Cailee Spaeny on What to Expect From Alex Garland’s New Show, Devs
The 22-year-old actress was happy to cut her hair off for the role.
Cailee Spaeny’s childhood dream of being on the Disney Channel never came true, but rest assured you’ll be seeing the 22-year-old actress on television soon. Director Alex Garland cast her on the spot for his upcoming show, Devs, putting her in the She just finished up shooting—and cutting her hair off for—Devs, a new, still mysterious series by director Alex Garland, who cast her practically on the spot. (And that’s no small endorsement; among the Annihilation and Ex Machina director’s past choices in leading actresses are Alicia Vikander and Natalie Portman.) And now, Spaeny’s also set to lead the reboot of The Craft. Spaeny’s already proved that she’s cut out for stardom: Last year, when she made her breakthrough, she starred opposite John Boyega in Pacific Rim Uprising; worked alongside Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex; and cozied up to Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale. (Though unfortunately, their kissing scene didn’t make the cut.) Here, Spaeny shares what went on behind the scenes with Hemsworth and what to expect from Devs.
Tell me about making out with Chris Hemsworth. I think the world wants to know. I was on the shoot for Bad Times at the El Royale, and I still hadn’t met him. He played a cult leader, and I was his devoted follower. I knew he was on set that day, , so I kept asking the producers, “Can I meet him? You know, we have that kissing scene today, can I please meet him?” And of course they kept saying “No, it’s not a good time,” right up until the last minute when we were on our marks. So we were about to make out, and I was like, “How many kids do you have? Oh, you have three kids.” And then they’d call “action” and we would make out, and then I would be like, “So, how’s life in Australia?” He was really nice, but it was super-awkward, and they ended up dropping the scene from the film.
Where was your first kiss in real life? It was behind a motel, with a guy that I’d broken up with because I wasn’t into him at all. But he still was into me. I was 16 and we were hanging out in his car—I was actually making him run lines with me. And then I was just kind of tired of not having my first kiss, so I was like, Okay this guy’s really into me—I guess we’re just gonna get it out of the way. So I told him that we were having our first kiss, and then he put on a song by 21 Pilots and we did.
I like that he had mood music. Yeah, he was ready for it. He was like, “I know just the song.” And then I remember that about a year later I had moved to LA and he wrote a song about me. It goes something like, “Okay Cailee, you have your dreams, used to be you and me / Oh Cailee, the next time I see you is up on the movie screen.” It’s actually really catchy. It didn’t work, but it was a really good song. And it was really sweet.
What was the first CD that you bought? The first One Direction album. I love Harry Styles, he’s so cute. I had a super big crush. One Direction was also my first concert. I remember getting on the seats because I couldn’t see—and I didn’t have amazing tickets, either—and the security guards almost kicked me out. I guess I was being a little too reckless—I kept screaming and jumping on the seat. They were probably like, She’s gonna break her legs, so they told me off.
I’m sure it’s top secret, but what can you tell me about the show you’re on, Devs? Just like all of Alex Garland’s projects, it’s super smart and way over my head. It has to do with the multiverse and a tech company, and all the shady stuff that goes on behind the scenes of the tech company—the name is short for “development.” I got a call that Alex Garland wanted to meet with me—and I’m such a fan of Ex Machina. It was just going to be a meeting, and then late on the night before, he said, “Actually, I want to see you read.” Once my agents told me that I rushed home and went straight to the audition, and it turned out he didn’t see anybody else for it—he cast me almost right away.
Did he tell you that you’d have to cut off your hair for the role? Yeah. I was supposed to shave it actually and then it turned into this, which I was cool. But I was always down.
Would you have shaved it? For sure. And I think I have a role coming up where I might have to shave my hair, so I think I’m going to. I dig it—I’m so into having no hair.
Do you have any superpowers in the show? Well, I know quantum physics, which is kind of like a superpower. I’m just really, really smart.
