“I am quite embarrassed to tell you this and have you write it in an article and have people look at it,” Willa Holland is telling me over the phone from Vancouver, laughing and talking in a rush like we’re in the back row at school. Her secret: she sings and plays ukulele on the soundtrack to the new Spike Jonze skateboarding film, Pretty Sweet. “It’s seriously such a rough edit; it’s insane. I couldn’t believe he put it on iTunes. I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Oh my god!’ My voice sounds so bad.” (It’s really nothing to worry about: she speak-sings lines like “I used to think my troubles were life-long” and “It’s a bitter life but pretty sweet” in a world-weary sigh, over a big piano riff and skittering beats. It evokes a hazy, hungover LA afternoon. She asks me to mention that the “Euro-pop kind of vibe” the Italian producers gave the track wasn’t her idea, though.)
This isn’t the kind of confession I was expecting from the polished starlet who’s been acting and modelling (Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Guess) since the age of 7, encouraged by family friend Steven Spielberg and introduced to agencies by her stepdad Brian De Palma, who directed Scarface and Mission: Impossible. Willa’s made her name playing a string of troublemaking teens – she wreaked havoc on The O.C. for two seasons as Marissa Cooper’s little sister Kaitlin – and now she’s playing another pampered, angsty party girl on Arrow, the CW series based on DC’s Green Arrow. But, despite being sick with food poisoning (she’ll never send out for Chinese food on set again, she vows), she’s as sunny and thoughtful as her best-known characters are sulky and reckless.
“I do get called an old soul a lot,” she says. “I think that living in Hollywood my whole life has helped hone that. I’ve dealt with a lot in my 21 years.” Born to an actress and a cinematographer, she grew up on movie sets, and while she was excited about working in the business as a kid, she also says that she “wasn’t really aware what I was getting myself into.” At 14, when she became part of The O.C.’s ensemble, she could relate closely to her rule-breaking, attention-seeking character. “I think I was right there in that stage of life where Kaitlin was,” she admits, without getting into the details. “It was very obvious to me why I got cast in that role at that time.”
During The O.C.’s season breaks, she worked on other jobs, “so it’s not like I really had a summer,” and when the show finished a couple of years later her gruelling schedule continued. After it wrapped, she flew straight to Italy to play Colin Firth’s daughter in the Michael Winterbottom film Genova, and then bounced around London, Sweden, Louisiana and Mexico making films of varying quality and success with the likes of Susan Sarandon, Paul Bettany and Ray Liotta. More recently, she had a recurring part on Gossip Girl as a bratty model and played the lead in a film adaption of the Judy Blume novel Tiger Eyes. “I was literally non-stop for three or four years from about [the age of] 14 to about 18, 19,” she says, “and then right before I turned 20 I was like, ‘I need a break.’”
She took a year’s sabbatical “to figure some things out” and try her hand at some new hobbies. “I spent a lot of time putting myself back into being a kid again. I [had been] forcing myself to grow up a lot.” Every weekend, she’d drive to San Diego, where a gang of her high-school friends were living, and “we would go skate every day, I’d take photos every day, we’d play music all night, and barbecue, be together, have good times, and it was just awesome. There was no care in the world for a little while.” “Pretty Sweet Song” came out of this period, and Willa’s been working on some covers and original songs, singing with her ukulele, that she’s planning to put up on Soundcloud. She also shares some of her photography on Instagram, posting dramatic skyscapes and snapshots of friends.
Idyllic as that year was, as Willa sighs, “you can’t live like that forever,” and she’s currently filming the second half of Arrow’s first season. Her character, Thea Queen, turned from a brainbox into a rebellious socialite when her playboy brother disappeared for five years; when he unexpectedly returns (and becomes a green-hooded vigilante by night) and becomes protective of her, they butt heads. Many hints have been dropped onscreen that Thea will turn into Green Arrow’s bow-toting sidekick Speedy (move over, Katniss Everdeen) but Willa says she hasn’t done any fight training yet. “We want to develop the characters for a nice length of time,” is the way she puts it, “before we take them out of this world and throw them into another.”
While real life has definitely resumed, Willa’s keen to keep stretching herself. When asked about a perfect role (she’s “a little peeved” that she’s still constantly offered Kaitlin Cooper types) she says she wants to direct and star in her own film, drafting in screenwriters she trusts and possibly acting as producer, too. It will be based on the “crazy, romantic” story of her mother and father meeting for the first time on a boat in the Caribbean, which is “definitely a juicy one,” she says. “When my mom told me it, I was like, ‘If there’s any story that I was born to tell I think it was this. Thank you for having me so I can do this now.’”