Spoilers ahead for Outer Banks Season 2.
Madelyn Cline has become a big enough star that she's calling me from a location I'm not allowed to disclose. She shuts off her camera when I pop into Zoom—“I look like a mess, I'm sorry”—and when I launch into the interview, her responses are initially distracted, even strained, as if she's only just returned home from a particularly crushing day at the office. Of course, her version of the office is the Knives Out 2 set, which she's filming “somewhere” overseas, and her biggest credit to date—the hit Netflix teen drama Outer Banks—is still ranking in the Netflix Top 10 list, weeks after its second season dropped. So, surely, things can't be too bad.
Sure enough, the signature glow that makes Cline so adored in the orbit of her cast-mates and fans creeps into her voice the longer we talk. Her answers are frequently bookmarked by laughter, and it's an easy, carefree laughter that's yet to absorb the self-conscious control of her older Hollywood peers. At 23, Cline is still only on the precipice of her career, yet she'll admit there are days she feel she's already bogged down in work. She's a lead in one of Netflix's biggest success stories. She's in the cast of Knives Out 2, where she's joining such industry titans as Daniel Craig, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, and Kate Hudson. She's dating her OBX co-star Chase Stokes in a love story ravenously consumed by their combined 16.5 million followers. (And that's just on Instagram.) So is she overwhelmed? Yeah, maybe. But it's what she signed up for, right? And she's lucky, right?
Raised in Goose Creek, South Carolina, not far from where Outer Banks films in Charleston, Cline always enjoyed performing, though the idea of trading the East Coast for the West didn't strike her as realistic until six weeks into college at Coastal Carolina University. After dropping out and moving to California, she only needed a year to land a role in Outer Banks, and then two more for the show to go so viral that her voice became a TikTok trend. Season 1 was action-packed. Season 2, by comparison, made Mission: Impossible look tame. Throughout the 10 episodes, Cline pretended to get shot, she pretended to die in front of Stokes, and she pretended to watch her fictional father get blown up on a boat in front of her.
“Season 2 was pretty hard to navigate at times, because it was a very, very crazy, unprecedented type of situation,” she says. “It raised the stakes from [Sarah] wanting to be part of a family that she chooses to needing to be part of it. So it's been an interesting thing to navigate, and I've been doing my best. I don't have any sort of personal experiences that I can draw from, obviously.”
What personal experience she can draw from, however, is the feeling of your life slipping a bit out of your grasp. She's never had to handle this level of attention before. And though she'll admit having a constant platform can be exhausting, it's also a much bigger real-life adventure than anything OBX could deliver.
“We didn’t realize that people would connect with [us] so much,” she says of the OBX cast. “I try to center myself by doing activities that bring me back [down to earth], but the main thing I feel is gratitude.”
As OBX continues to make waves on Netflix and filming for Knives Out 2 ramps up, Cline walked ELLE.com through her journey to the screen; how she handles the public side of her relationship with Stokes; and what she most wants for Sarah Cameron in season 3.
What prompted you to drop out of college, move out to California, and launch an acting career?
My southeast agent, she's also an incredibly close family friend. She's always watched out for me. And she continued to submit me for projects, even when I wasn't doing anything. I was focusing on high school and trying to get into college. And when I was in college, I wasn't necessarily fully committed to the major that I was pursuing. I really wanted to take a gap year and travel and learn more about myself. I didn't understand the point of going to college and spending the money if I didn't know and wasn't fully committed to what I was studying for. The opportunity presenting itself to move to L.A. was so much more appealing.
I would still like to go back [to college] now that I know more about myself and what I would like to study. But I think it was more of a, “I want to get out, and I want to try this if I can. And if it doesn't work out, that's totally fine, but I enjoy it.”
You mentioned in an interview that the choice to go to L.A. was ”everything your parents didn’t want you to do.”
Honestly, at the time, I was just so stubborn. I'm still incredibly stubborn, but at the time I was like, “I have this point, I need to prove it, and I'm going to do it,”—without really any thought of what it would be like to be completely across the country away from my family, a few hundred-dollar tickets to go back to my support system. I was so enraptured by this idea of going as far as I possibly could and being who I wanted to be. And my parents are lovely people, but I think they had a different idea for what I would do with my life.
It’s like that scene in Almost Famous where Frances McDormand is like, “My child has been kidnapped by a rock star.” I think that's what they imagined was happening. They're like, “Oh, holy shit. Our child, we sent her off to college, she's supposed to be fine, she's going to get her degree. She's going to have job security. And all of a sudden she's telling us she's moving to L.A.? Like, what happened in the six weeks between the time we sent her off to now?”
I think looking back on it, I laugh and we all laugh about it. It's a very funny story. At the time, I think it was definitely tough. But I was just so fucking stubborn.
What were the films and TV shows you were obsessed with from an early age, that you wanted to emulate when you started a Hollywood career?
