If it were up to Joey King, we’d be talking about something, anything, other than Joey King. Sure, the 21-year-old Los Angeles native, who’s been acting for more years of her life than not, is a professional famous person, but even she knows that when the country is going through a total and painful reckoning of its racist past and present—while also battling a pandemic that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere—the last thing anyone needs is a celebrity profile.
And yet: “I get it,” she says about our interview. “We got some shit to cover.” This is, after all, part of the deal when you’re a young Hollywood star. For every Big Splashy Project you book, you have to do press so everyone knows about—and wants to see—the project. This makes The Next Big Splashy Project a little easier to book. Oh, and did I mention you have to do it all with a smile on your face, even when asked waaay too personal questions about your intimate relationships, all while it feels like the world is ending around you?
Not that Joey gives up control that easily. It was her idea that we have lunch together on a Monday afternoon in June—well, it’s sort of lunch. And we’re not at all together. She’s home in L.A., quarantining with family, which is relatable, while managing the renovation of said home because it’s hers, which is not. (“Don’t worry, everybody’s wearing masks and gloves,” she explains over the sound of a construction crew ripping out carpets.) Joey’s teacup Yorkie, Angel, is happily hopping on her lap.
I’m also home, in Grand Haven, Michigan, having left New York City to quarantine with Mom and Dad in a town that is the opposite of New York City. I basically begged my parents to take our black Lab, Finn, out for two hours so he wouldn’t bark while I was on this Zoom. Well, it was supposed to be a Zoom, but half an hour in, the app self-destructed just as Joey was showing me around her bedroom (it’s filled with a giant ornate bed, for her, and lots of little beds, for her “old as fuck” dogs). So anyway, now we’re on FaceTime. We’re doing what she calls lunch-delivery roulette. You each order for the other person from a local restaurant in their town—“gotta support small businesses,” her publicist enthusiastically explained via email—then talk through why you chose each dish. The time-zone difference puts me three hours past lunchtime, but what is time, really, when you’ve been sitting inside your house for the past four months?
I picked a spread for Joey of my favorite New York City foods (pastrami sandwich, matzo ball soup, a black-and-white cookie) because I’m homesick. Her verdict: “I’m so happy, you don’t even know.” My own Grubhub options are McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway, so I painstakingly curated a list of acceptable Middle of Nowhere, Michigan, restaurants for her to choose from. She ordered me “Italian”: chicken Francesca with kale Caesar salad, aka Midwest for “chicken and greens covered in cheese.” “I ordered bruschetta too,” she says as we unbox our lunches. “And they were like, ‘We don’t have any bread.’ I was like, Are you joking?! Everything I’m trying to do is going to shit!”
This, of course, is a lie. Not the bruschetta, the other thing. Just looking around her house proves the opposite: a picture of her and Patricia Arquette in costume from The Act; a shadow box with the teddy bear her character, Gypsy Rose, was obsessed with; a painting from the set of White House Down. I can tell she’s not arrogantly hoarding this stuff for some sort of trophy wall—it’s more like how you’d hang on to old sorority sweatshirts because they still spark joy.
And consider the reason we’re here at all: Joey has just returned to the Kissing Booth franchise (the sequel to the 2018 Netflix movie premiered July 24) that made her a household name. And this time, she didn’t just act, she also co-executive-produced the damn thing.
She has other projects in the works she’s excited about too, some she’s not ready to share just yet and one that sounds kind of major: a TV series about two women living in the woods, starring herself and her friend, the Booksmart actress Kaitlyn Dever—and produced by Margot Robbie. (“Margot Robbie, are you fucking kidding me?” says Joey. “I love her so much.”)
Yeah, so even though this year has been kind of a nightmare, she’s trying to make the most of it. Emphasis on “trying.” This morning, she was planning on getting up early, like 8 a.m., and exercising. It didn’t happen. She’s still wearing the workout clothes, though (leggings with cool cutouts and a Hulu logo sweatshirt perfectly draped off her shoulders), as she sits on the floor of her soothingly gray bedroom feeling that slept-through-my-workout guilt. “Some people are really good about setting goals—if they set a goal, they know they have to do it and they won’t feel good until they do it,” she says. “I am the same way, yet I still let myself not get it done for some reason.”
The truth is that in spite of her success, Joey, like you, like me, like all of us, is having trouble coping. Her mood has been “so bad”—the day before our interview, she didn’t even leave her room.
“2020…at first, everything was on fire, then we were going into World War III,” she says, like she’s counting off realities on her fingers. “Then the coronavirus hit.” In February, she was at Fashion Week in Paris and had just stepped into the lobby of the Louvre Museum when it was abruptly evacuated and closed due to COVID-19. “Your brain goes to the worst-case scenario. Like, What if every single person in the universe dies?”
“And then the protests started,” she says, returning to her list. When we talk, it’s been only a few days since people started flooding streets across the country to peacefully protest the brutal killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and too many others. Before our call, Joey had planned to go to a protest that ended up getting canceled.
She spent her morning researching organizations and donating to fundraisers instead. But none of it really seemed like enough, and just feeling down at all was a struggle when she knows—like so many of us know—that there is someone, so many someones, suffering so much more this very second.
