When I meet her, Lexi Underwood, 16, is sporting the quintessential ‘90s girl accessory: a black choker. Yet the actress — who starred as Young Nala in the national tour of The Lion King and has appeared on TV shows like Family Reunion and The Good Doctor — is not merely another stylish Gen Z star borrowing from the Instagram-trendy decade. Underwood is one of the leads of Little Fires Everywhere, a new Hulu limited series that takes place in 1997.
"My first wardrobe fitting, I told the costume designer ‘I’m living out my dreams of being a ‘90s teenager," Underwood tells me during Refinery29's visit to the Little Fires Everywhere set in Los Angeles. "I'm a '90s geek. I have a playlist for Pearl full of the music: She loves ‘Wannabe’ by the Spice Girls, 'Keep Ya Head Up,’ by Tupac, and ‘Killing Me Softly’ by the Fugees."
Based on Celeste Ng’s book of the same name and produced by its stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, Little Fires Everywhere explores the intersecting lives of the Richardson and Warren families. Underwood portrays Pearl Warren, daughter of Washington’s nomadic artist Mia.
Pearl is torn between her loyalty to her mother — whom she adores but blames for her life’s lack of stability — and the picture-perfect Richardson family, which includes teenagers Moody (Gavin Lewis), Tripp (Jordan Elsass), Izzy (Megan Stott), and Jade (Jade Pettyjohn).
At the head of the family is overly-involved suburban mother Elena (Witherspoon), who rents Mia her apartment in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and takes Pearl under her wing when she believes Mia is failing to parent properly. It soon becomes clear that the Richardsons have problematic motives for their newfound friendships with Pearl, which ultimately complicates Pearl’s new life.
“When people first meet Pearl, they may think she’s really naive, and innocent, and that she doesn’t have a clear understanding of the world around her. I think it’s the opposite,” Underwood tells Refinery29. “I think she knows what she wants. I think she knows that the Richardsons are using her, but that she’s playing her cards right, and maybe even doing the same thing to them.”
Though an ensemble series, Pearl is, in many ways, the center of Little Fires Everywhere’s most significant themes, such as identity. Pearl doesn’t know her father, and Mia won’t tell her about him — a mystery that looms over the entire season. The Richardsons, therefore, are an example of the “perfect family” Pearl never had. It's for this reason that Underwood thinks Pearl's coming of age story is so relatable, even if it does take place in 1997, when iPhones and Instagram weren't even close to a thing.
“Pearl sees this group of people that she thinks are perfect, but when you dig deeper not everything is as it seems. Nothing is ever as perfect as it looks,” she explains. “We can relate to that right now because, on social media, we see Instagram models and celebrities and we think their lives are so perfect. It’s about learning the lesson [that no one is perfect]. If how you’re living right now works for you, why change it?”
Underwood also notes that Little Fires Everywhere brings up issues that pertain to 2020 America — even if it does so against the backdrop of a cover of Marcy's Playground's 1997 hit "Sex and Candy."
“Even though it’s set in 1997, we’re talking about racism. We’re talking about LGBTQ+ rights. We’re talking about abortion rights, a woman’s right to choose, what that looks like. We’re talking about interracial couples. We’re talking about motherhood,” says Underwood. “Are you a good mother just because you carry a child? Are you any less of a mother because you adopted a child? Are you a fit mother even though you are not the same race as the child you adopted?”
Prepare for these questions to spark the fires of a whole lot of drama. Cue the Alanis Morissette.
The first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere stream March 18, 2020.