"There are more mysteries than you might expect, more characters involved than you might see at first," the actress says of Jessica Biel's '90s-set series.

By Sydney Bucksbaum
April 19, 2021 at 04:21 PM EDT

Cruel Summer (TV Series)

If you're looking for your next addictive whodunit, Cruel Summer is, like, totally rad. Freeform's dark '90s-set thriller is told on the same days over three consecutive summers as popular small-town sweetheart Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) goes missing, and awkward, dorky Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) somehow takes her place as the new it girl — until Jeanette is accused of being involved with Kate's disappearance and becomes the most hated girl in America.

There's a lot for viewers to sink their teeth into in this new series (premiering April 20) from executive producer Jessica Biel. There's the drastic evolution of Jeanette as her life changes in major ways through these three summers, which offers a fascinating exploration of what it means to be a teen girl in America. There's the mystery of what happened to Kate, which gets darker as each new clue is revealed. And there's awesome '90s nostalgia thanks to the authentic depiction of fashion, hair, shoes, technology, and so much more.

But mostly, "it's a huge, twisty, adventurous ride," Aurelia tells EW. "You can't really expect anything. There is a whole slew of twists and turns, and that's the joy of it. There are more mysteries than you might expect, more characters involved than you might see at first, and every detail is like a bunch of breadcrumbs that will lead you to the truth."

Chiara Aurelia in 'Cruel Summer'
| Credit: Bill Matlock/Freeform (2)

And while it's entirely too early to be thinking about the finale of the 10-episode season, we still had to ask! "There is some satisfaction in every episode as little bits and pieces will slowly be unraveled," Aurelia says of the central mystery. "And it definitely leaves you with a tied bow in the finale. It will leave you feeling good about the way that it comes together, but we've always got to leave a few trails for season 2."

Aurelia portrays Jeanette's evolution with impressive skill: She starts out as a sweet teen who's uncomfortable in her own skin and longing for Kate's charmed life in the summer of 1993, then morphs into the popular girl who fills Kate's spot in the social hierarchy in 1994, and finally grapples with being an utter outcast after she's accused of being involved in Kate's disappearance in 1995. As her hair, clothes, and friends change to help signal where Jeanette is in each timeline, it's her personality that changes the most, shaped by external circumstances. And while Jeanette is going through an extreme situation, how it affects her internally is something that everyone can relate to.

"Although the character might have some more drastic experiences than most teenagers, there's still an element of this that is relatable to teens everywhere," Aurelia says. "The gossip mills, feeling like you're on the outside, feeling like you're not cool enough or you're too dorky or you're too awkward, or you're popular but people are still questioning you, and feeling like there's always people who aren't going to like you. A really big part of it for me was in '93, this is potentially the awkward, dorky year where people wouldn't necessarily like Jeanette and she's not cool, but she ended up being everyone's favorite because she was so authentically herself and so unique and that's what made her special. It's sad to watch her try and remove that part of herself to fit into a mold of what she's supposed to be."

Aurelia found herself feeling for Jeanette in a profound way as she changes herself to become someone totally new, only to have society change her yet again. "There's authentic experiences that may be dark and may be hard to swallow, not just for Jeanette but for all of the characters involved and Kate's journey," the actress says says. "I hope that this can be a guide for young women and young people out there to see that there are a lot of different types of people, and there are a lot of things that are good and bad, and you might see yourself one way, but there's always the potential for change and evolution. And there is nothing wrong with being the dork and the weird one or the one that doesn't fit in, because honestly, it doesn't matter."

Harley Quinn Smith, Chiara Aurelia, and Allius Barnes in 'Cruel Summer'
| Credit: Bill Matlock/Freeform

Aurelia can't wait for viewers to see Jeanette's journey because of how much she changes from year to year. "You're catching her at the beginning in an almost childlike, pure version of herself, very not tainted by the world, aspiring to become more popular and pretty, fitting the mold of what she's supposed to be," she says. "She's still walking around with friends who she genuinely cares about and in a close relationship with her family. From that year to the following year, you watch her evolve into the town sweetheart with the perfect boyfriend and the perfect friends, but then you watch how one moment can turn all of that on a dime."

While Jeanette thinks her "perfect reality" in 1994 is everything she ever wanted, it turns out to be a lot less real than she thought after she gets brought into the case of Kate's disappearance. "Her new friends leave her within seconds when something has gone wrong and she's even been slightly questioned," Aurelia says. "Having her feel like her integrity and her humanity is being questioned, especially by the people she loves most in the world, without even giving her a chance, can be really hard, and it takes her to a really dark place within herself where she feels unloved and scared. She becomes a more rigid and fearful version of herself. After that experience, having her family turn against her and her friends turn against her, there's truly no going back for Jeanette, and she will never be the same."

Everyone automatically assumes Jeanette is a bad person for how she gets connected to the case, but is Jeanette really a villain? "I don't think I can answer that question," Aurelia says with a cryptic smile. "I will say this, there is an element of every single character in the show that is equally the villain and the victim. By circumstance and by experience, people may make choices that are different from what is technically right, but it may be right for them in that moment. As young adults, there's a lot of mistakes that are being made by every character, and as long as they learn from those, hopefully they're striving for better."

Cruel Summer
Chiara Aurelia and Froy Gutierrez in 'Cruel Summer'
| Credit: Bill Matlock/Freeform

She pauses, then adds, "There's some extreme trauma and crazy circumstances that are being experienced through the whole show by everyone. Every character has redeemable qualities. And every character has horrible qualities that you wish could have been different. It's all about what your personal morals believe is right and what your perspective is, and we play on that a lot. Everything may be different from what perspective you're living from and who you are as a human being."

Filming the mystery, from creator Bert V. Royal and showrunner Tia Napolitano, in three different timelines was a "crazy" experience for Aurelia, who's having a breakout year with Cruel Summer and a role in Amazon's Tell Me Your Secrets. "We had certain days where we'd be jumping around between years and jumping around in sets, and there was a lot of movement and action and chaos at all times," she says. "My only goal was to strive for the realness of her humanity and who she is as a person. And the transformations are so drastic in terms of her look, so even if you're not necessarily feeling it that day, when you arrive and you sit in a hair and makeup chair for an hour and you come out with braces and glasses and a giant poofy wig, you're forced to exit your own reality and enter a new world, whether you like it or not."

What kept Aurelia grounded throughout each version of Jeanette was the knowledge that despite how much she changes, she's still the same teenage girl underneath it all. "Although she may look different or feel different, you're watching her transform and evolve as she makes mistakes and hopefully learns from them," she adds.

Aaliyah Muhammad, Chiara Aurelia, and Shelby Surdam in 'Cruel Summer'
| Credit: Bill Matlock/Freeform

And for her first major starring role, Aurelia feels lucky to bring three versions of a single character to life. "I initially got the audition in 2019, and I remember reading it and just thinking I had no chance at this," she says. "I thought they were going to cast someone much older and different. And I've been getting a lot of spam calls on my phone from random numbers, and I finally picked up one and I was like, 'What?!' [Pauses] It was the writer and director of the pilot [Max Winkler]."

Aurelia laughs, then continues: "That's when finally started to feel a little bit real. As a woman in Hollywood, it's so exciting and incredible to get an opportunity to play a role this complicated and unique, especially at this at this age, in this industry."

Cruel Summer premieres Tuesday, April 20, at 9 p.m. ET on Freeform.

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Cruel Summer (TV Series)

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