Joey King is only 23 but seems to have been around forever. Prior to her starring role in the Kissing Booth films, she appeared as a young Marion Cotillard The Dark Knight risesand as a porcelain doll in Oz the Great and Mighty. She was five when she appeared in an episode of as “Little Girl at a Party.” Malcolm in the middle. Thirteen when she was frightened by ghosts The incantation. This is a Hollywood veteran. And yet she often feels undermined.
It last happened “not even a few months ago,” she says with a shrug that suggests she’s used to it. “Because of my looks. Because I’m a young woman. Because I’m very polite to people. I think I’m often so underestimated or overlooked that I’m just like, ‘Guys? Don’t fucking do that!’” She half-cries, pointing at herself weirdly. “‘I’m fucking right here!'”
Does she play? The kissing booth‘s teenage wallflower or a child abused by her mother in the acclaimed limited series The act — for which she received an Emmy nomination in 2019 — King has so far brought an “every-girl spirit” to her roles. Your characters feel grounded. Relatable. Absolutely not extraordinary. Perhaps that’s why she thinks some are trying to downplay her off-camera potential. Her latest role is one that she hopes will end her underestimated days.
In the action comedy fast train, she plays as one of several hired assassins on different, clashing missions aboard a bullet train across Japan. Directed by Brad Pitt but also starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry and Sandra Bullock as cameos, the sizzling blockbuster is an adaptation of Kōtarō Isaka’s graphic novel and is poised to be one of the biggest films of the summer will. It’s a project King immediately knew she wanted to be part of.
“I remember auditioning and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, I’ll never get that role, but you know, I’ll do my best,'” she says reticently. “But I really wanted that too. I had this feeling in my stomach like, ‘I have to have this.’” We’re speaking in a luxurious London hotel room, King is wearing a black velvet mini dress, thick black boots and tiny replica daggers hanging from her ears. She immediately makes a statement. It also feels like a perfect nod to her character’s ferocity in the film. As Prince, King is one of the bullet train’s most nerve-wracking assassins – creepy, cutthroat, and almost pantomimically evil. Her ruthlessness – which is just beneath the surface – is a deliberate undermining of her assumed status as a damsel in distress. “It’s my only connection to Prince,” she explains. “She’s really underrated for her looks alone and I think that’s how I feel personally. Otherwise, she’s just a sociopath and damn it.”
Where Prince feels like the film’s downright malevolent force, Pitt’s character — an assassin codenamed Ladybug — is the reluctant hero we’re supposed to be cheering for. “Brad always says the funniest roles you can play are the jerk or the villain,” notes King. “He says he’s the fool and I’m the bad guy.” King says she often talks about Pitt. But luckily she doesn’t mind: “This man embodies true leadership,” she enthuses. “He’s an amazing person, but really such a good example of how you should treat people: on set, in life. It’s wonderful – I never tire of it [talking about him]. But could you imagine him being shit?”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, King was in a great position to start her career early as her older sisters were also actors – Hunter King, 28, still works today. Early auditions led her to play a round of daughters for Hollywood’s A-list: Adam Sandler (in rule over me), Steve Carell (in crazy stupid love), Channing Tatum (in White House is out of action). One of King’s most notable children’s roles came in 2010’s children’s comedy Ramona and Beezus. In the film adaptation of the Beverly Cleary novels, King played brave nine-year-old Ramona, a lovingly obnoxious little sister to Selena Gomez’s Beatrice (or “Beezus”). The film not only gave King her most prominent acting performance at the time, it also flipped an internal switch in the young star. Acting was no longer just a hobby, but something she wanted to do long-term.
“I was wearing a film when I was nine – it’s like crazy,” says King. “It was such a big responsibility but it was so much fun. That was the film that made me think, ‘I know I want to do this forever’. You can’t contextualize that moment as a kid, but as you get older you’re like, wow, that’s really how I felt back then. I’ve never felt any different from that point on. I consider myself very fortunate to have known what I wanted to do at such a young age and then made it happen.”
It’s clear that her years in the industry have only deepened her love of filmmaking and television — there’s no sign of dulling. Animated and alert, she spices up her stories with gags and expletives in a way that feels off the cuff rather than stiff or rehearsed. While she admits she’s been involved in some projects that she’s not as proud of as others, she doesn’t have time to hate anyone The kissing booth.
The 2018 Netflix film – with sequels to follow in 2020 and 2021 – starred King as a teenager who finally gets close to her crush when she signs on to run a kissing booth at the Spring Carnival. It made King something of a tween icon: 19 million Instagram followers later, her young fans are vocal in her adoration, often flooding her comments sections with huge praise. However, the franchise has also been panned critically, with some branches of social media taking delight in pinching serious scenes and branding the series pure hate watch fodder. However, King has no time for that. “I couldn’t be prouder of these films,” she says, sitting up straighter in her chair. “I loved her so much and it made me happy to play this character. I will never regret these films and I love them so much no matter what anyone says.”
King’s signature confidence feels hard-earned, the result of professional experience and recent personal development. “In the last few years, I’ve really stepped into myself in such a way that I’m much more comfortable with who I am,” she says. “I feel good about who I am as a person. With that comes the ability to stand up for yourself and what you believe in, because at that point you actually believe in yourself.” For King, the fears of youth made it harder for her to stand up for the things that really mattered to her hearts lay. “When you’re going through your own insecurities, you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess they’re right, I don’t deserve…’ She trails off. “[That] I should just shut up. Now I’m thinking, ‘I know what I’m doing here, I’ve been at it a long time.’ I always have so much to learn, but I know a thing or two about a thing or two.”
After entering the action space this year with fast train and the fantasy film The princess – which is currently streaming on Star via Disney+ in the UK – King is excited to switch gears with her next few roles. This includes the limited series adaptation of We were the lucky ones, about a Jewish family separated during the Holocaust, and a currently untitled romcom starring Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron. “Another cool thing to shoot this year!” she beams. There is no big plan professionally, but she likes it that way.
“I think if I set myself too many goals, I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy until I achieve them,” she explains. “I’m really trying to stop and realize how special this experience is. If I play too much of the same thing too many times, I won’t enjoy myself. I won’t feel challenged enough. So I just do whatever I want.”
Bullet Train is in theaters now