(Featured image courtesy of Bree-Lynn Mistol)
Anyone would be intimidated to walk into a casting room and find Sandra Bullock on the other side of the table. Holding your own in a scene with such an accomplished Oscar winner would be a daunting task, one that most actors might not feel up to, but eight-year-old Neli Kastrinos, star of Netflix’s latest drama The Unforgivable, isn’t most actors.
Like most kids this century, Kastrinos grew up on Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the live action Seuss adaptation that has expanded many hearts (by three sizes, of course) every holiday season for the past couple decades. According to Kastrinos, “one of the characters that inspired me was Cindy Lou Who.” Neli recalls studying the performance of the young Taylor Momsen, watching “how she produces her emotions and her lines,” to draw inspiration for her own performances. That attention paid off, as Neli was selected as one of the leaders of her kindergarten Christmas pageant. “I told the audience what the classes were singing, and I also told a story.” Before a crowd of hundreds, Neli delivered every line without fear or nerves, and from then on, she knew that she’d found her passion. “Now that I know that I can do that, I know where I was meant to be, in front of a crowd performing, and I love doing that.”
Quickly after securing an agent, Kastrinos wasted no time in going out for her first audition, which was for the new Netflix drama by German director Nora Fingscheidt (best known for 2018’s System Crasher). “I thought I did a pretty good job. Then, I got a Zoom callback with Nora Fingscheidt and the casting director.” The ball began rolling from there, and in an exciting turn of events, Neli found herself auditioning in person in Vancouver as one of the top two contenders for the role. “The other girl was really cute too.” Neli’s mother had to wait outside while Neli performed, and even though the scenes chosen for the audition were among the most emotional and intense in the script, Neli once again felt completely confident on her own. “It all just came natural to me, because I like doing these kinds of characters.” Kastrinos booked the part, succeeding at an incredibly rare feat for an actor: being hired on your very first audition.
While filming, Kastrinos found Bullock to be an incredible partner, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. “It was an honor working with her. She’s so caring.” The Unforgivable follows Sandra Bullock as Ruth, a woman recently released from prison who is struggling against a judgmental society who doesn’t want to forgive her for her mistakes or allow her to find redemption in reuniting with her younger sister, who she’d left behind years ago. The film and Neli’s performance have been touted as heart-wrenching and deeply moving, elements that are obvious just from the movie’s trailer. “Like you’ve seen in the trailer, I was screaming in [Bullock’s] arms.” Yelling and crying at the top of her lungs for multiple takes on end took a toll on Neli’s voice, which she said was “dry and so sore” afterwards. “Sandy started yelling, ‘Water! Water! We need to get this girl water now!’” Kastrinos laughed as she recalled crew members scattering and rushing around the set, and she emphasized how grateful she was for her co-star’s generous and perceptive nature. However, Kastrinos demonstrated a unique maturity when it came to the emotional aspects, describing how all the elements of the production came together to immerse her in the scene. “When we were on set and my director yelled, ‘Action,’ it all just came naturally to me.” On the other hand, auditions require a bit more preparation for the young actress. “When I’m doing an audition, I think of something really bad that would happen, or I think of something that would happen to my friends or family, and that would get me into my emotional state and my character.”
Despite the serious material, it wasn’t all doom and gloom during production. While filming, the cast and crew suddenly noticed some strange background noises that were interrupting the flow of the moment. “The noises were like hacking and toilet flushing, and we caught that on camera in the middle of a scene.” The actors started having trouble keeping a straight face, and after only a short while, they found themselves all laughing together. “Nora had to yell, ‘Cut!’” After discovering that one of the extras was having a bit of a rough day and their problem was addressed, filming continued smoothly, but Neli specifically remembers that moment of fun as one of her favorite memories from production.
Outside the film and television world, Kastrinos works with Mode Models in various hometown modeling campaigns. “I do print. I do runways. I do commercials.” The various mediums provide a wide range of opportunities for her to show off her skills, and though things can heat up sometimes (winter-themed shoots with lots of big lights and active movement can mean that heavy, insulated clothes are doing their jobs a bit too well inside the studio), “whenever I’m tired, I just drink some water, put on a smile, and I’m ready to go!”
Being a kid is busy enough without stacking a career as an actress on top of it, but Neli still finds time for her favorite hobbies between classes and movie premieres. She’s found that carving out time for riding horses, snowboarding, and sledding brings balance to her life. Nevertheless, she emphasized, “I don’t really need to balance anything.” Acting may be the kind of hobby with a few million more people watching than snowboarding, but it’s a hobby all the same, and Kastrinos has easily slid it into her schedule alongside all of her other passions. “I love horses. I love riding them, and I got to work with two beautiful black horses on The Unforgivable.” She hopes that she’ll continue to book roles that will help her further develop her equestrian skills in the future.
Viewers can also see Neli on Showtime’s acclaimed Yellowjackets, which has just received a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Drama Series. Kastrinos plays Lottie (the role originated by Courtney Eaton) in flashbacks, of course with the same huge allotments of heart and emotion she brought to The Unforgivable. “More screaming from Neli!” she teased.
Down the line, Kastrinos would love to work in Greece, where much of her extended family lives. “I’d get to visit my Nono, my Yiayia, and Papou. Nono in Greek means ‘godfather,’ and Yiayia and Papou means ‘Grandma and Grandpa.’” She’s open to any opportunity that crosses her path, but ultimately she would love to work with Sandra Bullock again, or someone with her same caring energy and supportive presence. And if Netflix needs anyone for season two of Sweet Tooth, Neli’s favorite show, she has some ideas for who they can call!
Be sure to check out Yellowjackets on Showtime and Neli’s unforgettable performance in The Unforgivable, which is in theaters in select locations now and drops on Netflix this Friday.