Scott Garfield
August 05, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT

If you’ve read anything about Southpaw, the boxing movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal, you know that the actor’s intense commitment to the character of Billy Hope in and out of the ring is the centerpiece of the film’s marketing (and a possible Oscar campaign). But the film’s stealth secret weapon is actually Oona Laurence, the 13-year-old actress who plays Billy’s daughter, Leila.

Their relationship is the heart of the film, since the father and daughter are ripped apart by the legal system after a tragedy speeds up Billy’s race to rock bottom. Everything in the film depends on whether you believe the emotional turmoil between parent and child, and Laurence does as much heavy lifting as her more experienced co-star. Leila loves Billy, she desperately needs him to be a father… but she’s also angry with him, and she’s mourning a great loss.

In one much-discussed scene, Leila explodes on Billy, slapping him repeatedly in the face as her emotions spill over. “I really didn’t want to hit him, but then I just remembered, ‘I have to be Leila,'” says Laurence. “I wasn’t Oona who was scared to slap Jake because he’s so nice. I was Leila, so I just slapped him as hard as I could.”

Laurence and Gyllenhaal hit it off immediately, beginning with an intense chemistry read that helped her win the role. “I gave her several things off the page while reading with Jake and she stayed focused and confident with whatever we threw her way,” says director Antoine Fuqua, via email. “She stayed right there with us and added her own special touch. She is a very mature young actress.”

The two actors cemented their bond with subsequent day-trips and activities after shooting began. The homework paid off on-screen, and there are several tense scenes that only work because Laurence delivers palpable sadness, anger, or fear.

In one scene, the court rules that Billy isn’t fit to be her father and their reunion is spoiled. “For the first take, I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I get pretty upset here,'” she says. “But when I was literally ripped apart from him, and they wouldn’t let him hug me, it scared me because it wasn’t fake at all. The reality kind of struck me, that this could actually happen. That’s where I think I got the emotion from.”

Laurence is hardly an acting novice. She comes from an acting family and she shared a special Tony Award honor for starring in Matilda: The Musical. “I love just making stories and I love reading, so I think the fact that I could be a character in one of those books or movies, I feel like that really appealed to me,” she says, explaining her passion for acting. “I think the creativeness of it and the freeness of it all, I think that was really, really amazing. And my dad was an actor so I thought, ‘Maybe I could try this out,’ and I loved it.”

Her next big project likely won’t demand Southpaw‘s kind of hardcore emotional soul-searching. She spent four months earlier this year in New Zealand filming a remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. “It’s much different than the first one,” she says. “It’s about a boy named Pete who lives in the woods with a dragon. I find him there and basically bring him back to civilization. Things happen. It’s pretty crazy in the end, but it’s really adorable and funny and beautiful.”

That upbeat description sounds refreshingly more in tune for a young New Yorker who’s spending the rest of the summer “just chilling and stuff” before her next big project: She starts the eighth grade in September. 

Scott Garfield

2015 movie
124 minutes
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