Update: This article was originally published on March 20, 2019.
When I meet Joey King on a warm day in early March, the 19-year-old actress is wearing overalls, Doc Martens, and a teal Piaget watch which retails for over $18,000 (she says she’ll pass it down to her kids someday). A pink and yellow bouncy ball rests in her front pocket, but she has no idea how it got there.
She’s arrived first for our meeting at her favorite restaurant — a light, airy market-style eatery in Studio City that serves artisanal pickles, fresh-baked baguettes, and prosciutto-topped burrata. With a book in her hand, she’s wrapping up a chat with a friend. “I always run into people I know here,” she says, laughing, before hugging her friend goodbye, selecting our table, and whisking me over to the deli counter. She insists on getting the pickles (she gets them every time), points out three dishes every first-timer must try, and makes easy conversation with everyone behind the counter. Later, we’ll be interrupted by writer-director Mike White, who she’ll introduce as “my 2:30” before settling back into her chair. This afternoon, she’s drinking iced green tea, but explains that her usual coffee order is either an iced latte with oat or almond milk or straight black coffee, something she learned to drink while working on sets (“I used to do the thing where you put like 17 Splendas in it, and I just grew out of it,” she says).
Joey Lynn King has learned a few things after 15 years in Hollywood — lessons she’ll need right now during a make-or-break, career-defining moment, thanks to her transformative dramatic role as Gypsy Rose Blanchard in the highly anticipated series The Act, a role that earned her her first Emmy nomination, and the coming sequel to The Kissing Booth, the Netflix rom-com that made her a next-generation streaming star.
“I think my favorite part is seeing The Kissing Booth fans really rally behind me for The Act,” she says. “I'm really excited for them to see me in a completely different light.”
It’s easy to root for King to leverage this fleeting opportunity to go from being an actor who gets asked “Are you famous?” to a member of the Hollywood elite. “It’s so funny to me when people recognize me,” she says. “Sometimes they come up to you, and they can't quite place where you're from, so they just ask you, ‘Are you famous?’ And I just [think], ‘Well, you don't know my name. So clearly not.’”
She’s easygoing, open, and seemingly unfazed by her rising celebrity status — which isn’t always the case for someone who wears a watch that costs more than some cars. She’s tried on just about every genre in her career — from kid comedies to sinister horror flicks. As Elle in The Kissing Booth, King showed teenagers that a romantic comedy can be led by a girl who feels weird about her changing body and doesn’t wake up with the bombshell waves and fully painted face of a Pretty Little Liar every morning. But nothing has stretched her range or talent as extensively as her new Hulu gig. “I've never really gotten to showcase that I can become a different person,” she says. “I completely let go of all my vanity.”
King grew up in Simi Valley, just a stone’s throw (or two-hour drive in traffic) from Los Angeles. Her parents are typical suburbanites, uninvolved in the hustle of Hollywood, and yet the acting bug called King and her two sisters, Hunter King (who stars on Young & The Restless) and Kelli King (who’s appeared on shows like Grey’s Anatomy). Between her frequent visits home and King’s mom tagging her daughters in unfiltered, candid snaps from home as @MasterKingMom on Instagram, King says her family keeps her feet on the ground.
She got her start at age 4 with bit parts on shows like The Suite Life of Zack And Cody. She then progressed to playing a series of spunky pre-teens in movies like Ramona and Beezus, Crazy, Stupid, Love., and Battle Los Angeles. More serious roles followed as she transformed into the young Talia Al Ghul to Marion Cotillard’s adult Dark Knight Rises villain and played Deputy Grimly’s daughter Greta on season 1 of FX’s critically beloved series Fargo.
Last summer, she got a taste of life as a teen sensation after starring in The Kissing Booth. She knows what it’s like to work a 15-hour day and says she’s bonded with co-workers at all levels, from assistants all the way up to directors. She counts many of her past (adult) co-workers as friends — not just Joel Courtney from The Kissing Booth, who she’s ecstatic to see when the sequel starts filming in April — but the PAs, costume designers, and makeup artists, too. She’s also gotten close with her onscreen mother in Hulu’s The Act, Patricia Arquette, whom she referred to on Instagram as “My queen” and to whom she texts goofy selfies on the regular.
“It always makes me sad when I hear people talk about how much they love the job, but they hate the industry,” King laments. She seems to know her experience in Hollywood has been a relatively charmed one, and beams when she says she looks on “this business with a lot of love and with a lot of smiles.”
Just don’t call her a “child actor.”
“I'm very proud of the accomplishments I made when I was a young child, and I’m proud of the person I became from that. But I think that when describing me, I'm an actor. That’s who I am. I was an actor before; I’m an actor now,” she tells me with a furrow of her brow. “Being called an actor and being respected as an actor is something that I wish I felt more sometimes.”
Fendi jacket; Camilla and Marc Phoenix Tee, $249, available at Camilla and Marc; Topshop skirt; Stuart Weitzman The Kirstie 90 Boot, $875, available at Stuart Weitzman; Stylist’s own earrings. Manicure by Tom Bachik.
