Jade Pettyjohn wasn’t alive in 1997, but after walking in Lexie Richardson’s platform Steve Madden sandals, feeling the pull of a bulky scrunchie at her scalp, and individually dubbing more than 200 mixtapes as wrap gifts for the cast and crew of Little Fires Everywhere, she considers herself an “honorary ‘90s kid.”
In Hulu’s serialized adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel, the majority of which takes place in 1997, the 19-year-old plays suburban teenage good girl Lexie, the eldest daughter of Elena (Reese Witherspoon) and Bill Richardson (Joshua Jackson). But while Pettyjohn and her ‘90s counterpart may share a love of butterfly clips and The Real World, that’s where the commonalities end.
The Hulu star’s own high school experience was hardly the stuff of pep rallies and after school visits to the mall. She grew up on sets, singing and dancing Glee-style in Nickelodeon’s School of Rock series, doing school work between scenes, spending “probably a week out of the year” in her actual L.A. high school. “I felt like I went through all of the high school experiences that you have in life,” Pettyjohn tells InStyle, just “not necessarily in a classroom.”
Pettyjohn and I were originally supposed to meet in person, but self-isolation guidelines put in place amid the coronavirus outbreak make that impossible. Instead, we speak on the phone. Across the line and across the country, her enthusiasm is still palpable. “Oh my God!” she gasps before answering certain questions, genuinely excited to be speaking about her work. If she harbors any cynicism bred from a childhood in Hollywood, I can’t hear it.
But sunny demeanor aside, Pettyjohn doesn’t sugarcoat anything about her often close-minded LFE character. She aptly describes Lexie as “the epitome of privilege,” shrewdly observing, “She's not someone you root for, but you can understand her.”
Read on below as Pettyjohn talks her famous moms (three of Big Little Lies’s “Monterey Five” have mothered her onscreen), her ‘90s style icons, and the Green Day anthem she thinks best describes Lexie Richardson.
InStyle: You've worked with so many major names in the industry at this point — Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and so on ... Is there anyone you consider a mentor of sorts?
Jade Pettyjohn: I think the majority of the women that I've worked with I consider mentors — on Little Fires Everywhere specifically. Both Reese and Kerry Washington took on that role for me in such a generous and giving way. And watching them in their element and collaborating with them is a masterclass in its own right — as an actor, as an artist, and an executive. But I also just learned really and truly how to be a woman in this industry with them. And that was such a beautiful thing and I think it was such a beautiful thing for them to reach out a helping hand in that way, because you don't have to.
You play Reese's daughter in Little Fires Everywhere, and you look so much like her — the casting on that show is amazing. Have you met her real-life daughter, Ava [Phillippe]?
I have, yeah. Ava actually came in and took photos of the homecoming episode [“Seventy Cents”] of us. She's such a sweetheart and, like her mom, she's like such an incredible artist and creative human being in her own right.
Speaking of onscreen moms, you've also played Nicole Kidman's daughter and Laura Dern's daughter, both of whom played moms on Big Little Lies alongside Reese. Out of their three characters on the show — Renata, Celeste and Madeline — who would you most want as your real life mom?
Oh my God. They're all amazing and not amazing at the same time. Man, I would want elements of all of them. I mean, I think Renata's pretty amazing, but I also really love Celeste. I also love Madeline. They're all really incredible. I think character-wise though probably a mix between Celeste [and] Renata. “I will not, not be rich!” Oh my God, it's iconic.
The show is set in 1997. What '90s trends were you most excited to wear and were there any that you really were not looking forward to wearing?
I was very excited to dive into the '90s style. I thought it was a lot of fun to develop that with our costume designer, Lyn Paolo. I think my favorite piece that I wore was the classic Steve Madden sandals of that time. And Steve Madden actually recreated the mold of that shoe from 1997 specifically for my character.
I just felt like whenever I wore those shoes, I became Lexie. They were very hard to walk in, but they were Lexie, you know what I mean? And I just felt like I was an honorary '90s kid. I loved the butterfly clips and all of that. Those were a lot of fun. And it’s interesting, I think that style is so recycled, so a lot of this stuff you see in everyday life today. These trends are just coming back, like the high-waisted mom jeans and all of that. It definitely comes full circle.
For sure! Who would you say is your '90s style icon?
