When Gen Xers first watched a nerd, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal report to their school library for detention, the outcome was pretty wholesome: Arguably the worst thing to happen to anyone in John Hughes’s 1985 film The Breakfast Club is Allison’s (Ally Sheedy) preppie makeover. Entertainment for today’s teens goes a lot harder. When a similar mix of high school seniors show up for detention in One Of Us Is Lying, the “basket case” ends up dead.
Adapted from Karen M. McManus’s YA novel of the same name, One Of Us Is Lying debuted last fall on Peacock. Over its first eight episodes, the surviving members of that fateful and fatal detention—star student Bronwyn (Marianly Tejada), rising baseball prospect Cooper (Chibuikem Uche), teen queen Addy (Annalisa Cochrane), and reformed-ish drug dealer Nate (Cooper van Grootel)—decide to embrace their shared identity as “Murder Club,” and set about solving the murder of the late “basket case,” Simon (Mark McKenna) who dies of a mysterious but intentional fatal allergic reaction. Finding his killer is no easy feat, since Simon infamously ran Bayview High’s gossip app, About That, and the list of potential suspects is long. (Also, because this is a teen series, Bronwyn and Nate find time in their sleuthing to fall in love.)
With One Of Us Is Lying returning for its second season today, GQ spoke with breakout star Cooper Van Grootel about his own high school years in Australia, what it’s like to meet the show’s young fans, and the sensitive bad boy who most informed his performance.
Any time a beloved book gets adapted for the screen, fans are going to have strong opinions. I read that some people were upset before the show launched that your Nate is blond, unlike in the book. Having just come from New York Comic-Con, did you find the fans have now embraced you?
Yes, and I’m so thankful. Whenever there is a change that may not be completely true to the character, it is sort of nerve-wracking. But I had complete trust and faith in all the other people on board, that they knew what they were getting into. And I just had a lot of confidence in myself that I could pull this role off. The fans have embraced me, and it was so beautiful to see. T We can be in this bubble when we’re shooting and we don’t realize the positive impact that entertainment has on people. Comic-Con was a nice reminder.
The first season deals with tough stuff—on top of the murder, obviously, the finale hinges on Addy figuring out she’s been in an emotionally abusive relationship. Nate has basically had to raise himself because his parents are checked out. What kinds of conversations do you have with your producers and directors about portraying this material in a way that’s going to feel real but not be too upsetting to your younger viewers?
It’s a touchy subject that we have to be very careful of. I didn’t really come from that sort of background. It’s just really about tapping into the trauma surrounding Nate’s upbringing. You have to come from a place of truth. I want to put good messages out there for anyone that is struggling with domestic violence or a broken family or depression and suicide. These are all the sorts of conversations that we were having. It really came down to just empathizing with Nate and having compassion.
It’s such a sense of betrayal for Nate with his mom. She expects to come back into his world after years of abandonment. And I think he always had this thought in mind: “Well, jail is my destiny.” So he gives up a little bit.
If we do a season three, knock on wood, I would love to do that dynamic more justice. Nate’s trust issues affect Bronwyn and Nate’s dynamic. It’s a reason Nate finds it so hard to commit to her. Sometimes it seems like he’s just being the bad boy and not giving her attention. But it just cuts so much deeper than that, the fact that he’s emotionally unavailable for so many different reasons.
You’ve already described Nate this way, but the sensitive bad boy is an archetype in pop culture. Did you have any in mind as you were developing your performance?
10 Things I Hate About You is one film that I love. Heath Ledger’s character is deemed that typical bad boy. He’s a bit of a lone wolf and he’s a little isolated and he probably doesn’t have the best home life. But at the core of it, he has such a good heart, and he’s so charming. That’s a performance that I really tried to pull references from.
What were the shows or movies that were formative for you when you were a high schooler?
I didn’t really watch too much TV when I was younger. I liked Freaky Friday in the early 2000s. Candy and Animal Kingdom, all these cult classic Australian films.
You were barely out of high school when you were first attached to One Of Us Is Lying, and though presumably you were never accused of murdering a classmate, were there other specifically high school-ish situations that made you feel like, “Oh, thank God that’s all behind me now”?
I enjoyed high school, but I’m glad it’s over. The structure and the schedule of it. I tried to stay away from the drama and I feel like sometimes I would get caught up in it. And the idea of popularity, I think that’s a big thing in One Of Us Is Lying, too. Everyone is trying to climb this social ladder and gain popularity and fame within high school. I couldn’t care less for it. I tried to be friends with everybody.
You also studied acting pretty seriously, so I imagine that was a respite—it gave you something else to focus on outside of your school hours.
That was my therapy. I attended a film school from the age of 11 to 17—a two-and-a-half-hour class, one day a week. We would make short films. For 10 weeks, we would construct the script and the characters. And then for the next 10 weeks we would spend our weekends shooting. And then at the end of the 20 weeks, there was a premiere night at a cinema, and it was so cool.
Nate rides a motorcycle. Do they let you actually drive it?
They don’t. Even if I was an experienced motorcycle rider, I don’t think they would. They had me do two lessons back last year, and oh my God, it was so fun. It was so exciting. But just for liability reasons, they won’t let me drive it.
Nate is also a horror fan. We are in the spooky season. Are there horror movies that you would recommend?
The Exorcist. I didn’t watch that until I was probably 16 or 17 and I feel like I should’ve watched it before. The Babadook is a really scary, creepy movie. It’s not just a cheesy horror film. I was riddled with anxiety after watching it.