Under the brassy overhead lighting of her nondescript hotel room and through that unholy Zoom lens which deadens even the most distinctive human faces, Joey King is still sparkling.
It's late morning where I’m situated in Los Angeles, but it's past 9 p.m. in Bulgaria, where the 22-year-old screen star just began stunt-training for a lead role in her newest project, an "epic action film" called The Princess, which she’s also executive producing. "This is the hardest I've ever worked, I'm the tiredest I've ever been, and we haven't even fully started shooting yet," laughs King, her ice-blue eyes crinkling.
She’s not burnt out though, she swears, and I believe her. Donning freshly groomed brows, glowy cheeks, and a sleek black tank, the former child actress appears, dare I say, sprightly. She’s been bred for days like these. "I'm always go, go, go. I mean, I'm on my third movie this year and it's only June, er wait, July,” gleams the self-identified "introverted extrovert," firing off sentences at a snappy clip. "I've been in this business 18 years, and I’ve been dying to play a character like this. I love becoming different people."
Depending on your generation (and taste in media), you might recognize King from any number of different on-screen projects: The point is, you recognize her. King was born and raised in Los Angeles, and her parents ushered her and her two older sisters, Kelli and Hunter—cherubic kids with big smiles and hammy personalities—into show business early. King was four years old when she starred in her first TV commercial. One of her fans found and uploaded the 15-second spot to YouTube: All dirty blonde curls and Disney princess eyes, a munchkin-size King pours herself a heaping bowl of Life Cereal, plucks out a sugary square, and examines it—her precocious, I-get-what-you-people-want-from-me attitude palpable even then.
For the next decade, King worked steadily as a child star, appearing in cross-genre hits from the horror film The Conjuring (after all, every supernatural movie needs a creepy little girl), to the Selena Gomez-led family comedy Ramona and Beezus. In 2018, King’s proverbial big break arrived with a starring role in Netflix’s Gen Z feel-good sensation The Kissing Booth, which has two sequels, the latest of which drops August 11.
The first in the trilogy presents a classic YA rom-com scenario: protagonist Elle (played by King) is a spunky high school late-bloomer, who suddenly finds herself face-to-face with her swoon-worthy crush (Jacob Elordi), after signing up to run the kissing booth at their local spring carnival. Wholesome hijinx ensues. The subsequent two Kissing Booths follow the couple’s romantic ups and downs, college admissions squabbles, and other #relatable come-of-age content. At the risk of dating myself, Kissing Booth established King and Elordi as the new Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens.
But King is no one-note wonder; her allure lies in her creative elasticity: True crime fans, for example, will recognize her not as perky Elle but as the profoundly vulnerable Gypsy Rose Blanchard in The Act. Hulu’s 2019 limited series fictionalized the gripping 2017 documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest about a Munchausen by Proxy victim who seeks revenge by murdering her mother; King played opposite Academy Award-winner Patricia Arquette as the young murderess. Vulture deemed her performance "a revelation, to the point that those who have seen her in other projects… might not even recognize her." It earned King a well-deserved Emmy nomination and secured her position not only as a Hollywood superstar but also as a competitive, award-worthy talent to watch.
Having just turned 22, but with the resume of someone twice her age, King now finds herself stepping into an executive role: In July, she became the youngest person ever to ink a first look deal producing projects for Netflix, under her (punny) new company name, All the King’s Horses. A film adaptation of the dystopian fantasy novel Uglies (King is set to star and produce) is already underway, in addition to a slew of other multi-genre films and series (from the limited series A Spark of Light, based on the provocative, abortion-centered novel of the same name, to the sci-fi romance film The In Between). King has basically pulled off any young actor’s dream career scenario: the versatility of rom-com charm, dramatic nuance, Milla Jovovich action stardom, and behind-the-scenes-control.
I’ll be honest, though: Lifelong show business kids intimidate me (which surely says more about me than it does about them). There’s just something about the world-wise soul of a 30-something behind the wrinkle-free face of a 22-year-old that makes me feel like I’m about to get eaten alive. Had scheduling allowed us to do this interview in-person, I would've booked some absurd L.A. wellness treatment for me and King to do together, as a social warm-up. CBD mani/pedis had been discussed via email, as had a sheet mask shopping spree in Koreatown or tandem Vitamin IV drips at a bougie "health lounge" in Beverly Hills. Nothing like having your veins injected with a month's worth of B12 together to break the ice, right?
