Sweet Tooth: Stefania LaVie Owen on her transformative Netflix role

Sweet Tooth, a Netflix series based on the DC comics of the same name, premieres on Netflix tonight. Lydia Burgham talks to the Kiwi-American actress Stefania LaVie Owen about how the stars aligned for her to play the character she didn’t know she needed most.

An unexpected role for a Kiwi-American actress turned out to be the epic homecoming she desperately needed during the pandemic.

Stefania LaVie Owen, 23, stars as Bear in the Netflix dystopian-fantasy epic Sweet Tooth, a new series with a big celebrity name attached.

Robert Downey Jr and his wife Susan Downey executive produced the show based on the DC comics by Jeff Lemire. The eight-part series was filmed entirely in New Zealand and it was one of a handful of international productions to film here in 2020 post-lockdown.

Auditioning for the role turned into a moment of serendipity for Owen – she wanted it so much she considered emailing the director begging to be a part of it.

She tells the Herald over Zoom from Wellington there was a “magic quality” to the script.

That’s no small feat for a show about a raging infectious disease that devastates the planet and leaves the world with mysterious half-human, half-animal children. To set the scene: A decade earlier “The Great Crumble” left the world in chaos with the unexplained emergence of babies who were born part-animal.

The show follows Gus (played by 10-year-old Christian Convery), a half-deer “hybrid” in the post-apocalyptic world who goes on a journey with Jepperd (Nonso Anozie) to find his origins. But the odyssey goes beyond the show’s premise – it’s a story of hope and acceptance, supported by stunning shots of Aotearoa’s landscape. Even a post-apocalyptic Rainbow’s End makes an appearance (spot the vine-covered corkscrew roller coaster in episode 3).

Sweet Tooth is written and directed by Jim Mickle and Beth Schwartz, who are co-showrunners. Owen was so attached to the role that she was about to email Mickle telling him how passionate she was about the script. But she decided at the last minute not to send it.

“I never usually talk about my auditions to anyone,” Owen says. “Even before I got it, I was telling people about this story.”

As fate would have it, no email was needed – her agent called her to let her know they were interested in her for the role of Bear.

“My whole being just lit up,” she says, speaking about the moment she got the call.

But it’s not just the role itself that feels fateful for Owen. The show’s themes are a product of the times we are living through right now, despite the pilot being filmed here in 2019. Her character is the leader of the Animal Army, a group that wants to protect the group of hybrids others are hell-bent on hunting down.

It doesn’t take an eagle-eyed person to immediately identify the parallels with the events of 2020. People all over the world joined political movements, standing up for racial injustices and environmental issues. The backdrop of a pandemic and isolation in Sweet Tooth isn’t stretching viewers’ imagination. And that consciousness is part of what Owen says made the role so impactful for her.

“There’s just so much anger about what’s happening in the world, and so much passion about wanting change,” she says.

“I felt this bubble inside of me,” she adds, speaking of a shift she felt in herself when she was filming and delving into her character’s psyche. Bear has a fiery spirit, which fit Owen’s strengths perfectly.

“It’s been such a great outlet for me and I feel like she speaks for a lot of youth in our world now, whether it’s race, indigenous knowledge, global warming or wars,” she says.

Owen admits a lot of roles she has auditioned aren’t filled with as much substance as Bear. She’s used to sending in tapes for someone’s daughter or sister, but Bear is a natural leader in charge of her own story. Many will recognise Owen from her breakout role as a young Carrie Bradshaw’s little sister Dorrit in The Carrie Diaries.

“I feel very honoured to have played her, I feel very connected to her,” Owen says about her Sweet Tooth character.

Playing Bear was so impactful for her that she decided to take a break after filming: “I felt like I couldn’t go straight onto another thing. I think with everything going on in the world, I just felt quite overwhelmed.”

The experiences she had in 2020 made her reconsider for a time if she still loved acting. While she was on set of Sweet Tooth, she struggled with her mental health but felt empowered to reach out to the people she was working with.

“I needed to take a step away because it felt like I was swimming in this murky water,” she admits.

“I felt like my character and I was going through similar things at the same, where it felt like we were [both] shedding a layer. There’s so much doubt, there’s just so much change, and you have to let go of past stuff,” she says.

Although the premise for Sweet Tooth may seem dark, in truth it is a story of hope. Owen wants those who watch it to realise we’re all “a little piece of a big puzzle” and to find trust in ourselves to ride out the difficult moments together.

“It’s not always smooth sailing, and so it’s just about learning how to cope and getting through those times.”

• Sweet Tooth streams from Friday on Netflix.

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