Mild spoilers are ahead. Freeform's Cruel Summer seems like the kind of project any young actor would dream of. The teen thriller sets up nuanced and thoughtful representations of womanhood, growing up, and the horrors of being a teenage girl in a way that feels rare for any television show, let alone one on the usually family friendly Freeform. For Harley Quinn Smith, bringing the rawly authentic best friend of both Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) and Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) to life was something she couldn't say no to.
"I like to describe it as the greatest challenge I've ever received, but also the greatest gift I've ever received," Smith told Refinery29 over the phone in late May. Online, the 21-year-old has been a vocal champion of the show, with most of her recent Instagram posts dedicated to promoting the project which is so close to her heart. And it's not just that she loves Cruel Summer itself, but that she found something truly special in the role of Mallory Higgins. "She's just so herself," Smith explained. "She's so up front, and she's so genuine and authentic. Personally, those are qualities I look for when making friends and finding a partner. I always really value authenticity, and Mallory is exactly that."
Cruel Summer's resident teen rebel Mallory is the rare character who truly inhabits both the worlds of Jeanette and Kate. In 1993, she's the former's best friend, but by summer of '94 she's beginning to bond with Kate after a chance meeting at therapy. By 1995, they're thick as thieves, which is a huge about turn from her introduction as Jeanette's BFF. Through it all, she's always ready with a biting quip.
Despite the fact that the character has gone from being Jeanette's closest confidante to being attached at the hip with the girl who ostensibly ruined her life, Smith believes at her core Mallory still has the same integrity and realness that drew her to the role. "It's interesting because in a lot of ways I think Mallory is still very much the true essence of herself. That doesn't really change throughout the years," she said, making sure to note that Mallory, like her fellow high schoolers, do become less and less innocent each year, "which is also true to being a teenager."
However, for those hoping to pin theories on Mallory, Smith can offer this clue: "Mallory does stay pretty true to who she is as a person, which I appreciate because she's just the same old Mallory under different circumstances, and in different times in her life. It's so interesting to get to play her in those different stages and when she's going through those different things."
While Mallory still has a series of those "different stages" to go through over the final few episodes —including potentially reckoning with her own part in Jeanette's connection to Kate's kidnapper's home — Smith is most eager for viewers to take something away from the show's exploration of undertold stories, like the relationship between Ben and Vince.
"Obviously, there are still struggles that the LGBTQ community has to go through now, but those were amplified in the '90s," she said, referring to the scene where Vince and Ben escape to a gay bar, because it's the only place they can exist as themselves. "That's a pretty accurate representation of what it was like for some people who were gay in the '90s, depending on where they lived and what communities they were a part of. Being gay in Texas in the '90s was definitely not a breeze."
Cruel Summer is at its best when shining a surprisingly nuanced light on topics like Ben and Vince's relationship, as well as topics like victim blaming, gaslighting, and grooming. "There are so many characters in the show, and every character is dealing with something different. It's not just that you have one main problem — with what Martin did to Kate — but every character has their own set of issues that they're dealing with," said Smith. So while Mallory is often around for the good times — and the great one-liners — Smith hopes that the breadth of tough topics she and her schoolmates are dealing with might help young viewers.
"The topics that we're dealing with are very real. They're very dark. They're very serious. And it was super important that those topics were handled correctly," the actor said. "Watching a show about something like grooming and pedophilia and abuse and kidnapping obviously starts a conversation, and having those conversations are so important to prevent things from happening like this in real life."