Spoilers below for the season finale of Cruel Summer season 2.
It’s complicated when your best friend turns out to be a murderer. That’s certainly the conclusion Megan (Sadie Stanley) comes to by the end of Cruel Summer season 2, which wraps with the revelation that her BFF, Isabella (Lexi Underwood), pounded the final nail in the coffin of her ex-boyfriend, Luke (Griffin Gluck). But it’s also the sentiment of Underwood herself, who didn’t learn of her character’s nefarious deeds until two days before filming the finale’s big twist. That shocker goes like this: After nearly drowning in the Chatham town lake thanks to his big brother’s overzealous temper, Luke washes ashore, clinging to the vestigial remains of life. Only then does Isabella show up—perhaps to apologize for shooting him in episode 8?—and force his head underwater. With her boot.
The details get murkier from there. Cruel Summer season 2 operates on three separate timelines: summer 1999, winter 1999, and summer 2000. Megan doesn’t learn the truth of Isabella’s deception until summer 2000, when she watches a CCTV tape that captured Isabella finishing off the homicide. She realizes this after already having helped Isabella escape culpability; following Luke’s death, the two of them made a pact to “get their stories straight” to ensure neither of them went down for the murder. Instead, Luke’s older brother Brent (Braeden De La Garza) takes the fall, Isabella flies off to Ibiza, and Megan prepares for a new job in tech in Palo Alto. Isabella even gets the chance to rebrand herself as “Lisa,” her former boarding school pal who also…died in a drowning. Surely a coincidence!
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Still, Isabella’s crime “was a big secret to us,” Underwood tells me during an interview prior to the finale airing on Freeform. “We had no clue the whole time who had actually done it.” As such, discovering who Isabella really was (and what she was capable of doing) required Underwood to stretch her understanding of her character—and of the ferocious power of female friendship. Ahead, we discuss what drew her to the anthology series, and what made Isabella’s final reveal a sincere surprise.
What was it about the first season of Cruel Summer that made you want to be a part of the second?
I really loved, as an audience member, watching the structure of the show—and tonally how they used three different timelines and lighting, essentially, as another background character in the show. It really is so different from what I had seen before, and I was hooked every step of the way. And then when I found out that they were doing a season 2, I was so excited.
I was so interested in the fact that you were able to play a character over the span of a year, but get to see three different versions of them. It’s definitely a challenge as an artist, but it’s really fun to be able to do. Isabella is a character like I’ve never played before. She’s just so complex and so mysterious. I don’t think that she even knows who she is, so I was kind of going along with her as she was finding that out.
Why did it feel as if Isabella was a character that you could really own?
Well, my audition story is a little different. I auditioned for Megan. I was in the mix for Megan. I did not get it, and the project went on. And then there was a recast that happened for Isabella, and I only had 24 hours to make a decision. I read the first few scripts and I really loved her.
You’ve said before that, when you learned Isabella’s fate, it really shocked you. What was it like to learn about that twist and then translate it to the screen?
When I first found out that it was me who did it, it was really exciting, but also nerve-racking. It’s fun, but nobody wants to be the villain, and especially because I had genuinely had so much faith in the fact that Isabella did not do it.
When we actually got on set and the whole scene played out—I remember everybody came on set that day, the whole cast. Everybody was holding their breath the whole time, just because it was literally months of us trying to figure this out as actors that had the scripts. So, we were piecing it together, and none of us saw that ending coming, even the Brent component of it.
Was there any part of you, when you found out that it was Isabella, that thought, Well, that can’t be right. That doesn’t make sense? How did you reconcile what you thought you knew about her with what you later learned?
Even when she shot him [in episode 8], I was like, “This is so not her! What is going on?” Because I genuinely had faith that she did not [kill him], and I genuinely believed everything that happened with Lisa was an accident. Everything about [Isabella]—she just seemed like she had a great head on her shoulders, and she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, sticking up for the wrong people.
But when I then found out, it also made sense to me. Because, if you do go back to the cabin and you realize what Luke is saying to her—essentially threatening her—she does have an understanding that, at the end of the day, she shot him. Also, I was having this conversation earlier with somebody: Race plays a role in it. She is a Black girl that just shot a white boy, and she most likely is going to be the one that’s going to get the hardest punishment.
