Few plucky sidekick characters have stolen the show like Lauren Heller, the devil-may-care PR maven on Younger. Initially booked solely as a pilot guest star, Molly Bernard spun her character into a regular mainstay of the series, often popping up to champion the editors at Millennial Press, Kelsey (played by Bernard’s real-life friend, Hilary Duff) and Liza (played by Broadway icon Sutton Foster). Seven seasons in, and Lauren is fully integrated into the lives of the characters on the beloved series, whether they like it or not.
“I wish I had a Lauren in my life,” Bernard says one afternoon during a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “I’m very different from her. I have embraced a lot of her and she’s embraced a lot of me, but she shows up for the people that she loves, and she has the most confidence of anyone that exists on the planet. And somehow, it’s not abhorrent! It’s like, wait, how does she do that?”
To play the beloved Lauren, Bernard taps into a type that is very much outside of herself. “On a scale of one to 10, I’m, like, 500 neurotic,” she jokes. “I’m, like, 400 anxiety. I am a bundle of nerves, and Lauren is more curious and impressed by people, and I might be quicker to question. I think that’s part of what makes her amazing—she sees the world through wonder, and I kind of see it through fear.”
The emotional ups and downs are all just part of her job as an actress, and while playing Lauren is mostly loads of fun, Bernard has a year ahead that will give her the space to showcase her range as a dramatic lead as well as a comedic scene-stealer. Her next film, Milkwater, is a heartfelt dramedy about a young woman who, after meeting a middle-aged gay man during a night out, forms a fast friendship and agrees to be his pregnancy surrogate. It required a deft ability to weave in and out of messy twenty-something antics and serious dramatic territory—and because it is an indie film, there were only about three weeks to shoot it. Filming, for the most part, took place at night.
After all of the nighttime shoots for Milkwater, and in between takes on her final season of Younger, which is currently streaming weekly on Paramount+, the actress also realized she had to develop a hobby that would allow her to release her focus from getting so deep into different characters. Her co-star, Foster, taught her how to crochet. (Bernard also calls Foster her “consummate idol.” When she was 14, she sent the Broadway actress fan mail, and Foster sent back a signed head shot that read, “Follow your dreams, XOXO Sutton Foster.”)
“This season, Hilary and I got really curious about crocheting, and Sutton was such a good teacher,” she says. “We were addicted! We would have five minutes between setups, and we’d run to our chairs and try to get some stitches going before getting back on set. We called it a knitting circle, even though it’s absolutely crochet.”
“It always seemed aspirational to be someone who could get a ball of yarn and make it into something useful and not just a novelty, so I’ve made about 17 hats, a bunch of which are for babies,” she adds with a laugh.
On the Younger set, Bernard couldn’t let any neuroticism slip into her portrayal of an audacious, free spirit. “I have to pack away that anxiety for those hours that I’m at work,” she says. Still, there is room for some of Bernard’s real-life anxieties to bubble up, like in her Chicago Med character, a neurotic and anxious medical student. “It is one of those fine lines of being an actor, where I have to be an emotional sponge and let some feelings come up naturally,” she says of her work on the NBC procedural.
In between the fifth and sixth seasons of Younger, and while simultaneously working on Chicago Med, Bernard received the script for Milkwater. The actress was unable to put it down. “I felt like, this is the kind of part I would fight for—how is this being offered to me?” she says. “I understood all of her nuance, and it scared me [to think about] doing it. But I couldn’t wait to get started.”
That emotion—the fear, or the feeling that it’s an otherwise “impossible project”—is what motivates the Yale School of Drama graduate to say yes to a part. “If I’m being honest with you,” she says before leaning in a little bit closer to the camera, “it really has to scare the shit out of me; I want to be so thirsty for it, and simultaneously so afraid of it.”
What was so scary about Milkwater, then? For Bernard, it had a little bit to do with how her character, Milo, felt unruly enough that she reminded the actress a little bit of her past self. “She is someone who is going through one of the darkest patches, and I wanted to nail all of the nuance,” Bernard says, adding that she has to fall in love with every character she plays, without judgment. “She is a mess, and I was a great old mess for most of my twenties.”
Bernard says she could relate to Milo in more ways than one. The film follows a group of friends—mostly queer—who have formed a family of sorts. “I’m from a chosen family, and it’s so important to me that this film doesn’t have negative consequences,” the actress says. “Milo’s backstory is tragic, but she has created a safety net for herself, and it’s not a sob story—it’s empowering. We make our community, we make our family, and the person that we call to parent us and help us doesn’t always say ‘Mom’ on the caller ID. That’s hard for some people to grasp; it’s normalized to be family-oriented, and family can mean a lot of things for different people.”
Talking to Bernard, it becomes clear that the Younger cast has, over the course of seven seasons, become a family, too. While the show has come to a bittersweet end (the series finale will air in June), the actress relishes the fact that she can look back on the project that changed her career and see a litany of lessons. “I have learned how to be graceful on a set. I have learned from Sutton and Hilary, how to be a generous leader, how to love myself in a deeper way, thanks to Lauren—because the writers have forced it into my bloodstream for seven years,” she reflects. “And I have really learned, at the end of the day, how to fall in love, be present, and now say goodbye to a story, to a world, to a character.”