Amalia Yoo doesn’t want to judge the characters she plays, no matter their choices. But as she watched episodes of Grand Army, the new Netflix show in which she plays a freshman named Leila Kwan Zimmer, she caught herself reacting to her on-screen counterpart’s choices. “I was like, ‘Dang, she's pretty crazy, I don't know if I would have done that,’” the 18-year-old admits to Teen Vogue.
The reaction would be warranted: In the 9-episode first season of Grand Army, Leila tries to mask her radiating insecurity by barreling her way through decisions she may have only halfway thought through. With few friends at her Brooklyn high school, she is constantly vying for attention from her classmates, and especially the popular members of the swim team. The show follows her and four other students as their lives intersect in classrooms, hallways, and social media alike — and for Leila, much of her time is spent trying to define herself in connection or contrast to her classmates.
Leila’s insecurity is intensified by the fact that she rarely feels accepted by the people whom she believes should take her for who she is, no questions asked. Other Chinese-American girls in her class criticize her for not being “Chinese enough” because she was adopted by white parents as a baby, and she and her best friend Rachel (Lola Blackman) begin to drift apart when Leila turns every conversation into an opportunity to dissect text messages from the popular George (Anthony Ippolito). Even the cool, feminist rabbi she seeks out for guidance suggests she should perhaps see a therapist, and Leila views that as further proof of the rift between herself and her Judaism.
For Amalia, a longtime student of show creator Katie Cappiello, Leila’s compounding self-doubt felt universal and was part of the reason why she was drawn to the character. “I think a lot of people have moments where, no matter how old you are, no matter where you are in your life, you feel like Leila, and you feel insecure and are constantly comparing yourself to others,” she says. “You feel 10 steps behind everyone else, and you don't know how to catch up. I have moments now where I feel that way. And I totally felt like that when I was a freshman in high school.”
She adds that she was “really lucky that I was never pressured by my parents or by my friends or by my community” to pick one part of her intersecting identities over the rest, but Amalia recognizes that doing so is “definitely something that Leila feels like she has to do … She feels so lost and she feels like everything is crumbling around her, so she's trying so hard to grasp onto something. She feels like her religion or her racial identity could be one of those things to grasp onto, and that’s why she’s trying to come into herself as a Chinese person or a Jewish person.” What lies in the subtext of Leila’s struggle is the unsaid possibility: Why does she have to choose, especially given that one identity does not negate the other? Why can’t she be both Chinese, and Jewish, and whoever else she wants to be?
There’s also the matter of defining both her sexuality and her feminism at the same time; for Leila, the latter proves especially difficult as Grand Army High is rocked by the revelation that several students sexually assaulted another. (Amalia also starred in a production of Cappiello’s Slut: The Play, of which Grand Army is an expanded adaptation.) Though she is vocal about joining a feminist theater club at school, Leila’s reaction to the assault surprises Rachel, and causes more strife between them.
“I always will believe a survivor, no matter what. If someone comes forward with a story, I'm going to believe them, but [there are] other people who, you know, it takes longer for them to believe [a survivor],” Amalia points out. “I hope that this story makes them realize that these things happen all the time.” And while she doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Leila, the actor believes in the importance of starting a conversation by portraying what that suspicion could look like, especially in a teenager who’s still trying to figure herself out.
“I think it is important to see a story of someone who isn't going to get it right every single time, because that's the reality, especially when you're 14 and you are all of a sudden facing all of this internalized misogyny that's been shoved into you your entire life,” she adds. “You're trying to figure out what you believe in and fight against the patriarchy, but then something happens and all of a sudden you revert back to a misogynist way of thinking without maybe even realizing that you're doing that.”
The show is set in Brooklyn and Amalia went to high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but filming took place in Toronto. And while her character only interacts with a select few other classmates, the actor says she and the cast quickly bonded as a whole, often through house parties. “My parents were with me in Toronto when we were filming, because I was a minor,” she remembers. “My dad would cook a huge feast, and then everyone from the cast would come over and my mom would put on Chaka Khan and we would all eat and dance around and relax and take a break from filming all of those heavy scenes. That was sort of how we got through it, but we bonded immediately.”
In particular, she loved watching Dominique’s storyline, brought to life by Odley Jean, who is like an “older sister” to Amalia; the two have known each other for years. “I cried almost every time I saw her on screen,” she says. She’s also heartened by the fact that though she isn’t so far removed from Leila in terms of age, there is so much growing that happens in the span of four years — throwback photos surfaced on social media, she says, showcase “completely different human beings” than the people she and her friends are today.
Even so, she hopes that people of all ages can find solace in and relate to the teens in Grand Army, no matter how heavy their struggles. “Learning who you are and coming to terms with your identity — whether that's your racial identity or gender identity or sexual orientation — that takes time,” she says. “You look around and you think that everyone else has it figured out, and everyone else can tell you on paper exactly who they are, but that's just not the truth. Everyone struggles with their identity in different ways, throughout their whole life. And that's totally fine.”
“I mean, it sounds cheesy,” Amalia adds. “But you know what your heart is telling you.” That it takes Leila, and other young people like her, a little more time to listen, is part of the process of growing up.
Photographer: Emily Malan
Stylist: Amanda Lim
Hair: Clayton Hawkins
Makeup: Elie Maalouf
Art Director: Emily Zirimis
Fashion Director: Tahirah Hairston
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Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: “Grand Army” Cast: Meet the Characters and Who Play Them