Exclusive: The 'Cruel Summer' Cast Shares How the Freeform Show Became an Instant Hit

Cruel Summer’s Chiara Aurelia, Olivia Holt, Allius Barnes & Tia Napolitano on how the Freeform show became a hit, filming through a pandemic, & more.

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The Cruel Summer premiere is now Freeform’s most-watched series debut ever. The cable network had a multi-platform release for the show on April 20, with 3.81 million viewers tuning in to the two-hour premiere on-air, on Freeform’s website, the network’s app, Hulu, and on-demand within seven days of the original release. Those viewers have since taken to social media to share their thoughts on the series’ first season, their fan theories, and overall support for the hit Freeform show. 

The Jessica Biel-produced Cruel Summer is set over three consecutive years in the 1990s and follows the story of a teenage girl named Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) after she’s accused of being an accomplice in the disappearance of a well-known girl from her high school named Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt). Kate went missing after she was abducted by the town’s new vice principal, Martin Harris. The series takes place in the fictional town of Skylin, Texas, and each episode focuses on the same day over the span of three years, switching between Jeanette and Kate’s viewpoints. 

Cruel Summer is a psychological thriller that is not a teen show, but instead, is a show about teenagers. The series accurately depicts the loss of innocence that takes place within those four high school years, except in this case, the characters are forced to deal with a traumatic experience that drastically changes them between the years 1993, 1994, and 1995. Complex spoke to Cruel Summer’s stars Chiara Aurelia, Olivia Holt, Allius Barnes, and showrunner and executive producer Tia Napolitano about how the show became an instant hit, what makes it special, and how the cast and crew were able to overcome the hurdles of creating a show during a pandemic.

Olivia Holt talks playing Kate Wallis and filming during COVID

Cruel Summer Olivia Holt

Holt’s character is a beloved high school girl named Kate who seems to have a perfect home life, a popular group of friends, and an enviable relationship with Jamie Henson (Froy Gutierrez). Things go left when Kate is kidnapped, and then accuses Jeanette Turner of knowing where she was and not reporting it to the police. “I’ve never been through trauma like Kate has, so I definitely had to educate myself on what that’s like and do my research and talk to our team of creatives about the headspace and what the choices that I should make for the scenes that we see Kate in after she’s rescued. It was really tricky,” Holt, who previously was featured in Freeform’s Marvel series, Cloak & Dagger, told Complex. “I found myself pulling from a lot of personal experience to get into that emotional headspace, but the things that I had to educate myself on are very real and very alive in this day and age. From manipulation, to gaslighting to dealing with trauma and how to move forward from that trauma and not let it control your life.”

Playing a character that dealt with a life-changing event wasn’t easy for the actress, but neither was filming during one of the most uncertain times we’ve dealt with. Holt says she was thankful to work during such a tough year and play a role that challenged her as an actor. “It was definitely a challenging show to film during COVID,” the Disney Channel alum said. “We jumped around through ‘93 to ‘94 to ‘95 in one single filming day. It was wild! I don’t know how we managed to do it right, but we did, and I’m so grateful for it. It was so much fun.” 

Olivia Holt Cruel Summer Interview

“There were days where we were running from set to our trailers, changing quickly, going into hair and makeup, and then prepping our headspace for the right scene and the right year. It was a madhouse some days,” she added. “Especially during COVID, we were on set for so many hours and everyone was wearing masks and shields and all the PPE and we just had to make sure that we were doing it in a safe and healthy environment and to make sure everybody was comfortable.” Holt, like the other actors, was tasked with the responsibility of creating three different versions of her character, depending on what they were each going through during each of those three years. “I love that we’re sort of breaking down these stereotypes. Not just Kate, my character, but all of the other characters pushing the boundaries a little bit. I think that that’s what ultimately has been the most fun and making these incredible choices for each year. As an actor, you want a challenge and this was definitely that,” she said. “I’m such a fan of everybody from the choices that they make as actors to who they are as people. Everybody’s perspectives and spirits were in a good and right place so I couldn’t imagine doing this with anybody else.”

Holt says Cruel Summer is unlike any other show she’s seen and been a part of. “From the non-linear storytelling to the throwback to the ‘90s, to the incredible mystery that’s unfolding in front of our eyes to the characters to the female representation on the show—from in front of the camera to behind the camera. I just think that this show is unique in so many ways and I’m just so glad people are responding so well to it.” 

