Midori Francis and I turned up to our Zoom meeting wearing almost identical tops. "Puffy sleeves!” we both exclaimed, pointing to our shirts as we settled in for our call. "I love a puffy sleeve,” she tells me. "It’s somewhat fancy, even if it’s just a regular old shirt.” I am meant to be speaking to Francis about her new show Dash & Lily, but we spend the first five or so minutes discussing our mutual adoration for voluminous shoulder detailing and the thrill of actually getting dressed up these days. Much to my delight, I find Francis to be a lot like her on-screen counterpart Lily, engaging and sprightly. At one point later in our conversation, she even pauses to ask if she can show me her favorite Christmas pajamas (the answer obviously being yes!).
Admittedly, I was skeptical of Dash & Lily at first. A real cynic like Dash, thinking I was about to watch yet another typical holiday rom-com. I was wrong. Very wrong. The Netflix show, based on the book series written by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, is an excellent source of the warm and fuzzies. Set against a wintry New York City backdrop, the coming-of-age tale follows its titular characters as they break out of their comfort zones and find love by trading dares and aspirations in a red notebook. Austin Abrams (Chemical Hearts and Euphoria) is perfect as brooding Dash, and Francis is magnetic as optimist Lily in all of her holiday-loving, carol-singing, Christmas tree sweater-wearing glory. And despite the fact that Abrams and Francis share only a few scenes together, their chemistry is tangible. From personal experience, it’s the ideal weekend watch.
Dash & Lily has placed Francis firmly on my ones-to-watch radar and after binging all eight episodes I couldn’t wait to connect with the rising star. Yes, we discussed puffy sleeves and Christmas pj’s, but we also talked about the special way she and Abrams built their friendship, how Lily’s key style moments came together, and her version of going all out for the holidays. It was a lovely time. Keep reading for my full interview below.
Dash & Lily is a fun and feel-good holiday rom-com. In a sea of holiday rom-coms, what stands out to you about this one?
Thank you. I love that question. Dash & Lily is set alongside and inspired by the holidays for sure, and New York in the winter is a character, but this show is really not about that. It’s about two people at a crucial age when they are trying to figure out who they are. They are both lonely in their own ways and they are both set in their own ways and through this red notebook, they challenge each other and grow and change. As you know, they don’t even really meet. I hardly ever got to actually act with Austin. And so this is really two character studies of two young people. Do the holidays affect the scenarios? Is it beautiful to watch? Yes. But at the crux of this is a coming of age identity piece, and I think that’s unique. Also, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of many series that takes place during the holidays. It’s usually just a movie.
Lily loves with a capital L the holidays. How do you feel about this time of year?
I know it sounds lame—like I could just be saying this—but I really love the holidays. I love them a lot. I’m still the first person in my family to wake up on Christmas morning despite being in my twenties. I think it’s easy to overlook Lily’s love of the holidays as being maybe superficial, but what I brought to the role is that I love the holidays for many reasons, and one is just everyone has to be happy. Everyone has to try and be festive. Everyone has to try and come together. You have to see each other. You usually have to see your aunts and uncles and grandparents. I love that. I love forced cheer. I love everyone having to sit in a room together and I love what the holidays bring out of us, which is usually an excuse to turn your frown upside down.
What are some of your favorite holiday traditions?
I’m sure this year is going to be a little different, which is quite sad, but we usually go to my paternal grandparents, my grandmother Midori who I was named after, and we have Christmas there. Then we go down The Garden State Parkway to my aunt’s house with my other grandma and my Japanese side of the family. We have Italian, Irish, and Japanese people all together and we sing Christmas carols every year. My aunt is a pianist and as her wine stain grows, we all get a little bit looser and it always ends in "Tiny Dancer” by Elton John and maybe "Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen.
That’s perfect because Lily is a caroler as well!
