Kathryn Newton on carolling with ‘Ben is Back’ co-star Julia Roberts and working with Hollywood heavyweights

By Clare Douglas

Last year, while others trimmed trees, toasted the holidays with family and friends and avoided last minute-shopping trips to the mall, Kathryn Newton was busy singing Christmas carols with Julia Roberts on the set of her latest film, Ben is Back . “We made everyone sing, even if we didn’t know all the words,” the star told HELLO! Canada ahead of the film’s world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

“Before we started filming, Julia said, ‘We’re going to have fun.’ And we did,” revealed the actress, who couldn’t help but gush over her Oscar-winning costar. “She is kind of a superwoman. She was so generous to me and gave us so much love it really helped to tell this dark story.” The mother of three’s warm and friendly personality and infectious laugh ­– "The vibration goes through your entire soul,” Kathryn exclaimed – was undoubtedly a welcome reprieve for the cast, who were tasked with bringing Ben is Back’s heartbreaking and timely plot to life.

The movie follows the journey of a young drug addict ( Manchester By the Sea’sLucas Hedges) as he struggles to mend his fractured relationship with his family, including his mother (played by Julia) and younger sister Ivy. “I really wanted to play Ivy and tell her side of the story,” Kathryn explained. “I felt it was a good example of how addiction can affect everyone. She changes her whole life as a result of her brother’s addiction.”

The Los Angeles native is no stranger to powerful storytelling, having starred in award-winning films like Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. She has also cemented herself as a small-screen star, playing Reese Witherspoon’s rebellious teenage daughter Abigail in Big Little Lies, and showed off her comedy chops in Blockers. Next year Kathryn will turn blockbuster queen as Lucy in Pokémon Detective Pikachu alongside Canada’s Ryan Reynolds. Did we mention she’s only 21?

Kathryn Newton debuted Ben is Back at TIFF (and took a snap on Toronto's iconic streetcar tracks!). Photo: © GP Images/Getty Images

Here, Kathryn opens up about her harrowing new film, which hits Toronto theatres on Dec. 14, plus the lessons she’s learned from a host of Hollywood icons and her surprising side project.

How did you prepare for such an intense role? I read a lot. I watched so many films to the point of being physically sick. There’s unfortunately so much information. What you can’t prepare for in this film is how we look like a really nice family that’s going to have a great Christmas. I think that’s really telling of our time now, everything’s on the surface. You really can’t judge people. Everyone has their own problems and drugs affect so many people. It really humanizes the issue.

Ben is Back marks your third movie with Lucas. Do you two talk about projects you’re thinking of doing? It really is just a coincidence. However, sometimes when you meet people, you see them and you’re like, “I’m going to know you forever.” It was that feeling with Lucas. He’s so busy, we only really see each other if we work together. I feel really lucky to get to call someone I work with one of my best friends.

What did you take away from working with Julia? She invited us into her home before we started filming. I saw her in the kitchen, I saw her with her kids, and that was so important to creating this environment where were just trying to tell a story. I’m working on a show right now and I had everybody over to my house and made dinner, just like she did with me. It’s now so important and valuable to me. I want to love everyone as much as she’s loved me.

Julia is just one of many icons you’ve worked with, including Nicole Kidman, Frances McDormand, Reese Witherspoon ! As a young actress, what have you learned from them? They’ve just paved the way for a young actress like to me to keep my integrity and do projects that I love and characters that I love. There are no limits to your dreams … you don’t have to change who you are to do what you love and that’s what I’ve learned from them. I want to make my own stories, I want to produce my own films, I want to direct one day. The funny thing is, I never thought that I couldn’t and I think it’s because of them parting the seas.

With Meryl Streep joining the cast of Big Little Lies , will we see you sharing the screen with her? I can’t say! But I did meet her and she’s everything and more. I remember at the table read I was like, “Reese what do I do?” and Meryl walked in as we were having the conversation. Reese said, “Well, you always say hello first” and she walked me right over there and Meryl just gave me a big hug and told me she thought I was great on the show. I was like “Oh my goodness!” [ Laughs] I’m blown away by her.

Since you have such amazing red-carpet fashion, can we expect to see you venture into that world? I’m actually working on my own golf line. Which is kind of strange (Laughs) but I’m a golfer and I like to try to bring my fashion to the golf course.

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