“I preach a lot about being proactive about your mental health and not feeling selfish for feeling depressed or upset,” she says, “but then when I sink into these weird moods, I immediately feel super selfish, which makes me feel worse. When it comes to taking care of yourself, there is a certain level of selfishness you have to have, but it’s hard. I haven’t found that balance yet. Because I in no way, shape, or form want to make any conversation that I start right now about me.”
She’s trying to be an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement, having tough conversations with extended family members, reading books (Joey’s sister Hunter told me they’ve been working through a copy of So You Want to Talk About Race together), and using her platform to post resources and raise awareness.
Basically, doing what any white girl of extreme privilege with a big platform should be doing right now. “I am a guest,” she says. “Like every white person who enters, we are guests. This is not an issue we have to make about ourselves. We don’t get to make it about ourselves.”
There are, though, between racial injustice stories and “Juneteenth facts” posts on her IG, others about the new Kissing Booth trailer and outtakes from photo shoots like this one. Like she said, she knows she’s one of the last people her fans need to hear from right now…but she also wants to be really good at her job, which, again, means she needs you to hear from her. A lot. Including in magazines like this one.
And “selfishly,” her job, even if she isn’t on actual movie sets right now, gives her some semblance of normalcy. She’s been doing it for so long that she knows the industry like other 21-year-olds might know the back of the menu at their favorite bar. Joey was 6 years old for her first-ever TV appearance, on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, a Disney Channel show I most definitely watched when I was 11, when I most definitely had a crush on the Sprouse twins.
Hers is a very child-actress-turned-grown-up-actress origin story, even the part where she knows that being in front of the camera might not be enough for her. She already gets it: Hollywood—like, well, the world—wasn’t built to empower young women. In fact, it’s built to do the exact opposite, keeping them in a small box labeled Pretty Young Thing. Joey has experienced ageism her entire career, she says, especially because she looks so young. It’s gotten better as she’s become more successful, but that’s frustrating in and of itself. “You shouldn’t have to become something for people to listen to you,” she says, throwing her hands in the air.
Remember how liberated and annoyed you felt the first time it seemed like you’d actually been taken seriously? It’s like that feeling when you’re watching a movie and all your friends start to catch on to something in the last act when you’d figured it out in the first 30 minutes.
Equally frustrating is the one thing about Joey that people have almost always taken too seriously: her love life. (Yes, you’ve arrived at *that* part of the interview. There’s always a *that* part.) When Netflix announced it was making a second Kissing Booth movie, the big thing everyone—the fans, the internet, me—wanted to know was whether Jacob Elordi, who played Joey’s onscreen BF, would be returning. Between movies, the two stars were romantically attached…and then not. News of their split broke fans and the dozens of stan accounts scattered across social media.
Joey knows I’m going to ask the question even as I awkwardly attempt to bring it up. “Ask it. I don’t give a shit,” she says. So I do: “What was it like to have to act with someone who you might now feel really guarded around?”
After a few false starts, a few “wells” and “you knows,” she says, “No one’s thinking to themselves, That was easy, because it wasn’t. I’m sure people will analyze every movement and every detail. And you know what? Let them. But at the end of the day, I was just thrilled to be Elle Evans again.”
Okay, but now that she’s faced with a press tour and a version of the above question on repeat—“What was it like to work with your ex-boyfriend every day?”—could she go into just a little more detail?
“There’s so much I want to say,” she starts, then pauses for a second to laugh. “What’s the most, um, correct way to go about this? Elle Evans needs her Noah Flynn, and whatever that means for my personal life, I’ll do anything to make sure the story of my character who I care about so much is complete.” For the record: Joey, um, seems to be seeing someone else now. She’s hesitant to say much when I bring it up, but when I ask, she’s not…not smiling?
Just like the ending of every teen romance ever, Joey is moving on. Right now, she’s particularly focused on pitching that new TV show with her friend Kaitlyn. (“Any time I’m invited to fancy parties and I know Joey will be there,” Kaitlyn later tells me, “I know we’ll be able to go in a corner together and eat snacks.”) It’s one of the things that, 2020 be damned, is making Joey cautiously optimistic about what comes next. If the project doesn’t get picked up, well, she’s already familiar with the heartbreak of disappointment. It’s fine. “I have to tell myself that if it doesn’t go my way, I can pick myself back up,” she says. “And I won’t cry for too long.”
She wants me—and more importantly, you—to feel that too. She’s hoping that by the time you read this, things will look a little brighter and the idea of optimism itself will start to seem a little less Hollywood and a little more real life.
“2020 is a piece of shit,” she says before we hang up. “And I know it’s silly to hope that everything’s beautiful by September because it won’t be. So I’m hoping that there’s hope. That’s more realistic.”
Fashion by Cassie Anderson. Hair: Dimitris Giannetos at The Wall Group using Well Professionals. Makeup: Allan Avendaño at A-Frame Agency using Urban Decay. Manicure: Thuy Nguyen at A-Frame Agency. Props styled by Abraham Latham for Art Department. Production: Crawford & Co Productions.
On Joey: Flowers and bike looks: Solid & Striped top. Frame jeans. CVC Stones rings. Brooke Gregson necklaces. Victoria Beckham sunglasses. Sheer dress look: Dior dress, bralette, and belt. Giuseppe Zanotti heels. Marlo Laz earrings and ring. Green dress look: JoosTricot dress. Retrouvaí ring. Red dress look: Carolina Herrera dress. Pamela Love earrings. Purple top and skirt look: Victor Glemaud top and skirt. Pamela Love earrings.
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