But now, her face has started appearing on bus benches and billboards (she posted a Twitter video in which she jumped and screamed the first time she saw one for The Act) and fans seemed to know early on that she'd get an Emmy for her turn as Gypsy. “I think people think that that's a normal thing for someone to see. They think that it’s normal for me to see myself on the side of a bus bench,” she explains.
There’s also an uptick in paparazzi getting in her face — something she hopes doesn’t escalate, because she likes “being able to look like shit and go to Whole Foods.” Though she was papped for the first time as a child when she grabbed lunch with her Ramona and Beezus costar Selena Gomez, the recent interest in her love life has made her a frequent target for prying lenses. Still, strange men following her with a camera is new and totally uncomfortable, she says.
Other markers include her first Vanity Fair Oscar Party. “I was like, wait, shut the fuck up,” she says of receiving the invite email earlier this year. She taps her manicured nails (still wrapped in the same nail art she wore that night) on the table as she relates starstruck encounters with Guillermo Del Toro and Amy Poehler, who she immediately “accosted.”
But the biggest sign of all is her starring role — the most taxing, transformative and challenging of her career — in The Act, which is based on a Buzzfeed article and the HBO documentary, Mommy Dead & Dearest. It follows the life of Blanchard (King), a young woman who successfully conspired with her boyfriend to kill her mother Dee Dee (Oscar winner Arquette) after years of abuse. The story traces the twisted mother-daughter relationship in an attempt to better understand how life got so dark for Gypsy: Dee Dee had Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy, a mental health condition in which a caretaker makes up or causes illness for someone in their care, often a child. Dee Dee psychologically and physically tortured Gypsy for years, keeping her trapped at home in a wheelchair while putting her through surgeries and medical procedures she didn’t need. The new series, King specifies, “goes beyond the headlines” and “tracks the characters behind closed doors” in hopes of adding depth to a story that’s largely been treated by audiences as a macabre, monstrous tale, rather than as the history of a very real young woman who was abused. “Her story is beyond comprehension,” King says.
As she prepared, King wasn’t legally allowed to speak with the real Gypsy, now age 27, who is serving 10 years in prison for her role in Dee Dee’s fatal stabbing (Hulu did not provide comment to Refinery29 regarding the reasoning for this). Instead, King did most of her research via the HBO documentary, video footage, and by speaking with The Act producer and Buzzfeed writer Michelle Dean, who spoke with Gypsy numerous times while reporting her story.
King has poured herself into the role, assuming Gypsy’s voice and mannerisms, and even shaving her head for the third time — despite the negative reaction she’s gotten for doing so in the past.
“When [The Act] came about, I had a little bit of hesitation, like, I don’t know, man, do I really want to do [shave my head] again? But then I took a second, and I was like, I want this job so badly that I would do anything. And I meant it.” While she’s relinquished her mane three times for professional reasons, each chop also carried some emotional weight. “When [my mom] got diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 11, she was very adamant about not losing her hair. It scared her. She felt like she would have been like less of a woman if she lost her hair,” she explains. The first time she shaved her head for a job (for The Dark Knight Rises) was her way of telling her mom “I’ve got you.”
“I think women should see that you don’t have to hide behind your hair. Whether you lose it for something creative, or you lose it for something tragic, you should be able to feel beautiful.”
Shaved head and all, King has already gotten her mom’s rave review following a screening of The Act at the family home. “I always get really pumped when my mom cries... So, she cried,” she says through a cheesy grin.
The onscreen mother-daughter connection, meanwhile, was crucial to the series, and Arquette immediately took King under her wing. “I think our real bond developed when we started doing rehearsals together and realizing just how deeply we had to dig into ourselves to find these emotions, how vulnerable we had to be,” King says.
Arquette looked out for King during her first semi-nude scene, in which Gypsy cries in a bathtub. “Patricia really took the reins on that one,” she says. The way King tells it, Arquette demanded the set be closed, that the monitors face only the crew who needed to see them, and that a courtesy cover was provided to King before and after each shot. “This is my first time doing a scene like this. I want that kind of guidance and to know that I can be that assertive and be straightforward with people, because it is my body. It is a very vulnerable experience. To watch someone that I love and admire be able to just, in a very kind way, orchestrate how it's going to be was really inspiring.”
The series also calls for quite a few sexual scenes, including one in which Gypsy loses her virginity. King says she fought for one pivotal change: She wanted the director to show the moment “it happened” rather than cut away, because she understands how important it is to Gypsy, and to any young woman.
“This is the one aspect of playing Gypsy in which I had to try and pull from my own real life experiences of what it felt like to become a young woman with those desires and those wants and those needs,” King says. “It's such a life-changing moment in a young woman woman's life, so I feel like it should have been documented in her story.”
