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NOC Interview: Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut on Everything ‘Cruel Summer’

Photo Credit: Jessica Osber

Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut plays Ashley Wallis in Freeform’s highly anticipated new drama, Cruel Summer. Ashley Wallis is Kate’s stepsister and Rod’s daughter. I got to speak with the actress all about the series and episode 4, “You Don’t Hunt, You Don’t Eat,” so beware: we will be getting into spoilers. New episodes of the series air Tuesdays at 10 PM EDT/PDT on Freeform and are available the next day on Hulu.

According to a press release, the new psychological thriller marks the network’s best-ever series debut among Young Adults and scores Freeform’s most-watched series debut ever, averaging 3.81 million multiplatform viewers in the first week available. Cruel Summer is likewise the network’s best-ever series debut among Adults 18-49 (2.65 million) and Adults 18-34 (1.33 million). On top of that, the series from studio Entertainment One (eOne) is also the No. 1 most social scripted series premiere across cable year-to-date.

Cruel Summer follows the stories of Kate Wallis, the popular girl with a charmed life, and Jeanette Turner, the nerdy and seemingly innocent wannabee. When Kate goes missing, everything points to Jeanette’s guilt, but with different points of view in each episode, the audience is left wondering who is actually telling the truth? The show takes place over three summers in the ’90s and begs the question, how can one girl go from being a sweet and awkward outlier to the most despised person in America?

Chestnut and I chatted via zoom to discuss Cruel Summer fan theories, cliffhangers, the character of Ashley Wallis, her favorite ’90s things, and so much more! Keep reading to see what she told me.

Photo Credit: Nuru Kimondo

Is there something that initially attracted you to the show and what was your reaction after reading the first script you got?
Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut: I mean, the 90s element for sure, like I’m a hardcore and die-hard 90s baby. I represent us all the way. And then just reading it, too, with like the different years. It takes you on the journey for each character. That’s kind of interesting as an actor being able to play a different version of yourself in different years.

Cruel Summer is set over three summers, which almost makes it feel like you’re playing three different characters at times; what did it add for you as an actress, and were there any challenges?
I wouldn’t say challenges per se, but more of an excitement. I mean just to be able to play like you saw Ashley in ’93, she’s a jerk. Then in ’94, she’s like, “No, I’m a puppy dog, love me. I’m sorry.” So playing those two different things is extremely fun.

How long did it take for you personally to connect the dots and figure out what happened or create your own theories? Were you drawn to a certain side?
Well as Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, aside from Ashley Wallis, I’m team Kate; I’m biased. But I mean, being able to have the scripts in advance and be able to read and kind of connect the dots myself was a journey of itself. It was really fun.

Was your opinion changing every single script?
Yeah, I mean after the first episode, when I was reading it, I was just like, “Wait, well who’s actually telling the truth? Wait a minute, wait, wait!” But it’s so interesting too like I’m watching along every week and this is my first time seeing it like everybody else aside from reading it. It’s so interesting and then on Twitter, just reading everybody’s comments like the fan theories are crazy.

You brought that up perfectly; what do you think of the fan theories? Do you have any favorites?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to get too messy, but I just really love the fact that people are saying that — the biggest one that makes me laugh the most — is they’re saying that Kate’s trying to get back at Jeanette for taking over her life; it’s her whole scheme, she decided to get kidnapped. That’s my favorite one.

Photo Credit: Nuru Kimondo

In episode 4, we meet Ashley Wallis, who has definitely changed over the years, especially when it comes to Kate. Are we going to see her in ‘95 with everything having to do with the trial? Are we going to see more of her?
You will definitely see more Ashley. That’s all I’m gonna say.

What was your reaction to that big twist with Ashley being the one on the other side of the computer that Kate is talking to in the chat?
Yeah, well, when I first read it, I was so thrilled because it was like, you didn’t expect it. I mean, as the audience seeing it. You’re just like, “Who is this girl? Why is she here? Why is so rude to this girl?” And then you find out that she’s really the one behind the computer. But I think it’s really interesting to see Ashley really try her best to reach out to Kate and this is the only means, or the only avenue really, for her to connect with her.

We get to see some cute moments between Ashley and Derek, what can you say about them, and is anything to tease? Do you ship them?
You know, what’s interesting? Like again on Twitter, when I was looking at everybody, they were like, “We ship Derek and Ashley!” People are going crazy, I was not expecting this at all. And then a couple of people were like, “It’s like Romeo and Juliet. What’s going on?” I mean, yeah, for sure. I’m here for teen love. But who knows? I mean, it’s more of a friendship I think that you see.

We’re left with this big cliffhanger, Kate talks about meeting Annabelle and she says something was different/wrong, but when her therapist asks who Annabelle was, Kate says she can’t remember. When you first read the script, not knowing anything else, did you have any theories?
I mean, your initial thoughts: Who is Annabelle? Is it an alter ego? Is this an actual person? What is it? Tune in to find out.

Will Ashley ever interact with Jeanette at some point?
I mean, it’s a small Texas town. I am really good friends with her brother. Who knows?

