Cailee Spaeny's Journey from Springfield Little Theatre to Household Name

Springfield native Cailee Spaeny leapt from acting on the Springfield Little Theatre stage to fighting CGI monsters on the Pacific Rim: Uprising set. Now she’s on the cusp of fame with a resume filled with big-name co-stars.

By Jeff Houghton

Apr 2018

Cailee Spaeny
Photo by Meadow ImagesCailee Spaeny

"I went full out for this audition. I put dirt all over my face, I was in a hooded jacket, and there was no air conditioning in the house, so I was actually sweating. I used remote controls as buttons on the machines, I actually slammed myself down on the ground while Jonna, my acting coach, had her phone over me trying to get the best angles while reading me other lines,” Cailee Spaeny says, describing the self-taped audition that would change her life. It was here in Springfield, where Spaeny grew up, that the actress went to such great lengths. She was 1,600 miles away from the casting directors in Los Angeles and even farther away from Australia where she would eventually shoot. And at that moment, her career couldn’t have been further away from where it is now.

But then, she booked it.

In Pacific Rim: Uprising, the sequel to the worldwide blockbuster Pacific Rim, Cailee Spaeny would be playing Amara Namani, one of the lead roles alongside John Boyega, of Star Wars: The Force Awakens fame.

Cailee Spaeny, Pacific Rim
Photo by Mark SpaenyA behind-the-scenes photo captured by Cailee Spaeny’s father, Mark, on the set of Pacific Rim: Uprising.

And that was just the beginning. After shooting Pacific Rim: Uprising in Australia, Spaeny booked four more movies—in one week, no less—having to turn one movie offer down due to scheduling conflicts.

Spaeny is entirely unassuming, more friendly than she is starlet. Sitting cross-legged on the couch, she speaks conversationally, without the walls of rehearsed quotes that experience will bring. Pacific Rim: Uprising premiered in March, and with three more films coming down the pike, she knows her life is about to change in a big way. 

On the surface her story could read as a 19-year-old who came out of nowhere to get lucky—that string of success is pretty unheard of out of the gate, after all—but the truth is that like most overnight successes she created her opportunities through real talent and hidden years of hard work.

“Every summer I was going out to Los Angeles. I was begging my mom to take me... There were times my mom didn’t know if we could afford going out there, but she didn’t want to tell me. She was praying every night, ‘Please let something happen.’”
— Cailee Spaeny

The first acting Spaeny did was through her homeschool co-op, and soon after at Silver Dollar City when she was 13. Like most actors in Springfield, she also went to Springfield Little Theatre. “I was there probably six days a week just taking dance classes, vocal lessons, acting classes,” Spaeny says. “And with all of this, every summer I was going out to Los Angeles. I was begging my mom to take me. Basically I told everyone I knew I was moving to LA. My family kept making the drives out there. I begged my mom, and she said, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this.’” 

The two of them always stayed with people they knew, and in one house, Spaeny remembers sneaking into the shared bathroom to run lines by herself in the bathtub. “There were times my mom didn’t know if we could afford going out there, but she didn’t want to tell me,” Spaeny says. “She was praying every night, ‘Please let something happen.’” And then it did.

Cailee Spaeny, On the Basis of Sex
Photos by TGC Photography and Meadow Images(Left) Before heading off to Hollywood, Cailee Spaeny performed in Silver Dollar City’s production of A Christmas Carol. (Right) Springfield native Cailee Spaeny always dreamed of living and working in Los Angeles.

The Beginning of Something Big
On the strength of that self-taped audition, Spaeny found herself on location half a world away for the first day of filming Pacific Rim: Uprising. “The first day was crazy,” she says. “So we’re in Sydney, Australia, I get to set, and my first scene is my actual first scene in the movie, and it’s an action sequence with John Boyega. We had to get into a boat, and they had to take us to this island off Sydney called Cockatoo Island. I’m on an island on my first day in this giant haunted warehouse. It just kept getting like, ‘What? What? What?’” After the initial shock, Spaeny says, “I just rolled with the punches like I knew what I was doing.” 

That attitude has allowed her to keep rolling into new challenges. She’s in On the Basis of Sex about the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg starring Felicity Jones, and in Bad Times at the El Royale with Chris Hemsworth and Jon Hamm. Not a bad list of actors to work alongside. For Spaeny each film is an opportunity to learn. “For On the Basis of Sex I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m not the star of the show, and I have to make Felicity Jones look good. No, scratch that, she always looks good,’” Spaeny says with a laugh. “But you’re helping the story, you’re helping make her character flow, you’re standing on the sidelines, so that was a good experience for me.”

“No one gave me the easy way out in Springfield, even though people think of it as a smaller town. It was very tough at the Little Theatre. You had to be really good and work really hard.”
— Cailee Spaeny

For Spaeny, it was Springfield that prepared her. “No one gave me the easy way out in Springfield, even though people think of it as a smaller town,” she says. “It was very tough at the Little Theatre. You had to be really good and work really hard. In LA, you say you did local theater, they’re like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ and I’m telling them, ‘No, this was real.’ It was almost harder for me in Springfield, so I’m thankful for that.”

These days Spaeny lives in the valley in the greater Los Angeles area. “The valley is the closest you can get to the Midwest, the most normal,” she says. “You can walk down the street, go to the grocery store and kids are playing in their yards. I love walking. I used to just walk if I had two auditions during the day, and I had three hours between them, I’d just walk to them.”

Becoming a Household Name
Pretty soon, walking around unnoticed could be a thing of the past, but Spaeny is intentional about staying grounded. “I think the important thing is to keep doing normal kid stuff, having hobbies that aren’t acting,” she explains. “I had an interview the other day where they submitted pre-questions, and they asked me what my hobbies are, so I called my boyfriend and said, ‘What are my hobbies? This is all I do with my life 24/7.’ So I’m going to work on it. I’m forcing myself to do something other than this. I’m trying to learn a new language. I want to take pottery classes.”

Spaeny has known since she was young that this is what she wanted, not just to make a splash now, but to sustain a career. “I’m interested in how actors and actresses balance their lives, which films they choose and why, when they take a break and why and how they keep their sanity,” she says. “The actors I’m finding that are really good at it, that are really awesome normal people, those are the ones I’m watching.”

Spaeny is in between right now in so many ways. She’s on the eve of her career taking off waiting for movies she’s already filmed to premiere, but on this side of fame it’s where she’s come from that feels closer. “It hits me in waves,” she says. “My biggest dream was to say I was living in LA and just doing something, because that’s a success in itself. That to me was a huge goal, so when I wake up in my house in LA I think, ‘Hey, I’m in a house in LA. This is crazy.’”

Cailee Spaeny, On the Basis of Sex

Jon Boyega

with John Boyega
In Theaters Now

Jon Hamm, Chris Hemingsworth

with Jon Hamm & Chris Hemsworth

Felicity Jones

with Felicity Jones