Megan is not an outsider. Everybody in Chatham knows her. If Luke is alive, he is going to stick up and fend for Megan and make sure that she’s good, and make sure that Isabella is the one that has all the consequences. I think that there’s a moment [for Isabella] where it’s “every man for himself” rather than a “ride-or-die” type of thing. I don’t think that she kills him because she’s trying to back up Megan. I think she kills him because she’s genuinely thinking about her own future, and now what is at risk, and how the stakes are incredibly high. And that if he came out of that water, then Isabella’s fate would be incredibly different.
Was it an ending you were satisfied by, both as an actress and as a fan of the series from the beginning?
Oh, absolutely. Just like season 1: I was rooting for [Chiara Aurelia’s] Jeanette, and I think that a lot of people are rooting for Isabella, and it’s kind of fun when the character that you’re rooting for is the one that turns into the villain.
That has to be such an interesting experience as an actress—when you believe while you’re filming that your character is innocent, and then you find out she’s not.
There were lots of moments where I believed that it was everybody else. There were times where I thought that it could be me, but I always shook it off because I was like, “No, she said this in the interrogation room, and she was here on this night, and she wouldn’t do this if that was the case.”
But it goes to show that you really have to pay attention to every single character, and even in the moments where you think that you know what’s going on or you really trust them, you don’t. When you go back after watching the 10th episode, I think that it makes sense.
Was it difficult, feeling as if you had to work with relatively little—in terms of concrete information—about who Isabella was? And what she did?
It was definitely challenging at some points. But then there were also moments where I realized, us as human beings? We don’t know our fate either. We have no clue where we’re going to end up. Summer 2000, that was a little hard with the interrogation scenes. But with summer ’99 and winter ’99, [these characters] have no clue how they’re going to end up. They have no clue where Luke is going to be in a year, and I think that that authenticity shows, that innocence shows.
But it was hard. I think we definitely leaned on our scripts, but also the use of hair, makeup, wardrobe, and everything, all of our different work techniques that we would do to be able to keep track of timelines and keep track of where our character was emotionally.
If you don’t mind me asking, what were some of those work techniques?
I do this for all my characters: I first create Venn diagrams between my character and all the different characters around them. That really helps when it comes to breaking down their friendships. I do a Venn diagram between my character and I, so that I really understand the similarities and differences. No matter what my character does, I never want to judge her, and I always want to have intention behind every move and action that she does. But if I’m in a space of judging her and questioning her motives, then I can’t necessarily do that in an authentic way.
Also, in this instance … I had never done this before, but doing Venn diagrams between each version of Isabella so that I could understand what about her was so drastically different in each timeline. I also journaled from her perspective. I had playlists for each timeline. Stuff like that helped me really stay in that space of immersing myself in Isabella’s world.
As you were diagramming, what did you find were the biggest differences between you and Isabella? Outside of the obvious murder aspect, of course.
I’m not an outgoing person, but I can be confident. But with Isabella, I think that her confidence level—it’s a mask that she’s putting on to hide everything that’s going on beneath the surface. So, she uses her personality, she uses her bubbliness to be able to lure people, to really attach them. I think that’s another difference between her and I, is her need for acceptance and her attachment issues. I think that’s a big thing with her and Megan where they bump heads: The two have very different definitions of what ride-or-die means to them.
I feel like the biggest similarity [between Isabella and me] is the fact that we’re both teenage girls that don’t have all the answers and are figuring out life as we go. You make mistakes, and obviously I’m not making the same mistakes that she’s making.
Let’s hope not.
[Laughs.] Right. I’m definitely not. But the summer ’99 aspect I can definitely relate to.
Are you ready to be done with shows set in the ’90s?
You know what? Honestly…No, I love the ’90s. I would definitely love to do something else, though. If I’m going to do a period piece, I would love to do ’70s, maybe, or even like a Bridgerton style. That would be something. But yeah, I love the ’90s. I love everything about that time, and it’s always so fun when I’m able to immerse myself in that world.
What are you working on next?
Well, I did film a movie at the top of the year, luckily before the strike: I Wish You All the Best. It’s Tommy Dorfman’s directorial debut. It is an adaptation of a book about a young, non-binary teen who’s played by Corey Fogelmanis, and it’s basically their coming-out story. They get kicked out of their house, and they move in with their sister, who’s played by Alexandra Daddario, and a weird brother-in-law, who’s Cole Sprouse.
It’s really funny. I play their best friend, and it’s just such an important story. Especially when we talk about normalizing everyone, and making sure that everyone feels represented. There are a lot of LGBTQ stories out there, but not a lot when it comes to non-binary people. I’m excited for people to see that project. I’m really, really incredibly proud of it. It’s special.
This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.