While filming The Sky Is Everywhere, it was easy for Grace Kaufman to feel the magic of her surroundings when hundred-feet tall Redwood trees and rocky beaches served as backdrops for the A24 film adaptation of Jandy Nelson’s book of the same name. In the movie, Kaufman plays Lennie Walker, a high schooler struggling to cope with the sudden death of her older sister. A cascade of feelings—grief, loss, but also hope and love—are brought to life through fantastical special effects. Rose gardens become sentient and teens float in the sky, punched up by the stunning landscapes of Northern California.
“All those images tap into Lennie's imagination. It really proves that the imagination is boundless and it really can be as detailed and magical as you make it to be. It strikes an emotional chord, or at least I hope that it will in audiences when they watch it because it's so unique to get to see a visual manifestation of what somebody's going through,” the 19-year-old actor explains over a Zoom call. “Being in the middle of the forest, it brought it to a whole other level. Having such a beautiful setting definitely heightened all those emotions, all the magic of everything.”
Kaufman would tell you that she technically started acting when she was seven, but her roots go even deeper than that. A daughter of actors who started their own coaching business, her parents often brought her along to class, where she would sit in the back playing with toys and watching The Wiggles. Eventually, she’d begin to peek over to see what the students were up to, running lines and practicing scenes. Kaufman remembers being in awe of the craft and feeling called by the stage. Her first television credit was a 2012 episode of the Disney Channel series Jessie, then she starred on CBS’s Man with a Plan from 2016 to 2020, has racked up a flurry of voice acting roles over the years, and also appears in psychological thriller Resurrection, which just premiered at Sundance. But The Sky Is Everywhere marks the rising actor’s first major film role, debuting on Apple TV+ over Valentine’s Day weekend.
After Lennie’s sister Bailey passes away, the Juilliard-hopeful finds herself unmotivated to play the clarinet. She wallows at home, unable to to clean up her sibling’s belongings and leaves notes which contain parts of conversations they had before her death across town. It was a gradual process for Kaufman to come to a clearer understanding of what her character was going through, but as she became more comfortable in Lennie’s shoes and incorporated some of her own personal experiences into the role, Kaufman’s relationship with Lennie blossomed so strongly that she eventually reached a point where she sometimes had to ask herself, “Where does Lennie end and where does Grace begin again?”
“Being a teenager is a very unique time in someone’s life because they’re trying to navigate what it is to be alive and find themselves and grow into an adult. Dealing with something so dark and one of the worst things a person can go through, it was interesting getting to delve into that,” Kaufman says. “I think I personally related to her in a lot of ways because we were filming in the middle of Covid. Loss was kind of a universally felt thing for everyone because it’s this new way of living. I was able to pour a lot of that into Lennie’s story that it was almost therapeutic. Another main theme is acceptance—we need to remember that life needs to be celebrated too. I think that’s what the film does very beautifully.”
Kaufman refined some of her other performance skills for the movie, including quickly learning how to play the clarinet in three months. The production provided her with a clarinet double for some of the sequences, but the actress wanted to become familiar with the instrument. What was particularly challenging, though, was shooting so many scenes where the emotional intensity was at such a high level. But she eventually arrived at a point of comfort, so much so that she often forgot the cameras were there, enabling her to fully tap into Lennie’s anguish and pain.
“I feel so fortunate to have gotten to work with such an amazing cast of people who were so down to earth, and I felt so safe that I was able to let myself be so vulnerable,” Kaufman says. “There was no judgment, there was no anything. We were all just in it together, it felt like team work.”
Of course, she was a little nervous that her first scene during the production was with Jason Segel, who plays her uncle. The jitters went away once the actor made her laugh, and when Cherry Jones, who plays her grandmother in the film, became a bit of a matriarch on set, with the young actors following her around like little ducklings. “She literally texted me just a few days ago, one of the sweetest text messages I've ever probably gotten in my entire life. Just about her getting to watch the movie for the first time, and her thoughts, and just reminiscing on our experience working together,” Kaufman says. “There's just so much love that I have for them. I still have to pinch myself that I got to work with them. It doesn't feel real.”
Like most young adult content, The Sky Is Everywhere includes a bit of a love triangle in the narrative. Kaufman says she felt like she was on the edge of her seat while reading the script, eager to see who Lennie ends up with at the end. She describes one of Lennie’s romantic prospects as embodying sunshine and the other as the moon. This set-up, and especially the movie’s mystical locale, also reminded Kaufman of one of her own favorite pop culture love triangles.
“I grew up loving the Twilight movies,” she says. “It was cool to be a part of a film that also has a love triangle a little bit, similar to Twilight. So they tie together a little, oddly enough.”
The similarity to Twilight’s eerie settings was probably best demonstrated when Kaufman and a couple of her co-stars jumped into her car one weekend to drive up to Crescent City, a town situated an hour-and-a-half away from where they were filming. She describes it as one of the most beautiful drives she’s ever done in her life. “We were just passing through this fog and all these gigantic, gorgeous trees lined the roads. We were driving along the coastline with the ocean on one side,” Kaufman says. “It was magical. It felt like its own little universe.”