"But I'm a journalist!" "You're a fourth grader!" Think of Apple TV+'s new mystery drama, Home Before Dark, as Nancy Drew-meets-Veronica Mars but with an inquisitive, truth-seeking, precocious kid investigator at the center of the noir action.
Inspired by the life of young investigative reporter Hilde Lysiak, who made national headlines for breaking headline news in her town, Home Before Dark follows a 9-year-old girl, Hilde Lisko (Brooklynn Prince), who moves from Brooklyn, New York, to her father's (Jim Sturgess) sleepy lakeside hometown of Erie Harbor, Washington. But when Hilde begins poking around and asking tough questions after a mysterious death raises red flags and opens old wounds for her father, what she uncovers is something far more twisty and shocking than she could imagine.
Nine-year-old Prince, who captured America's attention as Moonee in 2017's critically acclaimed indie, The Florida Project, was immediately drawn to the character of Hilde. "I felt like she was me," the bubbly Prince told ET, enthusiastically detailing the research she did on Lysiak. "I absolutely fell in love with her because in every video, she didn't take no for an answer. And every video you can just see her going in with it with her investigative curiosity."
"But the one thing I really noticed was she would always wear her hair in a side braid," she said. It was that personal touch that brought Prince's audition to the next level -- a dramatic monologue about the importance of truth in the school lunchroom that's featured in the series' first episode. "I picked out a pink floral baseball tee and then I did my hair in that braid and I read it. And my dad was reading for the other character, which was really annoying because he was like, 'And blah blah blah blah, oh wait, sorry... that was a line mistake.' And he had the script right in front of him! I was like, 'Put your glasses on!'" Prince amusingly recalled.
The heart and soul of Home Before Dark rests on the loving, but at times rocky, father-daughter relationship between Hilde and Matt, a journalist with secrets of his own. As part of the chemistry test, Prince and Sturgess created a secret handshake. "He just started coming up with all these crazy ideas and I was like, 'Whoa! I never knew an adult could be this fun!'" Prince said. "I look at him like a kid sometimes. Sometimes I'm like, 'Hey, Jimbo, you want to play Barbies?' not even thinking that he's a big adult."
Sturgess, 41, remembered being drawn to Prince, whom he had just seen in The Florida Project a month before his chemistry test ("I remember thinking, 'Wow, that kid is absolutely amazing'"), almost instantly. "We had a really, really good time, thank god. We got on really, really well. It's always quite nerve-wracking when you meet a young person for the first time because they're so brutally honest, you know? If it didn't go well, I was going to know about it," he said with a laugh.
The British actor was left a little gobsmacked when asked what it was about Prince that made him connect with her so easily and quickly. "It's really sort of indescribable," Sturgess tried to explain. "Luckily she's very confident and very fun, and actually she was putting me at ease more than me putting her at ease in the screen test. She was kind of auditioning me. But she was very giving with her energy and her time."
"Some people you just get along with and some people you don't," he continued. "With me and Brooklynn, we have a lot of fun when we're together and we're stupid with each other sometimes. If you leave us in a room for too long, we've normally made up two or three stupid songs together and we've spent a lot of time together sitting in cars, so we've pretty much wrote an entire album of ridiculous songs. We have handshakes that go on for 25 minutes."
And the love is mutual. Prince had only praise for her on-screen dad. "He's a really good scene partner. He is awesome about being in the moment. If it's not his close-up and it's an emotional scene for him, he'll still get a little bit emotional behind the camera. He was really good at knowing that I feed off people's vibes. He was really good at being there for me."
For Prince, seeking Lysiak's approval was a bit nerve-wracking at first. "What if she doesn't like me? What if she doesn't like the way I look? What if she had seen The Florida Project and didn't like the way I act?" the young star found herself questioning. "But then Hilde tweeted that she was so excited that I was playing her. I was like, 'Wow.'"
Prince became fast friends with Lysiak, now 13 and living in Patagonia, Arizona, introducing herself during their first meeting by giving the teenage reporter a "huge hug." "We started talking about each other's life and about each other's stories. We started getting into investigative journalism stuff," she shared. "It was like we had this instant bond and we've been friends for the whole time now."
For Sturgess' part, he spent time with Lysiak's father, also named Matt, and studied his relationship with Lysiak to help inform his performance. "We were really lucky that Matt and Hilde were so giving with their time and so excited about the project and so relaxed about it. If I was having a big TV show made about my family, I would have a semi-heart attack, I think," Sturgess said with a chuckle. "I was able to meet Matt when we did the read-through for the first time. He came along with Hilde and we were able to hang out and spend quite a bit of time together. He's an investigative journalist, so he ended up asking me probably more questions than I asked him."
"It was amazing to see him and Hilde interact with each other," Sturgess added. "The moments that they didn't know we were watching or the moments we weren't interviewing or talking with them. It was interesting to see them be with each other and the relaxed energy that they had together and the friendship and the effortless dynamic and the times when they didn't really look like dad and daughter. They just looked like really good friends."
Sturgess has played a father in past projects, but often it wasn't an integral marker to a character's identity as it is in Home Before Dark, where every decision and moment is deeply rooted in Matt's "progressive" take on fatherhood. The actor, who isn't a father in real life, admitted there was a steeper "learning curve" playing the young patriarch to three very different daughters. "You realize every personality needs something different from you and I think you can get that from the story," he said of what surprised him most. "A lot of my friends are dads and my brother is a dad. I have nieces and nephews and you kind of draw off your own experiences of your own parents. There's a lot to go on. Everyone has been around family units in some way or another and have memories of their own dads, fathers and parents."
If there's one thing to take away from Home Before Dark, which has been renewed for a second season (a good thing, since the culmination of the freshman run leads to many unanswered questions), Prince hopes ambitious kids who want to change the world in their own way, like 17-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, are taken seriously.
"I loveGreta Thunberg! I think that this generation is really strong and those kids will grow up and have children and that will create another generation of young kids who will be strong and powerful," Prince said. "Kids are really coming up. Kids are starting to do amazing things, and I think the world is starting to recognize kids as Wonder Womans and Supermans."
To hear Prince tell it, Home Before Dark is the perfect antidote amid uncertain times. "This show doesn't fit in a box. It's not for grown-ups. It's not for teenagers. It's not for little kids and it's not for middle-aged kids, you know? It's for everyone," Prince said, her innocence shining through. "It can really bring your family together." Watch the official trailer below.
All 10 episodes of Home Before Dark drop Friday, April 3 on Apple TV+.
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