Chiara Aurelia played Jeanette Turner, a nerdy teenager, in Cruel Summer, one of the biggest surprises on television this year. When Kate Wallis, the most popular girl in high school, mysteriously vanishes without a trace, Jeanette prudently steps into her shoes, conjuring Kates’ friends, lover, and eventually, her entire existence. That doesn’t complete her character arc though; there’s more simmering beneath Jeanette. The non-linear screenplay toys with the timeline, allowing us to witness her character metamorphose with time — from being the kind and gullible teenager in 1993 to become America’s most hated person in 1995.
That’s a lot to chew, but Chiara embodies Jeanette skillfully, delivering a performance that drips repugnance and regret. Talking of her first impression of the script, she says, “I hadn’t read anything quite like it until then; from the time jumps to the evolution of the character, there was a lot about it that I found super exciting.”
In a peculiar move, the creators of the show abstained from revealing the series’ ending to the actors. “It was crazy!” Chiara says, sharing her experience of acting in the series without the faintest idea of the climax. “When I signed the show, I expected to find out the ending sooner. The showrunners, however, had other plans; they made us wait until the filming of the eighth episode before uncloaking the mystery for us. We became the audience and began investigating the puzzle together,” she says, adding that it was initially hard to find the pitch and tone of her performance. As the show wasn’t necessarily shot in chronological order, it was an added challenge. “We would lurch from shooting sequences from ‘95 in the morning to ‘93 in the afternoon and shoot a bit of ‘94 in the evening, depending on schedule.
It was a challenge for every actor and team member. Not only the perspective of every character but even the aesthetics and visual style also change drastically between these years. It was confusing at times, but once we got the hang of an ever-changing atmosphere, it was enjoyable.”Speaking of actors or performances that influenced her portrayal of Jeanette, Chiara says, “Drawing from the ‘90s setting, I was inspired by the performances of a young Winona Ryder, Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster, and so many other incredibly talented women out there.”
On a macro level, she adds that cinema was her first acting coach. “I learned the most from watching films; I have seen all the classics and I try to keep up with new films. I think it’s really exciting to watch a movie that rips your heart out or makes you happy. My favourite movie is The Wizard of the Oz starring Judy Garland. And I would love to be a part of a musical at some point!” Chiara says with a grin.
Several films in the past have been guilty of feeding the ‘nerdy teenager’ stereotype. Cruel Summer, too, underlines the difference between “nerdy girl” and the “popular girl” but its gaze is never pejorative. The writing, coupled with Chiara’s performance, beautifully humanises Jeanette. Chiara says that it was a conscious effort to elude the stereotypes.
“Stereotypes can be precarious. I strive to play multi-dimensional characters that show the world that there is more than one thing going on in our lives. I think it’s an important topic to touch upon. Jeanette is dorky, awkward, popular, sad, depressed, and pretty; she is everything. She is more than a simple picture of what a teenage girl should be like. Highlighting that on TV hopefully propagates the message to young people around the world that it’s perfectly alright to be confused and conflicted,” she concludes.