Sadie Stanley Takes the Lead in Cruel Summer Season 2


When Cruel Summer, a teen mystery thriller set across three timelines in the early ’90s, premiered on Freeform in 2021, it promptly became the network’s most-watched series—ever. No biggie. By the time the 10-episode Jessica Biel–produced drama reached its finale, its rabid fan base went wild with their own theories and opinions of what would be next for its leads Jeanette and Kate (played by Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt, respectively). But Freeform had other plans. The show would move forward as an anthology series with a completely new set of characters and a fresh whodunit plot each season. 

Fast-forward to May 8 of this year, Freeform dropped the trailer for season two, and unsurprisingly, it promptly reached record-breaking viewership (over 24 million views in 10 days). Clearly, audiences are still eager for what’s next. 

When Sadie Stanley got the call from Cruel Summer showrunner Elle Triedman that she had booked the lead role in the show’s sophomore run, she proceeded to binge-watch the first season in three days. "I didn’t want to psych myself out or get too excited or fall in love with the whole formula of the show before I knew I got it, so I waited until after I had already booked it [to watch it],” Stanley tells me from her Los Angeles apartment. She loved it, just like the rest of us, and packed her bags for Vancouver to start filming a few weeks later.


(Image credit: Jonny Marlow)

Season two takes place in an idyllic waterfront town in the Pacific Northwest across the summer of 1999, winter of 1999, and summer of 2000. At the center of the story is a budding friendship between good girl Megan (Stanley) and new-to-town exchange student Isabella (Lexi Underwood) and the love triangle that forms between the girls and Megan’s best friend, Luke (Griffin Gluck). Moving back and forth between three notable time periods (differentiated stylistically by tone and coloring), we see the events that resulted in the unraveling of Megan and Isabella’s friendship and clues to who’s behind a mysterious death. 

It was the show’s unique format that first appealed to Stanley. Throughout the audition process, it was emphasized that they wanted each of the timelines to feel very different—not just in the way that Megan presents herself physically, going from squeaky-clean honor student to rough-around-the-edges computer hacker, but also in her personality. It was an exciting challenge for the 21-year-old, who likened the experience to playing three different characters.

It didn’t hurt either that Stanley immediately understood and related to the character. Megan is type A, a Goody-Two shoes with lofty ambitions for her life. Stanley, too, was a very good kid—"I was the angel child,” she laughs—who had big dreams that others didn’t understand. They also both had to grow up fast in their own ways. Raised by a single mother, Megan felt the need to be overly responsible and take care of the people around her. "I think that made her unable to just relax a little bit and be a normal teenage girl and kiss boys and drink alcohol and mess up or do something bad,” the actress explains. Stanley herself left high school and a traditional youth behind to pursue an acting career full-time. 

The parallels between herself and Megan proved useful in getting into character, but nobody could have prepared Stanley for the show’s intense shooting schedule. "You would think we would [shoot] it timeline by timeline, but no,” she reveals. The Megan in the summer of 1999 is drastically different from the Megan we see in the summer of 2000, and Stanley tells me that oftentimes they would film scenes from all three timelines in one day. She adds, "Not only is that a huge physical transformation for me of taking off the black eyeliner and the piercings and my slicked-back hair and putting on a cute, clean face and a ponytail—it’s a very physical transformation—but it’s also emotionally [that] I’m bouncing back and forth like crazy.” 

The time jumps prove to be a learning curve even for the audience, but the payoff is worth it, as the answers to the big mystery are revealed slowly and strategically.


(Image credit: Freeform/Justine Yeung)

But perhaps one of the things the show does best is serve up nostalgia. While season one took place in the early ’90s, season two takes us back to the Y2K era, which has seen its own resurgence in recent months. Stanley was born in 2001, too young to have properly experienced the early aughts, but thanks to its Gen Z–inspired comeback both culturally and in the fashion world, Y2K was already influencing the trends in her life by the time the Cruel Summer script came her way. "I’m already starting to wear low-rise jeans and baggy pants, and the Y2K hairstyles and things are all coming back,” Stanley tells me. "Even the music, it’s all coming back, so I was like, ‘This is perfect. Everyone is going to love it, including me.’”

When I ask about Megan’s Y2K wardrobe specifically, Stanley’s eyes light up. She recalls the many conversations and fittings that went into Megan’s three very distinct looks. "For the first timeline … it’s a waterfront town, it’s a little bit coastal, and she’s a younger teenager. She’s a late bloomer, so she’s not really showing midriff or anything. She’s kind of a tomboy, so we did a lot of T-shirts [and] jeans, and overalls was a thing I [pushed for].” Stanley tells me the second timeline, winter 1999, is when we start to see Isabella’s influence on Megan. She’s loosening up a bit, and we see more midriff and more of those early 2000s trends. The third timeline brilliantly utilizes fashion and makeup to show that Megan is clearly masking something or using her look to protect herself. "That was a whole discussion and lots of different trials,” Stanley says. "We tried different hairstyles, different eye makeup, lots of different piercings, nose piercing, eyebrow piercing, and different clothes.” 

Every new job for Stanley is like a master class in acting, whether she’s learning from the other actors she’s working with or being pushed out of her comfort zone by a challenging shooting format. On Cruel Summer, she was grateful to have castmate Lexi Underwood by her side. The two bonded instantly and are still close today. "It’s nerve-racking going into anything like this. It’s different from anything I’ve done before, and I wanted to do a good job, and Lexi is such a pro and so lovely to work with and such a great scene partner,” she says. Earlier this year, Stanley starred in the film Somewhere in Queens opposite two other industry pros, Ray Romano and Laurie Metcalf. "To be in scenes with them or just be in the vicinity was incredible and made me better,” she says.


(Image credit: Jonny Marlow)

Watching Stanley on-screen, it’s easy to forget she’s still a newcomer by Hollywood standards. It wasn’t that long ago that she was begging her parents to take her to open casting calls outside of her hometown in South Carolina. They thought it was a phase (what 13-year-old didn’t want to be on Disney Channel?), but after she saw a lot of interest and nabbed a manager, who she is still with today, her mom finally caved and took her to Los Angeles. Nine weeks later, she booked her first job—the titular role in Disney’s 2019 live-action remake of Kim Possible. "I just loved acting so much. There was just something about it that fueled me like nothing else,” she says. "I just had this weird, unwavering, blind faith that I had to do it.”

It’s that tenacity and, of course, natural talent that has led to a string of steady TV and film projects, and now, Stanley has her eye on meatier, deeper projects in the future. If the Cruel Summer effect means anything, she’ll promptly be on everyone’s "ones to watch” lists. 

Don't miss new episodes of Cruel Summer every Monday on Freeform and Hulu. 

Executive Director, Entertainment

Jessica Baker is Who What Wear’s Executive Director, Entertainment, where she ideates, books, writes, and edits celebrity and entertainment features.