Over the last year, Haley Lu Richardson has played the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who helps capture Adolf Eichman, a glitter canon-wielding breastaurant waitress, a teenager living with cystic fibrosis in the throes of first love, and now, silent screen legend Louise Brooks.
It’s a diverse resume, and one that reflects the versatility of a performer whose magnetic onscreen presence has marked her as one of Hollywood’s most promising young talents . At 24, Richardson is a scene stealer — and her latest project, The Chaperone, is the perfect showcase for that particular set of skills.
Michael Engler’s film, from a script by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, follows Louise Brooks as a teenager fresh off the train from Wichita to pursue a career in dance in New York City. Accompanying her is Kansas City society matron Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), who has her own reasons for traveling besides keeping her young charge in line. The trip proves life-altering for both, as Louise gets her first taste of the stardom that will define her future, while Norma seeks closure on the ghosts that haunt her past.
Playing a star of Brooks’ stature — even so early on in her career — requires a rare brand of charisma. But Richardson shines in her scenes, infusing this young performer with an enthusiasm and charm that hints at the liberated, seductive flapper that Brooks would come to coin in her 25 films. And it helps that the story felt more than a little familiar. Like Brooks, 16-year-old Richardson traveled from Arizona to Los Angeles with her mother in 2011, intent on pursuing a career in dance and film. She’s well on her way where the latter’s concerned, and has one or two ideas in mind for the former.
Ahead, Richardson tells Refinery29 about her own experience as a young actress, how Louise Brooks may or may not have inspired her to propose to fiance Brett Dier (Jane the Virgin), and why she’s so bummed she’s not in Fosse/Verdon.
Refinery29: You play Louise Brooks at the very beginning of her career, just as she’s starting to develop her iconic persona (and haircut). How did you relate to her?
Haley Lu Richardson: “What I connected to most was that journey that her and Norma go on, and what they learn from each other throughout their time together. Because it’s kind of parallel to what I experienced with my mom. I’m from Arizona and we moved out to L.A. for me to become a dancer and actor when I was 16. And she’s my mom, and my best friend, but she was like my chaperone character. To this day, my mom and I — that experience is such a big part of our relationship, and who we are now. Because of the things that we learned from each other in those couple of years spent when I was trying to figure out what the heck L.A., and acting, and Hollywood-world was all about. That kind of bond, that thing that you share with that person when you’re at this pivotal moment in your life, honestly was the thing I connected to most about the script.”
Was she the first historical figure you’ve played?
“I got to be in this movie that Chris Weitz directed last year called Operation Finale, and that’s based on real people and real events, but this was a totally different type. The character that I played in that movie, [Sylvia Hermann], there was no information on her on the internet, and nothing to learn from. But Louise Brooks was this public figure, she was famous, there was a lot to research and read. The thing that was most telling to me about how to connect to her was [through] her famous quotes. Because they’re so different than all the other female Hollywood movie stars in the 20s.”
Early Hollywood legends can feel very inaccessible to our generation. How is Louise Brooks different?
“The kinds of things she cared about, and didn’t care about, were just so specific to her, and were so before her time. She was so sexy, but not in a way of having her boobs falling all over the place. She was kind of like one of the guys. I read in her autobiography — actually in the brief moment when she mentions her chaperone at this time in her life, which is what the book was then inspired by — she says they went to see a play or musical, and the main star was amazing, and had the whole audience clapping and cheering for her, and she didn’t smile once. Louise Brooks at a young age was inspired by that, and thought I don’t have to desperately try to make people love me. I can just be myself, and the people that matter, and the things that matter will kind of happen.
“But I think also, because of the things that she went through and the pain she had inside of her, there were also kind of darker things in her past that a lot of people didn’t know about. But I think that’s kind of true with a lot of people who change the world, or have revolutionary ideas and ways of thinking. That kind of genius sometimes comes from pain. There was a lot of that with her.”
The movie shows Louise as someone who loved to challenge social convention. You made headlines last week when you said you were the one to propose to your boyfriend Brett Dier. Is there a connection there?
“I forget if I proposed before or after I shot this movie. I think life’s about doing whatever you feel in your heart in the moment, and that’s what I did with that. I’m actually curious to know whether I did that after I did the movie or not. I kind of forget in this moment. When I’m done talking to you I’m going to go back and figure out. Maybe I was subconsciously inspired by her confidence.”
Norma gives Louise a lot of advice. Does your mom do the same?
“My mom gave me so much advice! What mom doesn’t? You know what my mom does? My mom has read almost every single script that I’ve ever been offered or sent. And even back then, when they were — I don’t know what kind of scripts I was getting back then, like a one liner guest-star scene, or a small role in TV movie or something, she read all of them, and would give me her advice on whether I should do it or not. She stills sends me emails called “Mom’s Two Cents,” and she sends them with all of her thoughts.”
That’s so cute!
Yeah! I have thousands of “Mom’s Two Cents,” emails. It’s always in capital letters in the subject line, “MOM’S TWO CENTS.”
You should put them all together for her someday.
“I know, make a big compilation of some kind. Yeah, that would be really sweet.”
Like Louise, you have a dance background. You once said that you want to bring dance movies back into the mainstream — did you have a favorite one growing up?
“The problem is, I don’t think there are enough contemporary ones. I could go back and watch really old movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and people of that time, that have amazing dancing, but there aren’t now, mainstream movies that are in color with dance used in a way of storytelling. So, growing up, I didn’t really have a favorite dance movie. I watched So You Think You Can Dance, I’ve seen every single season and every single episode since I was like, 5. And I’ve watched all the Step Up movies — at least, the first couple, I don’t know how many there are now. I watched Black Swan. And all the times where actors who aren’t dancers play dancers in a movie, I’ve seen. But that’s not really the same thing as a dancer in a movie, and the story being told through dance. Dance somehow got dropped from the whole triple threat thing that people love to watch, and experience.”
You must be excited for Fosse/Verdon!
“I wanted to be in it! I tried, but there wasn’t really a character that was right for me. I’m kind of bummed I’m not in it, but I can’t wait to watch it.”
Still, you’ve had a really wide range of roles, from 2016’s Edge of Seventeen to 2018’s Support The Girls, and Five Feet Apart earlier this month. Do you feel more empowered to choose the projects that you want to participate in?
“Yes. I definitely feel like it’s moving in that direction. It’s been kind of a slow build for the last six years. It’s been a gradual thing. I definitely am thankful, because I feel now more than ever — and obviously, I still have a long way to go — I’m able to be more picky. And even if I shouldn’t be as picky as I’m being, I just am, because I realize about myself that I really don’t want to spend months devoted to some project that I’m not whole-heartedly invested in and truly excited about. I’ve been patient, and trying to find whatever I’m going to do next. I don’t want to get burned out by work, and acting, and different projects, because it’s what I love to do. I want to do it until I die one day, probably. When I’m a hundred-something years old.”
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.