Fifteen-year-old Mckenna Grace is something of a chameleon.
In her already decade-long career, she’s played the younger versions of: Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding, Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina, Jennifer Morrison’s Emma in Once Upon a Time, Candice King’s Caroline in The Vampire Diaries, Kate Siegel’s Theo in The Haunting of Hill House. One of her first roles was “even younger Chloe,” in which she played the younger version of Sabrina Carpenter’s younger version of Becki Newton in The Goodwin Games. In her newest movie —the latest Ghostbusters spinoff, Ghostbusters: Afterlife — she plays Phoebe, sister to Finn Wolfhard’s Trevor, and the resemblance is uncanny.
“I like to make a joke that I play the younger versions of so many people,” Mckenna tells Teen Vogue during a spare hour on a packed press run for the film in New York City. “I like to say, ‘You know, if they ever do a biopic of Finn or something, I'm playing the younger version of him.’”
In-person, however, Mckenna looks like none of these people. If anything, the effect is more Alice in Wonderland. She’s dressed in blue jeans, a blue sweater, and matching headband tucked into her blonde waves. She claims to be tired, but the tiredness is manifesting in bubbly energy. She is wide-eyed and excited to be here, thrilled to talk about Ghostbusters, and her recent turn in Handmaid’s Tale, and filmmaking, and songwriting. On November 18, she made her musical debut with a pop song called “Haunted House” that’s also in the credits of Ghostbusters. She’s ready to do it all, and in fact has already been doing so for years at this point.
As Mckenna’s star has risen, she’s had people say things like, “Somebody give this girl a childhood” and “Why does she not go outside?" She saw a tweet once that read, "Oh, let this girl learn how to ride a bike or something." Her response? “I posted a picture of me and my friends on bikes and I said, ‘Riding a bike or something.’" (She admits, however, that she didn’t actually learn how to ride until she was 14.)
Mckenna is adamant that she hasn’t missed out on much of anything. She gets to travel, and make movies, and learn all about the process of making movies. Everyone, no matter your life or career, will find a way to long for something they don’t have, she muses. “This is my preferred career path, my preferred childhood. I love what I do. I'm so happy.”
It helps that her parents are vigilant about checking in with her. "McKenna, are you unhappy?" they’ll ask. "You know that you don't have to do this. You don't have to act. If it's stressful for you, then we can always take a break.” She would like them not to talk like that. “I'm like, ‘Guys, this is what I love doing.’” They’re also deeply proud. At one point during our interview, Mckenna hears her mom on the other side of the hotel lobby, playing “Haunted House” for someone.
Born in Grapevine, Texas, Mckenna was always an ambitious kid. She wanted to do gymnastics. She wanted to be a cheerleader. She tap-danced; she practiced ballet. She did pageants, winning Tiny Miss Texas. Her mom practically begged her to do fewer activities. It’s like she came out of the womb with limitless joie de vivre. “The world is just so exciting,” she says.
It didn’t take long for her to land on acting, driven by an early obsession with Shirley Temple and Pee Wee Herman. This was a hard sell for her mom. “I said, ‘Mom, please. I beg of you. I want to be an actor,” Mckenna recalls. “She's like, "No, Mckenna, you're already doing all of these things. You're barely even human. You're like four. No. I'm not going to put you into that."
But she was fixated, and her mom caved and put her in an acting class, sure she would get bored and move onto the next thing. As origin stories tend to go — she did not get bored. Instead, she thrived.
In recent years, Mckenna has begun to leave behind “younger” roles and ascend to what will surely one day be EGOT status. She earned an Emmy nomination for her role in the latest season of Handmaid’s Tale, in which she plays Ms. Esther Keyes, a child bride who is wife to a commander that she’s slowly poisoning with nightshade from her greenhouse. It’s an unnerving role, given that Mckenna was 14 years old and playing a character who has survived regularly scheduled rape.
Mckenna has done her research, and she cares about spotlighting the very real issues of child marriage and assault. It’s supposed to be unnerving, how young she seems, how young she is.
“People are scared to say the word rape because it's such a heavy word, but it's something that happens to so many women and men,” Mckenna says. “The fact that we're still allowing child marriage in so many states is wild to me because it's surprising how little it's talked about, how prominent child marriage actually is. I feel like that's something that should be special to a young woman, to be able to choose who she wants to love and who she wants to marry, if she wants to get married at all. That's something that unfortunately is taken away from so many women around the world … I think that New York actually just passed a law that eliminated child marriage.” The state is only the sixth in the U.S. to do so. “Talking about it is a step in the right direction, moving to actually doing things about it more than just raising awareness.”
Doing that level of research seems obvious to Mckenna. She wants to be able to speak accurately about the things her characters go through, and use her platform in a way that feels right. She’s prone to impassioned tangents when we happen upon a topic she cares fiercely about.