I was so nervous. I was like, "I’m not a good enough singer,” but Rachel Cohn, who wrote the books, talked to me one day and was like, "You know actually that part was based on my aunt, and my aunt actually is not a great singer. She doesn’t even know all the words, she’s just very confident and loud.” And I was like, "All right, I can sing out.”
Despite Dash & Lily being this whirlwind love story, you and Austin Abrams, who plays Dash, don’t actually have very many scenes together. How did you develop that chemistry and what were some of your favorite moments on set together?
I adore that guy very much. Last night we had a full press junket together and then we FacedTimed afterward just to debrief. He is a true friend of mine. Maybe not the first time I met him because we were just acting, but the second time at the table read, I knew that it was going to be good. Austin, like me, is very cerebral. He loves to overthink everything. We would sometimes go to a bar or a café and just talk about the script and share our ideas, and we would talk to the writers together. It was so collaborative. One of the things he proposed to me quite early on, which was so sweet, was he was like, "Hey, what if we have our own red notebook?” Austin, he is very thoughtful and reserved, he’s not very demonstrative, which I admire about him, and so for him to propose… that was a big deal. I was like, "Wow, thank you for taking the first move here and making me go out of my comfort zone.” He got a red notebook that was the same as [in the show] and we would take it for a few days at a time. When he was done filming, he would put it in my trailer, and then I would sneak it into his. I had to convince the production assistants that I was allowed to go into his trailer. It was a bit dare-y, but it was more about revealing things to each other. It was a great idea because ultimately, we shared some more personal things with each other and I think that allowed us to build some trust. I was talking to him about this last night, but when we finally got to meet in person and act, it was so much fun because we had talked so much and built this relationship. I usually think chemistry is just loving something about someone, but just knowing that they revealed something to you that they might not want everyone to know and that they trusted you with that and then you trust them with something, it creates this kind of intimacy that is palpable on screen—or I hope it is.
The show also serves as a love letter to New York City during the holidays. You grew up in New York, so I’m curious to know about your favorite spots in the city to visit during this time of year.
So there’s this thing that happens every few blocks from the time of November 30 through Christmas: There are these little stores that sell these miniature Christmas trees and wooden sculptures. I just love them so much. I’d buy them as gifts for everyone. I love the little corner pop-up tree places.
Dash and Lily’s love story centers on this red notebook of dares. If you had your own red notebook, what dare would you include for the other person?
I think mine would be a bit more probing and less flashy, but I would dare somebody to go up to somebody who they have a problem with or who maybe upset them in some way and to vocalize that and share that problem with them. Not because I love drama or I want to stir stuff up, but I think oftentimes we hold stuff back. We just don’t communicate with each other anymore. That’s one dare. Also, there is this river that runs alongside this hotel that I’m in and it’s slightly fast. Not deadly, but it’s fast. I would love to be dared to jump in and I would love to dare someone else to jump in.
Lily is quite verbose, and while stalking your IG, I came across some really beautiful poems and short stories you wrote. How does writing play a part in your everyday life?
That’s the first time I’ve been asked about this. I love it. I don’t consider myself a serious career writer at all. It’s just something I enjoy doing. As I started to get some sort of fanbase of people who seem interested in me as a person, I was like, "Well, why don’t I just share my poems with them?” Normally, I just send them to my friends. I have this one poem—it’s so short—called Once I Was Pretty and Now I am Real. I wrote it on this piece of construction paper, and my friend Sarah—we were doing a play together—she took it and has it in her apartment. For me, that was enough! But as I started to build my network and get some sort of a fanbase I was like, "Okay, if this is really supposed to represent me, why don’t I share what I love?” and I love to write little poems and short stories. When you are full of feelings and you don’t know what to do with them and you just got to get it out, you put it out there. It’s scary because people could hate, but you just put it out and maybe someone will relate, and if they do, it’s an amazing feeling.
There are some key style moments for Lily in the series: the red boots, the blue fringe dress, the Christmas-tree sweater. Do you have a favorite look or piece of hers?
