In the year 2021, “How are you?” is a loaded question. How are you? How are you? Does anyone really want to know the truth?
And yet, this is, predictably, how my Zoom conversation begins with 24-year-old Grace Van Patten as we rush through introductions on-screen, maintaining a very safe social distance in our respective Brooklyn apartments. Wearing a white tank top and a mix of chunky and delicate gold jewelry (she describes her personal style as “Saturday Night Fever mixed with Urban Cowboy—basically every ’70s John Travolta movie”), Van Patten projects the vibe of the typical 20-something Brooklynite: confident, contemplative, and a bit confined. After she filmed the sensational summer miniseries 9 Perfect Strangers last winter in Byron Bay, Australia, it’s safe to say that the native-born New Yorker is back in her element. But that doesn’t stave off a bit of pandemic-induced wanderlust.
Now streaming on Hulu, 9 Perfect Strangers is the follow-up project to the Nicole Kidman–produced Big Little Lies. Both shows, adapted from books by Aussie novelist Liane Moriarty, revolve around what it means to carry secrets, unscrupulously wield power, and actually be at peace. When Kidman’s character, Guru Masha, asks, “How are you?” she already knows the answer: not great, obviously. That’s why these nine perfect strangers have come to her wellness retreat, Tranquillum House.
So what exactly is the college kid doing there? That was my second question for Van Patten, who plays Zoe Marconi, the youngest guest on the retreat and the only character who seems, well, relatively fine. Unlike the other girls of summer 2021 (see: Sydney Sweeney’s character in The White Lotus and the entire cast of Gossip Girl 2.0), Zoe isn’t struggling with the typical teen angst, young adult ennui, or substance-abuse problems. Van Patten, however, saw the potential in this quieter portrayal even before she auditioned for the role. “I was hooked right away by the couple sentence plotline explaining the show,” she remembers. “Just reading Zoe’s character blurb, I thought, ‘Wow, this is such a dynamic, deep, and complicated role.’ … You don’t come across that much with female roles, so I was excited and curious to see where it went.” Believe me—it goes there.
While all of the guests at Tranquillum House are uniquely flawed, the hodgepodge of talent, including Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, and Samara Weaving, banded together to become not only a COVID-safe pod but also a microcosm of their on-screen experience. “There’s a line in the show where I say that no one has really treated me like a person the past few years. They treated me like a victim and a patient, but not a person,” explains Van Patten. “I thought that was so sweet and devastating… but also so beautiful that [Zoe] met all these people she felt comfortable with and was able to open up to.” Notably, she describes working with her castmates as both a “master class” and a “total dream,” which was a bonus while filming so far from home and in isolation.
This sense of kinship among the characters in 9 Perfect Strangers and the actors mirrors Van Patten’s experience coming of age in the bustling halls of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan, a decidedly less tranquil atmosphere. In addition to being the inspiration behind the 1980s musical Fame, the school’s notable alumni also include Timotheé Chalamet, Nicki Minaj, and Ansel Elgort, who actually introduced Van Patten to her manager. “I’m excited when I hear about LaGuardia alumni doing great things; it makes me so happy because it was such a supportive community,” she shares. With guest roles on The Sopranos at age 10 and Boardwalk Empire under her belt before graduation, Van Patten admits she had caught the acting bug early but wasn’t sure if she wanted to pursue it as a career. “I feel so lucky to have gone to LaGuardia because I had been so passionate about acting before, but this really sealed the deal and gave me a lot of experience.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) her support network, Van Patten is still figuring out who she is as a person as well as an actor. Her repertoire already spans genres (she’s done comedy, thrillers, and live theater), but her passion is in character studies. In fact, part of her preparation for 9 Perfect Strangers was reading the novel with several of her high school classmates. “It was so fun to have the book club with [my friends] and talk about it. Honestly, just being able to talk about Zoe and dive deep into her headspace helped me get into the role,” she explains. “Our hearts broke for the Marconis, and then at times, we were laughing out loud. It just provided so many different emotions, which I loved.” Fortunately, the book club has a great excuse for a reunion. The script deviates from the source material, incorporating its own twists and turns up until the finale on September 22.
Before we exit the chat, I have to ask Van Patten another cringe-worthy question (after all, this is a show about mental health in the year 2021): “So Grace, do you have a wellness routine or particular practice?” Van Patten doesn’t miss a beat, quipping that if Nicole Kidman was actually a guru, she could be convinced to become a follower. “The first time I met Nicole was right before we shot the first scene [at Tranquillum],” she recalls. “It was exactly how it was described in the script. I got chills. I was so mesmerized by her presence, and I was like, ‘Whatever you say’ automatically.” But in reality, Van Patten is confidently pursuing her own path. In addition to taking long walks in Brooklyn, doing hot yoga, and cooking at home, she’s a self-proclaimed skincare obsessive. “I had a [face] mask on before this—I almost signed on wearing it—offline, you will always catch me in a mask,” she divulges. Today’s treatment of choice? Osea’s White Algae Mask, which, incidentally, promises a visibly brighter complexion—perfect for a day of Zoom interviews.
With a blockbuster miniseries streaming through the dog days of summer, ample skincare products at her disposal, and an upcoming drama series in pre-production, it’s safe to say we’ve got our answer: Grace Van Patten is doing very well, thank you.