For example: Mckenna has recently co-written her first script, the sequel to her 2018 thriller The Bad Seed, which she’ll also executive produce. She’s eager to learn more and more and more about her craft and every part of filmmaking. “I plan on doing this until the day I die, and if I cannot continue in acting, then I would love to continue somewhere else in the creative industry, like directing, producing, writing, or SFX. All the parts are so interesting. It wouldn't be possible without one person. Truly, the most stressful thing is whenever a director or AD prioritizes the actors over everyone else, because I think that that's so untrue.”
We’re off to the races, then. Everyone who makes a film is doing so much that goes unappreciated. The lighting, the set design, craft services, visual effects, PAs. Actors can be replaced, Mckenna continues, but a good crew is vital. Everybody’s equally important. “We don’t deserve how great our crews are to us,” she notes. That’s why she makes a point to try and learn everyone’s name, to make sure she expresses her gratitude.
That energy doesn’t always translate into advocating for herself. She gets nervous, still, to ask for another take. “I get so nervous to ask for anything on a set, like even to go to the restroom,” she says. “I'm just a very nervous person. I apologize a lot.” Even when our interview goes over time, she apologizes for not being able to stay longer.
It seems to come from a place of genuine pride in what she does. She’s so excited to make movies she’s proud of, and Ghostbusters is one of them. Mckenna has been a fan of the franchise since she was a young kid; she even dressed up as Bill Murray’s character Venkman years ago for Halloween. She’s happy this movie can exist for the fans, who can enjoy many easter eggs and callbacks to the original.
Already, she’s developing a sense of how to deal with criticism. She’s read comments and reviews that say Afterlife has too many callbacks and homages, but she tries not to internalize that. When she watched the movie at Comic-Con with thousands of fans screaming and crying and cheering, that was the response that mattered.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t scary for her. It's important for her to do work she's proud of. “If you release something that you're not proud of, then it is easier for you to be very discouraged by what everyone has to say about it,” she says. When she filmed 2017’s Gifted with Octavia Spencer, the actress gave Mckenna some solid advice. “She told me, ‘You can read the good reviews and believe them. But if you read all the good reviews and believe them, then you have to read the bad reviews and believe them, too. So just don't pay attention to them that much.' I really took that to heart.”
Mckenna will soon leave for six months of training for her next film, Perfect, directed by Olivia Wilde. The movie follows gymnast Kerri Strug (played by Thomasin McKenzie) and her journey to winning Team USA’s first gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. Mckenna can’t reveal her character’s name just yet, but it seems likely she’ll be one of the gymnasts on the Olympic team.
She’s working with a trainer on getting stronger, and she’s also had to adjust her nutrition. That seems like it would be a minefield for anyone, much less a teenager whose body might already feel like something out of her control. Mckenna has thought about this and has discussed it with Wilde to make sure she’s doing it in a way that won’t be dangerous for her future (and current) self.
“As a teenage girl, I fully understand what it's like to be uber insecure and scared of what my body looks like, or frustrated with myself,” she says. “It's nice to be able to work with people who actually care about me. Who care about it not being harmful, because it's very easy to do something like that and then easily fall into unhealthy habits. I'm working with people who really want this to be as healthy as possible for the actors … it's not just a matter of, you need to get super skinny, it's a matter of, you need to get stronger.”
Mckenna is growing up. She’s aging. It’s eye-roll-inducing when your aunt comments on how tall you’ve gotten since the last family reunion. But for child actors, the feeling is magnified by a thousand — you’re frozen at the age when someone first discovered your work.
She recently saw a fan-made TikTok that tracks her acting evolution over the years, showing her growth from child to teenager. It’s even weird for Mckenna to see how young she used to look compared to now. (“I'm so ready to get a new passport picture because I look, like, literally three years old.")
She finds it funny when people forget she has hobbies and interests outside of acting. She’s deeply invested in Minecraft YouTube, and whenever she talks about it, people can’t believe she watches creators like Wilbur Soot, TommyInnit, and Dream. She plays with her dog, whose name is Gizmo Fruitsnack Benjamin Cheesewiz Freaky Bad Boy Chicken Nugget DiCaprio (“but we call him Gizmo”). Right now, she’s big into roller skating and Animal Crossing. While filming the Disney+ series Just Beyond, she bonded with costar Lauren Donzis, who introduced her to a group of girls who go on picnics together. “It is the loveliest thing that I've been a part of,” she says.
So don’t worry about her, Mckenna says. Her life may be full — she has more music coming out in early 2022 that she wrote while in quarantine — but she’s taking advantage of every single second of it. She’s so grateful, she’s not taking this for granted even for a moment. Perhaps her only “normal teenage girl” wish is to go to an actual school dance; she hopes someone will take her to prom. But she wouldn’t trade acting for anything else. “This is my favorite thing in the world,” she says. “And I do know how to ride a bike.”
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Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Even Mckenna Grace Is Amazed That She Looks Like Kiernan Shipka and Brie Larson