Honestly, young Reese. I loved her style in the '90s. I thought she was amazing, but I also loved Drew Barrymore’s style at the time, it was just a little bit edgier. The flowers in her hair … I thought that was so amazing and iconic. So probably a mix between those two.
Not having been part of the '90s yourself, how did you prepare to play a character who was a teen at that time? Did you watch any classic '90s teen TV shows — Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Boy Meets World, anything like that?
Yeah, I did. I listened and watched all the things that were referenced in the book, and music was a really big thing for me. I love music and I wanted to listen to not only the things that I liked from that time period, but what Lexie, my character, would listen to specifically. So I'd create playlists for her. I would watch movies that I thought she would really like that would have come out around that time. And then TV shows like Real World and [The Jerry Springer Show], which was definitely a shock for me [laughs].
I did! So that is what made me feel like I'm actually from the '90s. I feel like I can say that confidently now because I got tape decks and I couldn't have 200 mixtapes ordered for songs that I don't have the rights to, but I can make them myself, as gifts. So I had to like hand dub 200 personalized mixtapes that were all '90s themed. And every character had a song specifically for that character and like a Shaker Heights song. It was a lot of fun. I mean, I love music and I feel like to be gifted music is something that's so personal and intimate. So I had a lot of fun creating that gift.
That's such a creative idea. What was your character Lexie's song?
Episode five of Little Fires Everywhere, “Duo,” is a big one for Lexie and for the audience’s understanding of her. Were you able to sympathize with your character? Were you upset by how she handled things with Pearl?
What I love about the way that that particular episode was written is that you feel both of those emotions. You feel for her because [she is] going through that alone. It's something that's so hard for a young girl to experience, and I think it's something that so many young women do experience. So in that way you feel for her and you get it and you understand how hard that is. But at the same time, the way she handles it is something that is very ungraceful and wrong and kind of horrifying. You can't sympathize with those aspects. And I think that's what makes that particular plot line so human, because she's not a hero. She's not someone you root for, but you can understand her.
Race and privilege are major topics in the show, especially in your character’s arc, what has playing Lexie taught you about privilege, if anything?
Oh my gosh. I mean, she's just a walking billboard for the results of that game. She is privileged. She's the epitome of privilege. And I think what's really interesting is the show does take place in the '90s when we held onto this idea of being colorblind, as if that was a good and progressive thing to be. And [those were] the values that she was raised on. And so she was raised thinking that that was the ideal good person. And she was very insulated from the rest of the world because she never had to experience anything hard for herself.
And though that was in the '90s, I see that parallel reality today. I mean, Lexie's a very extreme version of it, I think, but you can see that in everyone around you and yourself. And I think that it just opens your eyes to how we used to be and how we are still in a way in that same kind of world.
What was your last binge-watch?
My last binge-watch was High Fidelity. I related to that show in so many ways. I loved the film, but Zoë Kravitz brought something to that show that no one else could.
How would you describe your personal style?
I think it's very original. I wear things that make me feel good and I don't necessarily like to follow what other people wear. It's artistic and creative, but it's also very kind of down to earth and comfortable. I think that mixing fashion and comfort is really important.
What is your favorite item of clothing that you own?
Oh my goodness. I have a Mighty Company leather jacket that makes me feel like the coolest person in the room when I wear it. I think that you put on a leather jacket and you just feel like you could take on the world.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
I think it was "Benny the Jet" Rodriguez from that baseball movie … The Sandlot. The baseball player boy in that. Oh my God. What a dreamboat.
Astrology, yes or no?
Yes, but take it with a grain of salt. I do feel that I can create my own future and destiny, but I also think they're really interesting to look at.
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
Kill Bill, because I think that Uma Thurman in that is the most badass character in the world. I think she's amazing. There's this movie called Harold and Maude that I love. And then I need a really good comedy in there. Maybe Shaun of the Dead. That's a really good comedy.
Who have you been the most starstruck to meet?
I don't really get starstruck but I do remember when I met Nicole Kidman I was just so over the moon to work with her and she's such a striking beauty. I met her in the hair and makeup trailer before she got her prosthetics on for the film. She's just the most stunning human being and such a striking personality. That I was the closest to starstruck I've ever been, for sure.
What's one thing you wish more people knew about you?
That I'm an actress but I fully believe that art feeds art. So I create so many different levels. I'm a poet and I play music and I take photos and I try and live my life as artistically as I can.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.