Leah Lewis plays Ellie Chu in the coming-of-age comedy-drama film "The Half of It". (Netflix)
UC Berkeley

Leah Lewis talks ‘The Half of It’, identity and being ordinary

Leah Lewis is celebrating being ordinary.

In Netflix’s “The Half of It,” Lewis plays Ellie Chu, a student finding weaving through the webs of identity, self-realization and coming to terms with growing up.

Directed, produced and written by Alice Wu, the film never skipped a moment to be quietly revolutionary, much like Wu’s other work. From the trailer’s release to months since its debut, it’s become iconic for its crafty storytelling of teenage love stories viewers don’t typically get to see onscreen. 

In the white world of Squahamish, Ellie helps classmate Paul (Daniel Diemer) woo over his affection, Aster (Alexxis Lemire). She pretends to be Paul, figuring it would be a quick cash grab.

Paul spoke, Ellie wrote. For the moments Paul fumbles, Ellie becomes his passionate ghostwriter. She finds herself in someone else’s love story but doesn’t want to stop there. Not when it’s her right to fall in love, too. 

It was daunting for Lewis, to carefully embody a character struggling with her sexuality and all the “delicate” experiences Ellie grows up through. Then, there was the massive outpouring of enthusiastic support.

Viewers were craving for stories where women of color were given the freedom to explore their sexuality. The film was every bit painful and illuminating as reality, and audiences quickly came to support what Wu served up. 

“People’s responses about what it might mean to them is why we make stories like this in the first place,” Lewis said in a virtual interview. “Alice Wu’s specific writing, relatable experiences and intimate directing really helped me step into the shoes of somebody who is experiencing life, love and finding their sexuality.”

The main character, Ellie Chu, was steadfast in doing things her way. Rocking boats weren’t her forte, but writing open her heart millimeters at a time to a select few who could read beyond the lines was. Ellie didn’t rely on the people around her. She found herself, and she is her own hero. Ellie had written her own narrative in the culturally rich world Wu built. 

Ellie was always meant for a world larger than Squahamish. With the exception of her father, she couldn’t have many fixed attachments to the small town, not when it was a merciless reminder of a world that didn’t belong to her. Being Asian had become a target on her back.

Teachers had encouraged her to leave the city onto bigger things, but for Ellie, leaving was unfathomable. Not when her father needed her. Only at the end of the film did she realize that if she didn’t leave, all that was “Ellie Chu” would disappear, too. 

“I think it’s really incredible that Ellie Chu just gets to be herself,” Lewis said. “There is a lot of beauty in ‘being ordinary’ because it’s realistic in a sense and not some blown up stereotype where the Asian female can’t just exist in her own regular narrative and have that be interesting enough.” 

From working with Wu to command her acting abilities and going out to eat with her fellow castmates, Lewis is fond of the memories from “The Half of It.” 

“I had such great memories with Alexxis (Aster) and Daniel (Paul) at the hotel that we all stayed at. I think I saw both of them early every day,” Lewis said. “I really just made the two best friends ever on and off the set.” 

When she’s toggling between multiple roles in her own world, the film follows Ellie as she begins communicating with the world around her. Her father, new friends and rocky romances spurring on a new version of Ellie. 

Wu had come to her aid in becoming vulnerable and fully transforming into Ellie. While there were moments she had to bring herself to a particular state of mind to bring Ellie to life onscreen, she found solace in their similar journeys. 

“I think I have related to Ellie a lot in the way that I have felt like a bit of an outsider at times,” Lewis said. “Similarly to Ellie, I never really had a large Asian community around me growing up also because I was adopted and part of an American household.”  

There was always a shortage of friends with similar backgrounds, despite the dedicated demand. Her parents encouraged exploring her identity, she embraced the challenges. Like Ellie, Lewis came into her own and eventually was able to find her own version of community.