Major, major spoilers for Panic on Amazon Prime are ahead. Jessica Sula is watching the Fast & Furious 9 trailer. I am also watching the Fast & Furious 9 trailer. Technically we’re watching the trailer together, over Zoom, on a May afternoon in our respective L.A. apartments. The lessons of lockdown. “Did he just stop a car with his bare hands? This is what Panic needs to be. We need to start flying,” Sula — who plays Panic’s enigmatic Natalie Williams — happily chirps in her soft British accent, watching the upcoming semi-superhuman shenanigans of the Fast and the Furious family unfold over the clip. “Panic needs jets. We need monster trucks.”
Panic does feel like a distant teenage relative to America’s most endearingly overblown franchise. Amazon Prime’s summer series is led by a pack of “average” Texas teens who approach running over a precarious plank in the sky as a mild inconvenience (or all-out joy) and fight tigers when necessary, all in the name of winning local summer game Panic. Then there are the all-seeing Panic judges, who are able to puppetmaster a months-long death-defying game with constantly heightening stakes, monitor contestants, and ensure chilling symbol-laden riddles pop up all over their town of Carp. “They’re geniuses! They all need to go to Harvard or some shit like that. They need to work for the government,” Sula proclaims.
As she herself points out, the Fast crew similarly just so happens to go from “low-grade criminals” to individuals “now trusted by the government.” Sula continues, “Ludacris! [His character, Tej] goes from a chop shop to being an international hacker.”
When you zoom out, you realise Sula’s Natalie may just be the Ludacris (or, fine, Tej) of Panic. Because Natalie — best friend to Panic heroine Heather Nill (Olivia Welch) and determined dreamer — isn’t quite as simple as she may initially seem. Natalie is a Panic judge. Natalie is the unseen hand guiding all the discord of the game. It’s a twist that scrambles everything viewers understand about Natalie’s Panic motivations… and also clarifies them. Sula’s journey as Natalie pushed her out of her comfort zone — and into a land of growth and many Panic theories.
Sula admits that the possibility of Natalie being a Panic judge was an outcome “that went back and forth” throughout production. “Sometimes I would be filming something and I would think, ‘Oh! This is no problem that I’m doing this,’” Sula — whom you’ve previously seen in everything from teen phenomenon Skins to Netflix Western Godless — begins. “Then I would be told I’m a judge. And I would say, ‘That thing we just filmed makes Natalie look like a huge bitch!’”
Panic is littered with moments that nod to Natalie’s riveting chaos as the ruler of her peers’ fates. At the beginning of the series, Natalie makes a pact with Heather to play the game together. Then Natalie locks Heather in a tunnel during a break-in challenge, nearly ensuring her “friend’s” Panic elimination. In a later challenge, Natalie thoroughly bad mouths Heather on camera, criticising her work ethic and chances of winning the game. Considering the fact that Natalie is a judge, she is the one who ensures Heather sees the video in “Returns.” Still, later in the episode, Heather is allowed back in the game by the judges (aka Natalie!). Penultimate episode “Cages” confirms Natalie’s judge status by showing viewers her creepy Panic-style burn book. “If you get through this one, Heather, you’re headed to Joust,” she mumbles to herself.
Only someone who’s in love with you would behave like that.
“I just had to invent a motive for myself, which was that I was doing everything I could to help out Heather, no matter how dysfunctional it would come across. I actually think Heather and Natalie should be together … Only someone who’s in love with you would behave like that,” Sula explained of Natalie’s “desperate” actions. “I would sort of play [the Heather relationship] as something Natalie’s also attracted to. Like, has a crush on. But it’s too far down the road now, so now she’s just the best friend.”
It’s likely Sula’s performance will push viewers to talk about more than shipping and batshit twists. In the premiere episode, she strips down to an orange bikini showing off a physique that is womanly and healthy, a far cry from the frighteningly thin frames — which only reinforce dangerous beauty standards for young viewers and performers alike — that YA projects tend to favour in leading ladies. Sula calls any positive reinforcement on the scene “a huge boost of confidence,” because it wasn’t that easy for her to film.
“I knew that this scene was coming up,” Sula says solemnly. “I was like, Why couldn’t I look like my mum?” Sula’s mother, Shurla Blades, is a “5’8 Caribbean gorge lady” to quote her daughter. Sula theorises she inherited her own shape from her maternal grandmother, continuing, “It is very normal. It’s weird how [on-screen] it’s not normal. People will tell you the strangest things.”
Rather than lean into negative self-talk over matters like filming in a bathing suit, Sula has spent lockdown investing in self care. She preaches the importance of therapy and is seeing a nutritionist, who is less of a meal planner and more of a coach providing ways to avoid punishing oneself around food. The actor is also enjoying films from the ‘60s and ‘70s, where “there was a lot more room to look a lot more natural” in cinema. Sula’s acting touchstones are beautiful Black women like Halle Berry, Robin Givens, and “the late, great” Cicely Tyson, as she says. For a bit of fun, Welsh-born Sula has been learning French from a fellow “mixed,” European expat in Los Angeles.
Sula lights up when Los Angeles’ presence in Panic comes up later in the conversation. Throughout the show, Natalie repeatedly mentions her intent to move to the City of Angels after the summer. In his final scene of season 1, Dodge asks Natalie to meet and shows her his new motorcycle. It seems obvious Dodge is going to suggest ferrying Natalie to L.A. on the bike after a season of betrayals.
“I was hoping for that, too,” Sula confirms. Instead, Dodge drives off into the sunset alone, leaving Natalie in Carp. “Filming that scene was really funny, because he’d be like, ‘Bye!’ I would be like, ‘Whatever,’” she continues, laughing that sometimes she “fucking hated” Dodge, who repeatedly pushes Natalie away throughout Panic. “If my friend was into a guy like Dodge, I would advise them, ‘Let him go! Let. Him. Go,’” she adds. At least Sula and co-star Mike Faist “liked each other so much in real life” that their connection gave the on-screen pairing the sizzling tension required for a sultry teen mystery.
While Dodge and his “serious behind,” as Sula very Britishly complained, won’t be Natalie’s convoy to Los Angeles, her portrayer has every confidence she’ll get there one day. “My advice to Natalie would be: Take it easy. You might not get everything at the beginning. But there will be some ups, along with the downs … It’s more of a marathon, really, trying to stick around and do things,” she explains, looking back on her own 11-years-and-counting career.
“Natalie’s probably going to work in a shop or a restaurant. Maybe get a couple of callbacks,” Sula concluded. Someone will be casting Fast & Furious 15: The Red Planet by then, won’t they?