Elizabeth Lail uses UNCSA training to adapt to a variety of starring roles

As an actor, Elizabeth Lail (B.F.A. Drama '14, H.S. '10) has found herself in a wide range of roles — from a Disney princess to the object of Penn Badgley’s deadly obsession in Season 1 of the Netflix hit series “You."

Her work continues to expand, with roles as Lola Morgan on HBO's "Gossip Girl" reboot, as Quinn in the horror film "Countdown" and as Jenny in the NBC drama "Ordinary Joe." She also co-stars as Mack in the upcoming indie romcom "Mack & Rita," opposite Diane Keaton's Rita.

Lail's turn as Beck in "You" is one of her most memorable and the show, she has said, helped hone some of her acting abilities. A trademark of the show is its ability to get inside characters’ heads by hearing their thoughts spoken over certain scenes. That aspect, Lail said in an interview with Decider, gave her the chance to try new skills.

“It was something I’d never done before,” she says. “I had never said out loud my character’s thoughts. You’re also in a booth watching the scene and trying to make it make sense and suit the tone that you’ve already shot.

"At first I was like, this is gonna be tough… but I really was intrigued by hearing all [of Joe’s] thoughts.”

Before "You," Lail had an early success as a beloved Disney character. At the beginning of her career, she was cast as Princess Anna in ABC’s “Once Upon A Time,” where she had the opportunity to use some of her UNCSA stage combat training as the sword-wielding princess.

As Lail has continued to pursue different roles, she’s found that her experience in the UNCSA School of Drama has prepared her well for life as a professional actor. As she told the Winston-Salem Journal, her training “really prepared me for anything that could possibly come my way.”

As an alumna of UNCSA’s Drama Summer Intensives and both the High School and Undergraduate Drama programs, she may have had a slight advantage.

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Excited for you all to see Beck and Joe work on their relationship tonight, FINALE TONIGHT Xx

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Shot some B-roll for tonight’s episode! In a corset. Watch YOU tonight! #youonlifetime

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Lail first heard about UNCSA through a friend who attended the high school program. Already an actor in her high school in Asheboro, North Carolina, and in local community theatre productions, she signed up for the summer intensive acting program the very next summer. Five weeks later, she was hooked.

I fell in love with the spirit of the school. I grew up in a small town, so this was my first time being part of a true artistic community, surrounded by people who wanted to create things and were excited about what art can do in the world.

Elizabeth Lail

“I fell in love with the spirit of the school,” says Lail. “I grew up in a small town, so this was my first time being part of a true artistic community, surrounded by people who wanted to create things and were excited about what art can do in the world.”

After that transformative summer in Winston-Salem, Lail enrolled in the one-year high-school program. And when it came time to apply to college, she says it was a “no brainer” to choose UNCSA’s nationally respected conservatory program in drama. “I had found my home and wanted to stay,” she says.

It was in this tight-knit, rigorous and inspiring environment that Lail met her closest mentor, Mary Irwin. Irwin taught voice, speech and Shakespeare, as well as a method of voicework learned firsthand from Kristin Linklater, author of “Freeing the Natural Voice.”

“Voicework is the foundation of my acting,” Lail says. “Voicework is about discovering the true voice inside of you, which is being held back by tensions and fears accrued over a lifetime of experiences.”

Lail will never forget the moment in her Shakespeare class when her true voice—not her “actor’s” voice, but her own authentic voice—finally shined through.

“I was working on a monologue from ‘A Winter’s Tale,’” Lail remembers. “And I just transformed into Paulina, because I had the foundation of voicework and my heart was open to it. Just those two things—and I’ve seen it time and time again—can take actors above and beyond what they thought they were capable of.”

Although Winston-Salem is far from the entertainment hubs of New York and Los Angeles, UNCSA is very much on the radar of industry scouts and casting agents. Lail booked an agent before graduation, after traveling to LA for the annual Senior Showcase—a chance for industry reps to meet UNCSA’s graduating class of young actors.

“UNCSA is such a safe space for an actor, where it’s okay to fail,” says Lail. But, she adds, "The absolute greatest thing about UNCSA is the people. You create this family of an ensemble. The incredible relationships I formed at school and the friends I’ve made at work are what bring me joy and keep me wanting to be an actor."

by Corrine Luthy & Dave Roos

Originally published: October 25, 2015

Story last updated: August 18, 2021