If you're curious about how much culture has shifted over the past 20 years, just compare the teen films of the aughts with the ones being released now — what was once a genre known for slapstick comedy has evolved into a realistic and even gritty portrayal of how grueling it can be to be a teen.
"Teen drama and teen films have never been something that I always enjoyed, because I didn’t get anything out of them," she exclusively tells BuzzFeed over the phone, which is, perhaps, ironic considering that she is also the star of a very popular teen drama, Riverdale. For Lili, that's because "they weren’t realistic." "It was just entertainment and I wasn’t taking away anything from them," she explains.
Her latest film, in which she stars alongside Austin Abrams, is especially heavy. Without giving away any spoilers, Lili plays Grace Town, a bright student who captivates her classmate Henry Page's attention but is working through some serious grief and trauma. The film is larger than their relationship, though; it's also a meditation on what it means to be living and struggling through your teen years, and how challenging that is.
"It’s not all about high school. It’s not all about having a heartache and your mom telling you it’s going to be okay," as the 23-year-old explains. "Like, no, teen heartache is a very real thing, and a lot of times it’s invalidated a bit by adults or other teens."
In the Q&A below, Lili opens up about how she drew from her grief and loss in her own life to play the role, her advice for finding inner peace, and why she might now be ready to move on from playing a teen.
In Chemical Hearts, Grace has a safe place she goes to, where she feeds koi fish. Do you have a place like that in your life?
I feel like my safe place isn’t even a place. It’s me texting my mom. But a lot of times I go to the ocean — or just into nature. During this pandemic, I’ve gone to this one specific park to take my dog out and throw him a ball. I’ve come to appreciate how much nature puts me at peace. So I can relate to Grace. She’s fully inside a building but connecting to a fish, something that grounds her. Being in nature, like a forest or at the beach, you see these things that just keep going; they’re beautiful pieces of our world that don’t have anxiety and aren’t involved in all the bullshit. It’s really grounding.
Is writing another way that you stay mentally centered?
Yeah. I’ve been journaling a lot. I definitely journal to help me process my own emotions. I start writing out of anxiety. If I have anxiety, I know I need to write in my journal. If I have a phrase or conversation that’s circling in my head, I go to my journal to write it out. As I’m writing, I’m putting the pieces together. So I do find it very cathartic.
I’m like Henry in the sense that I don’t find myself to be too articulate when I’m speaking. I’m putting the pieces together when I’m talking and still figuring it out as it’s coming out of my mouth. I need to write things down and look at them and process them.
You have a book of poetry coming out, and obviously, poetry — Pablo Neruda’s work, specifically — is central to this film. How much did your personal poetry overlap with this role?
I went to a tiny bookshop before I went to film this movie and picked up a book of poems about grief and loss. That’s something I had on set with me every day to get me in the headspace. Poetry is obviously so beautiful, and I can easily lose myself in it, so having that with me on set was a way of keeping myself in the right frame of mind. Then I definitely wrote poetry throughout filming. I had my laptop with me, and I would write at the end of the day if I felt the urge. They’re sad. It’s about heartache because that’s what I was inherently feeling while I was playing Grace. A lot of good, heart-wrenching poems came from that experience.
Was there one poem you’d go to the most?
I hate to say no, but I don’t think so. I bookmarked pages, but I wouldn’t go back and read them. But I did buy a book of Pablo Neruda’s poetry and read that one poem quite a bit. I also watched a lot of really depressing, intense films while I was shooting in order to get me into a darker frame of mind.
What films were you watching?
I watched We Need to Talk About Kevin, Love by Gaspar Noé, The Florida Project, Manchester by the Sea, and Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Those will keep you in a somber frame of mind, that’s for sure.
It’s interesting you brought up the word "dark," because over the past decade or so, there’s been a shift in teen films. They’ve gone from this comedic place to a darker place, or just a more real place.
