Instant Family star Isabela Moner is Collider’s Up-and-Comer of the Month but to be honest, it’s a bit of a cheat. See, Moner has been up-and-coming for a while. In fact, she has already arrived, having caught her big break in 2014 with the Nickelodeon show 100 Things to Do Before High School, followed by a much bigger break when Michael Bay hand-picked her to star in last year’s blockbuster Transformers: The Last Knight, for which she earned a Teen Choice Award nomination. Since then, Moner hasn’t looked back. She starred opposite Benicio Del Toro in this summer’s acclaimed sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado, and a month after that she was on her way to Australia to shoot a live-action Dora the Explorer movie (her third for Paramount) in which she plays the adventurous lead. So, you’ve probably seen Moner already, and if not then I assure you, you’re definitely going to be seeing a lot more of her in the future. Moner may be a bit more polished than our typical Up-and-Comer of the Month honorees, but frankly, I just wanted an excuse to chat with her after Instant Family, which may be the year’s most pleasant surprise.
Moner plays Lizzie, the eldest of three siblings who are in the foster care system, where they’re being eyed for adoption by a married couple — played by Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne — who sense something is missing from their otherwise picture-perfect lives. Lizzie might only be a teenager, but she is wise beyond her years, having been forced to look after her younger brother and sister as her mother struggled with addiction. Lizzie is the most complex character Moner has played thus far, and there’s surprising depth to her performance. She isn’t playing one note, but rather, a symphony, and it was impressive to see her balance the comedy and the drama that the script calls for. It’s a surprisingly mature turn for the 17-year-old, Cleveland-born actress, who is half-Peruvian and proud of her Latin heritage.
Speaking with her from the set of Dora just days before the release of Instant Family, it was clear that Paramount made the right choice in entrusting her with such an important IP. From what I saw in Instant Family, she is a major star in the making, a socially-conscious young woman who takes her responsibility as an actress and a role model very seriously. I spoke to Moner in the midst of the Malibu fires, mere hours after Stan Lee‘s death was reported, and you could hear the empathy in her voice. That empathy should serve her well in Hollywood, where the sky appears to be the limit for her. It was a pleasure to speak with Isabela, and I hope you enjoy our chat!
Congrats on being named Collider’s Up-and-Comer of the Month for November!
I appreciate [all] of this. I’m still confused as to like, if I’m relevant or not. I don’t know, and personally I’d rather not be, because I like the place where I’m at right now. I feel like I really like my career and where it is at right now. I love it. I’m still able to do some crazy stuff in public and no one cares about me or what I’m doing, and it’s awesome.
That anonymity may not last much longer, given how well your career is going.
I know, I know. That’s the only thing I regret about signing up for Dora.
We’ll talk about Dora, but let’s start at the beginning first. What sparked your passion for acting and made you decide to get into this crazy business?
It’s kind of been like a lifelong thing, I guess. I mean, right out the womb, I was singing and doing all that. I always wanted to be the center of attention — you know actors, ugh. And it was also a Middle child syndrome-type thing, you know. But it’s kind of funny, my dad didn’t want us to have cable growing up because he wanted us to grow up outside like him. It wasn’t like, a strict rule. I still snuck over to my friend’s house to watch TV every night, but I grew up outside and it was wonderful, and I’m really glad I had that experience and the opportunity to get scrapes on my knees and actually be a kid. Obviously at the time, I didn’t know that half my childhood would be making movies, but I’m really glad for those times, and also, if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have gone to the library every weekend and discovered Shirley Temple and Judy Garland movies, and that’s really what got me inspired. I would watch these movies and tell my friends about them, as if they had just come out in theaters. I’d be like, ‘Have you heard of this Judy Garland movie, The Wizard of Oz? Have you heard of it? It’s sick!’ And I was probably 6 or 7 years old. But it kind of took a full turn, because my favorite movie was The Wizard of Oz and that ended up being my first musical theater show. It’s a long story, I don’t know how much time we have.
We only have 20 minutes, but is it safe to assume you played Dorothy in that show?
No, see I wanted to!
Oooh, this is a good story then! It’s worth it.
Yeah, the girl who got it was 12! She was so grown… I was like, ‘wow, she’s so big.’ But there was a questionnaire that asked, ‘what role would you like to play?’ And I wrote ‘Dorothy.’ And under that was like, ‘what other role would you consider if not the one above?’ and I put ‘Dorothy.’ And then it was like, ‘if not that one, is there another role you would consider?’ And I wrote ‘Dorothy.’ And I ended up playing a munchkin. But I did fall in love at that instant. I don’t know, it was just the adrenaline, really, and the fact that it never went away. And I hope it never does.
