We all have a rise to the top. For some it happens in seconds, for others, in stages. Lou Llobell is coming in waves. The young actress started her career body-doubling for Tessa Thompson in Men in Black, now she’s dominating the universe in Apple TV+’s adaptation of Foundation. The sci-fi fantasy that served as much of the inspiration for Star Wars.
Llobell leads the cast alongside such names as Lee Pace and Jared Harris. She’s captivating in her portrayal of Gaal Dornick, the mathematician that’s chosen to leave her home planet and help a professor in his pursuit to prevent the Galactic empire from falling. No big deal. It’s Llobell’s first big role on film and she performs like a pro.
In person, she’s gracious and kind, soft spoken with subtle hints of humour. She has a presence that could calm a beast. Perhaps that’s why she finds herself at home in the ocean.
Right now, she’s finding her tide. A recent Forbes 30 under 30 and star of a hit TV series. I’d say she’s doing swimmingly.
Will you tell me a little bit about your upbringing: did you split the time between Spain and South Africa?
Now, no. But I did. I was born in Zimbabwe. When I was about one, we moved to Spain and then we went back to South Africa when I was eight. When I was eighteen I moved to the UK to study, and now I’m between Spain and London.
Do you have siblings?
I do, there’s five of us. My dad has five kids. He has three with his first wife, and then me and my younger brother with my mum.
Can you tell me one of your most vivid memories of growing up?
I have this one memory of when my family from Spain came to visit us in South Africa and we went on a night safari. I must have been about nine. I remember because they gave us all these spotlight lanterns, and we were all looking and I was the one person who spotted a leopard in the night.
When did you first show interest towards performing as a kid?
Immediately. It’s wild. I used to put on shows with my brother, I used to force him to dress up. It was something that was always inherent in who I was. My gran on my dad’s side was always a performer: making jokes and dressing up. She was that fun aunt with all their cousins and stuff. I was so close to her. It’s so nice because people look at me and tell me that I remind them of her. And that she would have loved what I do.
Do you have a favourite memory with her?
Oh, loads of stuff. Apparently, there was this one day she picked us up from school and she came into the living room and I was giving birth to a pillow. And then she just joined in and played along. That was the kind of relationship we had.
How long has she been gone?
Four years. She passed in 2019.
How did you cope with that?
It was okay. She was ill. It was during the time I had just finished drama school. I was the stand in for Tessa Thompson in Men in Black. That was the job I got straight out of drama school. Which was one of the best things I could have done, I learned so much. It was during that. I called work and told them I had to go. It was all very sad but she was suffering. She was 93. She lived a good life.
Can you tell me about your tattoos?
Yes! So I have a star fish and a little seashell for the ocean. I have this little bird that my gran drew. We found these drawings she’d made after she passed, and my sister and I got it tattooed on us after she passed. She has one bird and I have the other. Then I have this curly haired queen, which I made sure was designed by a black tattoo artist in London because I really wanted something to commemorate my journey with my hair. It was an evolution.
I used to hate my hair. I used to straighten it all the time. I didn’t see myself as beautiful with my curly hair. I haven’t straightened my hair in four years now. But when you grow up and that’s what society tells you: that straight hair is pretty and curly hair is frizzy or uncontrollable. That’s how you promote hair products. We should be able to wear our hair frizzy and big and curly and tie it up and let it down and do all these things and still feel beautiful.
When was the first time you started embracing your hair?
I learned how to do my hair through Youtube. I have a black mom and a white dad. My dad used to braid my hair as a kid, my mom did too. Then I got to the age where they stopped doing my hair and I would just tie it up and not touch it for two weeks. Then trying to de-tangle it was so hellish that I cut it off at one point. Then when I was 17 I started watching Youtube.
When I do my hair for press, and my character’s hair journey is extremely important to me. That it’s natural and it tells a story and you can relate it to where she comes from. I always have a conversation with the hair team that it has to be pretty and show strength, but also practical so that it’s not slapping her in the face when she’s doing stunts in the water.
How old were you when you got the hair tattoo?
When I was 22. I got this after season one. And then my last tattoo is the prayer stones from Foundation. Because it was my first job! My dad made a joke immediately after, he was like, ‘are you gonna get a tattoo after every job?’ I was like well…! But the show was my first big break. It’s a character that’s very dear to me.
So you have this instinct towards performance your whole life, has that always been the goal?
I wanted to study acting. My parents told me to go to the UK and see what I could do. I didn’t want to just go to drama school and be stuck with actors so I went to do Drama and Theatre Arts at University, but my friends did loads of different things. I almost dropped out because it wasn’t much performance and it was a lot of writing and studying. I just wanted to act. But I finished it so I could apply to get my masters at a drama school. I applied to Drama Centre and that’s what I did when I graduated. I went from 2016-2019.
Did you enjoy that experience?