Over Zoom, however, our options were limited. Considering the time difference—this interview having been squeezed between a full day of intense physical stunt training and bedtime—I proposed we kick off the hour with a quick guided meditation to ground us: just a free YouTube video I stumbled across titled "5-Minute Meditation for Anxiety."
I Zoom-chat King the link and ask her sheepishly if she’s down for a few moments of mindfulness. "Uh, fuck yeah, this looks amazing," she replies, nonchalantly, with a deeper voice than I was expecting and the relaxed energy of an old friend. "I'd love to." For the next five minutes, an artist named Anisa Benitez—sporting long braids and the voice of a songbird—submerges us into a loosey-goosey trance. Nothing too woo-woo, just a few prompts to notice your body in space, to steady your breathing… a reminder that we're not robots or holograms but instead real, fleshy mammals with bodies and brains, who just happen to be chatting via electromagnetic radiation from opposite sides of the globe.
It quickly becomes clear this exercise was mostly for my benefit, not King's. I once heard "charisma" described as a person’s ability to manufacture an instant sense of familiarity—of intimacy—between themselves and their audience. That’s King: The actress's ice comes pre-broken. "Wow, that was actually really, really calming," she says of the meditation video, adding immediately, "Now, to be fully transparent, I have to tell you, I already unbuttoned my pants." As evidence, King lifts her torso (indeed, clad in a half-unfastened pair of olive green trousers) into frame, along with a chortling explanation: "I had Indian food for dinner. I’m just really full."
It may just be the loopy hour right before bed (though something tells me this is her round-the-clock personality), but either way, King has no interest in formalities. This comes as an immense relief to me. I volunteer a piece of pandemic slang I learned recently: the "Zoom mullet," meaning business attire on top, pajama pants on the bottom. "Oh, I went above and beyond the Zoom mullet for this. It’s a wonder I’m wearing pants at all. I even kept my mascara on," King banters back with ample side mouth and sarcasm. (Her mascara comes courtesy of Revlon, for inquiring minds. Her brows? Fenty. "I love makeup. If I just throw on a little bit, my mood increases, even if I’m not seeing anyone," King tells me. "Like today, I had a lot of stuff to do, but when I was finished with that stuff, after I showered, I didn't have anything to do necessarily. So I swiped a little mascara and put on a little eyeliner, brushed on my eyebrows and I was like, ooh, shit. It's just a way to reclaim your day.")
No matter the context, this seems to be how every get-to-know-you chat of 2021 starts—with an obligatory quarantine autopsy. My exchange with King is no different. Pleasantries like "how are you?" have universally transformed into, "Things are weird. How are they weird for you, specifically?" King starts by offering her favorite term from the past year: “FOGO," aka, the fear of going out. "I've become much more introverted over the past 20 months or so. I have zero FOMO anymore," she reveals. Growing up in Hollywood, where there’s always a party or premiere, King said her case of FOMO was already raging by the time she hit double digits. Quarantine, ironically, brought down that fever. "I think I just like myself better now," she adds, "so I don’t need to have plans all the time to feel inner peace and joy, you know?"
Of course, like everyone else, the past year-and-a-half was also "a very tough time mentally" for King (who spent the majority of the pandemic with her boyfriend and immediate family in Los Angeles). Unable to work or travel—the things that make her come alive—her confidence wavered. Patience has always been a challenge for the performer, she confesses, and restlessness naturally plagues her, like a hummingbird. In quarantine, with all the isolation, thumb-twirling, and unknowns, King had nowhere to place her frustrations but her own self. "I went through a lot of weird, personal relationship-with-my-body, medical stuff," she confides. King gestures vaguely toward her torso, winding her hands through the hair, as if conducting a spell. "I completely lost my enjoyment of exercising during the pandemic," she continues. "I had no drive, no motivation. I pretty much just stopped working out altogether."
It wasn’t until King started training for her current project, The Princess—spending three-to-four hours a day learning hardcore stunts (skateboarding is involved, she teases), ending each evening sore but satisfied—that she fully appreciated the relationship between her body and her mental health. She describes her typical day-in-the-life like this: "I wake up, I pack my Gatorade and many liters of water. I eat a big breakfast: a bowl of oats with lots of fruit and some toast. I head to training, where I fuckin' go for it for a few hours. Then I have meetings to prepare for the rest of the film. Then I take a shower, shove myself in an ice bath, and then I am miserable while I'm doing that. But then I get out and sleep like a goddamn baby." King laughs with self-deprecation at how influencer-y it sounds to narrate your wellness routine like this. Earnestness, it’s obvious, is not the actress's default.
