Rewriting Roles with Havana Rose Liu
Since expanding from modelling to acting, Havana Rose Liu has broadened perceptions with every performance, challenging stereotypes by showing audiences what representation really looks like.
‘You can be as weird or stiff as you want, just go with it’, says Havana Rose Liu (she/her), describing how improvised dance helps the actor and model when she feels stuck in a rut. ‘It’s my way of externalising the dialogue, whatever comes out shows how I’m feeling inside.’ Call it instinct, luck or destiny, but just going with it is an approach that seems to be working for the 25-year-old star of Bottoms, Emma Seligman’s brilliant queer teen comedy about a high school fight club. ‘I don’t even know what a traditional direction is, I just follow whatever my internal compass says.’
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Liu was street cast in New York while studying wellness and art activism, which explains her focus on self-care. She grew up with parents who attended film school, so acting almost felt too expected a path but, inspired by women like Patti Smith and Marina Abramović, Liu was already exploring other ways to perform. ‘I thought I was going to end up an experimental performance artist, crawling down Broadway or something’, she laughs. ‘But I unintentionally found myself in a much more glamorous world of performance instead.’
The idea of being a commodity for sale had always put Liu off when approached by talent scouts, until she reframed modelling as a way to take up space in a positive way. Coming from a mixed cultural background, working with big magazines and photographers became her platform for championing more representation and diversity in fashion. Now it extends into film through her acting. Every project, from A24’s coming-of-age drama The Sky is Everywhere to Hulu’s suspense-thriller No Exit, has challenged Asian stereotypes by shifting and unpicking popular perceptions.
Even her personal style has a non-traditional story, built on a combination of bold imagination and not-quite-20/20 vision. ‘I never had fashion icons growing up, I would just get inspired by seeing an amazing outfit as I walked around the city’, she says. ‘I kind of need glasses though, so as I got closer it was never the outfit I thought it was and sometimes I liked the one in my head better. But I guess how my mind fills in the gaps is fun, because those were the looks I recreated later on.’
From her sun-drenched New York apartment, she speaks about how comedy initially freaked her out, why achieving better representation is more possible than people assume, and not overthinking her next move. ‘I’m open to whatever the universe has in store for me, because it's right more often than I am.’
‘As my career expands, more spaces open up for expressing myself through fashion.’
‘I was studying at NYU, running around New York, feeling empowered cause I'd made this huge change in my life and that’s when I was street cast. It sounds so clichéd, but I was dancing and skipping through Washington Square Park wearing my favourite dress and this agent, who had spoken to me before, said she had a project I might be great for. I was feeling good about myself, so I said yes, and I'm really glad I did.’
‘I’ve always appreciated how people express themselves through clothes. A family friend gave me a sewing machine and I spent hours on it growing up. Quirky wild looks had always intrigued me but as I became immersed in fashion as a model, I got more streamlined about how I present myself. Now I feel like I enjoy the variety. As my career expands, more spaces open up for expressing myself through fashion.’
‘I come from two different cultural backgrounds, so for me, one of my favourite things is how multifaceted we all are, and how we naturally express that by bringing all these contrasting elements together. I enjoy taking pieces that don't look like they're cut from the same cloth then combining them to make something even more magical. I think that’s what makes this COS collection feel so versatile, the bold contrasts.’
‘I wanted to do Bottoms because it was so fun. I read the script and I was cackling. I had never done anything like it; I had never touched comedy, comedy freaked me out, and honestly, I saw this as a challenge. I wondered if I had the balls. But then I started to understand where my character fits into the world of the film and see how she could be so grounded and also hilarious. It gave me permission to try something terrifying but fun.’
‘I come from two different cultural backgrounds, so one of my favourite things is how multifaceted we all are.’
‘Trying to expand perceptions is the driving force behind every decision in my career. There are endless ways to nuance people's perception of someone, or something, or a culture. To shift how they label things.’
‘What's cool about representation is that the more you take up space, the more it allows others to take up space. The more I see people like the Daniels forging new paths with Everything Everywhere All at Once, the more it feels possible for us all to cover new ground. It can happen in little ways too. I’m half-Asian, but in The Sky is Everywhere I’m supposed to be sisters with my co-star Grace Kaufman, who is white. Our director Josephine Decker found a way to include me by making us half-sisters. Sometimes all it takes is just trying. And that applies to any field – Emma Seligman, my director on Bottoms, is so young, talented and determined, and it’s been so lovely to see her inspire other young filmmakers to challenge what’s possible. The more you empower yourself, the more room there is for others to follow in your footsteps.’
‘As much as there is a pressure to call myself an actor, really acting is just one medium I’m working with right now for the purpose of following the same path I always had, to understand this strange life and the world around me. It's bigger and deeper than a profession in my mind. I'm an actor, but I'm also a lot of other things. I don't think there's any need to limit that.
‘I meditate religiously and when I fall off the wagon, I feel it. Everything runs amok. So I have to meditate. And I do free dance almost every day. Sometimes I just need to move and feel like I’m capable of doing strange, curious, explorative things with my body. There are so many ways in which we have to get in touch with our internal world. The more externalised our culture becomes through social media, the easier it is to lose your sense of self. I think that the more time I take to access what's happening inside as well as outside, the better off I am.’
Would you rather be in an action-thriller or comedy?
It would have to be an action-thriller-comedy
What is your favourite food spot in Brooklyn?
Mekong BK in Fort Greene – they do an amazing pho
Afternoon at the Guggenheim Museum or MoMA?
MoMA; I love the Guggenheim but it makes me dizzy
Who was the toughest member of the Bottoms cast?
Ruby Cruz for stunts, but also Summer Campbell, she's feisty
What is the one trademark piece that defines your look?
A black boot, it has a little edge and toughness, which I love
Words by Ben Perdue
Havana wears the Autumn Winter 2023 collection for COS.
Photography by Daniel Jackson. Styling by Jane How.
Disclaimer: this interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA Strike.
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