What was your first real audition? It was for a Disney channel show. It was also the first time that I drove into Hollywood and was like, Okay I’m in Hollywood now. And then I had to eat a carrot in the audition and the lady was like, “This is gonna work out for you.” And then there were four years of no’s, and then and then it finally stuck.
Did you have a go-to outfit for your auditions? Yeah—anything that was on the sale rack at the mall. Whatever the character was, I’d just try to find super simple t-shirts or dresses.
What was the first thing that you booked? Pacific Rim Uprising. I flew out to L.A. for the audition and walked into the room, and there was John Boyega. We had to improv some scenes, and I didn’t know what to do but I just had to go with it, and then about a week later, I booked it. I had bad service in my house, which was where I got the call, so I was pacing up and down my neighborhood when my agents told me I got it. My whole family came out onto the front lawn and was crying, and I was running around the neighborhood calling everyone I knew.
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The working title of our show was not Fosse/Verdon—it was just Fosse, but then the producers got smart. They realized that Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse were romantic and creative partners who remained entangled until the end of his life. It was the right time, in 2019, to make a show about a partnership. It was also the first time that I’ve had pay parity with a male costar and equal space to voice my thoughts. I’d never experienced anything like it. Since I felt completely supported, I could jump higher and take more risks.
You started acting as a child. Did you find that people treated you—and continue to treat you—in a diminishing way?
Absolutely. When you’re physically small, when men hug you, they pick you up off the floor. That doesn’t happen anymore.
What’s your favorite Fosse musical?
Cabaret. When I performed the song “Maybe This Time” [on Broadway, in 2014], it never didn’t get to me. I’m sad that I’ll never sing it again. Musicals are deep in me: When I did a tap dance for Fosse/Verdon, I realized it returned me to this very primal love, before anything negative was associated with acting, work, or identity. I felt like I was a little girl. It was a genuine moment of joy.
Williams wears a Louis Vuitton turtleneck, skirt, belt, and boots.
I started out doing stand-up comedy at U.C. Davis and then moved to San Francisco, which has one of the most interesting comedy scenes in the country. In comedy, we’re all mutants and we share these different superpowers. Early on, I learned that humor is a way to break tension. It’s a very powerful tool.
Is it easier for you to be autobiographical or political?
I came from The Daily Show, where you are steeped in politics and the news. It’s your life, day in and day out. But for me, as an Indian-American Muslim, I always felt this insider/outsider relationship with America. And because of my background, at this moment in time, the personal and the political merged.
Do your parents worry when your show takes on Saudi Arabia?
Sure. That episode was banned in Saudi Arabia, and my parents said, “We don’t want you causing international outrage and controversy.” They said, “Please just tell embarrassing stories about your childhood.”
Minhaj wears a Prada jacket, pants, and belt; Jil Sander shirt; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men boots.
I honestly didn’t know much about witchcraft before starting on Sabrina, but now I realize it’s just dudes being scared of women and their power.
You were a child on Mad Men. Have you finally seen the episodes you were too young to watch?
I have now seen Mad Men. I can say I’m a fan, but it’s weird to watch your 6-year-old self. Oftentimes, while I was watching, I’d forget that I was in the show. So many things happened to Sally on Mad Men before they happened in my real life: My first kiss was onscreen; I got my TV period before my real period. I was prepared for everything because on Mad Men Sally was a little ahead of me. She taught me the ways of the world.
Shipka wears a Chloé dress; Isabel Marant belt; Cartier ring.
Tell me about kissing Chris Hemsworth.
I was on the shoot for Bad Times at the El Royale, and I still hadn’t met Chris. He played a cult leader, and I was his devoted follower. I knew he was on set, and I wanted to meet him because we had a kissing scene that day. At the last minute—we still hadn’t met—we were about to make out, and I’m like, “How many kids do you have? Oh, you have three kids,” and then—“Action!” He was really nice, but it was super-awkward, and they ended up dropping the scene from the film.
You cut your hair very short for Devs. Is androgyny part of your character?