My mom and I traveled to New York quite a bit when I was younger. She would take me to the library, and they have this massive collection of DVDs. She would take me there, and I got to pick out three a week. We watched a lot of older movies, like Splendor in the Grass and The Philadelphia Story. We worked our way through history and to more modern films.
I think being exposed to that from a young age, I was just so fascinated by it. And I think that's [when] I knew I wanted to be in storytelling in some way shape or form.
If you were to return to college, would you study filmmaking?
I would definitely be interested in going to film school. I also feel like it would be fascinating to go and get a degree in English or sociology or psychology. I don't know if I would go back [to college] for acting. I think [I’d rather study] everything around [acting]. A lot of my fascination with stories started with English—dissecting scripts and books and plays. And then I think film school would be cool, just to be able to learn that side of it.
Let's talk Outer Banks. The first season was an adventure. The second blows the first out of the water. Sarah gets shot within the first couple episodes and nearly dies on the table. What was it like filming that action scene, when her brother shoots her?
I had no idea where to start. I went to Reddit. I went to a few Reddit threads and was like, “Have you ever been shot? What was it like?” Because I had no idea how to answer that question myself. So that was my first gut reaction: “I'm going to go to a forum website.” [Laughs] By the way, I love Reddit. It's phenomenal, but I digress.
Some of the answers I got were people feeling, like, heat. They felt cold, and it was because the gunshot felt really hot. A lot of people said they felt shocked. So that's where we started with it. When Sarah first gets shot, she falls against the truck and it's like this weird shock of, “Did he just shoot the gun? Is everybody okay?” And then a few minutes later, she's starting to bleed out.
Was it surreal filming the scene with Chase where Sarah is literally dying on the table in front of him?
Honestly, I was really trying to do what he needed for that day. Because he was really carrying the brunt of the work. I was literally playing dead. I was trying not to breathe. I was trying to not show, like, my chest moving too much.
It wasn't surreal because it's one of those things where you're filming 12 hours a day. You're in it quite a bit. But it is heartbreaking when you have someone standing over you crying and heartbroken.
Is it a challenge to differentiate your on-screen relationship with Chase from your off-screen one? How do the two of you put boundaries in place to differentiate fiction from reality?
There's definitely got to be a healthy balance and a healthy boundary. We've talked about this before: My work headspace is really important and sacred to me, and to him as well. We do our best to protect that. So whenever there's any sort of personal issue, especially between the two of us, we don't bring it to work. Because it's distracting.
And, being honest, [being on set] is also a really fun time. It's not fun to feel like that time on set is tainted by anything else. So I think we've navigated it really well. In the first season, we all started out as friends, and we established this from a working relationship. And then in season 2, we came back to it as a couple.
Prior to stepping foot on set the first day, we said, “Hey, let's talk about this and establish boundaries before we go back, because there are so many people that it can affect.” And I hate that. I wouldn't want that at all.
Do you find it a struggle to date someone working on the same project as you, who’s attracting the same fandom you are? Or does that shared experience bring you two closer?
It's nice because you're both going through it at the same time. We all are, as a cast, so it's wonderful to have that shared experience together, but it's especially nice just for [Chase and I] to have gone through this experience together. I feel like we've become incredibly close because of it.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews how it feels like everything’s happening for you all at once. Your show is a huge hit. You’re filming a huge movie. You have a huge social following. How can you manage it all with grace?
I'm not always perfect. Some days I have bad days, and some days I need to tell myself to go touch grass, because I'm incredibly lucky to be where I am. I'm very, very blessed, and this whole entire experience has been such a privilege. But I think, at the same time, some days you do have to have a conversation with yourself and go take a walk and be like, “Hey, you need to get yourself in check.”
I think the big thing is remembering where I was a few years ago and thinking about what that version of me would think about what life is now. That's always a really good way to get me centered.
I know you can’t reveal anything specific about your character in Knives Out 2, but what was it like working on this high-profile movie, filming in Greece, working with an all-star cast?
Oh my God, I've been so incredibly intimidated. But also, again, I’ve been also incredibly thankful to be brought into this family and to be able to have the opportunity to watch how [director Rian Johnson] works and to be able to collaborate with him. To be able to watch all of these incredible actors that I grew up watching, being able to watch them on set? It's been very, very surreal. But besides that, I won't say a word.
Fair enough. So let me ask you this instead: Let's assume OBX gets a season 3. If there were one thing that you could make happen for Sarah Cameron next season, what would it be?
I want her to be happy. I want to see her come into her own. For me, for Sarah's arc, that would be the most ideal thing to happen.
I want to see her and John B have to kind of hash out what just happened. I want to see her personal relationships with her chosen family develop. Maybe we could get some backstory on her and Kie’s friendship. Maybe see her try to go to Pogue high school. Maybe see her try to get a job.
Season 2 was incredibly fast-paced and wild and very fun. And I think if we're lucky enough to get a season 3, I want to dive into some character stuff and get to know [Sarah] better.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.