“Grand Army” Star Amalia Yoo on Why Leila’s Story Is Important for Teens


Amalia Yoo doesn’t want to judge the characters she plays, no matter their choices. But as she watched episodes of Grand Army, the new Netflix show in which she plays a freshman named Leila Kwan Zimmer, she caught herself reacting to her on-screen counterpart’s choices. “I was like, ‘Dang, she’s pretty crazy, I don’t know if I would have done that,’” the 18-year-old admits to Teen Vogue.

The reaction would be warranted: In the 9-episode first season of Grand Army, Leila tries to mask her radiating insecurity by barreling her way through decisions she may have only halfway thought through. With few friends at her Brooklyn high school, she is constantly vying for attention from her classmates, and especially the popular members of the swim team. The show follows her and four other students as their lives intersect in classrooms, hallways, and social media alike — and for Leila, much of her time is spent trying to define herself in connection or contrast to her classmates.

Leila’s insecurity is intensified by the fact that she rarely feels accepted by the people whom she believes should take her for who she is, no questions asked. Other Chinese-American girls in her class criticize her for not being “Chinese enough” because she was adopted by white parents as a baby, and she and her best friend Rachel (Lola Blackman) begin to drift apart when Leila turns every conversation into an opportunity to dissect text messages from the popular George (Anthony Ippolito). Even the cool, feminist rabbi she seeks out for guidance suggests she should perhaps see a therapist, and Leila views that as further proof of the rift between herself and her Judaism.

For Amalia, a longtime student of show creator Katie Cappiello, Leila’s compounding self-doubt felt universal and was part of the reason why she was drawn to the character. “I think a lot of people have moments where, no matter how old you are, no matter where you are in your life, you feel like Leila, and you feel insecure and are constantly comparing yourself to others,” she says. “You feel 10 steps behind everyone else, and you don’t know how to catch up. I have moments now where I feel that way. And I totally felt like that when I was a freshman in high school.”

She adds that she was “really lucky that I was never pressured by my parents or by my friends or by my community” to pick one part of her intersecting identities over the rest, but Amalia recognizes that doing so is “definitely something that Leila feels like she has to do … She feels so lost and she feels like everything is crumbling around her, so she’s trying so hard to grasp onto something. She feels like her religion or her racial identity could be one of those things to grasp onto, and that’s why she’s trying to come into herself as a Chinese person or a Jewish person.” What lies in the subtext of Leila’s struggle is the unsaid possibility: Why does she have to choose, especially given that one identity does not negate the other? Why can’t she be both Chinese, and Jewish, and whoever else she wants to be?



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