When Imani Lewis was first tapped to play the role of Calliope Burns in Netflix’s First Kill, she knew that she would have to agree to a laborious undertaking: transforming into a monster hunter. To her surprise, though, it was the mental hurdles of reverting to teenagehood that challenged the 23-year-old actress most. Throughout the series, Calliope struggles with keeping her monster hunter identity under wraps, all while falling in love with her intended prey—as if the trials of being 16 weren’t already enough.
The premise of First Kill is a tried-and-true classic: a forbidden love between two members of warring families. Lewis’s Calliope struggles to prove herself to her family of hunters by making her slaying her first monster. Meanwhile, Juliette Fairmont (Sarah Catherine Hook), the youngest of a dynastic vampire clan, is pressured to pounce on her first human. As Calliope and Juliette set their sights on each other to complete their missions, their bitter rivalry takes a turn for the romantic. Falling in love is dizzying enough when you’re a regular human, but the pressure that comes with falling for the very type who is supposed to be your sworn enemy is something that First Kill’s Calliope and Juliette know all too well. And while reliving a challenging era of one’s life can be a grueling endeavor for any actor, Lewis felt fortunate to find a kinship with Calliope. “I resonate with characters that are diligent, tenacious, confident, strong, courageous,” she tells me during a Zoom call from Syracuse, New York. “When I read for Calliope, I saw all those things in this 16-year-old girl.”
First Kill, the first series produced by Emma Roberts and Karah Preiss’s Belletrist Productions, is noteworthy in its aim to take young people—particularly young women—seriously. “I think a lot about how the world treats teenage girls,” Calliope posits in the first episode of the series. “Like, everything that’s good about us is a weakness. Our hearts, our emotions, our empathy, means we need to be protected.” Lewis says she couldn’t agree more. In her eyes, empathy is a prized character trait. “I think it's so easy to judge and to say what you would do in a similar situation, but nobody really knows what they do until they're in a situation,” she says. “You really don't know who people are, what their lives are off social media. Because we all struggle with something.”
Lewis’s decade-plus working as an artist has given her great reverence for teenagers, and has forged an ironclad work ethic. In fact, she got her start as a musician before becoming an actor, and raps under the moniker Mocha Bands. “I started writing when I was 11, I started recording when I was 13, and I would perform at all kinds of shows around New York,” she says, adding that she’s made an appearance more than once at the Apollo Theater’s esteemed amateur night. Lewis is, if anything, committed to her craft, and she didn’t want to act unless she would take it seriously. “But once I got the ball rolling and got my feet wet,” she says, “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I gotta keep doing this.’”
First Kill—an adaptation of V.E. Schwab’s short story of the same name—attempts to subvert the many long-held tropes of vampire tales, namely straightness and whiteness (even going so far as to name-check Twilight’s Bella and Edward in the opening credits). That kind of diverse representation in the media is something that Lewis doesn’t take for granted. “I think about the people that I did get to see coming up, and how much more included it made me feel and just that much more like, tangible my dreams felt to see these kinds of people that look like me, and sound like me, and are from the same places as me have these wonderful opportunities,” the Queens native says. Lewis, who cites Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah as childhood role models, hopes that First Kill can allow a varied group of people to see themselves in the show’s allegorical characters. “The entire story represents so many different categories of people that do not have enough light shined on them in the lovely way that it's done in First Kill, whether that's the LGBTQ+ community, or the adolescent community, interracial couples, queer couples, family dynamics—even the Burns family looks very different, but a lot of families look that way,” she says.
The show can, at times, be overshadowed by niche monster lore and constrained by tropes. But it does take a refreshing and enthusiastic approach to young queer love. First Kill retires queerness as a burdensome secret, and Lewis and Hook’s tête-à-tête is allowed to play out without being weighed down by homophobia. In times of political retrograde, representation very much matters. “I think it's important that we see it, and that we see it well, and that we see it done gracefully,” she says.
With First Kill,Lewis graduates to more mature characters, a departure from her younger roles like Aniyah in Eighth Grade and Elaine in The Forty-Year-Old Version. But school’s not out just yet—Lewis will be returning to the hallways in Hulu’s upcoming Miguel Wants To Fight. Something of a professional 16-year-old, she offers some wisdom to high-schoolers everywhere: “You're gonna be fine. Believe in yourself a little more, believe in the work that you've done to ensure your future. Be open to change—you're going to change and that's okay.”