In the last half decade, Haley Lu Richardson has amassed an impressive variety of roles, from slapstick comedies and indie dramas, united in their striking naturalism.
As the popular best friend to Hailee Steinfeld’s misanthrope in teen comedy Edge of Seventeen, a star-crossed lover with cystic fibrosis in Five Feet Apart and an architecture nerd who befriends a grieving older man in Kogonada’s critically acclaimed Columbus, the 27-year-old American actor’s warmth consistently elevates what could be flat or derivative characters into full-blooded people. She is remarkably good at the more casual, throwaway aspects of life that often translate poorly to screen – Googling Planned Parenthood in Unpregnant, shooting a glance in the memories of a techno-sapien robot in After Yang or, in the case of her new film Montana Story, calling an Uber to her father’s ranch in Big Sky country.
Montana Story, written and directed by the film-making duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel, marks a departure for Richardson, who has mostly played teenagers in complicated situations. Her character Erin is a full adult – 25 years old, reconnecting with her estranged brother, played by Owen Teague, after a stroke sends their mutually loathed father into a coma.
“I’ve retired from playing teenagers,” she says with a laugh over Zoom earlier this week from Italy. The decision came after filming Unpregnant, in which she played a 17-year-old honor student reconnecting with her best friend over slushies and Kelly Clarkson while road-tripping across states for an abortion. “I remember thinking after that movie, ‘I think that was the last time I can connect to a teenager.’ Like, I just don’t think that I have it in me any more … that was 10 years ago!”
The warmth she projects on-screen carries off it; there’s a disarming goofiness throughout our chat, as she interrupts herself to mention cat hair (her cat made it to Italy with her), sparkling water burps and an aside about how we both had first kisses to Kelly Clarkson songs, which would be fully vintage to her more recent teen characters. Clad in a hoodie, she’s zooming in from Sicily, where she’s deep into filming the second season of The White Lotus, HBO’s biting satire of privilege and leisure that became the breakout TV hit of summer 2021. Richardson plays Portia, a mid-20s woman traveling with her boss, and that’s about all we can know about her character so far.
“It’s the same show, it’s just that the characters are different and the place is different, and the themes that intertwine through all the storylines are new themes that are equally as present in society and humanity now,” she says, searching for the right words. I supply: relevant, unsettling, disturbing. “Thought-provoking, fucked up,” she adds, and we both laugh. Also that.
With The White Lotus and Montana Story, Richardson was drawn to inhabit a more mature, calcified era of emotional turmoil. Erin returns after a seven-year absence with a hard shell of bitterness – toward her father, who we learn was cruel and abusive. Toward her brother, for more mysterious reasons gradually unlocked through a pressure cooker of awkward car rides, logistical decisions, and an inevitable confrontation that rips off the scabs on past wounds. “The maturity of that is something I connected to more personally,” she says.
“Obviously when I did Edge of Seventeen, I still love that movie and I connected to it then, but this is a different level of connection that I personally felt to what Erin was going through, and a lot of that has to do with where she’s at in her life, and what she’s able to face and deal with.”
It’s been 11 years since Richardson and her mother moved to LA from her home town of Phoenix, where she had won a number of regional dance competitions. Unlike many of her cohort, she entered Hollywood with no industry connections – her mother works in marketing, her father designs golf courses. Asked if she got frustrated by nepotism barriers coming up, Richardson was sanguine. “I don’t try to fight, and I’m not mad at,” she says. “I mean, I see people kind of come up around me, or have these incredible opportunities around me, and a lot of them have been working really hard for a long time, and a lot of people have a certain kind of connection, or just get really lucky in a certain role at a certain time.”
“I’ve had this slow, steady burn that I’m kind of appreciative for, because I feel like it’s given me space to really make mistakes,” she adds, expressing wariness around rocketing careers, the kind that draw intense buzz all at once. “It’s like, where do you go from there, you know? How do you top that? And not just on a level of how others view you, and how you’re perceived, but also the fulfillment. I hope my whole career is just a steady build.”
Montana Story’s Erin shares a common trait with most Richardson characters: stubborn independence. Her performances, whether breezy or bottled up, seem to originate from the same well of headstrong determination. With Montana Story and acclaimed turns in Columbus and After Yang – both directed by pseudonymous South Korean film-maker Kogonada, with whom she shares a mutually affectionate close friendship – Richardson has demonstrated an affinity for small, collaborative environments and an eye for female characters who can’t fade into the background. “I would rather, if I had to choose – which I do sometimes, because I don’t get those opportunities thrown at me left and right,” she says. “I’d rather be doing a smaller independent film with people that I really feel like I can collaborate with and I really trust, and playing a character that’s really full and interesting to me, than playing someone’s wife in a bigger movie.”
Richardson was almost in a much bigger movie, albeit not as a sidelined wife, as one of the final candidates for Batgirl in the DC superhero film – a role that ultimately went to In The Heights breakout Leslie Grace. Was she nervous about potentially joining a massive franchise? “Yes,” she says. “The times that I’ve been up for – not just speaking about that experience with Batgirl – but the times I’ve been up for like really big or franchise things, superhero things or something, they happen so fast. You have to sign deals ahead of time. There’s never a script.”
She contrasts it to her creative sense – “the reason I do this” – over which she’s become increasingly protective. With franchises, “you become a puzzle piece and less like someone who’s helping to put together a puzzle,” she says, though she tipped her hat to Brie Larson, who fashioned her Captain Marvel in the 2019 MCU movie as a flinty superhero with a feminist sensibility. “I really do hope that if I ever do something like that, there’s room for [that].”
One place where she does that find that room: Instagram, where she’s occasionally applied her acting talents to some cheeky homages of millennial culture. (See: an incredibly faithful rendition of Marissa’s pool chair-tossing freakout from The OC.) “I feel like Instagram is the one place that I have that I can really control how people that know about me as an actor see me as a person,” she says. “I like to keep just really … fun, I feel. I don’t put too much thought into it, honestly.” That sounds healthy, I note, as someone generally anxious about posting online. “I do feel like it’s not too unhealthy for me,” she responded. “I think where Instagram gets unhealthy is when I start looking” – the rabbitholes of online shopping, other people’s enviable profiles, or an explore page filled with an endless scroll of facetuned skin and injected lips. “That does get to you.”
We end on a dour note, speaking just a week after a leaked supreme court draft opinion signaled the all but certain end of Roe v Wade, which would throw the US into a more chaotic and punitive hellscape of inaccessible reproductive healthcare than the one depicted in Unpregnant.
“I just can’t believe – I am so sad that this is still a conversation,” she says. “I really think it’s just so sad and wrong that this is a conversation that anyone is having except for a woman in the situation talking personally with the people that she wants to talk about it with in her life.”
We agree on a sentiment that’s true to many a Richardson character, candid and punchy: “I think it’s fucked.”
Montana Story is out now in US cinemas with a UK date to be announced