She almost doesn’t remember smashing the plates. It happened so quickly, and there were only a few pieces of china to work with, and at one point there were nine children—all toddlers and babies—babbling in the room around her. She never played a mom before, or even worked with infants. But AnnaSophia Robb was killing it. The younger version of Reese Witherspoon’s tightly wound Elena Richardson on Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere might not seem like a role Robb was born to play. Her characters are usually likable, almost compulsively so—recognizable for their heart, playfulness, and spark in mid-aughts movies like Because of Winn-Dixie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Bridge to Terabithia. But since landing the role of young Carrie Bradshaw in The Carrie Diaries, Robb’s traded (some of) her bright-eyed innocence for a sharp, wry curiosity. Five years later, it’s no surprise she caught Witherspoon’s attention.
And that scene in episode 6, “The Uncanny,” where Robb’s young Elena, way past her breaking point, tosses her china to the floor in a fit of panic and desperation? That’s a side of the actress we’ve never seen before. Her younger iteration of Witherspoon is so tonally precise it’s, well, uncanny. And beyond the mannerisms, Robb’s maturity shines in her scenes with Elena’s former flame, Jamie (Luke Bracey), as she gets swept into a fantasy—then faces herself in the mirror, dead-eyed and down-beaten, as she wrestles with the choices she’s made. From quarantine in Los Angeles, Robb catches up with ELLE.com to discuss her latest role—how she mimicked Reese Witherspoon, acting opposite infants, and what she’s working on next. How did you prepare to play Elena? You hit Reese’s inflections so precisely.I asked if I could shadow Reese on set to prepare. I spent a lot of time watching her movements and character choices. I would close my eyes and listen. And I’ve grown up [watching] Reese. She has a very particular speech pattern, but for this chapter, she’s more clipped. She goes down on her words a lot. When I first got on set, a month before I started filming, I asked her, “Do you have an accent with this character?” And she said, “It’s more Midwestern. She’s technically deferential to men.” And Reese recorded some of her lines for me [to study] with her husband.I think Tiffany [Boone] killed it [playing Young Mia]. I’m so proud of her. I thought she did such an incredible job capturing Kerry Washington. She put it in a really beautiful way: It’s not necessarily about matching the speech pattern, but how the character is thinking. If you know the thinking patterns of the character, it’s easier to know where their voice is going to go.
AnnaSophia Robb as a young Elena in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere.
You knew Elena as an adult from the novel, but the show gives the character a back story. What were you interested in filling out? For [the scenes in Paris in episode 5], I was talking with Reese on set and she said, “I think Elena’s plan for Paris was to not have a plan, and that’s the only time she’s not had a plan in her whole life.” Once that building block doesn’t fit into place, everything crumbles and she has to restructure. She gets harder and more rigid in her thinking [to] protect herself and her belief system.By episode 6, she’s let go of the idea that she’s going to work at the New York Times, which was her dream as a young person. She’s going to live here [in Shaker] and this is how life is going to go. But having another kid throws a wrench in her plan and in her value system. I love the conversation with her mom at their dinner table. I think a lot of women can relate to this, where you think you’re really open-minded, and you think you’re really [pro-life or pro-choice], but it takes on a whole new meaning when you [have to make that] decision for yourself. The whole cultural value system you’ve grown up in is suddenly on your shoulders. What does that look like? Where do you move from there? Where do you think young Elena becomes adult Elena?First, it’s in the partner that she chooses. Jamie represents the past and total freedom. At the end of episode 5 when he breaks her heart, for the first time she’s like, “Okay, I have to make safe choices. This person is going to hurt me.” She marries somebody who’s stable, like Bill. She can control him—he’s able to sort of be ruled by her. And then by choosing to have her baby, [she realizes], “I guess I’m going to go along with what is expected of me, rather than what I really want.”And when she has postpartum depression, everything is falling apart. Her body doesn’t feel like her own. She has mastitis and her kid won’t latch. [When she goes to Jamie], she’s having this affair with the past, but she realizes, “This isn’t my life anymore. I have to live with myself and my choices. Where the hell am I, in some motel room?” So she builds a story: “I like my life. I chose my life.” She doesn’t say, “I love my life.” She’s defending that position, and that’s how she moves forward.
The scene where you’re throwing the plates will resonate with a lot of mothers. What was filming like?We had a certain number of plates, so you have a certain number of takes you can do. And those things were challenging, because we had little kids in the background. One of them was just not having it—really did not want to be there. Then here’s this crazy woman and all these crew members with a giant camera banging around, smashing plates. I really felt that my head was somewhere else in those scenes. I was trying to focus on my job, but I also hadn’t worked with babies before. I felt more like Elena, because I was like, “Are the kids okay? Are they happy? What scene are we doing next? Let’s keep it together. Let’s get it right.” And then it’d be like, “Action.”
You were discovered at eight years old. Did you think you wanted to be a professional actress back then? Yes, but I don’t think I knew what that meant. I think people are really judgmental around child actors, especially their parents. But when you see it going well, and you see a kid loving what they’re doing, it’s so fun. I felt that way growing up. My parents didn’t pressure me at all. They were super supportive. I was one of those lucky kids who had really great experiences and no horror stories, which I think is why I continued to do it. I also had the privilege of choice. I had a great family to support me. I was able to stay in school. I got a series of really wonderful roles, and I went to college.What do you look for in a part?Everything starts with a great script. I don’t even care if it’s a ginormous role as long as there’s something to bite into and something that feels different—something I haven’t necessarily seen before or tried before. I finished this Quibi show [The Expecting, a scripted horror series debuting on the Quibi app in the fall]. I play a mother again, but very different. That was a body horror about pregnancy. I spiral into madness—it’s like Rosemary’s Baby meets Stranger Things. The character isn’t necessarily likable. I felt like it broke a lot of the rules.
Lauren Puckett is a writer and assistant for Hearst Magazines, where she covers culture and lifestyle.