The most harrowing branch of Luca Guadagnino’s multi-layered HBO series, We Are Who We Are, centres on the character of breakout star Jordan Kristine Seamón. In her debut role, the 18-year-old Philadelphia-bred actor and musician plays Caitlin Poythress, a teenager on a journey of self-discovery in the unique environment of an American military base in Italy. Their thoughts about gender transitioning manifest into reality when they meet Fraser (played brilliantly by Jack Dylan Grazer), the angsty new kid in town who introduces them to the idea of non-binary identities after witnessing them in a cafe posing as a guy named Harper.
“I think it’s important – even if you don’t initially think that you can play the role as well as it deserves to be played – to challenge yourself and pick roles that will make you better as an actor,” Seamón tells me, as we discuss her newly launched career over Zoom. She’s modest. Her performance in the show is stunning. She portrays the complexities of Caitlin in a way not many newcomers could have done – effortlessly and naturally. A key scene in the first episode, for instance, was improvised by her in a moment of frustration. “There were a few scenes that were difficult, especially in the beginning,” she recalls. “For me, the hardest to film was the period scene [when Caitlin gets their period for the first time during a trip to the beach with their friends]. I was crying in real life during that scene because it was so frustrating. Luca really wanted me to convey a lot of different emotions all within a few seconds and it was really hard for me. I was really nervous and scared but I wanted to do it well. And I know Caitlin is a sensitive person, so I cried a little bit because I was overwhelmed and I didn’t want to get fired. You can definitely tell that it wasn’t part of the script.”
Anyone who has watched the scene will disagree – you can’t tell at all. But it’s not uncommon for an actor to pick their performance apart. Most artists and creatives have an innate sense of perfectionism that feeds their inner critic: Seamón is a prime example. She’s confident yet incredibly critical of her work both in music and acting, a trait that perhaps stems from years of being active in competitive sports and other extracurricular activities that have pushed her towards excellence. “I was homeschooled for many years growing up and I did a bunch of different programs to keep myself active, all of which have influenced my career,” she says. “I did karate, swimming, tennis, golf, fencing and stuff like that. Then I also took music and acting classes.”
Despite getting her big break through acting, Seamón, who goes by the stage name JK, states music as her primary passion. She recently released her debut album, Identity Crisis, which she wrote and recorded at her Atlanta home during lockdown. “My grandmother, Christine Dukes, was the most musically inclined in the family. She’s definitely one of the inspirations behind why I do music,” she says. “She was the first person to introduce me to it. She sang in the church choir and I was always super fascinated by her voice. A lot of how my own voice and sound is influenced by her.” Seamón also credits her upbringing in Philadelphia and the African-American culture she was surrounded by as a base for her being. “The Philly sound is something I grew up on. That specific soul genre that was developed by people like Gamble and Huff [the 1970s music duo] represented Philly as a whole. Those were the songs that shaped me. I’d be at family gatherings and people would be arguing over food and who got seconds, because our macaroni and cheese was always so good, and somebody would put on a good song and everyone would be dancing, doing the Electric Slide even though for some reason, it was never the right song for the Electric Slide.”
Seamón has endless memories like these. Her entire family has always been obsessed with music and she describes it as the glue that binds them all together. “Both my grandfathers had record players and my dad is super into music too. He plays old songs and always makes it so important that I know the history of music, which has inspired my interest in different genres and trying out different styles in my music.” This is clear in Seamón’s own project, which blends soulful sounds of R&B and pop. Much like We Are Who We Are, Identity Crisis is a euphoric exploration of the teenage psyche. The album’s accompanying documentary even features Seamón’s castmates, including Kid Cudi, who plays her father in the show, and Francesca Scorsese (daughter of Martin), who plays Britney, among others. Seamón has grown close to them all after months of filming together in Italy, particularly Cudi, who she formed a special bond with while filming, as well as her on-screen mother Faith Alabi, who she describes as a “sister.” But admittedly, it did take a while for all the teens to develop the seamless chemistry they portray on-screen. In the show, they’re a diverse group of curious Gen-Zers, who experience a life of exhilarating freedom and friendships. But they are also tightly confined to a claustrophobic world of rules and regiments, navigating the perplexities of early adolescence on a military base circa 2016 – a year dominated by the Trump v Clinton presidential race, and simultaneously soundtracked by Young MA’s brash debut hit OOOUUU, which Caitlin plays on loop.
