By Crystal Bell
Less than a minute into our conversation, Leah Lewis tells me how she's been taking care of herself — "mentally and physically" — while quarantining in her Los Angeles home. It's late April, and the usually benign question of "how are you doing?" is now a loaded phrase that means, in essence, "how are you coping?" The 23-year-old star of The Half of It assures me she's been eating a lot (she and her boyfriend challenge each other to cook-offs in the kitchen), reading a lot (she's currently in the middle of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood), calling a lot (she talks to her best friend and co-star Alexxis Lemire at least "five times a day"), and painting her toenails a lot. She journals every day, a hobby she’s kept for most of her life, but finds it especially helpful amidst this prolonged period of social distancing from friends and family.
It gives her a sense of routine and purpose, which she also maintains with a daily home workout plan. Booty Blast class on Saturdays. Arms and abs on Wednesdays. "When this whole thing began I was a little down on myself," she tells MTV News over the phone. The feeling is familiar, given many people say quarantine has taken a toll on their mental health. But then, she says, "I started to look forward to doing something every single day."
If only Ellie Chu could see the world through Lewis's eyes. In Alice Wu's The Half of It, Ellie doesn't have much to look forward to. She's intelligent and wildly witty, with a cunning entrepreneurial spirit (she's a writer for hire among her classmates), and yet the high school senior has no plans to leave the rural town of Squahamish — no matter how much she hates it. She feels obligated to stay for her widowed Chinese father, who struggles to communicate with small-minded townspeople. But she's also scared. She's a queer first-generation immigrant who's barely come out to herself. She's uncomfortable in her own skin. How is she supposed to exist in the world by herself when she doesn't even know herself yet?
It's a feeling with which Lewis could connect, even in her twenties. "By being able to be Ellie Chu, I was able to start to love the quieter parts of myself," she says. I'm currently working on self-love and learning how to embrace the parts of me, at 23, that maybe I'm not a huge fan of. There's always room for growth because situations are constantly changing around us. Things change and you learn to adapt, and I think it's a really beautiful thing."
Helping Ellie on her journey of self-discovery is Paul (Daniel Diemer), a dopey jock who also happens to be head over heels for the school's cool girl Aster Flores (Lemire). He convinces Ellie to join his scheme to "get the girl" without realizing that she's also hopelessly in love with Aster. But this isn't your typical love story. For starters, Ellie and Paul's unlikely friendship is the heart of the film, and as they become closer, it's easy to see how Paul starts to misread the situation. Yet, The Half of It isn't concerned with who gets the girl.
"It's not about romance," Lewis says. "These characters are learning how to love for the first time. There literally is no rule book or guide on how to love. That is why this is a love story, because people are figuring out what that means for themselves and how to do it in a way that feels good for them and for others. Love doesn't always end with finding your other half, but your other half could be friendship. It could be finding your way back to your family. And it could be finding your own unique voice."
It's what made Wu's screenplay so relatable to her. Lewis has been nurturing her personal perspective as an actor since 2006. As a child, she'd perform scenes from her favorite television shows and movies in her family's living room. She started booking commercial work and signed with a talent manager at 7 years old, regularly flying from Gotha, Florida, to Los Angeles with her mother. She liked to sing, too — and Disney was her muse. "I remember sitting my family down and being like, 'OK, now I'm going to act out a scene from Sleeping Beauty and you guys are all going to watch me,'" she says with a laugh. She brought that same plucky energy to L.A. when she moved coasts a few years ago, channeling that confidence into her audition for The Half of It. However, it wasn't her boldness that landed her the part — that clashed with Wu's vision of the character; it was her willingness to dig deeper.
"When I first came in I thought I had Ellie in the bag. I played her cute and quirky, a little more like Lana Condor in To All The Boys I've Loved Before," she recalls. "She was a little more upbeat and aware of herself." Wu reeled her in. "Ellie is an observer, a wallflower. So Alice helped ground my performance. She encouraged me to be more present. She literally pulled a side out of me that I didn't even know existed. I was like, 'Dude, we shot a movie, and I'm brand new.'"
The process of working with Wu and playing Ellie, an outsider who's as estranged from herself as she is from her peers, led Lewis to think about her own coming-of-age experience and the depictions of youth and Asian identity she had grown up consuming. In fact, it wasn't until watching 2018's Netflix hit To All The Boys I've Loved Before that she saw an Asian-American teen be the "center of her own story." Now, with Ellie Chu, she gets to highlight a much different experience of what it's like to grow up in smalltown America. "Alice showed me another side of what it's like to be an Asian American," she says. "It's the fact that this character is not just the best friend and she's not just the smart girl who writes everyone's papers at school. This is a fully-fledged human being whose story needs to be told."
Still, the idea that you ever stop growing up is a short-sighted one. The relationship you have with yourself is a marathon, not a sprint. "I'm honestly going to be 90 and still figuring things out," Lewis jokes. Then, she pauses. "I've been really trying to be gentle with myself when it comes to my insecurities. I'm learning how to become a better friend to myself. I've been focusing on doing things that make me happy.”
Things like journaling, calling her sister, reading, cooking (she recently made an "incredible" shrimp pasta), working out, and soaking up the sun in the little nook on her patio. This is how she stays present, focused, and ready for tomorrow. “I don't know what the future holds,” she concludes, “but I'm definitely living for today and just trying to grow as much as possible in the moment."