It was amazing because we got to learn how to act in front of camera. But I didn’t used to get great roles. I got all the leftover parts. I didn’t come out of there feeling like I was going to be doing it and I’m ready to do it. I was still chancing it.
Did you ever consider doing theatre?
I love musicals, but for me film works well. I thrive in it because I do a scene in a day, or may two days and then it’s done. I move onto the next thing. You put so much into that moment. The long run in theatre always made me feel anxious. But if it’s Rizzo in West End, I would do it.
I love the permanence of film. Foundation is going to be in the ether of the universe forever. I think about how great it will be if I have kids to know they can watch, and their kids can watch their grandmother on screen.
Can you tell me about the time right after graduating?
I got out of drama school, sent out all my stuff, and got an agent at a small agency. The original agent that picked me up left, but the person I’m with now is from the same agency and we’ve been together ever since which is amazing to find someone that you have that kind of immediate relationship with. She’s one of my closest friends. I know that if I dropped off the face of the earth, she would be able to manage everything. If questions needed to be answered, she could answer on my behalf.
When I left school I was doing extra work. I was doing stand in work or body doubling for people. Then the stint with Men in Black was four months. It was my first time on set. I didn’t have to do anything really, I got to just watch. I just observed.
Did you realise anything about the industry while doing those jobs?
How big it was and how many people are part of the process. How insane these sets are. Especially with Men in Black. I got to go to Morocco with them, I got to be a body double. My hand is in the film. That was my claim to fame. I was so happy, I was like, ‘That’s me!’
Did you get close with anyone on set?
I was part of the crew. You’re there to support. But your job is just as important. My job was to stand and be lighted so that when the actor comes they’re ready to go. It made me appreciate the crew, and have that respect. They have such long hours, so much work to do so that you look good. I’m the last person now that goes on set. Everyone’s been there for hours working already. It’s such an incredible machine. I’m in awe of everyone that’s part of it. Especially with a show like Foundation.
When does that audition come around?
Well I did a film in between Men in Black and Foundation called Voyagers. I didn’t have any lines, I just had a scene that I was in tears. In the background of scenes. It was a step into the bigger picture. And then two weeks after that I got the first audition for Foundation.
Can you walk me through the stages of these auditions? I know there were three before you got the role.
The first one I did two scenes on camera with a casting director that worked under Lucinda’s Syson. The second was actually with Lucinda Syson, who was the casting director. David Goyer, the showrunner and Rupert Sanders, who was the director of the first episode. At that time I had no idea who they were. Then I heard back and was asked to go in person for a screen test and chemistry reads. I was one of five girls. We were all staying in the same hotel. it was so nice, everyone was so supportive. Some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. By the end of it, we’d all be in a room and get called up one by one and we’d cheer each other on.
Did you have any instinct during the process that this role was for you?
She was so clear to me, the character. It just worked. And it was in parallel to how I was feeling in my life. Small fish in a big pond, naive. Gaal’s character in the first season is that she comes from a rural planet and she’s the smartest person in the room and doesn’t realise it. She’s naive and taking everything in, but she’s really good at what she does so she’s able to stand on her feet. That’s how I felt. The screen test was overwhelming. I’ve never had two cameras on me. But you kind of just fake it till you make it. You have to convince yourself and everybody else that you deserve to be here. Even if you don’t believe it yourself.
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What were the biggest challenges you face stepping into your first big role on set?
Everyone is so amazing at their jobs that it wasn’t so challenging. But the focus was hard - trying to focus on what you’re doing and not getting distracted by everything going on around you. If you’ve never been on set before, it can be quite overwhelming. I remember saying to one of the ADs that I was going to get water. And they were like no, no, no I’m bringing it to you. But no – there’s a way you do things. Everyone has their job. I learned set etiquette while being on set.
How did you feel going into season two?
I expected to know what it was going to be like. I’d never done a season two of anything before. It wasn’t what I expected. It was great, but I was so confident with what I’d just done. I thought it was going to be the same, but everything was different. It was a new dynamic. New group of people. We went to new locations. There was a lot of changes. Gaal’s story is different. She’s in a different mindset. It was a learning curve. Even though it was the same show, it wasn’t like turning the page. It was a whole new book. That was an important lesson for me. To not have expectations. You can get way too comfortable.
Can you tell me about your favourite day on set in season two?
I love the underwater stuff. It’s the easiest stuff for me. You can’t see anything. You can’t breathe. You’re just relying on light to guide you. There’s only so many takes you can do without getting exhausted. It feels really challenging in a physical way.
Did you learn any new skills?
The swimming was interesting because it was Leah and I doing it together this time. That changed the whole dynamic. We had to be aware of each other but we had a very unspoken way of communicating. We knew how to support each other. The entire thing was challenging. There’s a lot of layers in Gaal’s story this season. It’s really interesting to play that in a creative way so that when people watch it they can pick up on things after the fact. That was quite challenging to do.