"This sounds odd, but I didn't know I was the type of person that needs exercise to not feel wound up," she tells me. "If I’m feeling pent up and I don't know why, if I just move my body, then all of a sudden I’m so much more relaxed." Ending her days physically exhausted rather than mentally exhausted has been a welcome change for King. And she explains training not for vanity’s sake, but in service of her art, has completely rewired her perspective of her own body. She effuses: "When I finish this movie, I’ll feel like I can do anything."
King lights up like a glow stick when she talks about her work. She is impressively fluent in Hollywood-speak, tossing around phrases like "in development" and "attached to the project" as easily as she inhales oxygen and exhales CO2. To say the girl does not emanate early 20-something energy would be an understatement. When I was 22, my biggest responsibility was keeping my new kitten alive; my idea of a good time was devouring a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and four consecutive vodka red bulls. King spends her workdays on multi-million-dollar sets followed by executive development round-tables; her choice aperitif is a plate of oysters and "a really, really dry chardonnay."
"Yeah, I'm normally the youngest person in the room," she acknowledges. "When I was 16, my friends were 30." This didn’t always feel fun. King admits to feeling belittled throughout her career, especially during her teen years. "I was so tired of people calling me 'honey' or 'sweetie' and putting me down all the time," she recalls. "I had so much more experience and responsibility than most people my age." Things started to change for the better once she entered her 20s (nabbing an Emmy nod and a Netflix deal didn’t hurt). Self-aware as ever, she states: "My work kind of started to speak for itself."
Fancy titles and accolades aside, it’s apparent that King doesn’t take herself too seriously: She names Mario Kart as her favorite day-off activity, recommends "screaming into a pillow for 45 seconds" as an effective self-care ritual ("It’s literally as therapeutic as this five-minute meditation," she deadpans), and when asked to describe The Kissing Booth 3 in a word, she offers "litty-titty."
"It's the greatest gift I give myself, just being an idiot," King says, flicking a fallen flake of Revlon from her cheekbone. Then, with astuteness, she adds, "I think not being able to make fun of yourself comes from comparing yourself to other people too much. It's hard not to. I’m human. I do it, too. Whether you’re in the public eye or not, there’s so much we have to let go."
If the last 18 months have taught King to let go of anything, it’s the impulse to make too many formal plans. In fact, when I ask about her career goals for the next few years, she inhales sharply and responds, "I don’t really make those." The reason? "Because you'll never be happy," she rationalized. "Either you'll reach that goal and then just be thinking about the next one, or you won't reach that goal, and then you’ll be miserable forever." As it turns out, King’s dreams for her future are sweeter than, say, winning an Oscar or working with Martin Scorsese: She counts mastering a foreign language (either French, Spanish, or Russian), traveling to Greece and Antarctica, and learning to sew among them.
In the end, it’s not the movie roles or the jet sets to eastern Europe, but instead these grounding activities that help King from slipping back into the sinkhole of pandemic blues. Nothing glamorous, just day-to-day micro-adjustments in service of her own growth: meditation (even just for five minutes), exercise, sleep, therapy. "I actually just started therapy in quarantine. I'd never, ever done it before," King divulges. "And not because I didn't think I needed it, I just wasn't ready. To talk about yourself to someone you've never met, I think you’ve gotta be ready for that."
When asked what she hopes to "kiss hello to" in the coming year, King says that "patience and presence" are at the front of her metaphorical kissing booth line. "Whatever I’m doing, whether it be something exciting or mundane, I just try to ground myself in the here and now, as generic as that sounds. To put down this little rectangle box in my hand." She wags her phone in the air, then drops it like it’s made of hot lava. Finally, with a knowing grin, she tells me: "I mean, we're all gonna die someday… in a good way. I’m just gaining more of a sense of what really matters."
Talent: Joey King
Photographer: Angelo Sgambati
Creative Direction: Hillary Comstock
Beauty Direction: Hallie Gould
Makeup Artist: Allan Avendaño
Hairstylist: Dimitris Giannetos
Manicurist: Thuy Nguyen
Stylist: Jared Eng
Producer: Caroline Santee Hughes
Video Editor: WesFilms
Cinematographer: Steven Yee
Booking: Talent Connect Group