World, meet Laura Harrier
By Shannon Mahanty, 24 May 2017
Yep, this is Laura Harrier, the actress using her art to change your world on screen and off. She’s seamlessly stepping into the shoes of Spider-Man’s girlfriend, and is the first woman of colour to do so. You should really get to know her better...
Hundreds of thousands march in protest, social media posts are seen, shared and spread, millions of signatures appear on pages and petitions, countless letters land on the doormats of MPs, governors and leaders… In 2017, activism has many different faces, yet it’s a sum with no answers. How do you add the pressure exerted from a protest with the power of a podcast or the velocity of a whistle-blower’s intel? Its true impact is almost impossible to measure and may not be felt for generations to come. And yet, around the globe entire populations are dedicated to creating change. These are everyday superheroes hell-bent on a better future.
I meet one of them on a bright, spring day in a Santa Monica restaurant overlooking the ocean. Sitting on the deck, 27-year-old actress Laura Harrier looks me straight in the eye. ‘Social justice is so important to me,’ she says proudly. ‘It’s something I’ve always felt passionately about and talked about. I think now is such a scary time and I have this platform. Being a woman of colour, it’s kind of my duty to speak out about things and raise awareness on important issues.’
The very first time I heard the name Laura Harrier was when it was announced that she’d been cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming alongside stellar Hollywood talents like Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Keaton. Before Spider-Man, her biggest roles had been in a few small independent movies and playing Destiny in One Life To Live, a now discontinued US soap about feuding families. What was this girl doing in a massive Marvel franchise blockbuster?
In playing Spider-Man’s romantic interest, Laura has stepped into the shoes previously worn by Kirsten Dunst and Emma Stone, and is the first ever woman of colour to do so. It’s a huge role and one that will have an important legacy. Meeting her, it all makes sense. The magic that won over casting agents and directors is tangible.
Over lunch, Laura – who is warm, funny and open – tells her story. She’s lived in New York for almost a decade – she left home at 18 to attend NYU, but ended up dropping out to pursue acting. Then she got a place at New York’s prestigious William Esper drama school where she not only perfected playing other people, but also spent a lot of time getting to know herself.
‘The first year, it’s basically about taking everything inside of you and pulling it out, throwing it on the ground and stomping on it,’ she laughs. ‘It was intense. I feel like growing up in the Midwest, you are very polite, you aren’t loud, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, you do what you can to fit in. I think I learned in drama school that it’s OK to make your feelings known. It’s OK to feel these very strong emotions – you’re going to be all right. I could be super-devastated or really angry and have all of these intense things going on, but then afterwards I’m like, “It’s going to be OK.” It’s important to have feelings.’
Before moving to New York, Laura grew up in Chicago. In fact, you’ve probably already seen her school – Evanston Township High is the same one that Regina George, Gretchen Wieners et al attended in Mean Girls. That area of Chicago – the North Shore – is also the on-screen home to another set of teens. It’s where coming-of-age film hero John Hughes directed a number of 80s movies such as Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink. Laura essentially grew up in the teenage Hollywood of the Midwest.
‘It wasn’t quite like the movies,’ she says. ‘I had great friends. My best friends now are still my high school girlfriends. It was cool because it was so super-diverse – racially, socio-economically – so there was every kind of kid and a place for everybody. That’s what I loved about it the most.’
Maybe it’s fate, but at last year’s Comic-Con, Spider-Man director Jon Watts described his film as being ‘like a John Hughes movie’. ‘It’s a straight-up high school movie,’ he said. ‘It’s about a 15-year-old kid. This is the ground level of the Marvel Universe. We know what it’s like to be a playboy billionaire… a Norse god… and now we’ll know what it’s like to have just gone through puberty.’
He wanted the cast of Spider-Man: Homecoming to be diverse, because it’s set in a school in the New York borough of Queens, where the ethnic mix is diverse. When Laura told him about her own experiences as a kid, he simply replied, ‘This is perfect. You have lived all of the references.’
It’s perhaps fitting that Spider-Man: Homecoming is Laura’s first proper feature length film. It’s clear that Marvel has a new look, especially compared to 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, where the cast was predominantly white, with the exception of an Asian scientist. ‘I think it’s so cool how we were cast in Spider-Man,’ Laura says. ‘That said, it feels very natural. You go to a high school and this is what it looks like. We’re all from different backgrounds, different shades – that’s what the world looks like. I think it’s time the film world started to represent how it really is. I love being part of Spider-Man because it shows the difference between diversity and tokenism.
‘When I went to my very first Spider-Man audition all the other girls in the waiting room looked different. People were white, black, Hispanic, Asian… It’s really cool of them to focus on the right person to represent the character, as opposed to ticking a box. No one is there just to be a black girl to fill a spot.’
Laura has first-hand experience with the tokenism she calls out. Earlier in her career, she noticed a tendency to be offered ‘drug dealer’s girlfriend’ roles, or characters who ‘were literally just there to hang onto the men. I have no problem being the love interest,’ she continues, ‘but I want to [play] a fully actualised human being. There has been a shift in the last couple of years.’
She cites how the Oscar-winning Moonlight brought minority stories to the majority. ‘Being able to tell these stories, it’s the most important thing,’ she says. ‘We’re still not where we should be, we’re on the right path but there’s still work to do.’
This ‘there’s still work to do’ attitude is typical of Laura. She is part of a generation who are aware that there’s much to fight for, for whom activism is now a default setting. In the light of a changing political landscape and uncertainty about the future, it’s no longer enough to put the world to rights over a glass of wine with girlfriends. Like many of her generation, Laura reached adulthood and was confronted by this rapidly changing world – and the realisation that things don’t always turn out the way you thought they would when you were young. But she is refusing to believe that it’s too late to change things, and, like many of you, is making her voice heard.
Whether by attending protests, calling out injustices or making links to organisations like Planned Parenthood or the American Civil Liberties Union on her Instagram bio, Laura is always at work. ‘Social media definitely has a downside,’ she explains, ‘but a positive thing about it, is that young people are able to learn about politics. They can stay connected and figure out much more about what’s going on in the world and how interconnected we all are. I didn’t have that in high school.’
She lists her contemporaries Yara Shahidi, Rowan Blanchard and Spider-Man co-star Zendaya as people who inspire her every day. ‘These women use their platforms and voices to talk about real issues.'
A few months earlier, one of Laura’s own Instagram pictures started circulating around the ASOS office. In it, she wears a T-shirt with the slogan: ‘The future is female.’ In other posts she’s encouraging her followers to ‘protect trans kids’ or quoting civil rights leaders.
‘People are so angry right now,’ she says. ‘I’ve heard stories in New York of Muslim women having their scarves ripped off. So many arts and education programmes are being defunded, while a wall is being built. You’re taking the resources away from kids and people who need art as their outlet. For me, having the arts expanded me as a person. It makes me feel less scared in the face of all of this, having that community.
‘But people are fighting things, people are using their voice in a way we haven’t seen since the Vietnam war. I think if there’s anything positive to take out of the shitty things happening, let that be it.’
Laura may have landed the role of a lifetime, but as for the rest of her work, it’s clear that she’s just getting started.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is out on 6 July in Australia