That’s a great story. So obviously, this is your second film with Mark Wahlberg. Did you have to audition or did he put you up for the gig? I imagine you two have a sense of familiarity by now…
Oh God, I wish we were tight like that! He’d be like, ‘I’m doing this movie, come on over and do it!’ No, actually I read the script and I loved the story. I mean, I knew that it was special, I just didn’t know how it would impact people’s lives. They were like, you already did this movie with Mark Wahlberg where he was like a father figure to you. So they weren’t really sure about it. They weren’t buying it. So I was like, ‘alright. Come back to me if you want. It’s fine.’ And they came back and they were like, ‘OK, we’ll do a Skype audition,’ so I said ‘OK.’ But my computer is so broken. I don’t even know what year it’s from, but it’s one of the earlier Macs. You can’t even find the chargers for it anymore. It’s so broken and I use it for school because it breaks down a lot, and therefore I have an excuse so I can not turn in an essay if I’m late on it, because I usually am. I always wait until the last minute to submit it. Anyway, I’m getting off track. Basically, my computer was broken so I couldn’t see them at all, but they could see me. My brother was in the background bouncing his basketball in the living room because he was getting ready for practice and he was being as annoying as ever. He just chooses the worst time to be annoying. And I was Skyping them, and I didn’t find out until later, but apparently I made them cry.
You’re asked to play some pretty heavy moments here. Were you ever worried about pulling off those more emotional scenes?
That was also a concern of mine, and theirs. They wanted to really get the most authentic thing possible. And you know, I always strive to play different roles. I want to be as flexible as possible. I love Meryl Streep for that reason — she’s such a chameleon. So I found this to be a wonderful challenge. I did my research and I spoke to people. My best friend was going through the adoption process at the time and it was the same kind of situation, where the biological mother was fighting for the girl they were trying to adopt. Her name is Ivy. So I had a lot of things to pull from, but you know, it’s acting. You just make it believable, as best you can. You make it real. So they believed it, and that’s why I got the part. I’m just really honored that I get to be a part of this movie, because last night [at the premiere], I had never felt that much of a great energy from an audience before in one of my movies. I haven’t done a lot, obviously, but this has to be my favorite movie I’ve ever done because you’re laughing while you’re crying. I’m not trying to sell it right now, it’s just the truth. It’s my favorite.
You mentioned the Malibu fires earlier, and I can see parallels between Instant Family and how people are opening their hearts and their doors to take in strangers who lost their homes in the fires. What do you hope audiences take away as the message of this film?
I mean, in a perfect world it’d be like, ‘okay, let’s go adopt some kids,’ but I just hope that people — especially people in the foster care community — I hope that they are proud of themselves and the community that they’re in, and I hope they feel like it’s a true representation. And for people who are the outside, I hope that they develop an understanding and less of an ignorance toward these kids who they usually consider damaged goods or broken, because they’re not. They’re so strong. Anyone put in this situation could easily break down, but they don’t. This movie… you’ve just gotta watch it. I don’t know. It’s emotional, but it’s not sad.
Do you feel like homegrown talent at Paramount, having started your career at Nickelodeon? You did this film after Transformers, and now you’re shooting a third Paramount movie, Dora the Explorer, where they’re entrusting you with another huge IP. Do you feel like you’re a part of the family over there, in a sense?
Yeah, I feel like I know the marketing team and the lawyers. They’ve taken me in and entrusted me with so much, and for that I’m really grateful. And I’m really grateful that they choose to represent my culture as well. They’ve always been advocates for that, in my experience, at least. I’ve had nothing but ‘yes’s’ from them as far as like, speaking in Spanish during some scenes, or even just speaking Spanish during interviews. They’ve always been such advocates for that, and for that I’m grateful, because that’s one of my main priorities, too. They even have me in the Christmas cards this year, so I got to sing part of the “Jingle Bells” song with John Krasinski and all the people who are in their movies. I thought it was awesome.
I’ve got to talk to Paramount and get on their Christmas card list!
Are there any actors who you admire, or whose careers you’d like to emulate?
Natalie Portman. I have been a fan of her since Day 1. My Day 1 is not her Day 1, but I love every single one of her movies and she is such an inspiration because she’s also very, very, very smart. And also well-rounded. Yeah, I’ve gotta say, I admire her a lot. I’d want to emulate her career, I guess.
What has been the biggest pinch me-moment of your career so far?
Oh God, every day! Every single day there’s something new. If I think about it too much, I feel kind of anxious. There’s a lot going on that I somehow just happen to deal with. I’m surprised by the same thing. But I do have knitting on my side, and i have my dog that I just adopted. His name is Pluto and he has three legs. He’s the cutest little boy. He’s the goodest boy ever.
