As with any good thriller, the strength of Cruel Summer — a tangle of lies and secrets that envelops the fictional Texas town of Skylin — is its chilling, nail-biting suspense. Even the actress Chiara Aurelia, who stars as Jeanette, a teen the series follows across three harrowing years, was kept in the dark as filming began. Rather than reveal the ending, producers sprinkled cryptic hints for the actors to puzzle-piece together. With the cast scrambling to decide for themselves what was real and who could be trusted, that curious tension translated to the screen. “I didn’t find out the ending until about a week or two before I received the tenth episode,” Aurelia tells MTV News. “I was so shocked and excited.”
The show takes place in the warm months of 1993, 1994, and 1995, centering high school classmates Jeanette and Kate (Olivia Holt), who see their lives and communities turned upside down. Cruel Summer promises an unexpected ride of loyalty and betrayal from its first episode. Smart but shy, Jeanette feels discarded and underestimated by her peers and family, who treat her like a little girl. Her parents argue, her brother ditches her birthday plans, and though her best friends are steadfast and kind, she feels like an outsider to the town’s tight-knit cliques. But everything changes when the popular, bubbly Kate goes missing; and in her place, sweet wallflower Jeanette begins to bloom. As the perspective shifts between each character, different fragments of the story are revealed, forcing the viewer to question who is right, who is wrong, and the legitimacy of these concepts themselves.
Capturing the twists throughout Cruel Summer would be a challenge for any seasoned actor, but thankfully, Aurelia has some experience with the genre. The 18-year-old actress had her breakout turn in Gerald’s Game, an adaptation of a Stephen King horror novel in which she played the lead’s younger self, and her performance secured wins at the Young Entertainer and BaM Awards. She followed up that success earlier this year when she embodied the small-town mean girl Rose Lord in Amazon’s murder mystery Tell Me Your Secrets. Aurelia has been working toward these projects for years. Growing up between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, she first began acting at age 4 in pre-school theater programs. She attended the Lee Strasberg Institute to hone her singing and dancing abilities, an experience that was “as much of a normal childhood as physically possible,” she says. Though convincing her family took time, she felt destined for a life in Hollywood and moved to California full-time in 2014.
When the role of Jeanette came to her, Aurelia knew she was ready. “It was such an incredibly unique opportunity and it was like nothing I’d ever seen or read before,” she notes, “especially as someone trying to learn more in this industry and grow in the best hands.” Aurelia says she and her castmates were empowered by the creative team, including executive producer Jessica Biel, to collaborate in the development of their characters. In Jeanette’s case, her internal struggles are reflected externally. As her social status shifts, so does her style, as she begins straightening her hair and wearing trendier clothing. She lies to her parents, replaces her friends, and dates the high school heartthrob, who also happens to be Kate’s ex-boyfriend. But her reign is short-lived; as more details around Kate’s disappearance come to light, her year of parties and popularity is replaced by lawyers and camera crews at her lawn. Aurelia helped define how her character’s journey would render visually, working with the crew to realize what “it was going to feel like off the page.”
To that end, her love of ’90s fashion and aesthetics helped Aurelia immerse herself in the era’s music and lingo. She listened to Alanis Morrisette and The Cranberries between takes and appreciated all the work involved in crafting looks that uniquely defined each year of the show. “The costume designer for this first season was amazing,” she says, noting that she “definitely got [to keep] a couple pairs of pants.” There is not a cell phone in sight throughout Cruel Summer. This detail is in accordance with the time but also amplifies the pitch of anxiety, knowing no one will receive a photo revealing their secrets. Without social media, rumors somehow fly faster, snowballing as they barrel through the town. Period-specific snack wrappers and bedroom posters are strategically placed into the sets to create a realistic backdrop for the actors to play out the highs and lows of the timelines. “There was a shopping mall that we were working in,” Aurelia remembers. “Every single little thing in the mall had to be changed so it looks like we’re basically stepping into a different time period. It’s incredible.”
Cruel Summer was also a unique opportunity for Aurelia to explore and mold her character’s emotional journey across distinct time periods, which is what excited the actress most about the project from the jump. Each year of Jeanette’s arc was different from the last, and Aurelia carefully considered how each situation would affect the character. “She’s trying to maintain the peace but quickly realizes that [her new friends are not] the people she should have been surrounding herself with,” Aurelia says, “and this is potentially not the right path.” And when these moments felt difficult, the actress found a supportive community in her castmates, with whom she bonded through the five months of production. The crew joked like siblings, cutting the tension of the scenes with lighthearted pranks. “There was a lot of jumping out and screaming in the middle of takes,” she says. “We are actually all like, best, best friends. We’re very, very close.”
Aurelia is less concerned with some nebulous notion of making it and more with exploring her own path, learning what she can from the art form she cherishes. Her favorite part about acting is simply “everything,” she says, and while she’s not ruling out other psychological thrillers, she hopes to further expand her repertoire to other genres. She’s attained level-headed confidence rare for any young adult, let alone one growing up in the spotlight. “The first time you’ve ever read a script for a project that you’re potentially going to work on, there’s something magical and special within that,” she says. “And in your first day on set and even the worst day on set.”