Unlike the reserved character she plays in NBC’s new summer drama “Reverie,” Chicago area native Jessica Lu freely celebrates the passion and excitement she feels for her latest project.
Lu plays Alexis Barrett, the 24-year-old tech genius who created the groundbreaking virtual reality program at the center of the show, which premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
At a time when TV is examining its own progress (or lack of) in diversity and equality, Alexis is exactly the type of character writers should be creating. Lu said she wishes more characters like Alexis appeared on TV when she was growing up in suburban Schaumburg in the 1990s.
“As an Asian-American female, I never saw anyone who looked like me on television,” Lu said. “Not only were they not playing leading roles, but they also weren’t playing characters in power.
“So the fact that I’m able to represent this young woman of color in this powerful position is really revolutionary in itself.”
Alexis isn’t the only female character with power in creator Mickey Fisher’s series. Sarah Shahi leads the show as former hostage negotiator Mara Kint, who is hired by Alexis’ company to save ordinary people who have lost their way in the Reverie program.
The program allows users to escape into a virtual world they help create that is “so realistic it’s hard to differentiate from real life,” Lu said. When users decide to give up on their real lives and remain in their virtual world, Mara jumps in to bring them out.
While Mara uses her empathy to relate to the people she helps, Alexis comes off as guarded and a bit cold — even though her invention is helping people, too. Lu loves her character, but admitted Alexis doesn’t seem all that likable at times.
“I’ve been describing her basically as a 24-year-old, female Steve Jobs,” Lu said, comparing her character to the sometimes brusque co-founder of Apple Inc. “She’s an incredibly private person. She’s a little enigmatic, she’s a little defensive, she’s a little humorless.”
Alexis faces a problem many younger women or minorities deal with, Lu said. She can’t let her guard down because she’s always having to demonstrate her worth.
“I think she has way more to prove than someone who might be older, someone who might be of a different race, someone who might be a man,” she said. “I think instead of trying to be so likable, she’s just like, ‘I created this tech and this is a gift everyone should be able to experience. And I don’t care if I am likable because I’m just making sure that it works for them.’ ”
Alexis is a lot less sociable than Lu’s most famous role to date. She played the (mostly) laid back high school fashionista Ming Huang in MTV’s comedy “Awkward.”
“That was the first show where I became recognizable, where I — well, the show — had a fan base,” she said. “I was getting called into rooms for other jobs because of that character.”
Lu landed that role about two years after moving to Los Angeles with her mother and “working my butt off” as an extra, then as a stand-in and then in small speaking roles.
Before moving to L.A., Lu graduated with honors from Columbia College, where she studied musical theater performance. She changed her major seven times, she said, because she thought that maybe she should have a backup plan if acting didn’t work out for her.
But performing was in her soul since she was 10 years old, she said, when she began to work in print modeling. She modeled through her high school years at James B. Conant High School inHoffman Estates.
Her image was constantly in local newspapers in ads for Marshall Field’s, Montgomery Ward, Sears and Carson Pirie Scott. (“Are any of those still around?” she joked.) She also modeled for OshKosh B’Gosh,Lands’ End,Payless Shoes and Ford Motors and many others, some in print ads and some commercials.
Lu said she misses Portillo’s and has had Lou Malnati’s pizza shipped to her to cure any homesickness.
Her father and brother still live in Chicago, and she comes back home as much as she can. But, she said, “I don’t go in the winter because that would be crazy.”