Jessica Biel says her latest role – as executive producer on Freeform’s new drama, “Cruel Summer” – is a great fit.
“I love the development process,” she says during a Zoom conference. “We can write for the actors (in a way) that enriches the storylines.”
When she was a member of the “7th Heaven” cast, “it was way more traditional. In terms of being able to change the creative narrative, I didn’t have that power at all.” Now, actors, producers and writers talk through the stories issues “and find the best path through. It’s just such a gift to be able to do that with actors from a very ground level.”
In the series, Kate, a popular girl (played by Olivia Holt), disappears without a trace. Jeanette, a nerdy wannabe (played by Chiara Aurelia), is accused of causing her disappearance. Over the course of three years in the 1990s, viewers see the two change.
For Aurelia, it’s a chance to play three distinct characters. “It’s honestly kind of sad the evolution that Jeanette goes through,” she says. “It becomes harder for her to be the pure person that I feel like she is.”
Holt, meanwhile, plays a girl who comes from a complicated family. “That really shines a light on the complex part of being a teenager,” she says. “I think she’s really kind and really smart and you’ll see a lot of different layers of her in all the years.”
For Biel, “Cruel Summer” is “a project I would have wanted to do if I was their age. To really give them this platform to talk about some intense hard things is really exciting for me. It’s something we want to do for all people, but especially for women and for girls.”
Because it’s set in the 1990s – the time Biel was a young actress – she had to help them understand trends and mindsets.
“There are a couple of scenes where I carry a Walkman around,” Holt says. “I didn’t really know what it was and I didn’t know how to work it.”
“That sort of says it all,” Biel says with a smile.
Executive Producer Michelle Purple says she and Biel will look at the wardrobe “and they're things we wore. And these girls are like, ‘Look how retro this is. This is cool.’ I’m like ‘That’s what we wore in 1994.’”
During her run as the daughter of a minister on “7th Heaven,” Biel enjoyed the perks of television fame, but didn’t think about a film career. “You were on television or you were in film and very few people kind of crossed over,” she says.
Off set, she didn’t lead a glamorous life. “It was really boring,” Biel says. “I had a really nice childhood. My family was cool. But it was not as exciting or interesting or intense as the characters are going through. And I’m probably very grateful that it was so boring.”
Married to singer Justin Timberlake, she has two sons and a burgeoning producing career that includes “The Sinner” and several films.
“The experience of doing ‘The Sinner’ gave us a lot of knowledge coming into this -- how we can do this right, how complex storytelling is very challenging,” Biel says. “All of the experiences I’ve had culminated in this moment to step behind the cameras and really be a support system and really be much more part of the development.”
Because the action takes place over three days in June in 1993, 1994 and 1995, Holt and Aurelia had to mentally differentiate where they were and what they were thinking when scenes from different years were shot in the same day. Part of it, Aurelia says, is “understanding how much people can change and what she’s going through over these three drastic years. Wardrobe and hair and makeup play a big part in it.”
But, producers can also play a role with that continuity. That’s where Biel says she shines.
“Diving into deep character stuff…that’s my favorite part,” she says. “Working with the actors, casting the show – I’m really good at that stuff. I’m also really bad at some other stuff and Michelle’s really good at that stuff.”
"Cruel Summer" airs on Freeform.