Can you give us a taste of the adventure we’ll see in Dora the Explorer and the kinds of things James Bobin has you doing on set?
The thing is, I know that I can’t really say much about it, but I’ll talk about it as much as I can. Basically, this experience I joined for the fact that I really think it’s going to be a big movement, politically-wise, because it’s an all-Latino cast. Instead of like… you know how they have token black guys or token Latino guys in movies? We have one token white guy in the main cast. I’m working with Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, Michael Pena and Jeffrey Wahlberg, who’s amazing. He’s half-Dominican. It’s been a great experience and I’ve worked so hard at this. My motto is, if you put 100 percent of you and your energy and everything that you’ve got into something, there’s no way that at least you can fail. So I am very proud of this and we only have one week left. I never thought that at 17, I’d be waking up at 5 a.m. every day, working six-day weeks until they very last minute that they can legally work me for, and still remain sane. Like, I’m surprised I did it, because back in the day I really had trouble getting up for school and doing homework and actually submitting it. Either way, if this movie [Dora] is a flop, which I doubt it will be, but if it is, I’m going to be so happy that I did this and it’s out there. I can say, ‘I did that shit. Like, I did that!’ I hope I inspire all the little Hispanic girls and boys out there. That’s who I’m doing this for. We had a bunch of kids visit the set, some of them are Make-A-Wish kids, some of them are crew members’ kids who visit, and when they freak out about meeting Dora, I’m like, ‘damn, this is it. This is what I do this for.’ Kids are my favorite because they’re so pure. They’re really mean sometimes because they’re super honest, but I trust them as a good judge of character. And they’re always so nice to me, so I feel really awesome. You just have to talk to them like adults. You can’t baby them. They’re smart, You’ve gotta address them with some authority, some respect. Put some respect on it!
You’ve gotta ask to keep the costume!
I know, I know! I probably will. I’m already slowly taking stuff. I’ll subtly ask for it and they’ll be like, ‘you can take it.’ I know they’re not telling me that I can, but I still take it because they have so many doubles, and hey, they have a big budget.
Is college in your plans at all?
I’m done with high school, so right now I’m taking a lot of college classes online and just trying to keep up with that, because I don’t just want to stop. It’s actually surprisingly easy to get work done between shot setups, but if I don’t want to do this next year and want to take a half a year break, I’m just going to go to college. I study psychology. That’s my main thing, I think. I like the human mind and how messed up it is. If I do one more full semester I would have my Associate’s Degree, so I’m really trying to work towards that.
I think that’s awesome. Congrats. You have a huge social media presence right now. Do you ever worry about it getting you into trouble? Do you think you’ll ever outgrow it. How do you like to use it?
It’s so weird. Social media is so weird. I hate it to be honest, but I feel like we all need it in order to get our voices out there and really speak on things that we care about. That’s the only time I use it. But I know people just want the selfies. They just want the vacation pics. So I have to find a [happy] medium there. I have to trick them, like, I’ll post some selfies, but then I’ll post something I really care about. And it’ll just throw them off. You’ve just got to keep a balance there. It’s weird, I feel like half the time I’m selling my soul just to keep people entertained on social media, but it also has been very beneficial, especially in my work with UNICEF. I’ve been working with them a lot, and the more I continue to support them on social media, the more they want to be involved with my work. It’s just like, a way of fundraising. It’s social media. It’s its own beast. But everyone needs it, I guess, nowadays.
What’s next for you, Isabela? Do you have any aspirations to write or direct, or to make more music? [Broadway Records released her album, Stopping Time, in 2015.]
I feel like my goal is bigger than acting. I already write, and I’m not saying it’s good, but I wrote this song for the end of Instant Family. It’s called “I’ll Stay,” and that alone was so nerve-racking for me to get out there, so I think it’s going to take a while for me to even write, like, a screenplay or something, let alone show anyone. But I definitely want to direct. Sean Anders inspired me on this one, because he made it seem so effortless even though obviously it’s a lot of work. He was just so passionate about it.
Anything lined up after Dora?
Other than time with my family? No. I’m very, very, very excited to get back home and be with my brothers. And also, writing. I’ve been having weird dreams about being locked out of a recording studio, so that’s a thing. And I haven’t touched a piano in so long, and there’s this old piano at my house that I just miss so much, and I refuse to play keyboard. I can’t just rent one. So I can’t wait to play that piano. That’s my main thing.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Congrats on Instant Family and good luck with the rest of the Dora shoot.
Thank you so much, and rest in peace, Stan Lee! Love you, man. Oh my God, there’s a guy who just passed by who looked just like Stan Lee. Whoa! I just saw the ghost of Stan Lee. No, he’s definitely real and a little bit chubbier, but he’s still cute. Like Stan.