One to Watch: Willa Cuthrell in “The Sisterhood of Night”

Willa Cuthrell stars in the feature film "The Sisterhood of Night." Photo by Olivia Bee.
"The Sisterhood of Night" opens in select theaters and everywhere On Demand April 10.

Meet one of the young stars of The Sisterhood of Night, a CAAMFest 2015 feature film that opens in select theaters and everywhere On Demand April 10, 2015. Directed by Caryn Waechter and written by Marilyn Fu, the film is a dramatic thriller that centers around teenagers in a small town, where rumors quickly spiral out of control.

Willa Cuthrell is a New York City-based high school student, actor and artist. Willa stars as Catherine Huang, a Taiwanese American teenager. The film is based on a short story by Steven Millhauser. Catherine Huang and her family were written specifically as an Asian American family for the film.

Willa started acting when she was just three years-old as part of a PSA called Stop the Hate that raised awareness about racial profiling after 9/11. Willa began acting in films at 8 years-old, first in the Peter Hedges film Dan in Real Life with Steve Carell and Juliet Binoche and in the Woody Allen film Whatever Works in a scene with Larry David. She is perfect onscreen as the strong-willed yet vulnerable teenager who has a secret. In addition to acting, Willa has won awards for her illustrations; you’ll see some of her sketches in the film. She is also a writer and aspiring filmmaker.

Willa is a part of a talented ensemble cast in The Sisterhood of Night that includes Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar) and Georgie Henley (The Chronicles of Narnia), as well as Hudson Yang (Fresh Off the Boat).

I chatted with Willa while she was in San Francisco during CAAMFest.

—Momo Chang

Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman and Hudson Yang are a few of the young actors in "The Sisterhood of Night."
Willa Cuthrell and Hudson Yang are among the cast of young actors in The Sisterhood of Night.

I noticed that you are a visual artist, and you also act. Is acting something you want to pursue?
Yeah, I really enjoy acting. I love movies in general. In the long run, I’d actually be more interested in the production of film, in writing and directing. But yeah, I love acting as well.

What did you think of the story and your role in the story?
I was really, really interested in the whole story. I thought my character, especially, was so interesting because they intended Catherine to the Taiwanese. I was excited by that—because you don’t really see a lot of people of color in film these days.

Did you relate to her situation at all?
Yeah. Absolutely. I go to a school, or I live in a city, where it’s mostly white people. In the movie also, Catherine goes to a school with mostly white people. But her culture in the movie is treated normally—it’s not stereotyped or pointed out and I think that’s really important.

I know you’re a part of the Stop Slut movement. Can you tell me more about that?
It’s a feminist organization. We’re promoting feminism and women’s rights. It’s really an organization to combat modern sexism. Right now, people tend to call women sluts if they show too much skin or act indecently. But when guys do it, people tend to overlook that. Through stories, Stop Slut, addresses the double standard and makes people aware of the unfairness.

Growing up as a girl, do you feel that there are issues that girls face nowadays?
So many. I think especially in the city, it’s sort of a concentration of social media, ads, commercials, just throwing at girls the standards for beauty, body standards, how you’re supposed to act. And celebrities too—you have to be nice, but not too nice, outgoing but not too outgoing, you have to be pretty but not slutty. Just so many standards that society is presenting to us. Especially growing up, teenage girls are so influenced by everything. Especially when you’re surrounded by everybody at school facing the same problems I think it’s worse in the city too because of so much pop culture and media.

Do you feel like there are enough real images of Asian Americans in popular culture?
I wish there were more. The stereotype of Asian women especially is that we’re petite and doll-like and more there for beauty, and the whole race-thing is so fetishized. From what I’ve seen, there’s not a lot of real representation that’s happening in terms of Asian women or Asians in general. I just wish there were more of that.

It seems like you’ve worked some strong role models like Gloria Steinem, Marilyn Fu, and your own mother (Elizabeth Cuthrell). Have they influenced you in any way?
Yeah, they’re such big role models for me. As a teenage girl, it’s so important to have great role models and I’m so grateful to have them, just to look up to and everything. I feel very lucky just to be exposed to so much so early, in terms of social justice issues, and telling stories through art. I think having a mom that’s in that business, I was lucky to be exposed to it early and develop my own tastes early.

Are there other projects you’re working on?
I write a lot in my free time. I think there are a lot of works in progress, just in my free time, writing. I want to go into making films—just the technical aspect of shooting a film, staging a film. I think it’s just so busy this time of year with school, so I think I’ll wait until the summer to start. Yeah.

Cool. Is there anything else you want to add?
I’m proud of The Sisterhood of Night because I don’t see a lot of films where there’s an Asian heroine in it. I was really proud to be a part of this film because it’s a big step forward in bringing more people of color into media. I was proud of that because we could do that without stereotyping or brushing the culture aside and whitewashing it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This interview was made possible by XFinity. 

This article has been updated from its original posting.