She’s done petrified (an abductee), introspective (an architecture aficionado), and solemn (a 1960s Jewish refugee). But outside of movies, Haley Lu Richardson is a little different.
“When I got Instagram, I just automatically started making poop jokes in the captions. It wasn’t really a question,” says Richardson on a recent phone call. Jetting across the country to promote two simultaneous premieres this week, she’s feeling exhausted and slightly loopy from cold meds. But it would be impossible to kill her high spirits.
“You know how some people become used to traveling a lot and working crazy hours and going, like, boom-boom-boom one right after the other? I’m not like that at all,” she says. “I really appreciate my me-time. Getting good sleep and eating healthy meals and having a routine. So I think that was just too much for my old, 23-year-old body.”
Of the two movies on Richardson’s late summer docket, the sunnier pick is Support the Girls, a slice-of-life comedy from former Mumblecore master Andrew Bujalski. The movie follows a team of women working at a Hooters-like sports bar called Double Whammies. Regina Hall stars as Lisa, the highway-side restaurant’s general manager, who has successfully morphed the raunchy business into a kind of warm, respectful sisterhood. Richardson plays Maci, a bubbly waitress who serves as Lisa’s star employee and perennial cheerleader.
Reflecting on the role, Richardson says, “Honestly it’s kind of closer to me than a lot of the characters I’ve played before, because I’m really loud and outgoing and just really positive. But also that kind of scares you, because I have to be more vulnerable in a sense. I’m showing something that’s even closer to who I actually am.”
“I don’t feel like I’ve really played the same girl or the same story twice,” she continues. “But a lot of them have been a little bit darker, a little bit sadder, more quiet, more internal, more still. So I feel like being big was closer to home. It was challenging to let myself do that.”
In terms of gravitas, Richardson’s other role—in Chris Weitz’s Nazi period drama Operation Finale—couldn’t be further on the spectrum. Alongside Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, Richardson occupies a small but crucial role as a young woman living in 1960s Argentina who takes up with Adolf Eichmann’s son despite the fact, unknown to her, that she’s actually Jewish.
Though there isn’t much documented about Eichmann’s son’s unwitting girlfriend, who is named Sylvia, she was nonetheless an actual historical figure—a brand of movie character that Richardson had never embodied before. And yet for her, the part didn’t shake out to be all that different from the rest: “It was honestly pretty similar to how I approach any other type of role, which is from an emotional, human standpoint,” she says. “I just had to imagine myself in her shoes, and then create personality traits about her that are different than mine and mesh that with things that I feel.”
Richardson speaks with thoughtful attention mixed with endless goofball energy. She’s deliberate about ending any moments that get too serious or precocious with a sprinkle of silliness. Her casual comic tone matches that of her Instagram, where she posts frequently to her nearly 260 thousand followers. “Contrary to popular belief- the second photo is actually the one I sent to my boyfriend,” she captioned a recent post that paired a coy, posed selfie with a shot of her contorting into a double-chinned Cheshire cat grin.
These days, and especially in Hollywood, high profile social platforms are heavily scrutinized. Every day, they become targets for vitriolic trolls and fault-finding fans. It might not seem groundbreaking for Richardson to tackle hers with self-exposing silliness, but in a digital landscape filled with surveilling eyes and photoshopped perfection, it takes a certain type of courage to just say screw it—though that’s exactly what Richardson does.
“As I’ve been acting longer in this whole industry—you can’t see me but I just used air quotes around ‘industry,’” she chuckles, “it presents me more of these people who are trying to be something that they’re not. Or editing themselves in a way that inhibits who they truly are. And that kind of thing makes me really sad to see. I feel like there are few things sadder than someone not feeling like they can express themselves. I try to just do things for me as opposed to for some sort of reaction, or for someone to look at me and like me or be like, ‘Oh she does this so we give her approval.’”
Until very recently, seeking approval—sometimes in abhorrent ways—was something that actresses often endured silently and obediently. Richardson’s rise has coincided with a more empowering age for Hollywood women, and it’s possible that her spark is indicative of a broader trend within a new generation. Still, comparing her acting experiences to those of her fiancé, Jane the Virgin star Brett Dier, Richardson reflects, “He’s had different struggles than me. I’m not going to say that his struggles are not as hard, but they’re different. There are circumstances where I’ve been treated differently because I’m a young, bubbly, excited, innocent actress.”
She adds, “And at the end of the day I just want to go home and feel completely confident in myself and what I’m doing and what my worth is. And the second you start putting importance in how other people view you, and what other people do to get their way, or how they speak to you or about you—that’s for me when I start getting lost.”
After supporting roles in 2016’s M. Night Shyamalan scarer Split and Hailee Steinfeld’s charming teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen, Richardson scored her big indie break in 2017 with Columbus—an astute coming of age centered around small-town architecture lover Casey. She’s a subdued character, shackled to her hometown by a dependent mother and other, more private anxieties. Where most coming of age dramas feature young women wanting up and out (Lady Bird is case in point), Columbus spotlights the complex case of a teen whose inclination is to stay put. Yet despite Casey’s intense interiority, Richardson makes her sparkle with wit and passion. However restrained, Casey’s spirit is always present.
When asked about her experience on the film, Richardson can’t stop gushing, particularly about the film’s director, Kogonada. “He’s like my best friend, genuinely. Like one of my favorite people in the world,” Richardson says.
Before writing and directing Columbus, Kogonada was known for his short video essays: scholarly film analyses that deconstructed the work of famous auteurs. “He’s the type of person who loves observing life, and I think that’s kind of a reflection of what the movie is—this observation of life and buildings and human emotions and how they all feed off of each other,” says Richardson. “It felt like a learning experience. I learned about cinema. I learned about these classic movies and different ways to interpret them. I learned about symbolism in cinema. I learned a whole book of tricks. I don’t know how I’m ever going to top it.”
That shouldn’t be too hard: even with a relatively narrow slate of films under her belt, Richardson has managed to kindle her charm within a varied roster of movies that, if it still existed, would be scattered around Blockbuster in every section—horror, period, teen, drama, comedy. So if she had her way, where would she go next?
“I would love to play, like, an alien,” she suggests, without missing a beat. “But if there’s some sort of grounded, well-rounded story, and a chance for me to explore a fully fleshed out character, that’s what I’m into. Or—oh! My hugest dream in the whole entire world is to play a contemporary dancer and be able to dance a bunch,” she says, harking back to her days before acting when she would train in the dance studio over 50 hours per week.
“Every time I say it out loud the universe has a chance to hear it. So go home and say it out loud in your room by yourself and next thing you know you’ll be interviewing me about a dance movie. Actually, an alien dance movie would be pretty cool. Oh shit. That just really gave me goosebumps.”