Elizabeth Lail talks life after “You” and vision for what’s next

PHOTOS / STYLING: Sarah Slutsky at Studio SES
ASSISTANT: Gina Brase
TALENT: Elizabeth Lail
WORDS: Jasmine Perrier

Elizabeth Lail is poised, warm, and caring. When You landed on Netflix in 2019, the 28-year-old actress could have not anticipated the huge impact the show would have on viewers and her career. Although she was convinced that “somebody should see this” and hopeful that she would tell a story that resonates. Full of gratitude for any success that ever comes her way, she is always ready to be challenged. Elizabeth sat down from Chicago for a Zoom conversation with me — she opened up about finding her way to acting, handling the spotlight, and tackling her next goals. 

After an unexpected call, Elizabeth picks up the conversation where we left off. At the time, the actress had just arrived in Illinois to continue filming a top-secret project she was doing in March before production was shut down. “I’m so grateful that we get a second shot at completing it because so many shows aren’t getting that same gift,” she says. While “it felt better than ever” for Elizabeth to go back to work, she highlights one of the silver linings of being in New York under lockdown. “It’s caused this surge of creativity. The restaurants created these beautiful outdoor dining areas on the street, and of course, everyone was clapping for the essential workers at 7PM — those little things are the magic of New York even under stress.”

Born in Texas and raised in North Carolina, Elizabeth remembers New York was her teenage dream as she wanted to pursue her theater aspirations. “I was in marching band, and we would go to New York and Chicago for trips. I wanted to live here and it’s closer to family. Now I’m afraid if I ever leave, I might not come back. It’s a hard city, but it’s so inspiring.” Coming from a small town where actors are rare, she feels “extremely lucky.” After trying every sport and after-school activity, Elizabeth started doing theater and met one of her best friends. “We were like 14, and she and I decided together that we were going to be actors — having someone else go through the journey with me is what really locked it in,” she explains. For her first job on television, Elizabeth was cast as Frozen‘s Anna on ABC’s Once Upon A Time. “I died and went to heaven right then and there, I’ve never experienced so much bursting joy in my life,” she says, with a smile. “I was really nervous, I felt like I still had something to prove. Whereas now I see it a lot more like a collaboration. And what’s funny is I can see myself get more comfortable as the episodes go on.”

Elizabeth’s lead role as Guinevere Beck in the first season of Netflix’s hit thriller series You marked another turning point in her career. Based on the novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, the show became a viral success for the streaming platform. “It’s pretty incredible to have fans and people watching your work all around the world,” Elizabeth starts. “What’s wonderful is that when you’re making a show, you don’t really know if anyone will watch it.” With that mindset, she dived deep into her character — an NYU grad student and aspiring writer who eventually becomes the love interest of Joe, played by Penn Badgley. “Inside of acting, it’s always vulnerable. My whole job is about removing the ego mask — you want to take your heart and put it out there for people to see.” She explains she wanted to make sure that her character would go beyond being “just” the girl. “What I’m realizing now is that so often people are hurt by their partners, so I think the story has some important takeaways in that sense. I hope that girls are being careful and not depending on social media to define them and/or attract their partner.” 

Whereas Beck’s fate appeared sealed at the end of season 1, the actress returned to make a guest appearance in season 2. “It’s exciting the show is doing so well and keeps going. I feel very grateful to have been a part of that first season because we set the foundation for it to keep blossoming.” On the post-You era and the sudden attention she got, the actress shares, laughing, “When I was flying to Chicago, someone was watching [You] on the airplane and I was just giggling to myself thinking, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ I do get recognized, but most of the time people are like, ‘You look so much like that girl from that show.’ I was in Italy a couple years ago, and somebody said my name and I was like, ‘Somebody here knows who I am?’ It’s funny. You just never know.” Despite her rising popularity, Elizabeth manages to keep her privacy. “I admire so many people who have taken [social media] and have been able to create something. I have not been able to do that, and for the most part, I try not to. I took it off of my phone because I just can’t control myself.”

“I still audition for almost all my roles,” Elizabeth adds. “You can’t get a big head. You have to go back to the basics every time, no matter who you are, I think.” Reflecting on her evolution, she looks ahead and recognizes every job is a new beginning and phase. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to be up and down my whole life. I’m just going to do the best I can, and keep showing up and learning from each challenge.” Watching great films and plays is what inspires her. “I just saw the French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire on the airplane. And I can’t stop thinking about it, that’s the power of a movie. I wanted to be a part of it.” On what she enjoys most about acting, Elizabeth says she is interested in exploring the human condition and creating more empathy in the world. “I don’t know what that says about me, [but] I would just weep when watching movies or [seeing theater with my parents].” On that note, she confesses she would love to play a historical character, as opposed to a full creation of a whole person. “So many of the great ones have already been taken and done so well,” she laughs. “I don’t know, we’ll see… The great thing about history is people’s lives continue to be fascinating and interesting. In 10 years, there might be a story that comes out from now, who knows.” Although Elizabeth is not yet allowed to talk more about her next project, she concludes, “It’s full of heart and soul. I hope it makes it out into the world and we can make something great.”

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