Cruel Summer star Blake Lee unpacks that 'twisted' premiere reveal
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the series premiere of Cruel Summer.
Cruel Summer's new assistant principal shouldn't be anywhere near kids, but Martin Harris is good at keeping secrets. Too good.
The two-hour series premiere of Freeform's dark new thriller dropped a lot of bombs throughout both episodes about Kate Wallis' (Olivia Holt) disappearance and miraculous rescue, and how Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) is accused of knowing where she was and not saying anything to help her. But one of the most shocking reveals was that Martin (Blake Lee), the seemingly nice new pillar of the Skylin, Texas, community, is behind Kate's disappearance and was shot during her rescue.
Since Cruel Summer isn't told chronologically — the story is being pieced together bit by bit in each episode, on the same days across three consecutive summers in the '90s — we still don't have the full picture of what happened to Kate and how or why Martin kidnapped her. So EW got series star Lee to unpack that premiere twist about his character and tease where the mystery goes from here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your character is accused of kidnapping Kate and was killed during her rescue in a shootout, all in the series premiere. That's a lot!
BLAKE LEE: There's a lot of things unanswered, but that will start to be revealed throughout the season. A lot of it is surprising, so what people think of who Martin is quickly turns, and then where you think that relationship is and who he is to Kate, everything is a constant shock.
When you first signed on to the show, did you know the full season arc of the character?
At the very start, no, I didn't know the the full season arc. What I did know was that Martin is someone who on the outside presents as one thing but inside there's a lot more to him, and it would slowly be revealed and he would slowly start to unravel, and you would see the darker parts of him. He's new to this community and he basically is presenting himself the way he wants to be viewed, he's schmoozing the parents, and he's so great with the kids. It's why nobody would suspect him to be this villain. Villains don't present themselves as villains, and so when I auditioned for the show, I did the scenes almost overly nice, because I think anyone that is doing the unspeakable doesn't want to get caught. And often bad people don't consider themselves bad people, you know what I mean?
So is that the same way you approached playing him during filming?
Yeah, I was just like, I'm not going to play the villain, I'm not going to play the evil, I'm going to play the principal. I'm going to play the things that I can relate to and wrap my head around because I don't know what it's like to manipulate people and groom someone. And then as the series went on, when I was reading the scripts, it gets darker and darker and heavier and heavier and more twisted, and it was definitely really challenging to play. But it was also really, really exciting to be able to go to those depths as an actor. And Olivia Holt and I have an incredible relationship, and we had so much trust and just a constant open dialogue with each other of, "Are we comfortable with this, how do we approach this situation?" We felt safe always. When you're dealing with such a heavy subject matter, you need to treat it with respect and you need to ask q,uestions and we did our homework as best we could and we really tried to be truthful in it. But it's hard to go to super-dark places.
I've got to say, you playing it "overly nice" makes it even more terrifying when we find out what he's really been doing.
It's like a story you read about in the newspaper or you hear about in the news, where you always see people's reactions like, "I would have never known, they were the nicest person." It's hard to tell these stories, but these things do happen in life. People in power positions take advantage of people. There's bad people out there! In this, with the age difference, it's not only am I in a power position since Martin is Kate's assistant principal, but he's also in his 30s and she's in high school. He's manipulating her without her knowing, he's grooming her without her knowing and presenting himself as another thing. It's terrifying because that does happen.
Since this is so much darker than anything you've done before, what was it like bringing this monster to life?
It was tough. Most of my career I've done comedy, so it was definitely new to me. Tia [Napolitano, the showrunner] and I had like hours of conversations. I would read a script and I would call her, and it was really collaborative. And about halfway through the season, Tia pitched me where the whole story was going and where it would end, and I felt very good about the work that we would be doing. But it was scary, and I just had to take it one script at a time. And the cast was so incredible; we're all so close and we would constantly talk about it. Most of my stuff is with Olivia, and we would create these stories, whether it was scripted or not, of like, what has happened in the basement at this point, just to wrap our heads around it. I'm so used to doing comedy, so playing something so dark, I was in a constant state of panic. [Laughs] You want it to be good, and I believed in the writing and I believed in these actors. I was just so impressed with the rest of the cast, and it motivated me to be better, like I gotta step up.
By the end of the two-hour premiere, it seems to be pretty much confirmed that Martin kidnapped Kate and held her hostage, but should we be believing everything we see on this show? Where does the mystery go from here?
This show goes where you don't expect it to. I mean, when I turned the last page of the last script, I literally gasped. It's insane. You're constantly guessing and you don't know who to trust. I mean, I'm the only clear villain, but everyone has a secret, everyone's telling some sort of a lie, some sort of a truth, and it's constantly changing. But not in a forced way, because everyone's just looking out for themselves and you're seeing what's going on behind closed doors in this small Texas town.
That's what it feels like already in the first two episodes. None of these twists or reveals feel gratuitous.
Completely, and that was a big part of why I took the job. It was more that you're playing this horrible person, he's done these horrible things, but we don't necessarily even need to show them, because just implying them, you know what's happening there. And you will see a lot of what happened in the basement and behind closed doors, but so much is just in the writing. It's just so layered, especially with the whole grooming aspect, we really wanted to make that real and not cheesy. And Freeform let us go really dark with that, which is new for them, and I think it really pays off.
Cruel Summer airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Freeform.