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When the clock strikes midnight on November 1, the vibe typically shifts from spooky to festive, but Marlow Barkley and I are meeting in a quiet moment somewhere in between. The 13-year-old actress logs on to Zoom from her family’s home in Southern California during what is definitely the last quiet weekend of her year and, perhaps, for years to come. As she is the star of not one but two excellent family-friendly movies premiering this month, Barkley’s life is about to change in a major way. Buzz about Spirited and Slumberland is high, and the excitement is palpable. 

Barkley got her start as Sophie Cooper on the short-lived series Single Parents and has been plotting her course through Hollywood ever since. Despite the industry- and adolescent-disrupting COVID-19 pandemic, Barkley has used this time as an opportunity to hone her craft and think about what she wants for her future. Fortunately, I had a chance to connect with the in-demand actress before she set flight to NYC to kick off a whirlwind few weeks of events and press junkets. At home, comfortably clad in a gray hoodie and purple T-shirt, Barkley shares her experience working with A-list adults, the magic of cinema, and, of course, her evolving personal style. Trust me—she’s one to watch this holiday season and beyond.

Let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember when you first thought about becoming an actor? Was it a particular movie or a person that you saw that made you say, “I want to give this a go”?

I actually love when people ask me this question because I get to talk about my sister, Tessa. She’s a big part of why I do this. She’s older than me, so being younger, I see my older sister, and I want to do everything she does. She did musicals, and I was really into that. … So then we started doing musicals together. My music teacher and our director told us that there was an audition for an agent, so we went in. I was thinking, “Okay, it might not happen. I might just do musicals.” But then, we got it. It was a lot of commercials in the beginning, and eventually, I booked Single Parents, my sitcom. That was pretty fun. It just lasted for two years, which is crazy. It was my first big project. 

What is your favorite show? What musical would you want to be in on Broadway?

Oh, I would love to do Beetlejuice. I think it’d be so much fun to play Lydia—any role in Beetlejuice would be amazing because it’s such a fun musical.

Fantastic. So speaking about musicals, let’s start with Spirited. It’s a twist on A Christmas Story, but it’s also a musical with Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. Knowing a little bit more about you and your background, I’m curious: Why were you interested in this project?

I’m a sucker for a good Christmas movie, so I thought that it would be amazing to be in a Christmas movie that families can watch together. Also, just getting to be in a musical is so much fun because you get to go through the recording process. And I mean, it’s Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell. I was already a huge fan of them before. That would be pretty insane to be able to work with them. So reading the script, I was like, “Oh yeah, this is definitely a character that I would want to play, especially since I get to play two different characters.”

What was it like working with all of the adults on set?

Honestly, I like acting with adults because I get treated more maturely. I hate when people baby me, and that rarely happens when I’m working with adults. Since I was the only kid on set, I felt very connected to them. I felt like I actually was related to Ryan—even though we’re not, obviously—so they were really easy to work with.

The broad-strokes story lines in Spirited and Slumberland about dealing with loss are similar, but your roles in the two films are extremely different. What was it like having a starring role in Slumberland acting opposite Jason Momoa and Chris O’Dowd, where you were on-screen the majority of the time and it was your character’s story?

It still doesn’t feel real even though I’ve seen both movies already. Since Slumberland was the first movie I filmed, I was like, “There’s no way that it’s me, right? I’m not the lead in this movie, am I?” Being on set, they made me feel very comfortable, and we all had a really fun time. I felt very connected to [my character] Nemo, so it was just a lot easier to play her than I thought it was going to be. Time just flew by, and it was just an absolute dream.

You and Chris O’Dowd were cast first. Did you do any chemistry testing together? Or with Jason Momoa?

I did a chemistry [test] with Jason but not with Chris. I got lucky because Chris and I just clicked on set, which is weird because our characters don’t click immediately in the movie. But we got along really well. 

The chemistry test with Jason was on Zoom, and at first, I was really nervous because this was my first time meeting him. But again, he made me feel very comfortable. I had a really fun time reading our scenes together because he actually got up in the middle of our scene to quiet down his dog that was barking. That moment brought me back down to earth, and I was like, “Oh, he’s a real person.” It immediately took away all the stress and ended up being really easy.

Knowing that you’re early in your career, why do you think it’s important to tell these kinds of complex coming-of-age stories? Or is it more about the character that you’re looking to play?

After reading the script, I told the director, Francis Lawrence, during my audition that, even if I don’t get this role, I’ll still watch the movie because I felt very connected to Nemo. Her coming-of-age story, as I was filming it, felt like it was my own coming-of-age story. I felt like I was going on this big journey with Nemo. The things that she realizes in the movie have helped me in real life—to be patient with people and be more aware of my surroundings.

I noticed that you spend a lot of time underwater in Slumberland. But I assume that’s all CGI and special effects, right? What was it like acting through such imagination?