Do you remember the floral-print dress I wore in episode three? It’s a short-sleeve floral-print dress. I loved that dress. I wanted it so badly and they said no because of re-shoots.
My favorite was the blue fringe dress. I was also really into her printed winter coat.
Oh, yes, I wore [that coat] in the final scene at The Strand. That was a whole discussion because I was like. "I’m always in a coat. I don’t want to be in a coat for the final scene,” but it just didn’t work out with the timing. They were like you have to be in the coat. So I’m so thrilled to know you liked that coat. That makes me very happy. I liked the fringe dress a lot. And Cristina [Spiridakis], our costume designer, was, oh my god, she is so creative and artistic. She came up with this idea of the fringe dress, and so that dress and the Christmas-tree dress, she really built it as if I built it. She stayed up late at night. I mean she was up until three in the morning hot gluing those things on and taking the fringe and cutting it so I could look at it as if Lily could make this. And that’s what’s so cool about it. They could have just gotten any kind of dress, but [Cristina] truly made it.
Do you remember the early conversations about Lily’s style and what you wanted to communicate through her fashion choices?
I think our first meet up was [Cristina being like] "Hey, so I have some crazy ideas about Lily,” and I think she really doesn’t mind being bold and going out there, and I think she maybe was hesitant about how this actress would feel about it. I remember I was like, "Yes 100%. Whatever you feel is good, let’s give it a try,” and then from there, we had other discussions. I think we both had fun with this idea that Lily is not your average girl. She is also not super tuned into 2020 fashion. She loves her own fashion. We had a lot of talks about color, vibrancy, individuality, and big jewelry. There was a big talk about my necklace with the red coat because it’s really large. It was basically five Christmas ornaments on a string. I was so down. I was such a willing participant. I think Lily says, "Clothes are your insides on your outsides,” so why not?!
Speaking of holiday attire, what does a Midori Francis holiday outfit look like?
Should I try and find this? I’ll show you what a Midori holiday outfit looks like. It’s a green velvet jumpsuit and I paired it with tights. And then here it is with a red leather jacket over it. My holiday style is going all out and leaning into the colors but also maybe having my own funky twist. I think my style is maybe slightly more pulled in than Lily’s. I love the green and the red, but I’d make it a bit simpler. I don’t know if I like to draw as much of a reaction as Lily.
You know, I have Christmas pajamas here. Can I show you mine? These are my Snoopy pajamas. I wear them to set in the morning. And these are my candy-cane lady pajamas. I’m all about being comfortable, and I love colors and I do love Christmas.
What are some of the fashion pieces you are eyeing right now?
Gosh, well one thing is my castmate Victoria Justice—in this movie I’m in—has access to all this crazy fashion, and she wears cowboy boots. I remember when I was, I don’t know, 13 or 14, I got really into cowboy boots, and I need those back in my life. I’m going to try and make an effort (and maybe not real leather) to try and find some kind of pleather cowboy boots. Another thing is, it’s not my suit, but it was lent to me by my stylist Sarah Slutsky, and it’s a pink suit. It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a suit, and it feels so… I don’t know, I can’t describe it. I just truly feel so cool in it. I want more suits in my life, so when I go back to New York I might go to some sort of… I might get a suit tailored to me in some kind of funky color. Inspired by Cate Blanchett, of course. I don’t know if you have seen her blue suits. People around here—the cast—they call it my pink power suit.
Dash & Lily is now streaming on Netflix.
Photographer: Nathan Johnson
Stylist: Sarah Slutsky
Hairstylist: Josue Perez using Beyond Hair Extensions for TraceyMattingly.com
Makeup Artist: Jessi Butterfield using Charlotte Tilbury for TraceyMattingly.com
Jessica Baker is Who What Wear’s Executive Director, Entertainment, where she ideates, books, writes, and edits celebrity and entertainment features.
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