The plan was supposed to be the bass. Growing up, Harley Quinn Smith always wanted to be in a band: first driven by a love of Green Day and My Chemical Romance in her middle school emo phase that morphed into the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, transitioning yet again to Sleater-Kinney, The Breeders and Sonic Youth. She would play the bass, she envisioned, and her life would be between music and writing for film, but never in front of the camera.
Her father, the filmmaker Kevin Smith, liked to put her and the rest of the family in his films as extras, as a version of a modern day family photo album. She’d been in his films her whole life. But it wasn’t until she was a teenager and making an appearance in his 2014 movie “Tusk” that something changed.
“I then just fell in love with it,” she says. “I thought it was exhilarating, and it just fulfilled me in a way where I just wanted to keep doing it. And ever since then, I went for it.”
Now after embracing the bug, she has landed her first role at 21 in the new Freeform series “Cruel Summer.” The series, which follows what happens in a Texan town after a local teenage girl goes missing — and has emerged as a cult hit since its premiere last month — takes place in the mid-’90s, which was enough to sell Smith on the project in and of itself.
“I just had a weird feeling about it from the beginning and that it was in the ’90s and I love the ’90s…it all just felt very weird, like if something was going to happen,” she says. “I was born in ’99, so I missed out. But if I could live during any time, I’d definitely just back it up a few years to the ’90s. I love ’90s music, ’90s films, ’90s fashion, everything. I feel much more comfortable existing in that space and time, rather than our current one.”
Born in New Jersey, Smith has lived in Los Angeles since she was two years old. Growing up her dad always wanted her to be a writer, telling her that he believed it to be her destiny (a proclamation she found “scary and intimidating”). She was leaning more toward music, but they both were aligned on the fact that she would likely have a creative career. Acting caught them by surprise, but now she’s full speed ahead.
“My biggest dream in life is to play Courtney Love in a biopic, or to direct would also be a dream come true. I just think musicians have such interesting life stories. And so I do feel very passionately about telling musicians’ stories, and I think there’s something so magical and cool about telling the story of somebody who exists,” she says.
Love, her biggest inspiration in life, informed who she based her “Cruel Summer” character Mallory on.
“I wanted her to be this very strong, confident person, who is not really like myself. I wanted to make her up to be this completely different person than I am, and just not really scared of anything. She says it how it is,” Smith says. “You just don’t want to f–k with Mallory. I think through my love for Courtney Love, through my admiration for her for many years, I think I drew a lot of inspiration from her.”
Smith is looking ahead to season two, which she’s hopeful will happen, but in the meantime is working on her podcast about veganism, continuing on with animal rights activism, and hopes to write her first film sometime soon.
“Life could go a lot of ways from here,” she says. “After [the show], everything changed. It was crazy. It’s crazy how one phone call can change your life, which is cheesy. But yeah, it was a phone call on the freeway that changed my life.”
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