PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE ROSENTHAL
Cailee Spaeny was a tween in Springfield, Missouri, when a teacher informed her that she was failing every class—a watershed moment that proved motivating rather than discouraging. “I was like, ‘I’m going to do something with my life that feels good,’” says Spaeny, now 20. At 15, she convinced her mother to drive 25 hours to LA, where they couch-surfed while Spaeny went on auditions. Three years later, she landed a lead role in Pacific Rim: Uprising, a $150 million production that took her even farther afield. “I had never been outside the country, and suddenly I was on a 17-hour flight to Australia,” she recalls. “It was wild.”
In the new film On the Basis of Sex, Spaeny plays future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s daughter, Jane, who came of age during the politically turbulent ’70s. “A mother-daughter fight at the Ginsburg house would be about a Gloria Steinem rally,” Spaeny says. “It’s exciting to see an angry young woman. Playing her definitely lit a fire inside of me.” The Ginsburg biopic was Spaeny’s second straight trip back to that period; in October, she portrayed a young woman beguiled by a mysterious cult leader in Drew Goddard’s ensemble thriller, Bad Times at the El Royale, set in 1969. “That was a role I could just play in,” the actress says.
For Spaeny’s next role, she’s addressing big questions on the small screen as science prodigy Lyndon in the upcoming FX sci-fi thriller Devs. (The show, created by Ex Machinamastermind Alex Garland, also stars Nick Offerman and Sonoya Mizuno.) “Lyndon’s so different from me, but that’s what’s exciting about every role I’ve done,” Spaeny says. “In Basis, I was learning about politics. In Bad Times, cults. Now, quantum mechanics.” Next, she’s ready to go in a more traditional direction. “I’d love to do a slice-of-life teenage film,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve never been a regular teenager in my own life, so I want to see what that’s like.”