It was pretty insane. Some parts were terrifying. Some parts were thrilling. I think I was so terrified that it became thrilling for some of the scenes. But it has always been my dream to do stunts. So getting to do a lot of my own stunts was really cool. We filmed a lot in a pool, so I was underwater for water scenes.

Oh, wow! I didn’t realize you were really in the water. I thought that was all special effects. 

Yes, but the crew was very calm about it. And they were like, “If you ever need a break, just let us know.” So I felt calmer filming those scenes. But there was just one stunt that I did that I was very nervous for (it was when I fell off the boat), and when I was practicing and the waves started going, I was like, “I can’t. I can’t do this. I’m sorry.” My stunt double Giuliana comes up, and she’s like, “You know what? I’m going to show you it’s totally okay. If you can’t do it, let me know, and we’ll put your face on my body.” So she demonstrated it and was talking me through it step by step. Then we started the waves at 50% speed and then 75% and then 100%, and it just became a lot easier. 

Well, kudos to you. I’m blown away. I thought that was the magic of cinema, but really, it’s the magic of acting. That’s amazing. You have a lot of solid acting experience under your belt now. You are obviously very multitalented—musicals and stunts now, of course. What kinds of roles are you looking to pursue next?

I really want to be in a horror movie. I’m a scaredy-cat, and I cannot watch horror movies. They freak me out unless I’m with a good group of people. But I would love, love, love to be in a horror movie. I want one that’s like super graphic, a lot of fun makeup. I want a cool fight scene where my nose is bleeding and I’ve got this big injury or I play a monster or I’m possessed. That would be so much fun because I’d get to see what it’s like behind the scenes. … In Slumberland, there was not a lot of big, crazy, bloody action/scary stuff, so it’d be cool to see how horror movies work.

So talking a little bit about makeup, I noticed that you had a very strong, beautiful look at the Slumberland premiere in L.A. Would you say that you’re more into beauty or fashion right now?

Maybe a year or two ago, I would have definitely said I’m more of a makeup person. I always say every time I do a fitting [that] the me two years ago would be looking at the outfits that I’m wearing now and be surprised—like, “Are we sure? Are we actually gonna wear this, or are we just messing around?”—because I’m wearing crazy dresses. I would not have worn that [premiere look] a couple of years ago. So now, I’m more into fashion. But every time I get to have a little glam moment, I get very excited because I just love the process and seeing the before and then the gorgeous after.

Knowing that your character in Slumberland is very clearly a younger kid, did you want to pursue a more grown-up look for press? How did you get to this loud, colorful style moment?

I’m a teenager. I’m still 13, I’m still young, but I’m not too young. I can be mature, and I’d like to show people that. Lately, I’ve been more fascinated by bright colors and big, bold statements because I think that it expresses feelings and emotions that you can’t really say.

You worked with Erin Walsh on this look—is that correct? Have you worked with her before?

Erin just recently became my stylist, and I could not be happier. When we were first figuring out what we wanted to do for stylists and my style, we got on a call and just bonded over the idea of big colors and a lot of crazy outfits that you wouldn’t think of normally. I honestly surprised myself and my mom when we were doing a fitting. I did a photo shoot with Erin, and she was picking out all these looks on the rack, and I was like, “Oh, I don’t think I’m gonna love it,” and I tried it on and was like, “You can bury me in this dress because you will not get it off of me.” Even my mom was like, “Whoa, where did this come from?” So I feel like Erin opened my eyes a little bit to show me that I can be comfortable and know that I still love fashion and get to wear whatever I want and still feel like myself.

My style is pretty preppy, so I love the nautical sweater that Nemo wears throughout the story. Do you have a special piece of clothing that feels like iconic Marlow to you?

Oh geez, iconic Marlow. I mean, I am a big fan of giant sweatshirts, like really oversize jackets. But lately, it has become sneakers. I have this one pair of Nike Air Forces that my mom got me for Christmas, and they’re really bright colors. They’re orange and pink and yellow with some black details. It’s basically like a rainbow threw up on a shoe. But I love them. And they’re a little creased right now, which is a little upsetting because I try not to crease my shoes, but it’s gonna happen. But they always stay super clean. 

So what is the next project on your horizon? When are you getting back to work? 

Well, I have a part in a new show called Tiny Beautiful Things. I am in a couple of episodes where I play the younger version of Kathryn Hahn’s character. My friends can’t watch it because it’s definitely not a kid’s show. But it’s fun to be in a show that’s not meant for kids, so I’m excited to see how that goes. Plus, I’ve been doing auditions, and my fingers are crossed for a Slumberland 2—but you didn’t hear it from me!

Catch Marlow Barkley in Spirited and Slumberland, both in theaters on November 11 and streaming on Apple TV+ and Netflix on November 18, respectively.

Photographer: Christian Högstedt 

Stylist: Erin Walsh

Hairstylist: Kylee Heath

Makeup Artist: Fiona Stiles

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