Casting her mind back to the first day on set, Seamón was initially intimidated by some of the big names on the cast list, from Chloë Sevigny to Alice Braga and director Guadagnino himself. “I’d never met any of them before and I actually didn’t know many of them either,” she says. “I love movies and TV shows but I’m not the best at keeping up with pop culture, so I didn’t know Jack [Dylan Grazer] at all. I had never seen IT because I’m not a fan of scary movies and I knew Scott [Kid Cudi] but I didn’t know what he looked like. Everyone else was pretty new to me too, so when you see the chemistry we had on screen, it took us like a month or so to really build that up. I think that really showcases how good everyone’s acting skills are because we still, even at that time didn’t really know each other and we’re supposed to play these lifelong friends, couples and siblings.”
She remembers her working relationship with Guadagnino – who is perhaps best known for his 2017 movie, Call Me By Your Name – as an insightful and collaborative one. Not many Oscar-nominated directors would consider the input of their young, inexperienced cast for a big network production, but Seamón explains that Guadagnino’s approach was different. “Luca was great. Really, really helpful. He’s an amazing director and he really pushed me to try new things and to experiment a lot with things that, as a new actor, I wouldn’t think to try. Even though we had a script and everything was mapped out for us, he wasn’t afraid to stray from it, which I respect. It was awesome that he also respected our opinions and would take things into consideration when we mentioned something that we thought could work or that we didn’t feel worked as well when brought to life because ultimately, we were playing American teenagers, which is exactly what we are in real life. He made us feel comfortable enough to suggest things. It’s definitely something I think more directors should do.”
While fame and fortune isn’t something Seamón has ever desired, it’s something she’ll soon have to endure as a multi-faceted rising talent. Her role in the HBO series has already led to magazine covers and fashion campaigns for the likes of Miu Miu and Bulgari, and with her music career just taking off, she’s the industry’s one to watch. But with recent mainstream conversations about the safety of young people entering stardom sparked by the New York Times’ Britney Spears documentary, how well equipped is she to handle the ugly side of celebrity? “It’s something I think about a lot,” she muses. “Even before the Britney Spears documentary, I’d watched other things on TV about how sometimes it can be really difficult for young people who automatically become very famous very quickly and it was definitely something I was a little bit afraid of... I’ve had multiple times where I’ve just randomly started freaking out and had mini panic attacks about the prospect of it all.” Seamón recalls her first pre-pandemic visit to California after landing her role on the show as the moment the idea of becoming famous felt the most real. “I’m in this expensive hotel and I’m going to this fancy thing and some people would automatically be really thrilled about that and think this is amazing. But for me, it was really scary because I felt like my life was going to change so severely.”
“I had almost just turned 17 at the time and I’m still trying to understand who I am,” she goes on. “So the idea of now having the whole world get access to me and everything I do, that’s not something you can ever really prepare for. It’s weird. But I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a really supportive family or at least just a really supportive chosen family and friends to help you through the entire experience because it can be terrifying … Luckily, I am surrounded by people who always have my best interest at heart so I’m much more comfortable with it all now [her mum is her manager]. Plus, this whole thing would have been a lot different if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic so things haven’t been as crazy as they were initially scheduled to become.”
Seamón’s hopes and dreams for the future are to keep creating; be it on screen, in the studio or any other form of artistic release for her creative soul. She’s just landed another acting gig that she’s incredibly excited about but can’t discuss for legal reasons and she’s working on new music releases. “Some things that I’ve talked about wanting to do are actually happening very soon, so I can’t wait for that to come to life,” she says, smiling. “But in the end, I just hope I’m happy and that I continue to make people smile. That’s it.”
Identity Crisis is out now.