That understanding of young women is partially what’s sky-rocketed her fame level following The Kissing Booth. Though she hesitates initially when I bring the movie up (the sequel will find her working with recent ex Jacob Elordi once again), she lights up when she talks about her character. The rom-com follows not-popular-but-not-unpopular high school junior Elle (King), whose body and desires are changing. That leads her right into the arms of her BFF Lee’s (Courtney) brother, Noah (Elordi), the most desirable guy in school, and the one person she’s promised to never date. At every turn, Elle makes decisions for herself — whether that means ignoring the whims of her school’s queen bees or losing her virginity to Noah when she decides it feels right. King says she was “shook” when it turned out to be such a hit and fans besieged her on social media, but she’s also immensely proud of the movie and her character.
Chanel swimsuit, jeans, belt, and bracelet.
Going into The Kissing Booth 2, which films in April, King is ecstatic to bring the character back. But she admits she only knows the plot points for the sequel — she hasn’t yet read the script, so for all she knows it’s actually an Avengers-style film in which “everyone gets dusted” and “Josh Brolin is actually the love interest.” But what she can share is that friendship will play a prominent role, much like it did in the Elordi-less teaser posted by Netflix.
“I think it's going to play a lot into Lee and Elle’s friendship, but there's plenty of relationship drama to be had on the next one, so don't worry, we will definitely get into that,” she says before uttering something sure to send shockwaves through her fanbase: “I’m very excited to ruffle some feathers. You'll get to see lots of ups and downs, not just between Noah and Elle, but you’ll see what’s going on between Lee and Elle and Lee and his girlfriend, and lots going on at Harvard.” She says that Harvard part twice, with rather telling emphasis for anyone who remembers that we last saw Noah leaving for freshman year at Harvard, putting him and Elle in a long-distance situation. And from King’s tone, there might be trouble in Noah-Elle-land.
That last part is a bit of a sore spot for King, who very recently went through a semi-public breakup with her co-star and onscreen love interest, Elordi. The life of a newly minted teen queen also comes with fans, who can often make certain personal struggles even harder. It was fans on Instagram who first started to investigate the status of the former couple’s relationship, digging for clues in what was and wasn’t being said on Instagram and Twitter. It was hard for King, because she says they simply wouldn’t let up.
“All you can really do at that point is shut your phone off and crawl into your sister's bed and watch Friends with her, because when you're going through something and the world wants to go through it with you or [wants] to get every piece of detail from you about it, it's really difficult. Some of these things are just meant for you,” she says, appearing to come down off her jovial high for the first time in our conversation. But even in the face of people obsessing over a very personal topic, King is compassionate, conceding that when she and Elordi were together, she shared their relationship, especially on Instagram, quite openly.
“I don't fault it, but it was a little difficult going through some of that stuff a couple months ago. Now I feel good, and they've calmed down a little, which is nice,” she says, adding that she knows that image fans saw of her and her ex complicates things. “They can't understand; they can't grasp, that reality could be completely different and completely not the same as what you see. So I think that the reason why it was really difficult for them to let up on it is because they just have a fantasy idea of someone else's life, when it’s not like that at all.”
That’s all she plans to say about it, she asserts, despite the way other celebs confront these looming relationship questions head on. “I think that the best way to make it go away is to just not acknowledge it,” she says with a laugh as her smile finally returns. “It was hard enough, so I had to sort of sit back and be like eh, whatever.”
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Generally, though, King says she’s trying not to let things like this bother her.
“What the hell am I going to do about it?” she says. As we chat, she picks through the aforementioned pickles, and “shovels” (her words) chicken salad. She shows me her phone and opens her Instagram app to demonstrate how she chooses what to post — she tries not to overthink it, and worries aloud that people who theme their pages too heavily might not be happy in real life. When I ask her about sharing her political opinions on Instagram — something she only started doing last November — she states that, while she did register to vote and does think everyone should, you know what? Voting is actually really hard. “If you're going to tell someone to go and vote, be prepared to walk them through the steps a little bit,” she reasons.
“All I can do is try and make the world a better place if I can,” she offers. “I may be in a position where I have a lot of eyes on me, but I'm still just a young gal living her life.”
But as she gets older (she turned 20 in July), King, who has tried out for thousands of roles, has noticed a change in the process of auditions. “You start to get discouraging feedback, the stuff that you don’t want to hear. I got that I’m not pretty enough, pretty recently actually. That’s just really fucked up,” she says with a wave of her hand. “It kind of hurts, but I didn’t cry when I heard that. I was like, well that’s stupid. I just kept going because I know it’s an unrealistic expectation. I don’t want to work for the person that thinks I’m not pretty enough. I have no desire to work for them, ever.”
Industry nightmares aside, King is, like she says, just a girl trying to live her life — whether that means posting photos of herself dressed as Voldemort (a celebration of her then-recently shaved head and her distaste for sexy Halloween costumes) or allowing her mother to keep up a birthday Instagram that includes several pictures of “sleeping Joey” (she can fall asleep anywhere) or debuting a role that may change her life.
“I just want to do everything I can to the best of my ability, but I never want to put pressure on myself.” Take her hair, for example, which has grown about three quarters of an inch from when she first lopped it all off. “I'd be down to keep it pixie cut for a while,” she muses, but ultimately, she’s not ready to set that destination just yet. “I guess we'll see when it starts to get there what I'll do.”