For her latest TV role, Elizabeth Lail — an alumna of the UNC School of the Arts who previously appeared in such shows as “Once Upon a Time” and “Dead of Summer” — is playing a character who isn’t quite aware of what’s happening to her.
In “You,” a gritty psychological drama making its debut on Lifetime Television at 10 p.m. today, she plays Guinevere Beck, an ambitious young graduate student and aspiring poet living in New York. After a chance encounter in a bookstore, she befriends Joe (Penn Badgley), a quiet, intense young man who becomes fixated on her.
His obsession quickly turns to stalking, which takes an even darker turn as he begins manipulating events in her life to distance her from her boyfriend and others so he can win her over.
Beck is oblivious to what he is up to, thinking of Joe as a cute, nonthreatening friend and potential love interest, and — at least through the first half of the 10-episode season — misses clues the audience is aware of that he is up to no good.
“I got to live in the romantic world of Joe and Beck, which is easier for me to understand,” she said. Lail said that she, like the character, is in her mid-20s and living in New York, so she related to the role. “I’m an artist, she’s a writer, so that part of her was fun to play.”
She also appreciated that Beck was a three-dimensional character, with her own foibles and self-destructive tendencies that sometimes blind her to the danger growing around her.
“I try not to judge whatever character I’m playing, because it can hinder your performance,” Lail said. “You have to be on their team, because you’re seeking understanding of why they do what they do. ... She has no idea how bad it is, she’s just messed up with her day-to-day worries.”
The series is based on a novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes. “I did read the book,” Lail said. “I think it’s helpful because you’re getting a lot of information. The book is entirely narrated by Joe, who is an unreliable narrator, so everything is as he perceives Beck to be. The show does a really good job opening the narration up.”
Lail, an Asheboro native, first became interested in acting career when she was a child, making home movies with her sister, and started in earnest in a community theater production of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” when she was 14.
She attended a summer session at UNCSA when she was 15 and fell in love with the school setting, attending during her senior year of high school and then going into the college program. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the School of Drama in 2014.
From there, she moved to New York to start auditioning for stage roles, and almost immediately landed the role of Anna, the wholesome character from the Disney movie “Frozen,” in “Once Upon a Time,” an ABC series that featured live-action versions of Disney characters. That was followed by “Dead of Summer,” a thriller about camp counselors being stalked by a killer, and guest roles on such shows as “The Blacklist” and “The Good Fight.”
When she decides what roles to pursue, she said, “I think, for me, I’m looking for something that resonates with me, first and foremost, and that comes in all shapes and sizes. And something that will challenge me as an actor and a person to grow. You’re working on these projects for quite a few months, so you want something that keeps you interested, and keeps you waking up excited to see what the day is going to bring.”
It’s been a year or two since she was able to get back to UNCSA, but she said she loved her experience. “I think of my time there and it’s such a dream world for an actor,” she said. “You spend every day on incredible material and expanding your work.”
Her training at UNCSA “really prepared me for anything that could possibly come my way,” she said. For instance, “For one of the episodes I was screaming a lot for a whole day of filming. I was so proud that the next day I hadn’t lost my voice. I think that’s a correlation to the training and the voice work I learned.”
The premiere of “You” is preceded by another psychological thriller, this one a TV-movie remake of the classic 1956 film. Rob Lowe produced, directed and stars in “The Bad Seed” (8 p.m. today on Lifetime), the story of a single dad who has been oblivious to his seemingly-perfect young daughter’s diabolical nature until a tragedy at the school. Patty McCormack, the actress who played the daughter in the original film — and was the youngest performer ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the role — plays the girl’s psychiatrist.
At 8 p.m. tonight, Fox will show a preview of a new situation comedy produced by Jerrod Carmichael, a Winston-Salem native.
“Rel” features Lil Rel Howery, who played Carmichael’s brother on the NBC sitcom “The Carmichael Show” and also had a supporting role in the hit film “Get Out.” He plays a recently-divorced dad in the west side of Chicago trying to rebuild his life with the support of friends and family, including his sharp-tongued father (Sinbad).
After tonight’s preview, the series will move to 9:30 p.m. Sundays starting Sept. 30.
Now available on DVD, “Sid Caesar: The Works” is a five-disc set that looks at the work of Caesar, a towering figure in the early days of television who helped define sketch comedy as we know it today, working with such luminaries as Imogene Coca, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen and the recently-deceased Neil Simon. The set includes material from such programs as “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” as well as the earlier “The Admiral Broadway Review” and other TV appearances. It’s a fascinating — and still funny, after all these years — overview of some true geniuses at work.