The Half of It is full of complex characters and relationships

Cold Tea Collective’s Natasha Jung sits down with Leah Lewis, star of Netflix’s new coming-of-age film, The Half of It.

We’re Leah Lewis’ fifth interview of the day, leading up to the premiere of the Alice Wu written-and-directed Netflix film, The Half of It. 

The Half of It is a modern-day “Cyrano” story. In the film, Lewis plays Ellie Chu, a shy straight-A student who helps Paul, a clueless high school football player, woo Aster Flores, the girl they both secretly love. 

To hear the complete interview, check out the full Pearls of Wisdom Podcast episode.

We start off our conversation with Lewis jumping onto the call, full of energy and waving to me as if we’re old friends who haven’t seen each other in a really long time (just how I imagine us all reuniting after we’re out of self-isolation). 

The 23-year-old Chinese-American actor is boisterous and very different from the character she plays in what we’re confident will be one of your favourite young adult films of the year, one which Lewis calls a coming of life story.

“It’s a coming of life story because we see Ellie as the main character of her life, but she desperately wants to not be the main character of anything as she navigates school under this hooded routine where she doesn’t communicate with people,” Lewis describes. 

Through this “Cyrano” triangle, we see Ellie really begin to experience and see her life through a new lens.

Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu in a classroom on the set of The Half of It
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

*Warning*: SPOILERS

Throughout the film, we see Paul accept Ellie in small but significant ways. Lewis recalls a particular scene as especially pivotal: the moment when Paul chases away Ellie’s bullies from calling her “Chugga-Chugga-Chu-Chu” in a racist dig at her last name. “For Ellie, it’s such a big moment because it’s the first time somebody sees her and sees how messed up that is.”

Whether it be through picking out a talent show outfit inspired by Ellie’s everyday wear, sharing information about a special vending machine dispensing yakult, or even developing an unexpected relationship with her father, Lewis explains Paul has Ellie’s best interests in mind: “Paul is not trying to change her; he’s just trying to pull her out of her shell a little bit and I don’t even think he realizes that – that’s the beauty of these two characters; they build off each other, and build off of unconditional love and acceptance.” 

By communicating with Aster through letters and texts, Ellie can really be herself and express her passions and interests, even if she’s pretending to be someone else. 

Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Collin Chou on. the set of Netflix's The Half of It
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Platonic soulmates

When asked about whether there was a specific relationship dynamic in The Half of It that she connected to the most, Lewis shares that she doesn’t have just one ‘Paul’ in her life, she has many. “I like to call them platonic soulmates, and it’s something Alice talks about a lot when explaining the importance of this film and the importance of platonic soulmates.” 

In particular, she describes a friend from high school, Cory, as one of the people in her life who saw her for her and her goals, and didn’t shame her for them.

“I have people in my life that are so honest, vulnerable, loving, and accepting that it creates such a safe place for me to be who I want to be, and every single person who has seen me for who I am and loved that anyway, that is what I drew from when it came from experiencing things with Paul and with Aster.”

On working with Alice Wu

Lewis had always dreamed of working on a film like this. 

“[Alice] is such a monumental part of my life and I would not want to experience it with anyone but her because her heart is the size of the ocean,” the star gushes. “She is an incredible, understanding, intelligent human being… she’s one of the coolest friends I’ve ever had. I love her and I love Ellie Chu.” 

Director Alice Wu and actor Leah Lewis outdoors during filming of The Half of It
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

If you ask Lewis what her favourite part of making this film would be, she’d tell you she can’t remember, as Wu’s directing encouraged her and her castmates to stay in the moment. 

“I almost don’t remember what happened because we were all so present for everything – it was an incredible, life-changing patch of my life because Alice kept us in the now. It was so beautiful.”

On learning about the LGBTQ community and herself

For writer-director Alice Wu, the film was deeply personal to her. “The first time I had my heart broken after coming out as lesbian was not by a girl, but by a guy,” Wu shares. “I used to think there was only one way to love. That A plus B minus C equals Love. Now that I’m older, I see there are so many more ways to love than I had ever imagined.” 

Director Alice Wu behind the camera during filming of The Half of It
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Wu’s guidance supported Lewis in her authentic portrayal of the struggles that LGBTQ youth and even adults face. 

With this film, Lewis hopes that the LGBTQ community can watch the film to see they are not alone and their stories are important.  

Despite being quite different from her character, Lewis says she learned a lot from playing the 16-year old girl. 

“Something I learned from Ellie is the beauty in the silence; the beauty in being observant; the beauty in being the wallflower and not necessarily having to be the center of attention, whereas I, as Leah, am very loud and love to talk.” 

Reflecting on this, Lewis admits that in many ways, her loudness is a way for her to mask the  insecurities she has. 

“I love that you can just be. Ellie taught me that.”

Learning about her culture as an adoptee

Born in Shanghai, Lewis was adopted at eight months old to parents from New York and Florida. Growing up, she never had a deep connection with her culture, but as she’s grown older, she has been encouraged and supported to find that “missing part” of herself. “With this film, Alice helped me understand more about my own culture, which was such a privilege.”

“My family tried very hard to keep the Chinese culture alive in my life with what little resources they had. I am so grateful that my parents didn’t [forget] the fact that I’m actually from China.” 

Lewis learned about the non-verbal communication in Asian families through how Ellie and her father move, and the way actions speak louder than words. While that wasn’t something she experienced in her own household, she recognizes the moments where it was easier to communicate through acts of love rather than words.

“No matter what nationality we are, we can all relate to what it’s like to be a teenager, going through the throes of adolescence and the struggle to communicate [with our parents].” 

 Leah Lewis and Collin Chou on the set of The Half of It
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

What Lewis hopes people take away from the film

“I hope that people watch the film and see a bit of themselves in some of these characters, whether it is a main character, or even the father or teacher,” says the star. 

“I hope people get the courage to make their own personal bold strokes in their life that make them feel good and get over their own hurdles.” 

A Pearl of Wisdom from Leah Lewis

“Wherever you are right now, you are enough, that is enough, and you don’t have to be any other thing that people say.” 

To hear the complete interview, check out the full Pearls of Wisdom Podcast episode.

The Half of It is now streaming on Netflix. Thank you to Leah Lewis, Netflix, and IW Group for arranging this interview. Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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People chatting at the Making It documentary screening.

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