'Katy Keene' Scene Stealer Julia Chan Sheds Some Light on Pepper's Past

Damian Holbrook
Katy Keene - Julia Chan + Ashleigh Murray + Lucy Hale + Zane Holtz
Exclusive Peter Kramer/The CW

Our favorite fashion designer (Lucy Hale) and her New York pals are partying it up tonight to celebrate the birthday of Pepper Smith (Julia Chan). But because this is Katy Keene and the frothy drama is as high as Ginger Lopez's wigs, of course the bash comes with a twist! How could it not, since stylish AF social climber Pepper has been keeping all sorts of secrets from her squad, including the source of her cashflow and the sort of company she keeps when not hanging with them at Katy's apartment.

We hung out with Chan on the final day of filming the show's first season and got all sorts of scoopage on the slow-burn revelations regarding Pepper's past, her relationship with "mentor" Ms. Freesia (Bernadette Peters) and how, even though she's pretty much a grifter, there is still real heart beneath her con artistry.

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Expect a light and fluffy entry to the Archie Comics Universe.

Oh, and for those wondering, Chan—who recently revealed her pregnancy on Instagram—is a damn delight...much like her costars and this show, which so very much needs to be part of your Quarantine catch-up roster if you're behind, mmmkay?

So, Pepper has really moved forward with the opening of her Warhol-ish hangout, the Pepper Plant, and we've already seen that she has some questionable methods of getting backing. The first time we meet Ms. Freesia, it became clear that this is something she has done in the past.

Julia Chan: Yes. It almost felt, when I read it, like we were dragging up an old habit of hers and what I loved so much, what’s so amazing about the way they write this show, is you can have one scene and they instill all this history in it. What was it, two-and-a-half minutes long? And it’s like alright, you know, she gets out her Rolodex and we’re going to dust off that old trick!

And the way it was set up, we don’t see that coming. It looked like she was going to see a rich relative, and then when she says “the Rolodex,” it was clear these two were up to something.

And you know also there’s a little danger in that and I loved that. It just tickled me, the story of her doing almost like a speed dating thing for this lonely hearts club for older rich men. It’s such a funny bit.

Katy Keene - Julia Chan

Peter Kramer/The CW

And how much do we learn about what she has done in the past? Has it ever crossed into something more salacious?

[Showrunner] Michael Grassi and his team did a really beautiful job of having this tease out over a long story, so we really don’t really dig into the underbelly or the ugly side until the last few episodes. We’re able to kind of enjoy the artifice of it, which I hope is what people will really relish. So we don’t get into the really kind of painful stuff until the end and then we really, really do, which was wonderful.

Clearly, there is some not-great stuff Pepper has done. It feels kind of heartbreaking.

There really is and they really dug in to it. I think the payoff—we just shot it —and the payoff felt more substantial given that we’d had like nine, ten episodes of this Holly Golightly kind of personality and these private moments with various characters that are just little glimmers [that let] the audience know she’s up to no good. And that’s always the joy of being the audience. When her best friends find out about the trouble she’s in, that is another story and I’m so glad that they let it sit for a minute because it's also a really nice jumping-off point and, fingers-crossed, that we get to tell more of these stories. Because for me as an actor, it's super satisfying. And like you said, it was and it is heartbreaking.

So when do the friends start to suspect something is up? Or are they are just like, "Oh, that’s Pepper”?

I think she’s very convincing, but yes, we’ll see a sort of glimmers of suspicions coming from the friends. I mean, I don’t see how they couldn’t really. [Laughs] Like I said, she does pull off a lot and she does get things done, which is the other thing: The Pepper Plant did open and you know, the musical does get made and you know, people get introduced to the right people [there]. She knows the people she says she does, for the most part, so I don’t blame them for believing her. Like, I know this woman and I’m sure you have met this woman too. She exists. There’s holes to her tales, but there’s a lot of truth to it, too. But yes, they do start to suspect something and the drama comes from watching her, you know, navigate the hot water.

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Obviously, she realizes that the Cabots are a great asset.

Oh yes! I remember at the beginning, maybe it was even with you, I think you asked in one of the early interviews “Will there be unlikely interactions?” and I was like “I want to get my hands on that Cabot cash, there's just too much of it not to!” [Laughs] Yes, she gets her fingers in there for sure and does find a way in. And you know, it’s complicated because one of her best friends is romantically involved and the way that she puts other people at risk isn’t great.