Chiara Aurelia explains how ‘Cruel Summer’ sparks necessary conversations

Chiara Aurelia Cruel Summer

Jeannette Turner goes from being a shy, sweet girl who lives in the shadows of her more popular classmates to having her entire town think she didn’t tell the police about the location of a missing girl. The accusations turn her life upside down, destroying her family and sending her into a deep depression. Chiara Aurelia, who plays Jeannette, undergoes a complete transformation from ‘93-’95, both in her demeanor and her image. “It’s really sad, honestly, to watch her transform from ‘93 to ‘94. Although, technically speaking, 94 is when she’s flourished, and blossomed, and [is] pretty, and has the boyfriend, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s making her any happier,” Aurelia told Complex. “Whether or not Jeanette saw [Kate] or didn’t see her, I think the most important thing is that she’s a human being, she has a lot of layers. Whether she’s the protagonist or antagonist in this specific story, she’s also a young woman who’s really confused and is going through a lot. She’s suffered a lot of abuse and bad relationships in her family, and she has weird relationships with friends and with an abusive boyfriend. That can lead you to do some really crazy things. Being able to dive into that headspace and have an authentic human that I had the opportunity to portray, I was less concerned about whether or not people would like her. She’s a real person and she’s a real human, we all make mistakes. So as long as I can bring that to light in the best way I know how or be honest and authentic with that, she was a wonderful character to play.”

Each character on the Freeform show has secrets and aspects of themselves that are flawed. “That’s what I love so much about our characters: no one is stereotyped. Everybody is more than just one thing. And that’s what humans are. You’re not just pretty and popular and mean or dorky and sweet. We’re humans. Especially as teenagers, you see a lot of roles and adults writing for kids, where they’re like, ‘She’s the angsty teen’ and there’s nothing else going on, or ‘She’s the dorky kid,’ or ‘The popular kid,’ or ‘The jock.’ There’s a whole slew of different experiences that human beings have, and I think that is wonderful. We want to portray real people who have different stuff going on. It’s part of being a teenager,” Aurelia said. “That’s what I love about us. We aren’t like anything I’ve seen before: jumping around between three different years, and switching perspectives, and the ‘90s time period. The aesthetic, and the incredible cast and actors I was fortunate to work with, and the creatives, and the women, and the network. We’re our own beast, and it’s not for everyone, but we’re unique. And the people who love us really love us.” 

Chiara Aurelia Cruel Summer

The actress believes that just about anyone can relate to certain aspects of the show. “We all have had experiences with bullying, feeling unloved or underappreciated, feeling like the people around you aren’t standing up for you or aren’t having your back. Obviously, I’ve experienced that in a much smaller magnitude, but I think that’s a really normal human emotion, especially as a teenager,” she said. “As a young girl today, I think that we all feel that way sometimes. So just diving into that world of ‘It’s okay to feel depressed, sad, and confused’ and just watching her get out of that and grow through that is a beautiful process and something I really enjoyed doing.” Like other shows about teenagers like Euphoria and Grown-ish, Cruel Summer tackles some pretty heavy topics. When asked about a scene where her character Jeannette deals with an instance of domestic violence at the hands of her boyfriend, Aurelia says she wants it to start a dialogue about what abuse can do to a person. “Any sort of domestic abuse or domestic violence within a relationship or a family, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse is not tolerated. It just shows how dark that period that Jeanette is going through is, and she doesn’t know how to step away from a relationship that’s clearly not healthy, especially when she feels like everyone is abandoning her, which is traumatizing,” the actress shared. “I think a lot of young women, unfortunately, have had experiences like this. I think that this should be addressed, and it should provoke conversation, and show how wrong and horrible something like that is.”

Allius Barnes on the trustworthy Vince: ‘Everyone needs a friend like that.’

Cruel Summer Allius Barnes

Allius Barnes plays Jeannette’s lifelong friend Vince Fuller. When the world turns its back on her, Vince remains in her corner, even when she tries to push him away. “No matter what happens, Vince is always going to have Jeanette’s back and vice versa. It’s a bond that you can’t break. It’s just a bridge that will never be burned, no matter the circumstances. I feel like it’s one of those friendships. No one could ever get between them,” Barnes says. “Everyone needs a friend like that. I feel like loyalty goes a long way. A lot of people will say they got you, and a lot of people just talk that talk, but I feel like Vince walks the walk.”

Vincent Fuller Jeannette Turner Cruel Summer

He shares most of his scenes with Aurelia, and Barnes said the actress inspired him to be even better in his own role. “Everyone brought something amazing to their characters, but Chiara? I would shine a spotlight on her at this moment. Honestly, it was one of those inspiring things just as an artist to see Chiara Aurelia really embody those different years and transform the way she did it and kind of inspired me to make choices in my own character’s journey,” the actor said about his co-star. “I really applaud her for that. She did such an amazing, brilliant job making those choices. You really can tell that those are three different people you’re looking at who’ve gone through so many different things. She really did that.”

