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Breaking Big: Haley Lu Richardson heads from The Edge of Seventeen to Columbus

The 22-year-old actress gives a powerful, star-making performance as a small-town teen dreaming of bigger things

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Thomas Concordia/Getty Images for Kia

When first-time director Kogonada asked Haley Lu Richardson to star in Columbus, she had one big question: “Why me?”

“It turns out his wife had seen me in an episode of Law & Order,” Richardson says, laughing. “So I’m really grateful I did Law & Order!”

The 22-year-old actress made waves as Hailee Steinfeld’s longtime best friend in The Edge of Seventeen and as a teenage girl facing off against James McAvoy’s kidnapper in Split, but with Kogonada’s indie drama, she steps into the spotlight with her first major lead performance. And what a performance: Richardson stars as Casey, a recent high school grad in Columbus, Indiana — a real-life Midwestern mecca for modernist architecture. Casey’s developed her own love of architecture, but she can’t bring herself to pursue her dreams and abandon her addict mother, even at the urging of her new friend, the similarly lost Jin (John Cho). It’s a powerful, honest portrayal of the uncertainty that comes with being a young adult, and it’s that uncertainty that Richardson immediately identified with.

“I make dumb jokes and run around screaming, and Casey’s much more still and thoughtful,” Richardson says. “But I connected to that whole idea of where I am in life and trying to figure out what’s next.”

RELATED VIDEO: Watch the trailer for Columbus

Columbus is the first film from Kogonada, who’s best known for his clever, inventive video essays about filmmaking, and his debut feature is a quiet, meditative look at how art can affect our lives — bolstered by thoughtful, often wordless performances by Cho and Richardson.

“We didn’t do much rehearsal,” Richardson says. “Actually, we didn’t do any rehearsal. I think we read through the script once — me, Kogonada, and John. But other than that, any time we met to rehearse, it wasn’t an actual rehearsal. It was just sitting there, figuring out who Casey was and what was going on beneath the surface in all of these scenes. We talked about the dynamic of her and her mom. Everything she does and everything that holds her back and everything that has forced her to grow up so quickly is because of that relationship with her mom and her childhood. That relationship kind of shapes who she is.”

The film also operates as a love letter of sorts to Columbus itself, as Casey shows Jin around her hometown and introduces him to some of her favorite buildings by architecture legends like Eero Saarinen or I.M. Pei.

“When you’re in Columbus, and you see that architecture, I don’t know how you couldn’t appreciate it and want to know about it,” she says. “You drive from Indianapolis to Columbus, and you go through all these cornfields and all this open farmland to then get to the middle of nowhere, where there’s this little pocket of modern architecture. And it’s just kind of nuts. It’s just so special that it’s so unexpected, but there’s so much history there.”

Richardson started her performing career in dance, not acting, but at the age of 16, after starting her junior year in high school, she put together a presentation trying to convince her parents to let her move from Arizona to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. “Luckily, my parents are kind of kooky and understood that and took that chance,” she says. Since then, she’s done comedy, twisty thrillers, and now, a moving indie drama. Up next, she’ll star as flapper icon Louise Brooks in the period drama The Chaperone. 

“Every character I get into, I get to learn about a new place, a new person, a new life situation,” she says. “I feel like it makes me more empathetic, just as a human.”