When Kaitlyn Dever filmed Booksmart last summer, she and costar Beanie Feldstein were siloed into a friendship bubble of their own making—living together in a high-rise apartment on Sunset Boulevard, indulging in Kacey Musgraves ballads and Gilmore Girls reruns. Upon its release this past May, their buddy comedy was hailed by countless media outlets (including this one). NPR called the duo “sublime.” The New York Times anointed them the comedic heirs to Lucy and Ethel, and Abbi and Ilana. But before all that, near the end of filming, Dever received a script for a new Netflix show, Unbelievable. She devoured it—and the ProPublica article the miniseries it was based on. She wanted in. And after just one audition, the lead role was hers.
Unbelievable (premiering today) tracks the story of Marie, a steely 18-year-old who’s been lobbed between foster homes in Washington State her whole life. Just when she’s finally found her footing in a transitional-housing complex for young adults, she’s raped at knifepoint. But according to the cops, some details in her story don’t add up. Marie then recants the entire event, is charged with a misdemeanor for lying, and agrees to a plea deal, hoping to put the whole episode behind her. Fast-forward three years, and two small-town Colorado detectives (played spectacularly by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) are coming to realize there’s a serial rapist in their midst. The victims’ stories match Marie’s. “[Playing Marie] was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Dever, 22. “I’ve never been so involved in a character before, so emotionally connected. I just wanted to get it right. I wanted to give this girl justice and the voice she never had.”
Born in Phoenix, Dever moved to Dallas as a toddler when her dad secured the voice role of Barney, PBS Kids’ beloved purple dinosaur. At age nine, she persuaded her parents, both former professional figure skaters, to let her try acting. She landed a job on her first-ever audition: a Barbie commercial. Later, Dever joined the cinematic world of American Girl dolls and played Tim Allen’s daughter on the ABC sitcom Last Man Standing. Off-camera, she and her younger sister Mady, 20, perform in a stripped-back folk-pop band, Beulahbelle, whose bewitching, hazy harmonies were featured on last year’s Tully soundtrack.
But for now, Dever’s main focus is acting, and she’s been nailing memorable roles in a string of wide-ranging films, including last month’s Appalachian drama Them That Follow, in which she plays a naïve teen in a fringe religious cult that practices snake handling, alongside Olivia Colman and Thomas Mann. The material was heavy, so the cast ended up frequenting a nearby bar in small-town Ohio to unwind. “It was the craziest place,” Dever says. “It had an island theme, with lava, karaoke, and a kids’ jeep you could drive around.”
This article appears in the September 2019 issue of ELLE on newsstands now.
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