I love that. Teen drama and teen films have never been something that I always enjoyed, because I didn’t get anything out of them. They weren’t realistic. It was just entertainment, and I wasn’t taking away anything from them. My favorite movies are the ones that had an impact on me emotionally, like, "Oh that means something to me." It stuck with me for more than five minutes after it ended. So I really do appreciate that teen films are starting to show a more realistic portrayal of what it means to be young and in love, because it’s not all about high school. It’s not all about having a heartache and your mom telling you it’s going to be okay. Like, no, teen heartache is a very real thing, and a lot of times it’s invalidated a bit by adults or other teens.
Some of the worst heartbreak you ever go through is when you’re young, because you’re experiencing it for the first time and it’s so new and you don’t know how to navigate it and you don’t know how to make yourself feel better. When you show those sides of being young, it makes it easier to be a teenager. It makes it more of a comfortable environment to be like, "It’s okay that I’m feeling this. I don’t need someone to come and tell me to snap out of it, because that’s not the solution here." You should 100% be able to feel how you feel.
I really love Suds and Henry’s relationship in the movie because she doesn’t tell him to suck it up. She tells him what’s going on in his head, not that he wants to hear it. She just says, "Hey, it does get better, and I’ve been exactly where you’ve been." It comes from a place of understanding rather than trying to teach lessons.
Absolutely. You really hit the nail on the head as far as how strong every emotion is when you’re a teen because you are feeling it for the first time. What was your “in limbo” phase like when you were a teen?
I was in limbo until recently. It’s been hard for me… Being in limbo for me is feeling like my feet are never fully planted on the ground. I never felt fully comfortable with where I was at in life or with myself, especially as a teenager. I had to move away from my hometown, where I was born and grew up, when I was 16. So I had to uproot my life, and that completely threw me for a loop. I went through an awful depression where I just felt like, "Who the hell am I? Am I chasing the right dream? Am I going to have the right goals? Why don’t I have as many friends?" There were a lot of questions that I was asking myself that I was expecting the world to answer. I wasn’t just accepting things for where they were; I was waiting for things to get better. I think that’s a bad way of going about life. You’re going to constantly be in limbo if you’re looking for someone to come solve your problems. That’s something that I realized even recently.
You hear the stereotypical, "You’ll find happiness within yourself." But it’s so true, and when I was 16, I was waiting for my career to take off so I would be happy. I was waiting for all of these things to be happy instead of actually finding it within myself, which is how it works. You can’t ask a Prince Charming to come in and make your life better. It’s very much a process that happens within you. I think the teen limbo concept is understanding that.
That’s really good advice, through your answer. As for this role, and Riverdale, of course, what do you love most about playing a teen?
I really appreciate the fact that Betty is a very emotional character. I cry a lot on that show. I have a lot of emotions on that show. Obviously, as a teenager I was, and I still am, a very emotional being.
I think I might be done playing teenagers. I don’t know how much longer in my life I’ll be playing teenagers, but I’m grateful to have been able to play them because I like to bring that element of being emotional and vulnerable — and, especially with Grace, not being so put together, not being popular, or glamorous; just being someone who’s living in their own world as an outsider and unsure of her place now that she’s lost the person she loves. The confusion and pain you go through when you’re a teenager is nice to play because it feels real.
Does it ever get exhausting emotionally to go through that every day?
When I was filming Chemical Hearts, I was truly having the best time. In the moments when I was sobbing, crying, and feeling emotional, I was still enjoying myself because what better way to express how you feel than through art? When you’re seeing me cry, I’m crying about something real. I use my own experiences when I act. Some people don’t because they say not to bring your own experiences into acting — that’s just a method they use. But I always have; that’s how I get the most real emotion. I’m going to pull from my own experiences of grief and loss. So it can definitely be exhausting, but it’s also cathartic and healing in a way.
I like crying. It feels good and I feel better after it happens. I almost think of crying as every time you cry, you’re letting go of some sadness that was inside of you. So I find it therapeutic. I’m always down for some crying scenes. They’re intimidating, but they’re very gratifying when you achieve the emotion you’re going for.
Do you have a dream next role?
My dream is to be in a period piece. I would love nothing more than to play someone in the 1800s or 1900s. I feel like that would be so cool. I’ve always loved period pieces. Some of my favorite movies ever are period pieces like Marie Antoinette — sign me up.
I hope that happens for you.
Me too; I really do.