How 'Elemental' star Leah Lewis handles rejection and imposter syndrome in Hollywood
Leah Lewis is only 26, but she's already spent more than half her life trying to make it as an actor. Anyone just learning about her might think she's been booked non-stop since coming to Hollywood, but she tells CNBC Make It she's been "hustling" to land roles since she first tried acting in Los Angeles at 6 years old.
With the release of Pixar's "Elemental" out Friday, she'll have her second shot of leading a feature film — the first time for a major theater release, and for an iconic studio she grew up watching, no less.
In "Elemental," Lewis voices the lead character Ember, a fire-type living in a world where residents embodying fire, water, air and land co-exist in Element City. Ember is set on taking over her family's business serving other fire types on the outskirts of town until Wade, a water type, shows up and throws a wrench in those plans. The enemies-to-friends storyline explores how seemingly polar opposites have more similarities than differences.
For Lewis, it's one of a handful of bigger roles she's landed in a few short years. She got her start in commercials and TV, then after graduating from high school began landing bigger series roles on "Charmed," "Station 19," and since 2019, a main role as Georgia "George" Fan in the CW's take on "Nancy Drew."
In 2020, she starred in Netflix's coming-of-age movie "The Half of It," directed by Alice Wu; it caught the attention of Peter Sohn, director of "Elemental," who cemented Lewis's place as a Disney/Pixar hero.
Here, Lewis discusses the best career lessons she's learned so far, the meaning behind working with fellow Asian American and Pacific Islander creatives, and what she hopes audiences take away from her new Pixar feature.
I've learned from my dad to take on a "live and learn" mentality: Process and take your second, but you have the power to get back on the horse. And you can do that without shaming yourself, too.
There have been times when I have given it my 300%, and I still don't get the job. I've learned to just continue getting back up on the horse and not take it personally, because there's a million things that could really cost you a job that maybe was never yours to begin with.
My job at the end of the day is just to deliver the best performance I possibly can, and I can't deliver the best performance if I'm just sitting here feeling sorry for myself.
In this industry, we're husting. For a decade and a half I wasn't working consistently. Even when I landed some kind of success with "Nancy Drew," "The Half of It," now "Elemental," I think, "Are you sure?"
At the end of the day, if I work my hardest, there is nothing to feel like an imposter about. I've done the work, and the work really leads me to feel like I'm not like faking it. I really have done what I have done to try and get me here.
I used to work at a gastropub and remember doing all the crazy things you do at a bar, like cleaning the bathroom and dealing with drunk customers. I always told myself, "this is going to be a stepping stone to get me to where I need to go."
We all want to do professionally what fuels us in our heart. Sometimes people get lucky and they can do it right off the bat. But then there's some times where we have to pay our dues. I don't think there's anything wrong with working hard so that one day you can get to do what you truly, truly love.
But it's miserable. Working at a bar was not always fun, and all the other millions of other day jobs that I did. But I think it's so worth it.
I was adopted from Shanghai, China, and grew up in a Caucasian household. The older I get, the more cultural identity-searching I have done. I am just so jazzed to work with AAPI creatives, directors, writers, actors — anything — because of what it means for representation.
Between "The Half of It" and "Elemental," these projects are actually really quite similar in the way they lead with such honesty and vulnerability. They represent a community that, for so long, hasn't really been able to speak out to tell their stories.
There's a bit of tenderness that goes on when it comes to telling these stories, because they can be so underrepresented.
The best career advice I've gotten, especially as an Asian American female, is: Do not be afraid to dream bigger.
There have been times growing up when I felt, "I could never play that role." Or, "They'd never make a role for a Chinese girl like me." But now, it's happening in real time. So any kind of limits you have on yourself based off of the way you were raised or what you look like — just throw that in the garbage, and dream bigger and take up that space.
It's weird what the power of dreaming bigger can really do for you. The playing field just gets larger and larger, and the opportunities just start to open up more and more, but only if you really believe that you can.
I hope this movie really challenges people's beliefs about who they think they are, and who they think other people are. This film is about finding that missing piece yourself, and sometimes we can only do it by being mirrored by other people.
It's also about giving differences a chance.
And I hope people walk away with gratitude for the people they love the most, whether it's friends, family, or their boyfriend or girlfriend — all the people that helped make us who we are today.
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