Let Joey King Explain the Thrill of Telling True Stories

When Joey King was approached by director Thomas Kail (“Fosse/Verdon,” “Hamilton”) to star as Halina Kurc in “We Were the Lucky Ones,” “It was just kind of an immediate yes,” King said to IndieWire. “No thoughts, just yes.”

Hulu’s eight-part adaptation of “Lucky Ones,” based on the beloved 2017 bestseller by Georgia Hunter, tells the story of the real-life Kurc family, a tight-knit Jewish tribe who lived in Poland during World War II. Prior to the war, the five young adult siblings — Halina included — are scattered all over Europe. Somehow, miraculously, all five (as well as their parents) survive Russian gulags, German society, Nazis overtaking their home, and much, much more. (This reporter hit up Wikipedia after every episode stunned that one family could overcome so many different atrocities.)

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“That’s the best part about true stories,” King said. “It’s like so much of the time, regardless of what the subject matter is, the truth is beyond our wildest dreams, and there’s so much untapped potential in telling even more true stories.”

King, of course, has been a part of true stories before, perhaps most memorably when she scored an Emmy nom for portraying Gypsy-Rose Blanchard in the 2019 Hulu miniseries, “The Act.” (“[Gypsy-Rose and I] just connected briefly, which was really wonderful and special. And I wish her nothing but a peaceful and happy life,” she said of the real Gypsy-Rose, who was recently released from prison.)

Her role as Halina — which finds the actress doing heavy accent work — presented specific new acting challenges: In addition to the obvious emotional issues in telling such an intense story, there was also the fact that it was, uh, really chilly while filming in Romania and Spain. “In terms of just surface-level stuff, toward the beginning of the shoot, it was extremely cold,” she said. “And we had a lot of scenes outside. I’m a wimp a little bit when it comes to the cold.”

She powered through, and the result is a sensitively told, memorable addition to the canon of projects about World War II. The decision to make “Lucky Ones” an eight-hour miniseries, instead of the film it would have more likely been 10-20 years ago, allows the program to go deep on all of the various siblings’ individual challenges in the years leading up to and during the war. Viewers learn about not only Halina, but also her sister (Hadas Yaron) forced to do mandatory factory work with a baby, or her brother’s (Logan Lerman) struggles to get a visa to be able to escape by ship.

“I have to say the cast, even though we were shooting such a heavy show, and there was a lot of things that came with that, a lot of emotion, a lot of uncomfortable situations physically, mentally, we were all so set on making sure we brought some levity to the experience, because we all cared about each other so much,” she said. “And we wanted it to be a joyous time for us, while also being difficult, because it has to be.”

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IndieWire: We’re living during a time of rising anti-Jewish sentiment. Did that factor in one way or another into your decision to do this project?

Joey King: I am Jewish. And so I grew up in a household where the Holocaust, antisemitism, everything that you could imagine would be tough conversations were kind of just had, from the time I was young. I never learned about this stuff in school in a way that was like, this Defining Moment where I came home [and said], “Ah, this happened.”

I’ve always had a close feeling towards my heritage. I’m not a religious person, really, at all. But the traditions of Judaism, what my ancestors have experienced and gone through and just being a proud Jew has always been very important to me. So making this show was just a wonderful extension of that feeling.

We Were the Lucky Ones -- Season 1 -- Based on Georgia Hunter’s New York Times bestselling novel, the television adaptation of “We Were the Lucky Ones” is a limited series inspired by the incredible true story of one Jewish family separated at the start of World War II, determined to survive and reunite. “We Were the Lucky Ones” demonstrates how in the face of the twentieth century’s darkest moment, the human spirit can endure and even thrive. The series is a tribute to the triumph of hope and love against all odds. Halina (Joey King) and Addy (Logan Lerman), shown. (Courtesy of Hulu)
‘We Were the Lucky Ones’HULU

Do you remember the first time you read a book or saw a movie about the Holocaust?

I can’t remember the first book I read about the Holocaust, but I think that one of the first movies I remember ever seeing about the Holocaust was “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” and that really deeply affected me. And throughout my life, I’ve just read so many different recounts of survivors from the Holocaust and their true stories from so many different perspectives. Which was interesting, because when people asked me about the preparation for the show, there was preparation. But in terms of knowing about what happened in the Holocaust, I had been kind of preparing for this role my whole life in a way, in terms of the knowledge that I already had.

Do you remember any specific moment when you were reading the scripts that really stood out to you, your character or otherwise?

To be honest, the biggest memory that comes to mind right now is every single episode that came in, I am not joking, by the last 10 pages, I would be reading it through blurry eyes, because every episode had me really emotional and in tears.

On a day-to-day basis when you’re shooting something so emotionally intense like this, how do you decompress?

I’m not a Method actor, I think to be a method actor it takes such a specific kind of skill set. I admire people who can do it, but I personally am very much able to go home at the end of the day and shed the day. Some days are harder than others and some days you get caught up in the emotion and it’s a little bit you know, you need to talk through it with someone on FaceTime or your friends or something. But [co-star] Logan [Lerman] was just saying, “Oh, yeah, you love to go back to the apartment and watch ‘Love Is Blind.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did. That’s what I love.’” I love trashy reality TV, and I am not ashamed.

I feel like that is a lot of actors’ favorite decompression thing. Jennifer Lawrence is always talking about reality TV.

It’s so fun. I love it. I also love watching amazing scripted television and film. But in terms of really shutting my brain off, reality TV always does the trick.

You have obviously played other real-life people before. Is there a dream real-life person you would like to portray?

I don’t think that there is. There’s a lot of figures who are not alive anymore, who are large in the music world and in the acting world, and I just see, the telling [of] a true story is always so compelling and interesting to me. And there’s so many wonderful women who I feel [have] stories I would love to hear, and whether I’m the one to help tell it, I don’t know. There’s just so many women who paved the way for me and others that I would love to get a chance to step in their shoes for some kind of project.

We talked about true stories, and people you admire. What really makes something pop for you as a producer?

In terms of producing, I’m really excited to see where that sector of the business takes me because I’m such a baby in this sector; I’m learning so much. I’m really loving the learning curves, and everything that comes with it.

And I think what most attracts me is just … finding characters who, the movie is built around the characters, and the project is built around these personalities that are really well thought out and fleshed out, rather than having this, you know, big, thing. Whether the movie is big or small, I want the characters to be the guiding light. I love niche characters because I feel like they actually relate more to people than characters who are written very broadly.

So I don’t know exactly if that makes sense, or where that’s taking me quite yet, but I know that that’s what I’m most excited to look for. I’m really excited to keep expanding that journey for producing.

“We Were the Lucky Ones” begins streaming on Hulu on Thursday, March 28.

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