Top image: photography by Liam Hall
Keiynan Lonsdale has come a long way since his early days as a VJ for MTV in Australia. The actor made his Hollywood entry in 2015 after scoring the role of Uriah in Insurgent, the sequel in the young-adult Divergent franchise, and has since appeared in the third blockbuster chapter Allegiant and Craig Gillespie’s disaster-at-sea drama The Finest Hours. Right now, he’s gearing up for the release of his most recent project, Love, Simon, a story about a young boy struggling with defining his sexuality.
We caught up with Keiynan ahead of the movie release to talk Love, Simon, finding your niche and coping with social anxiety on set.
Adina Ilie: You sing, you dance and you’re also an actor – how did you jump from one another?
Keiynan Lonsdale: I was exploring a lot of areas when I first started in the industry. I took on acting classes at school. But after graduating from school, I found myself needing to survive. In Australia, it’s very hard to just be a dancer or to just be an actor or a songwriter. I didn’t want to work a normal job because it wasn’t very inspiring. I knew I wanted to be creative in whatever job I was doing. So I decided to be very open and explore a lot of different options. I did a musical and that encompassed acting, singing, and dancing, so I was pursuing all of them at the same time.
AI: So you had quite a wide spectrum to choose from if you wanted to specialise?
KL: Exactly. Plus, I got a lot of good advice from people who told me that I should go into the direction that I was best at. I didn’t want to be a jack-of-all-trades my whole life.
AI: Can you pinpoint a defining moment when you realised that acting was your thing?
KL: When I booked Insurgent. That was the moment that defined the rest of my career. I had to choose acting because it was blowing up into something bigger than I ever imagined. I didn’t think that I would be working in that capacity as an actor – but it happened.
AI: You star in Love, Simon, which is out this month. How did you get involved in the film?
KL: It’s directed by Greg Berlanti, who I worked with on The Flash, so I knew that the project would be told in a really honest way. It was an incredible project to get involved in, and at that time I was going through a lot of anxiety, I was scared to step on to a new set. But from the first interaction I had with them they all made me feel like I was part of the family. That allows you to feel safe and to know that you can do a good job. And it’s also a really important film considering the subject matter.
AI: Is there anything in particular that you looked for in the script?
KL: It had to be a combination of storyline, role, and director. And with Love, Simon, it was obvious that it wasn’t made with the pure need to make money, it’s an essential subject matter for the world and I could trust that it was going to be delivered in an appropriate manner. My character was someone that I could relate to as well. The movie fits me like a glove.
AI: What do you hope people will take from Love, Simon after watching it?
KL: I hope that people will have a better understanding of love and of the fact that everyone is worthy of love. So many people suffer from self-hate because they don’t feel that they are worthy – in spite of the fact that their outside egos project that they’re comfortable in their skin. I feel like this movie shows that we’re all worthy. And I hope people take that with them into their lives.
“I felt more exposed during general human interaction than I did in front of a crowd.”
AI: You’ve mentioned in several interviews that you’ve struggled with social anxiety as a child. How did you manage to become a performer in spite of it all?
KL: I’ve been on stage ever since I was five years old. I was okay with people watching me perform, but I didn’t feel safe once I got off the stage. Of course, it doesn’t seem like it makes sense. My mum was very confused, she said, “You can’t even look people in the eye and yet you want to perform in front of hundreds of people?” So I guess I was able to separate the two – it was like stepping into two different worlds. I felt more exposed during general human interaction than I did in front of a crowd.
AI: Is this something that has continued through your adulthood?
KL: It has subsidised, but I still found it difficult interacting with people on set. I didn’t quite know how to be myself and be comfortable.
AI: How do you overcome it?
KL: My first job in America was the Divergent series and after my first day I called my mum and one of my best friends and I was crying. I kept saying that I didn’t want to do it and that I couldn’t do it. I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, I didn’t know how to be around anyone. But I got used to constantly being uncomfortable and it became easier each time. At the beginning of last year, I started struggling with a lot of anxiety and panic attacks and at the peak of it I made a choice to explore myself and see where it came from. I put myself in big crowds at music festivals, I started being more adventurous with my friends and focused on my life outside of my career. I finally felt what it was like not to be afraid.
AI: That must’ve been extremely liberating.
KL: I’d been like that all my life and that shift completely changed my life for the better. It happened at the same time that I came out publicly too, there were a lot of good things changing in my life. It was time not to get in my own way anymore.
AI: Do you have any advice for young actors struggling to make it into the industry because of stage fright and social anxiety?
KL: I suppose that most actors work really hard because they know it takes a lot of dedication to truly honour your craft. But at the same time, I don’t think those artists know how important it is to enjoy life. For me, once I finally let go of the pressure of being perfect, it made my life and my work better. Your work comes from you and if you’re not in check, you often don’t feel brave enough to make bold choices with your creativity. So I would say that once you let go – a little bit or a lot – you’ll actually find that your inspiration has been waiting for you. Open your arms a bit.
AI: What are your next steps?
KL: I’m mostly going to be focused a lot of my music now. It feels like it’s time and that I’m ready and I finally know myself as an artist – as much as one can.
Love, Simon is out now across the US.