“People always tell me that I’m an old soul,” Matilda Lawler, age 13, said midway through an interview with IndieWire. After speaking with the actress, who shares the central role of Kirsten in HBO Max’s exquisite limited series “Station Eleven,” I’m inclined to disagree.
It’s not that Lawler isn’t wise beyond her years — she is — it’s the fact that she’s wise beyond most adults’ years. Throughout our conversation, she dropped such profound observations about herself, her role, and her part in the show’s greater creative experience that by the time I disconnected our Zoom call I was a bit dumbfounded by what had just transpired.
For those who’ve watched “Station Eleven,” which released its final episode January 13, this should come as no surprise. As Kirsten is faced with escalating calamities in the wake of a pandemic that wipes out the vast majority of the world’s population, including her own parents, Lawler occupies the character with such perspicaciousness that it’s nigh impossible to remember you’re watching an actress and not a young girl — even while, in truth, you’re watching both.
While Lawler and all of the actors in “Station Eleven” were overlooked at the recent Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations, that doesn’t make her performance any less remarkable or any less worthy of awards consideration.
Kirsten’s journey within the series is harrowing and the story regularly bounces between the past and the present. As an adult (played by Mackenzie Davis), she travels with a group known as The Traveling Symphony, performing Shakespeare on a route that loops around the Great Lakes. As a child, the sudden death of her mentor mid-performance of King Lear coincides with the spread of an unprecedented flu that spreads so quickly that few are left in its wake. She is looked after by an aimless young man named Jeevan (Himesh Patel), who had previously agreed to take Kirsten to her parents, but the global health crisis strikes while they’re together, and the two take shelter at a secure apartment with Jeevan’s brother. They are holed up for months until finally venturing into the wilderness in an attempt to stay alive.
And that’s just the first two episodes.
Something that stays consistent throughout is the character’s ability to connect with other people and, further, to keep connecting. The idea of found family runs deep in the show’s DNA, as communities spring up throughout the countryside of pandemic survivors. Since at its heart, “Station Eleven” is a story about connection and community, it makes sense that Lawler has a lot of thoughts about both.
The first time the two Kirstens made contact — Lawler and Davis — it didn’t really feel real, Lawler said, since it happened over a Zoom call. Several weeks later, however, the pair met face-to-face.
“When we first met, we started playing this miming game. It was really funny, it was just something we automatically did,” Lawler said. “We started mirroring each other’s facial expressions. It was fun.”
“We both felt connected to each other because we both knew the character already,” she said. “We were representing such different parts of Kirsten’s journey. We got to know each other, and it was really great.”
While Lawler and Davis occupy the same character, the young actress spends most of her screen time with Patel. The relationship itself can be tense — the two aren’t exactly a match made in guardian/ward heaven — but under the hardships is a shared trust and love. It seems like a challenging bond to build between two actors with a significant age difference but Lawler set me straight in short order.
“Let me start off by saying that Himesh is obviously incredible. He’s such a generous actor,” Lawler said. “He was pretty much the first person besides [creator] Patrick [Somerville] and [director] Hiro [Murai] that I met as part of the project, so it was great being welcomed in by him.”
“We hit it off right off the bat. There was always chemistry there so it was easy to act with him and play off of him,” she said. “We were really supportive of each other and each had a chill vibe, so if we ever forgot our lines, there was this unspoken knowledge that it was cool. And sometimes he would laugh randomly and it made everything brighter.”
In the series, Kirsten has also built a meaningful working relationship with Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) who takes her under his wing during their production of “King Lear.” Lawler is no stranger to the idea of a veteran actor serving as a trusted friend to a younger actor. You need look only as far as her very first acting role for a prime example.
After hearing plenty of hubbub about a new play coming to the Mile Square Theatre, 8-year-old Lawler decided she was interested in auditioning. The play, “The Net Will Appear” was a two-hander which featured a precocious 9-year-old and her unlikely friendship with her 70-year-old neighbor. She emphasized that she had no illusions about being cast, but in the face of her doubt, she received a callback and eventually, the role.
“It was the first thing I ever did, with this amazing actor Richard Massur. He’s literally my mentor and, like, my best friend,” Lawler said. A film and TV veteran, in recent years Massur has had stints on “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black.”
When asked if that relationship informed her performance in the series, Lawler admitted that it had to if she wanted her turn as Kirsten to have the emotional foundation it demanded.
“As an actor, you have to. It’s impossible to just make up connections. You can’t fake it. It has to be real. As hard as it is, you have to tap into real things from your life, so the connection between me and Richard definitely helped,” she said.
“In order for it to be authentic, you can’t avoid [that connection to your own life]. I did find it hard sometimes, but oddly enough, it was nice tapping into emotions that maybe I hadn’t noticed or brought up before,” Lawler said. “In some ways, it’s a way to face different things that I’ve been feeling without realizing it before. So it was really hard, but I was also grateful for that sometimes.”
While Lawler seems to have no trouble building connections with her fellow actors, “Station Eleven” also afforded her a place in the conversation with regard to creative choices. The process of making the series beget a sort of community of artistic collaborators, not unlike the Traveling Symphony, and within that community critical conversation was encouraged.
“I’ve collaborated with people before but ‘Station Eleven’ felt different,” she said. “Everyone always treated me like they valued my opinions and they didn’t care that I was younger. And I’ve run into that a lot in my day. A lot of adults treat me like a kid and I expect that, but sometimes their idea of treating you like a kid is condescending. It makes it feel like they don’t trust you or don’t want to hear what you have to say. And that can be really annoying.”
“I like sharing my opinions,” she said. “When people do that, it’s rare and it’s amazing. That definitely happened on ‘Station Eleven.’ I learned that it’s OK to say what you need to say. It’s not offensive. If you have something you want to say that’s the opposite of what someone else feels, it’s OK, because it’s a collaboration. Maybe you don’t agree, but it’s going to make it better in the end.”
Collaboration. Community. Connection. These are the lifeblood of both Kirsten and “Station Eleven” as a whole. Lawler admires many things about her character — her intelligence, her determination — but maybe most of all that she’s a connector: “She connects people.”
In that sense, Lawler will remain connected to Kirsten, even as she moves forward into the future. And with her she takes a valuable lesson, one that so many people never learn at all.
“There’s always a home somewhere. You can always find another home,” she said. “Kirsten was particularly good at finding her family over and over again. I think that’s really important to know because it feels like you can lose your family a lot in life. I’ll take that with me. There’s always a family out there. You can always find people to make it.”
“Station Eleven” is now available to stream in full on HBO Max.