Tell me about the fashion? Have you always been interested in clothes?
Yes, but I never had the money to wear the things I get to wear now. It wasn’t until Foundation that I was exposed to all of these things. It’s so fun, and such a great way to express who you are and how you feel. I move between very masculine and feminine things. In my day to day life, I can wear baggy clothes and a cap. And then tomorrow I can wear a little summer dress. It’s just an expression of how you feel. I’ve been on so many photoshoots but each one felt different but the clothes were different. You put things on and you feel empowered, and you start posing differently.
I used to be so scared of photoshoots. It’s not like acting where you’re in front of the camera as someone else. it’s you as yourself, exposing yourself. it felt quite odd the first time I ever did a photoshoot in front of strangers on a publication that loads of people can look at and watch. But clothes are so important to me. I get to work with so many creative people when I create looks but it’s nice to feel like I have a say and my say works.
What are you hoping to do post-Foundation?
Everything. I want to dip my toe in everything. I’m impatient, and working on it. I’ve had breaks in between seasons. This break post season two, I decided to just enjoy my time off. I went to go travel the world. I went to the Dominican Republic. I lived in Ibiza for a month. I’ve just been enjoying the time.
I wish I could tell you there was an actor, or director, or genre I want to work with but ultimately I don’t know what I want to do because I haven’t done anything other than Foundation. I need to try everything to know. So I hope that’s what’s next. Play loads of different characters. Thrillers, and Indies, and Comedies. All of it. If I love the story, and I love the character and I think it’s something people need to see then that’s what I want to do.
Who’s your biggest inspiration in your life?
The women in my life. The people I work with to my mum, to my grandma to my sister. My friends.
Theme song of your life?
I’m really vibing with Cleo Sol right now.
Do you have a nickname?
Lou. My full name is Lourdes. You can pronounce it in so many ways, and I didn’t want people to mispronounce it. So I go by Lou.
What would you be if you weren’t an actor?
An aspiring actor. A not working actor. I liked Geography at school I thought I could pursue that for a second but no, nothing.
What’s a role you wish you played?
Rizzo in Grease. Who wants to be Sandy? Absolutely no one.
What are your hobbies right now?
I like reading scripts. New stuff, old stuff. Just anything. I like reading stories and finding what’s interesting to me and what makes me want to read more of it. Things you don’t expect to enjoy, and then you’re like ah!
Where are you happiest?
On the beach, in the ocean.
What do you like about water so much?
It’s super calming. It’s this insane, natural body of water that has a mind of its own. You melt into it. Just the sound of waves crashing on the beach is calming.
What’s your biggest fear currently?
That this whole journey will stop. That tomorrow everyone will forget who I am and what I’ve done. That the lights could go off.
What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
Moving to the UK by myself.
What do you eat for breakfast?
I don’t eat breakfast, I eat lunch.
What’s something you hate?
I hate bananas. Don’t like the smell. Don’t like the texture. Don’t like the stringy bits. You know when you peel it and it’s like (gag) why would you put that in your mouth?
How do you spend a Sunday evening?
Watching Real Housewives or Vanderpump Rules. I’m on Atlanta right now. It’s such a way to observe people, and that serves my job. So technically I’m doing research.
How would your friends describe you in three words?
Outrageous, loyal and hilarious.
Favourite animated film?
Wall-E and also The Incredibles and also Soul. I love animated films, they are my favourite thing in the world. When I was little it was Little Mermaid, and also Annie. Annie isn’t animated but that was a musical I had on repeat. We had VCRs of every single Disney movie.
What’s your favourite film now?
City of God. It’s a Brazilian indie about favelas, which are like slums in Brazil.
Favourite alcoholic beverage?
Dirty Martini. Extra Filthy. Three Olives. Shaken.
I love a range of things, but I love sharing plates. That’s very Spanish of me, the whole tapas thing. It’s funny because with British food you eat your own meal - I always found that really weird. You have a conversation about what you’re eating. If you’re eating your own meal, you can’t do that. How do you eat and not talk about what’s on the table?
What’s your favourite book?
Children of Blood and Bone. It’s like an enchanted Harry Potter meets African tribes meet mystic African. I’m a fiction gal.
What’s something no one knows about you?
I used to play loads of sports growing up. I played hockey, squash, basketball, indoor hockey, water polo, swimming. I was an athlete. My personal best deadlift is 100kg, which is currently the sport I do now.
When was the last time you cried?
I don’t cry in front of people a lot, but the last time I cried was at the Premiere for Foundation season two. The tears didn’t fall down my face, because I didn’t want to ruin my make up. But I had a moment before we went to watch the first two episodes when I was like my mom is here, my team is here, everyone’s here and we’re going to watch it on the big screen.
Watch Foundation S2 on Apple TV+