Yes. The show has to do with a tech company. Secret stuff. My character is really smart and knows quantum physics, so that’s kind of like a superpower. I was supposed to shave my head for the part, and I was always down for that. I think I’m going to shave it all off anyway: I’m so into being bald.
Spaeny wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Sophie Buhai earrings; Tiffany & Co. ring (right hand); Cartier ring (left hand); Manolo Blahnik shoes.
My first part was in a film called Complicity. I played a boy who gets raped and then kills his rapist. I was 11 years old. It was baptism by fire.
In your TV projects, you seem to undergo torture or get killed a lot.
I love a good death, and I’ve had a few really good demises in my time. On Game of Thrones, I was killed at the Red Wedding. That was my favorite death: full of arrows and then they cut off my head. I was covered in blood and my limbs were hanging off.
Do you have any surprising secret skills?
No. I went to drama school to learn all those skills, and then I was like, “I ain’t going to sing or dance in films, so I’m not going to singing or dancing class. And I can’t be bothered with the fencing class, because I won’t be fencing.” Cut to: I have been sword fighting for half my life and now I’ve had to sing and dance. This is why you should go to class. Kids: Stay in school.
Madden wears a Givenchy jacket; Calvin Klein Underwear tank top; Dries Van Noten pants; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men shoes.
My agent called me and said, “They’re casting a show about a women’s wrestling television program in the ’80s.” I said, “I want that job!” However, I very quickly learned that the producers didn’t think I was right.
Why? Too petite?
Yes, but I’ve secretly been strength training for years. After four auditions, I wore them down. And yes, I’ve learned how to wrestle and throw women across a ring. It’s incredibly empowering.
Do you ever practice by beating up your husband?
I don’t ever beat up my husband. I’ve been known to wrestle our cat a little bit. He doesn’t love it.
Brie wears a Givenchy sweater and skirt; Balenciaga boots.
When I was 12, I was washing dishes at home and the Tony Awards came on. It was the year Dreamgirls was up for best musical and Jennifer Holliday sang “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” I was in shock: all of these beautiful black people in high fashion with gowns and hair and makeup. At that time, you didn’t see a lot of people of color on television, dripping in style. And Jennifer Holliday sang like I knew how to sing in church, except she was on television! The connection of money, style, and television launched me into this space where I thought, That’s what I’m going to do. I can be that.
How did Pose come about?
They called me in to play the dance teacher. I was like, “Well, this ain’t quite the role I want, but…” I told them at the audition that I felt I’d lived through the world of Pose. I said, “Wouldn’t you need a father figure in the ballroom world?” Because one of the things that’s so powerful about Paris Is Burning [which influenced Pose] is that it’s about a marginalized group of people who had nothing in a world where people were dying of AIDS. And they chose life anyway. I wanted to tell that story.
Porter wears a Thom Browne dress and shoes; Wolford fishnets; his own jewelry.
I moved to California from London because I wanted to be happy. My very first audition was for The Good Place, and it went great: I am now on a show opposite Ted Danson, my hero. As a young girl, I always fancied Ted! Is that creepy? Am I creepy? But, my Lord, he’s still so hot.
Were you on social media before the show began? You currently have 2 million followers on Instagram.
The Good Place asked me to join Instagram, and now I use it to scream at people [laughs]. In all honesty, I think I’ve found a genuine community of people online who are tired of being erased. I understand being challenged: The bravest thing I’ve done in my life was move to Los Angeles, even though I was told I was too old, too fat, and too ethnic. I had no contacts and no friends in L.A. But I got on a plane anyway and flew to California to have an acting career. This had to work: I’m not talented at sex, so I couldn’t be a porn star. And I have no upper body strength, so pole dancing was out.
Jamil wears a Sacai coat; Prada boots.
For my sweet 16 party, my parents knew I loved The Book of Mormon so they had Andrew Rannells, who was one of the leads in the show, come and perform. It was literally the best moment of my life.
