'Cruel' Dude

Blake Lee describes going from Christmas hunk to psycopath in ‘Cruel Summer’

CRUEL SUMMER – Freeform’s “Cruel Summer” stars Blake Lee as Martin Harris. (Freeform/Frank Ockenfels)

Hollywood, make way for Blake Lee.

The handsome, soulful-eyed actor has had quite a year, pandemic be damned. After years of recurring and guest spots on TV comedies including Parks and Recreation, Fam and Wisdom of the Crowd, Lee landed a bonafide leading part in 2020 with The Christmas SetupLifetime’s first LGBTQ-themed Christmas movie. Lee starred in the film opposite his real-life husband Ben Lewis and comic dynamo Fran Drescher, with the film nabbing unexpected raves from critics.

Lee continues his winning streak this year with a major role on the teen mystery Cruel Summer. The series airs on Freeform Tuesdays.

Cruel Summer takes place on the same day in three different years: 1993, 1994 and 1995, and follows the effect the abduction of popular high school girl Kate Wallis (Oliva Holt) has on the community. In the show, Lee smashes his nice-guy image by stepping into the role of Martin Harris, Assistant Principal at Kate’s high school…and the abductor that keeps her locked in his basement. But not all is as it seems when Kate escapes, and families clash in the aftermath.

Cruel Summer debuted to record-setting ratings on Freeform, and the show has won a positive critical reception as well. We caught up with Lee to talk about his unconventional work on the show, the challenges of its dark themes and the possibility of The Christmas Setup 2. New episodes of Cruel Summer air on Freeform Tuesdays, with the finale scheduled for June 15.

So how was this role pitched to you? An assistant principal that keeps students locked in his basement? That’s a bit of a departure for you, to say the least.

I know. I think that was the thing: it was exciting. I do a lot of comedy. I actually shot the pilot of this before The Christmas Setup. We shot the rest of the series after. I think when you interviewed me last I was in the middle of doing the show. But it was pitched to me—they gave me a lot of the story. I think one of the things that I was drawn to was that they were doing an honest depiction of this sort of relationship. They were not glamorizing or romanticizing a teacher-student relationship. That was very refreshing to me. I feel like in TV we are often told to root for that kind of love story. This man is 31, this student is 16. So it was really refreshing that the creative team really wanted to discuss grooming and gaslighting and manipulation. I had never played a character like that, so I was like, let’s do it.

CRUEL SUMMER – The cast and crew of Freeform’s “Cruel Summer” attended a screening event at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles to celebrate the premiere of the highly-anticipated series on Thursday, April 15. “Cruel Summer” premieres TUESDAY, APRIL 20 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on Freeform. (Freeform/Matt Petit)

What kind of research and preparation do you do for a character like this? What did you find about the character’s pathology?

I really was fascinated by these men that can do unspeakable things but not feel like they’re doing something wrong. [The mentality is] I’m saving this person or I’m doing this because I love this person. What’s missing in their mind that, when they see someone crying and begging there’s no I should let this person go? That was fascinating to me—that a man could live a dual life going to work at school and there’s a 16-year-old girl in his basement. And the whole community is looking for her, putting up missing posters. That’s fascinating to me—there is this sense of privilege that these men won’t face any consequences. And that’s terrifying.

Yes it is.

So before I started the show I watched The Bundy Diaries, which was horrific. But [Ted Bundy] was a man that did the worst things to these women, and who went about his day totally normal and didn’t feel like he was doing anything wrong. It was so wild to me. I also watched Psycho. Anthony Perkins did such a good job playing a sweet, shy guy who could do horrible things. So I tried to pull from different places, but also just went by the page with what I was given. It was making the duality of the character.

When you work with heavy material like that, how does that affect your relationship with your co-stars? In this case, Olivia, who plays Kate. Does that affect the dynamic between the two of you?

She and I got extremely close. The way she and I work is very similar: we needed to build a friendship and trust to go to those dark places. I know there are actors that would be an *sshole or be very standoffish to another actor if their characters had that kind of relationship. But that’s not me. I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible so that we could build trust and open dialogue. Before we did any scenes that were heavy or emotional, we would spend a lot of time dissecting the script together and working with Tia [Napolitano], our showrunner. It was constant asking questions and answers. A lot of the [violence] isn’t necessarily shown, but are implied. So we would discuss what those were, what had happened. It was an amazing experience working with Olivia. She’s fearless.

Does that take a toll on you though? Doing that kind of dark material?

Maybe it’s from doing so much comedy, but I would come home at night and my brain would just hurt. I was living in this guy’s head, and it’s terrifying. We were on location in Dallas, and Ben my husband was there, so that was helpful having him as a distraction. But the cast got really close. Doing a TV show in a pandemic is a tough thing, so we all got really close. On the weekends we would just try to have as much fun and separate ourselves from the heaviness of the show.

Olivia Holt as Kate

One of the Hallmarks of this show is that it’s told in a very nonlinear way across three time periods. Did you know the whole of your story in advance?

No. They didn’t. It was tough and frustrating at times, but it was also very smart. They gave us just enough to know where we were at that time. As actors, I think sometimes it’s easy to play the end since you know where you’re going. Giving us little bits kept us on track to not get ahead of where we needed to be. And the very end of the show we didn’t know until the last table read. It was wild.

Related: Real life husbands Ben Lewis And Blake Lee on finding queer romance at Christmas in ‘The Christmas Setup’

This is also a story about obsessions. Mr. Harris is obviously an obsessed character. Does that make him more compelling or more fun to play, even in material this dark?

Sure, yeah. Martin is obsessed with Kate, in love with this girl. So I was able to play that. Back to what I was saying about Ted Bundy—he was able to say “I love this girl, so I’m going to do this because I love her.” Which is insane. So [Martin] does this out of a place of love and obsession. I don’t know that Martin knew she would end up in his basement, but it was an obsession he couldn’t stop.

Is the series meant to be anthology, or one-off? Would you come back next season?

I think that’s being decided right now. I know has been received really well, which we’re thrilled about. I think everybody wants to come back. I think it would be cool to do an anthology, like how American Horror Story uses a repertory company every season, this amazing troupe of actors. I’m dead on the show, so I guess if they want to keep this story I could come back in flashbacks. But I haven’t heard like there’s a specific direction yet.

Harley Quinn Smith & Allius Barnes

It’s a show that loves twists, so who knows.

I know! It’s the worst answer, but I swear I don’t know anything.

Ok, last question then. Last time you and I and Ben talked, you alluded to this, so I have to ask. What’s the status of The Christmas Setup 2?

As of right now, no. You might just have to watch it again next year. I think everyone in it wants to work together again in some capacity. So we’re all in touch, but we don’t know what it would be. Whether it’s The Christmas Setup 2 or something else, we all had the best time. I’ve been so lucky this year to work, but to just work with awesome people. Ben and I are talking about developing a show together. We love working together.

New episodes of Cruel Summer air on Freeform Tuesdays, with the finale scheduled for June 15.