In the first episode of Now Apocalypse, Starz’s new series about four Los Angeles friends, sex and a lizardman (not necessarily at the same time), Kelli Berglund’s character, Carly, an aspiring actress and part-time camgirl, is camming with a client who asks her, “What can I do for you, mistress? I’m here to please you.” She yawns and half-heartedly tells him to do 30 pushups. When he asks if that’s what she really wants, she tells him no, pauses and asks if he can run lines with her instead. She has an acting class tomorrow and needs to memorize her scenes. After some hesitation, Carly offers to take off her bra. The guy agrees, and she holds her highlighted script to the camera as they rehearse a scene as two characters named Anne and Mary.
The scene is one of many wild moments in the premiere of Now Apocalypse, including a handjob between two dumpsters, a student-teacher roleplay and a sex scene with a lizardman. The series, by Steven Soderbergh and Gregg Araki, has been met with mixed reviews. But for Berglund, a former Disney star who has waited years to show off her acting chops beyond the network’s good-girl mold, the role is once-in-a-lifetime. “There were times where I would get frustrated and wonder when that next thing would be that I would really invest myself in and dive into,” Berglund says. “Now Apocalypse is that project I was waiting for.”
Raised in a town an hour north of Los Angeles, Berglund started competitive dancing at 4 years old. “Ballet, jazz, contemporary, tap, hip-hop, point. You name it. I did it,” she says. When she was nine, she was scouted by a talent agent at a dance competition, who recommended that her mom put her in commercials. Her first commercial was for a ballerina Barbie that year (“which was cool for me obviously,” she says”), but it wasn’t until she was 12 years old and auditioned for The Game Plan with The Rock in 2007 that Berglund was confident she wanted to make acting a career. “That’s when I was like, ‘Wow. This really goes beyond commercials.’ Even though I was young, it kind of proved to me there was something there,” she says.
You want to set a good example as best as you can while still being a teenager who’s figuring out themselves.
Unfortunately, the industry didn’t feel the same. For the next few years, Berglund faced a dry spell, where she wasn’t cast in anything worthwhile. “That was a really weird time to be a kid actor,” Berglund says. “They either wanted super quirky or gorgeous mean girls. I kind of fell in the middle.” She told her manager she wanted to take a break, possibly for good, to focus on dance, but her manager convinced her to audition for one more role. It was for Disney XD’s Lab Rats, a children’s superhero show created by two writers from That ‘70s Show. The show, which Berglund starred on for five years, proved to be her big break, leading to more roles on the Disney Channel and a movie opposite Dolly Parton in 2016. But with Berglund’s newfound following also came a pressure to be a role model for young viewers. “You want to set a good example as best as you can while still being a teenager who’s figuring out themselves and going through puberty,” Berglund says. “That forced me to grow up a little faster than the rest of my peers.”
Though Berglund doesn’t fault Disney (“You kind of know what you’re signing up for when you start a Disney show”), the experience did lead to some breakdowns. Still, she wouldn’t change anything. “Exhaustion mixed with the spotlight and people leaving mean comments on your Instagram and getting in a fight with your boyfriend when you’re 16 years old, you can imagine that would be hard to handle. I would break down sometimes,” she says. “I grew up on screen. I was 20 years old when the show ended. It’s shaped me into who I am today. It all had to happen for a reason.”
I’m tired of seeing people tortured by their sexuality.
When Lab Rats ended in 2016, after four seasons and a spin-off, Berglund had a moment of shock. “After having a steady job for five years, you kind of panic, like, ‘Oh. I’m back at square one.’ You have to audition for your next job and still pay rent,” she says. Though she was never typecast, Berglund was ready to move on from the good-girl mold she was used to in her teen years. It took her a long time to find that role, but it finally came a year ago when she was cast in Now Apocalypse. The series follows four twentysomethings in Los Angeles, each with their own sexual struggles to explore. Berglund plays Carly, an actress who works as a camgirl on the sideThe character is blunt, sarcastic and cool. (In the first episode, she teaches her roommate how to take the perfect Tinder picture. “But why am I wearing a bikini in the living room?” her roommate asks). From the moment, Berglund read the script, she knew she wanted. “She’s myself but amplified times 100,” she says. The only problem: The character was described as a “25-year-old bombshell blonde.” Berglund is a natural brunette, was 23 at the time and the oldest she’d ever played was 19. “Sure enough, I walk into the audition and every girl there is blonde. And I’m like, ‘Oh great. I’m absolutely not going to book this,’” she says. She was wrong, and a few days later, while waiting by her phone at home, she received the call that she booked it.
Despite the mystery around a possible alien invasion, sexuality is at the core of Now Apocalypse. The protagonist is sexually fluid (he describes his position on the Kinsey scale as an “ever-oscillating four”) and two other characters are experimenting with polyamory. “They’re not questioning like, ‘Oh. Is it bad that I’m doing this?’ It’s like, ‘No. This is who I am, and that’s how real life is,’” Berglund says. “I’m tired of seeing people tortured by their sexuality.” Playinga camgirl, Berglund understands the rarity of a female character who’s in control of her sexuality in film. “You see female characters like this die in films. The slut always dies first in a horror movie or the sex worker up in a dumpster somewhere,” Beglund says. “I love that the female characters in the show are so empowered by sex. My character finds confidence through being a camgirl.”
When you start moving forward in your career and start growing as a person, people start to panic.
It’s why it wasn’t a difficult decision for Berglund to go nude for the first time on screen. Though she was nervous (“Once that happens on television, it’s out there forever.”), she considered it necessary for the show’s message. “I didn’t want to just do it just to do it. Sexuality is a huge part of the show,” she says. “It shows an inside look at how sex can be imperfect and funny or liberate someone and give them confidence. That outweighed the ‘Oh gosh. But what are people going to think?’ It’s a body. We’re all human.” But perhaps the best lesson Berglund has learned from Carly is to be unapologetic about her life. As a former child star, Berglund still feels pressure to be a role model, even years after her show has ended. “I still have people leaving comments on my Instagram, like ‘Is the show coming back? What happened to Lab Rats?’” Berglund says. “When you start moving forward in your career and start growing as a person, people start to panic. They feel like, because I’m growing up, they’re losing the child-like part of their life.”
It’s something that Berglund has talked about with her Now Apocalypse costar Avan Jogia, who starred in Nickelodeon’s Victorious for four years. For a long time, the pressure made Berglund nitpick everything about her life, from what she posts on Instagram to the outfits she chooses. “I’m guilty of sometimes caring too much about what people think and getting caught up in my head,” Berglund says. “A lot of that came with being a good role model for so many years. I still want to be. But I want to focus on myself and my happiness, and I want do it in my own way.” It’s a lesson Berglund learned from playing Carly, whose “outspoken and unapologetic” way of life has seeped into Berglund’s own. “She’s made me a better person,” Berglund says.
I want to focus on myself and my happiness, and I want do it in my own way.
Berglund understands that Now Apocalypse, with its lizardman storyline and over-the-top sex scenes, won’t be for everyone. Still, she hopes people will tune in, even her fans, who grew up watching a very different version of herself on Disney, and learn as much as she did. “I know for a fact that Now Apocalypse is going to get mixed reviews. Naturally, with this show, not everyone is going to love it,” she says. “But I hope people can still learn and grow and still love the character that I played on Lab Rats and love this new character and support that as well and hopefully feel a relationship to her in some way.