. I could go on forever.
TD: I actually spoke to Himesh last week and he had nothing but good things to say about you, including that it didn’t even feel like he was working with a younger actor. He felt like you were just a full blown actress. And I also spoke to Jeremy Podeswa this week, the director of [episodes] two, nine and ten, and he also had a lot of great things to say about you. For your first big role in television, what’s it like receiving all this praise for your performance?
ML: I mean, it’s an honor really. It’s an honor for this all to be happening. I feel like I’ve been separated from it and on the street, I don’t really get pulled… What’s it called? Pulled away. Talked to. What’s it called? I don’t know. I don’t really get spotted too often, so in New York at least it was like, “Hmm, this might be going under the radar.” And then a few weeks ago I actually was in LA. And when I went to LA, there were a lot more people who were noticing me and it was like, “Wow, so maybe it’s not going under the radar.” And it’s not. I feel really honored to have everybody watching the show because I genuinely love the show. And I really do think it’s a really good show for everyone to watch. Even if I wasn’t in it, I would say that too. I’m really glad that it was this project because there were so many good people working on it, and for it to be recognized is really special.
TD: I know you’re starting to get cast and start production on other shows and I wanted to know if you’d like to speak a little bit about what you’re going to be doing next?
ML: Yeah. I’m going to be working on The Gilded Age, which is a show on HBO, and it’s really cool. The people are just so kind, so understanding, so accommodating. I love everyone so far. I’ve only worked two days so far, but I have a special appearance in the second season that’s coming out. And I just have nothing but good things to say about Louisa [Jacobson], the cast, the crew. Everyone’s just so kind, and it’s really special to be working on a period piece because I’ve never worked on one before. And I just feel like the clothing, the set design, it’s all just so detailed and special. And so, nothing but good things to say about that.
And the other thing I’m working on is The Clauses, which is a Christmas show coming out on Disney+, and it’s with Tim Allen. It’s a series that comes after the three Santa Claus movies. I was an elf, Chief of Staff. Pretty big. Yeah, and I made some really good friends. I had a great time. It was really fun. My first comedy thing, so that was fun for me. And I hope it brings some joy to Christmas time this year.
Matilda Lawler is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for Station Eleven.
Photo: Ian Watson/HBO Max