“I feel like I spend more time as Nancy than I do as myself,” says Kennedy McMann, lounging on a couch at the Wagner Hotel in downtown Manhattan.
The actress, who plays the titular character for the CW’s “Nancy Drew” series, was wrapping up her first major press tour in New York pegged to the show’s premiere. In a few hours, she was due to catch a plane back to Vancouver, where she’s currently in the middle of filming episode eight of the series. So it was hard to say who she was at the moment — likely a little bit of Nancy, and a little bit of Kennedy.
“I work 16 hours a day, every day, and weekends that I have off are nice to decompress and detach. But my mind is just always drawn back in, because it’s so consuming and Nancy and I are really similar in a lot of ways,” McMann adds after changing into leggings, an oversized blue sweater that complements her blue eyes and strawberry blonde locks, and Teva-style sandals for the cross-country flight.
It’s a big role for the 22-year-old actress, who recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s drama program and approached her first pilot season this past spring with the goal of simply getting called back for a project.
“I felt, ‘If I get callback, I’ve made progress, that’s a great sign for me,'” she recalls. She was living in New York at the time and playing Dungeons & Dragons when her agent texted about “Nancy Drew”; after reading the script, the stakes got higher for the lifelong fan of the character.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is my voice and the way that I think and speak and handle situations, and this is my sense of humor,'” she says. “I thought, ‘This just got scary, because I want it so bad.'”
Luckily, the studio and network saw the synergies between her and the character, too.
Nancy Drew has been interpreted on-screen many times — first in the late Thirties by Bonita Granville and more recently by Emma Roberts; Sophia Lillis is set to play her next in a forthcoming film — and the character continues to resonate and adapt for new generations.
“Nancy Drew has always been ahead of her time, and I think that resonates still in the way she conducts herself and her life. She really owns her influence and power, she doesn’t shy away from it,” McMann says. “She’s always stuck around because she represents this really beautiful recurring concept, which is this young, social justice warrior; a rebel with a cause of sorts, who’s willing to do whatever it takes to right wrongs, and figure things out, and learn the truth about things and share it with other people.”
McMann throws out more adjectives for the Renaissance woman: fearless, meticulous, witty. “And she knows how to do a million things — she can do Morse code and play bagpipes and read lips and pick locks. She’s amazing.”
Following the success of its “Riverdale” series, which takes a soap opera-y approach to the characters from the Archie comics, the CW has taken a similarly darker tack with “Nancy Drew,” giving the character an older — she’s 18 in the show — and racier spin with its primarily young adult audience in mind. (“Nancy Drew” even literally follows “Riverdale” in time slot, 9 p.m. on Wednesdays.) In addition to the expected sleuthing and mystery solving, the show incorporates supernatural and extramarital plot lines.
“While all those [aforementioned] things remain true about this iteration of the character, she is for one of the first times portrayed as not being perfect — as somebody who makes sacrifices in her personal life and in her emotional life, in her relationships, in order to continue this ruthless pursuit of justice,” adds McMann. “And she’s not always the perfect daughter and the perfect friend. It’s really refreshing to watch our Nancy navigate the balance of these insatiable desires for solving these mysteries as they come along, but then also balancing that with the need to be loved. I know for me, I have no interest in watching the perfect person do things.”
While McMann had been living in New York before the series, she currently is living a bit of a nomadic lifestyle, although her fiancé and cats are with her in Vancouver, which makes it a de facto, if temporary, home. Born in Michigan and raised mostly in Arizona, she was diagnosed with OCD as a child; acting provided a respite. Her first role was playing two characters in “The Three Musketeers”: a wench and a nun. With her first lead TV role being a complicated Nancy Drew, her journey comes full circle.
“What became a second form of therapy for me was the theater,” she says. “I fell absolutely in love with it, because I realized for those three or four hours of rehearsals every day after school, I got to replace my brain with somebody else’s. And it became such a valuable form of escape for me.”
Hopefully fans will fall equally in love with the new Nancy Drew. Either way, ratings will likely decide whether Nancy — and McMann — is on TV to stay. For now, it remains a mystery.
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