Photo Credit: Jessica Osber

So while this is a mystery/thriller, the main characters are teens and I’m sure a lot of viewers will have their favorites or ones they relate to. Is there a certain message you hope that either the series or Ashley gives fans?
Well, if it’s for Ashley’s character, I think it’s you don’t know — like when Kate gets kidnapped– as Ashley, she doesn’t really know what she had until it was gone, right? And then we see her transition into a more sweet, loving, like, “I want to be here for you.” So I think more kindness. I think that that’s the message; I’d like to get that across, you know? Kindness and compassion because you don’t really know what people are going through.

So you said you were sort of watching along with the audience for these episodes. What is it like for you as an actress to see these characters and this script jump from page to screen?
I think it’s so interesting. It’s like when you read a book and you see the movie version of it, like reading the scripts and then finally seeing it on TV. I mean, I had my own choices or whatever that I would make in my head and then seeing and it’s like, “Oh my God, yes. That’s perfect.” The choices that they’re making — yes, spot-on, you’re in the world. It’s kind of surreal, though, seeing myself to be honest. I’ve seen myself on TV before, but in this specific element, I think it’s really nice to see; in the ‘90s, again, the costumes and everything kind of transports you into this world.

Any favorite 90s trends that you’d want to bring back?
You know what’s funny, I was making fun of my mom because she still wears the chokers sometimes and I’m like, “Mom, what are you doing? Stop.” But honestly, she rocks them so well, I took a few from her closet and started wearing them. So I’d bring back chokers if we could. And do you remember the Mudd jeans? I’d bring those back. Yeah, those are my two things.

What’s on your ’90s playlist?
I am LIVING. I actually have a ’90s soft rock playlist on my phone. I mean, it’s so eclectic, though. I think there’s a little bit of Celine Dion and “I Know” by Dionne Farris. There’s a whole bunch of things, but my ’90s soft rock playlist.

Photo Credit: Jessica Osber

What was it like diving into the psychological thriller genre and is there a genre you want to try in the future?
I think as an actor jumping into this, it was so fun behind-the-scenes because everybody is so warm and nice. You wouldn’t expect us to be shooting like dark things, you know? Which I’ve kind of found, I shot a horror movie a couple of years ago and we’re shooting, like, dark things, but we’re all cracking jokes behind-the-scenes. So it was really fun behind-the-scenes and shooting it as an actor.

I’d like to do some comedy. I’d love to dive into some comedy. I’ve kind of hit all the dramas and stuff. I mean I love the dramas, horrors, and everything, let me be clear, but I’d like to dip my toe into comedy. Like a rom-com.

What was it like when you officially wrapped and were getting ready for the world to see the series?
Yeah, it was nice. It was bittersweet. I think “yay” to go home to your family, but it was really nice to be a part of a show that was really collaborative. They really wanted us to succeed and I really felt that. As an actor, I mean, that’s what you want. You want to go into an environment where you feel welcomed and everybody was really welcoming to me.

Do you have any fun or memorable behind-the-scenes moments or stories that you could share?
Oh my God. Ok, this is kind of — it’s not really dark, but like it was a moment. Remember when the power outages in Texas happened earlier this year? So, we’re stranded in Texas — I don’t want to say stranded that’s not true, we were taken care of — but like the snowstorm came out of nowhere. And I just remember people being like, “Ahhhh, I have no power!” I’ll just say that, like you didn’t have power, texting people, “Are you good? We’re good. Okay, cool.” There’s Texas for you.

What was it like filming this during the pandemic?
Yeah, this was my first set being back from or during COVID. But you know what? They really followed the CDC guidelines, the safety things, and everything you could have imagined; PPE, going into makeup trailer — it literally looked like people were going into surgery. They had so many, like, protective layers on, but I felt really safe. And yeah, we got through it.

Photo Credit: Jessica Osber

Any dream roles or projects you have?
I’d love to be Storm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I also write so another dream role I guess would be one of my own projects coming into fruition; it would be really lovely to star in.

Do you have a certain project you’re working on or writing currently?
I’m working on a comedy right now. Be on the lookout for that soon when the announcement comes.

With everything going on in the world right now, is there something that has helped keep you positive or motivated?
I’d say TV. I mean, honestly, I’ve been watching a lot of TV; I’ve been bingeing a lot, finding joy, and that type of thing. Then I’ve been reading as well and meditating. I’ve been doing a lot of different self-care things that I wasn’t really doing beforehand and just having the moment to stop, pause, and reflect. It’s been really nice, I think, for me.

Any favorite shows you discovered over quarantine?
I’ll tell you what I just finished, Made For Love on HBO Max; I binged that. Then I was just looking at John Early’s page on Twitter and the new season of Search Party came out a couple of months ago; so I binged that. WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I watched and binged those.

And lastly, if you could create any sort of catchphrase or tagline for Ashley’s character, what would you pick?
You know, people keep calling me a catfish, so I’m going to say, “I’m not a catfish.” I don’t know… oh my gosh, “She’s trying. I’m trying!” Can you imagine me landing the superhero pose, “I’m trying!”

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