You were named after the kooky octogenarian in the film Harold and Maude.
Yes. As a joke, my dad started calling me Maude when my mom was pregnant, and it stuck. I do love that movie.
Do you ever sing any of the Cat Stevens songs from that film when you do karaoke?
No. I sing “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables. I love musical theater. The first album I really listened to was Hairspray, and the first thing I auditioned for was Grease. I was Jan, one of the Pink Ladies. I got to sing in a musical, and I had never been happier.
Apatow wears a Dior jacket, top, and pants; Cartier earrings, necklace, and ring.
I had not listened to the Dirty John podcast, but I heard friends talking about it obsessively. Two days later, my agent asked me, “Have you heard of Dirty John?” That was exciting to me: I love things that are creating conversation in the culture.
Your character, Debra, is both intriguing and infuriating.
I never judge my characters. I looked at playing Debra as almost a women’s studies project. She was self-made and had raised a family by herself, but she had this Achilles’ heel: She needed to have a man in her life. As horrible as it got for Debra, she thought she could handle and change that man. As the show goes on, she becomes more and more aware. We reflected that awakening in her clothing: In the beginning, she wears pink and light colors. And as the situation with John becomes more and more extreme, we go darker. By the end, she’s in black.
You were in a happier marriage on Friday Night Lights.
Kyle Chandler [who played Coach Taylor, her character’s husband] and I really fought for that marriage. Right from the beginning, we said to the writers, “Don’t make one of us go and have an affair.” I think the audience really appreciated that.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. The short shorts. The floral shirts. He was a sexual fantasy. I actually auditioned to play his wife in something. I remember thinking, No, Tom Selleck was a grown-up when I was a little girl. So that didn’t happen.
Britton wears a Stella McCartney shirt; Loro Piana skirt; Bulgari earrings; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace; Cartier ring; Tom Ford belt; Balenciaga shoes.
In The Loudest Voice, which is about Roger Ailes and Fox News, I play Laurie Luhn, who was a booker for the shows. To play her, we worked with very orange makeup and a look that was curated by Roger Ailes: the tight, the bright, the overly revealing. And legs. Lots of legs. There were no desks at Fox News, because with a desk, I suspect, you could get up to a lot of trouble underneath.
Do you have a secret skill?
I’m good with animals. When I was young, I wanted to live among animals. I liked sloths the best: That’s the animal I aspire to be like. A sloth just owns it. There’s great power in stillness.
Wallis wears an Isabel Marant top; Hermès skirt; Dior belt; Tiffany & Co. bracelet.
I am from Omaha, Nebraska, and I wanted to move to New York since the third grade. I had never been to New York, but I knew all about the city from watching television. I just knew New York was where I belonged. Later, I learned that most of those New York City shows like Friends and Seinfeld were filmed in Los Angeles. That was a bit of a mind fuck.
Was Girls your first part outside of theater?
No. I had another job playing a headless stripper in Sex and the City 2. It was just me in a Speedo grinding with another guy. On Girls, I played the ex-boyfriend who turned out to be gay and then became Hannah’s [Lena Dunham] best friend. My first nude scene was in season two. Suddenly, I would show up to work and there would just be a pair of underwear on a hanger. I was oddly comfortable with it.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Maxwell Caulfield from Grease 2. He played Michael Carrington. He also played Miles Colby on Dynasty. Every day of my life is a hair tribute to Maxwell Caulfield.
Rannells wears a Dior Men coat and pants; Brioni turtleneck; Givenchy boots.
When I first read the script for You, I was not attracted to Joe, my character. I was like, “Oof—I don’t know.” He’s a villain, and yet he’s also an antihero. He’s seductive, but he’s a murderer. It’s fascinating that people—especially women—are drawn to this guy. The greatest challenge I have is not judging him. I don’t ever think of him as a killer. To him, murder is simply a means to an end.
Did you always want to act?
