Sofia Vassilieva hadn't read Looking For Alaska before landing the role of Lara Buterskaya in Hulu's eight-episode adaptation of John Green's beloved debut novel. But it's not like she couldn't connect to the character who so vividly jumped off the pages of showrunner and executive producer Josh Schwartz's script.
Vassilieva, a first-generation American, could empathize with Lara's immigrant story; a Romanian student at Culver Creek Prepatory School, tender-hearted Lara just wants to make her parents proud. Falling for the new kid Miles (Charlie Plummer) was never part of the plan, but that's exactly what happens — despite the fact that he's harboring an infatuation with the story's titular character, the enigmatic Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth). The 26-year-old actor could relate to being in unrequited love, too.
Set in 2005, watching Looking For Alaska feels just as raw as reading it for the first time (a feeling that Vassilieva would eventually experience after reading the novel in the 48 hours after booking the role). The heartbreak and tragedy are still there, but the characters feel even more real. The world is fully realized and lived-in. And that, says Vassilieva, was Schwartz's vision come to life — 15 years in the making.
In our full conversation below, Vassilieva told MTV News about bringing Lara from page to screen, the compliment Green gave her on set, watching The O.C. for the first time, and listening to her mother's sage advice.
MTV News: Miles is obsessed with famous last words, so I have to know: What is something you're obsessed with?
Sofia Vassilieva: My 10-year-old self was obsessed with snails. I collected them, and I studied them, and I had a real-life terrarium in my bedroom. So I would set them out and see if the small ones moved faster than the big ones — sometimes they do! I would watch them change their shells. My parents are both scientists. Lately, I'm obsessed with plays. I always have a play with me.
MTV News: What play are you reading right now?
Vassilieva: Let me see what's in my bag. I have Wait Until Dark and Prelude to a Kiss, which were both made into really good movies.
MTV News: Are your parents a little disappointed you're not a scientist?
Vassilieva: Not at all. My parents were really amazing. They had me do everything. They came here with essentially nothing, but whatever financial means they had, they put them towards me. My dad put me in a lottery to get into a French school, and I got in. So I learned French. And then it was dance. Piano and sciences. They supported everything. But the real reason I'm not a scientist is because my mom said, "Don't marry a Russian and don't be a scientist."
MTV News: And here you are! Did you have a relationship with John Green's source material before you started production?
Vassilieva: I didn't have a relationship to the material, at least in a formal way. I think I had a relationship with Lara that I very quickly discovered. I knew who John Green was, and I knew his books were made into movies. I have a friend who is a young-adult fiction writer, and he loves John Green. So when I told him about this, that was the first time I understood the effect this book has on people. I quickly gauged what I was stepping into.
I read the book in a perfect way; when I first got the job, I read the first few scripts and then I read the book — and this was all two days after booking the job. I knew what Josh and Stephanie [Savage, executive producer] were after, and then having read the book after that it felt like I was reading almost the same thing but there was more life that got to be explored in the show, by virtue of being a show. It didn't feel separate, it didn't feel like a retelling. It just felt like the essence was there.
MTV News: And what is it that Josh and Stephanie wanted to accomplish with this project?
Vassilieva: They wanted to keep the essence of the book. That was their goal. As a viewer, you would get more story and more dimension that you would just reading the book. But the goal was to keep the world and keep the characters the same. That was also a goal for me. When you play a character from a book that millions of people have imagined, there's pressure, of course, but you have to find the heart. Once I found the heart of Lara, the pressure came off. And then John, at some point, was like, "You're playing her just as I heard her in my head."
MTV News: You had mentioned that you related to Lara initially. How so?
Vassilieva: Lara is close to me, as a person. She's from an immigrant family; I'm a first-generation American. So a lot of the honor and the responsibility that she feels for her family and being at Culver Creek and doing a good job to make sure that life looks a certain way — I have a similar sense of responsibility. There's a scene in Episode 4, where she's helping Miles out, and I was like, "OK. I know you and you know me." In that moment, there was this immediate understanding. That one scene will tell you everything about her. But I am actually very different from Lara as a person. I'm not quiet. I'm rambunctious. I think she feels outside a lot; she feels alone and not included, which I think we all relate to. We've all had people that we liked that didn't feel the same way, so in that regard I guess we all know her. But I'm certainly louder than her.
MTV News: I think all of the characters in this story feel very alone at some point, some show it differently than others. Alaska and Lara seem completely different on the outside — everyone is enamored by Alaska, and Lara tends to be more of a wallflower — but, internally, they both feel like outsiders.
Vassilieva: Had the world been a little different and had events worked out differently than they did on the show, I think Alaska and Lara would make really good friends. These are two women who are more similar than they realize. There was a lot of care taken, especially in the later episodes, to never make it catty between them. And it never was. It's just the way that things worked out. But their relationship never felt stereotypical.
MTV News: That's such a hallmark of Josh and Stephanie's work. Their young characters never feel stereotypical.
Vassilieva: I remember being on set, and this was before we got our final episodes, and Josh told me, "Don't worry, we'll do right by Lara." I was so comforted by that. Because when you do go into this material, there is a concern of being infantilized, or asking, "Will this have dimension?" But Josh and Stephanie care so much. They really have tapped into the part of the young psyche that they tell with such dignity.
MTV News: Were you a fan of Josh and Stephanie's work beforehand?
Vassilieva: I think I was of the generation of The O.C., but I hadn't discovered teenage drama yet. I don't think that hormone kicked in in time. So I kind of missed The O.C. A lot of us went back and rewatched it or watched it for the first time. We watched a lot of John Green movies, and we watched a lot of The O.C. But I was a Gossip Girl person myself. That bonded my entire freshman floor at college; I met one of my best friends that way.
MTV News: I love the scene of Miles and Lara watching The O.C.
Vassilieva: I love that you caught that! We planted that little easter egg.
MTV News: Do you see any similarities between the two shows?
Vassilieva: I think Looking For Alaska is like a high-end version of that in a way. There were only eight episodes, so the story was told with so much care. All of our directors were from the indie film world. And each director treated their episode like its own precious gem and not in service of anything else, which you don't always get with 22 episodes. Everything was so detailed, from the books in her room to Culver Creek. They had 15 years to plan for it, and they did an amazing job.
MTV News: So it's that craftsmanship that makes Looking For Alaska a bit different from other teen shows.
Vassilieva: I love that word, craftsmanship. Because I think that's what a lot of creatives do. But I also think it's the love — and craftsman have love for what they're doing it because they take their time. This did feel different. I didn't know if it was a movie or a show; it lived in both worlds.
MTV News: So you mentioned that you and your cast mates were watching a lot of The O.C. So what did you think of it when you finally watched it?
Vassilieva: This is my confession: I watched the first episode, and then we wrapped. I was a late bloomer to The O.C. So the jury is not out! I'm going to binge-watch this all until I get asked this question again in a week's time. So you will know in a week's time.