Like his co-stars, Barnes is aware of how the style of storytelling on Cruel Summer is unique, and he believes that’s what makes the show stand out. “To watch people grow on screen, especially teenagers, in some of the most identity shaping years of your life, 15, 16 those years of high school where you’re trying to find yourself, I feel that’s definitely unique in itself. With a show that involves crime, that has that theme to it, I feel like the jumping back and forth also gives you an insight on these characters that they don’t even know about themselves in certain ways,” he said. “Cruel Summer has a good message about staying true to yourself and not chasing what you think you should be or trying to change yourself. Obviously, these things are a lot more dramatic than what might happen in real life, but things can happen, and you might lose friends, and you can change and become this totally other person, so different from who you were originally when you seek attention in those ways.” Barnes says fans should look forward to some new shifts, friendships, and relationships to form in the upcoming episodes. “The dynamic, as you can see in these first few episodes, is constantly shifting, and it’s not going to stop here. It’ll continue to shift and shift and shift at every opportunity, at every convenience,” the actor added. “So, don’t sleep and don’t think for a second that we’ve arrived at the end.”

Showrunner Tia Napolitano talks working with Jessica Biel and the positive feedback from fans

Olivia Holt Cruel Summer

Bert V. Royal created the Freeform series. Tia Napolitano, who has worked on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, serves as showrunner and executive producer alongside Jessica Biel and Michelle Purple. “Jessica Biel was attached to this project before I was. I think she has such a keen eye for great shows and for great mystery shows, and I think her taste is very much in line with my taste, and the stars aligned for us to work together. She has been such a brilliant, really nurturing collaborator and wonderful partner,” Napolitano tells Complex. “I’m so proud of every aspect of the show. We put so much love and care into the script, and it was a true collaboration.” 

The Cruel Summer production team went above and beyond to ensure the pandemic hurdles didn’t affect the result. “We made the show that we would have made without COVID, which I’m so proud of,” Napolitano said. “It was hard. The biggest stress was worrying if everyone was safe. Once those protocols were in place, and we realized protocols were working, everyone just got a high off of knowing that we could still do our jobs and keep everyone safe. It’s unbelievable. We shot a county fair episode during a pandemic, which seemed impossible by the nature of it, and we did, and it looks wonderful.” 

Napolitano knew right away that Cruel Summer was different when she watched it. “I experienced the pilot the way that everyone else did, and it just hooked me. I knew I was watching something very special, and I knew I wanted to be involved in this project,” the showrunner said. “It’s something that I’ve never seen done before. You see flashbacks, but to have them year to year, it’s very ambitious, and it seemed fresh and new and a very different feeling for a mystery show. We can jump around and move in time with the clues in a way that is very advantageous for the telling of the story.” She also said that they couldn’t have chosen a better lead. “Chiara Aurelia—there could be no other Jeannette. I’m just so impressed. She’s only 18 years old. She was 17 when the pilot was shot. She’s just an old soul, and this enigma of talent, and I think there’s a very short list of actors that could have done what she did.” 

They also made it a point not to give in to the typical high school stereotypes but instead showcase what “real humans” are like. “I remember watching movies like She’s All That or Varsity Blues, American teen iconic movies in the ‘90s era, and my high school was nothing like that. We wanted to show a more accurate portrayal, and there are no stereotypes. It’s hard to tell who is lying, who is telling the truth, who is the villain, and who’s the victim, and it’s all very much by design,” she said. “It is a show about teens, but I don’t think it’s only for teens, and that was very important to me. I think that teens are just the most humanly humans. They have all these emotions, and they’re changing at such a rapid speed, and we were all teenagers once, so that’s how I approached this show—it’s a show about teens but for all people.”

Cruel Summer Cast interview

The reactions to the show on social media have been so supportive so far, and fans (of all ages) seem so engaged as the story continues to unfold and new mysteries are revealed. Viewers are creating their own fan theories about what they think is happening, and the love they’re showing is beyond Napolitano’s wildest expectations. “I love this show, and to see other people love it makes me so happy. You wonder before that first episode airs, ‘Are people going to find it as special as I do?’ And they really have. It’s doing really well with women in their mid-30s, and that’s exactly who I am, and I thought, ‘OK, I ran a show that I would want to watch, and people like me are watching.’ As well as other kinds of people, too,” she said. “The fan theories are just so much fun. I can’t tell you how much joy it brings me. They’re going to get all the answers. We’re going to pay off all our clues in a surprising and twisty way.” 

Tune into Cruel Summer on Freeform on Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m. EDT/PDT.

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