At the age of eight, I was in The Music Man, and I told my parents, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” When I was 12, my mom and I went to L.A. and I started working immediately.
Was your first kiss on camera?
No, but starting out so young, you’re always having to display sexuality before you’ve had those experiences. For You, I was tied up in bondage rope for the first and, so far, only time in my life. Look [shows his wrists], I still have rope burn. First time, and it’s on camera.
Badgley wears an Alexander McQueen coat; Boss T-shirt; Jil Sander pants; Sophie Buhai bracelet.
My big childhood claim to mediocre fame is Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I played Opal on that show when I was around 6 years old. I’d already done a bunch of commercials, and they didn’t all air. You want the ads to get on the air if you want to get your imaginary Lamborghini. Sadly, I didn’t get the Lambo.
You always had a smoky voice.
Yes, but thanks to a lifetime of smoking cigarettes—which they recently discovered are actually good for you—my voice has become thicker and deeper over the years.
In Russian Doll, you are asking existential questions.
I am curious about what it means to have a life. I imagined being at death’s door, looking back and asking, “What happened here?” I also recognize that it’s a nice thing to move from a disconnected life to a more connected one.
Who is your cinematic crush?
Recently, I watched Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, and Mamma mia! My boyfriend, Fred Armisen, was there. I took screen grabs of Viggo’s nude fight scene and told Fred the stills were for research. Usually, when I play this game, I think it’s best to pick dead people—to say, like, “Isn’t Peter Falk a babe on Columbo?” I’m also very disappointed to discover that Idris Elba and I did not get married. I think many women felt the same way.
Lyonne wears a Marni dress; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace, and bracelet.
Who was your cinematic crush growing up? Joe Jonas. I had the Rolling Stone cover of all three of them with Joe in the middle, like, pulling on his white t-shirt. He was hot stuff.
Is that why you wanted to be on a Disney show? Oh yeah, I mean, every kid who was 13 years old wanted to be on Disney Channel. All I wanted to do was the little “I’m on Disney channel” with the wand—that was my dream. I even remember calling my agents being like, can you put me in the background of this Disney movie coming up? And they’re like no and then a month after I booked a lead in Pacific Rim but I was begging just to be in background. I was like, “Please, I just want to be on a set. I just wanna be part of something bigger”. And they were just like, “Shut up.”
But you don’t seem very Disney to me—and I mean that as a compliment. Well, it didn’t work. Every audition I went to, I would take everything too seriously. I’d make it super dramatic and want to cry in the middle of a scene. I was basically turning a Disney scene into an indie film, which wasn’t what they wanted at all.
What was your favorite movie growing up? It was Wizard of Oz. ‘Cause I’m from Missouri and my grandparents are from Kansas so every summer we’d go to the Kansas State Fair and their thing was Wizard of Oz, obviously and I dressed up as Dorothy for every other Halloween and every talent show I sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I actually played Dorothy in my small town theater. You can check that out on YouTube on your down time. It’s pretty good.
What’s your karaoke song? “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” by Pat Benatar. I’m super into rock music. When I was 11 years old, I was in a rock cover band with like five other boys called NRG, like “energy”—we thought that was super clever. We covered Pat Benatar and Joan Jett and Pink—all the really true punk girls, like Hayley Williams from Paramore, were my idols.
What was your favorite birthday? My favorites were always the ones when I’d drive out to L.A. in the summer. It was a 25-hour drive from Springfield, Missouri, where I grew up, but those were the best. Just being in L.A. was the dream.
Did you stay at the Oakwood? No, I couch hopped—that’s how you really do it. One time my mom, my two siblings, and I didn’t have a spot to stay so I just randomly messaged the group chat that this family I met at a church had put me. Someone else in it told us we could stay with their family, and we ended up staying there for four months.
Four months? Four months, with a family that we didn’t know at all. The kids spoke English, but the parents barely did. There were two cots and an air mattress, and then a shared bathroom, which is where I learned my lines, if no one else was there. That was an experience.
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