Which we've seen her doing for a while, as far back as Episode 3, stealing and then returning all the stuff to Lacey’s and getting the cash refund.

Oh yeah! No character is without flaws and I think probably of the four of them, I’m definitely the naughtiest of them. But you know, I want the flaws and I want to play characters who have those. But I also know that when you’re talking about a grifter, somebody who’s manipulating people, and it’s one of the main four, it was important to have her pick her victims carefully, do you know what I mean? Because the villain role is a different thing. That doesn’t mean Pepper doesn’t make mistakes; I guess it's that I started thinking about her a little bit like Robin Hood.

She only steals from the people who have it. Like, they’re not great people that she’s stealing from.

It’s never great to steal but you know...

She’s not taking from a homeless man’s cup.

Exactly! And maybe, you know, there’s some comeuppance in it. She does kind of come close to thinking about swindling somebody who’s very close to her and backtracks because she’s like “I can’t. This is a struggling art student” or whatever, you know? She's like "I can’t, it’s not chic." [Laughs

Katy Keene - Julia Chan + Ashleigh Murray + Jonny Beauchamp + Lucy Hale

David Giesbrecht/The CW

You, Lucy, Jonny Beauchamp and Ashleigh Murray have all those great scenes in the apartment and there's so much connection...so how is it for you playing a character who is actually hiding so much from these people?

I’m so glad you asked that because we worked on this a lot. In the beginning, you do see her connection is with the other three characters. While the details of her finances and where she lives may be a bit blurred, she’s fully present with her friends, and I hope that comes across. The alchemy of the four of them works and it’s honest when she’s there for them, when they ask for advice. And they do often ask her for advice, and she is  absolutely present and available. There is no artifice in her friendship. And that’s what’s so fun later when things get jumbled...her commitment to them is challenged and that’s the real stakes for her.

And where does she exist on the sexuality spectrum? Because we have that great reveal about Didi (Candace Maxwell) in Episode 2, but then she’s clearly worked her wiles with men, so what is her story?

If one were to put a label on her, I would say that she’s open and fluid and I think it tracks. It's interesting with Didi, how that relationship morphs. It's nice how each of the four characters have a really different relationship with sex and relationships. But if I were to draw an example, it'd be like she's the Samantha of the group. She has a more easy relationship with it. She's more attached to the act right now, to the casual nature of it, than to the romance of it. 

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I don't think she discriminates who she spends the night with. And that made sense. We talked about it and that made perfect sense to me. I think someone who has the exuberance of her, it makes sense that she's a lover of all people. And I love the way that they morph that relationship. It starts with Didi and there's no seduction, really. It's quite transactional, right? I think she's decadent. And I think she enjoys the finer things. And I think she enjoys the company, too. She just doesn't have the time for romance right now. Or she's not open enough.

Got a lot of scams to run!

Lot of scams to run! It takes a lot of time. I don't have time for relationships!

When do we find out the truth about Pepper's background?

I think we get a peek around Episodes 10 and 11, in terms of really getting the answers. We do meet her dad...but we might not know who he is at first. He comes for her birthday.

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And how is working with Bernadette Peters?

Oh my God. She was amazing. She was so inspiring and everything you would imagine as a fan is there. And then she's just warm and charming and supportive and encouraging and we had a great time just playing. I felt like we had really, really fun chemistry.

And she comes back, I hear.

She comes back, she's with us for a few episodes, yeah. I love those characters together. Because these are slightly hyperbolic characters. It's fun to see them together, they have wacky clothes and big hair and glasses. They're like two wild birds.

Have you seen Slaves of New York?

No, I haven't yet, but it's on my list as soon as I wrap because my friend told me to see it!

Katy Keene - Julia Chan + Bernadette Peters

Eric Liebowitz/The CW

You have to see it because as soon as I saw her onscreen, I was like "Oh my God, they styled her like her character from Slaves of New York."

Yeah, I've heard she's incredible in that. Thank you for reminding me. But I have a question for you. Do you think it's reading, this is going back to what you were saying earlier, that there's heart there in the character? I was just curious. That it's not, for example, that not every relationship she has is a means to an end. Sexually or otherwise.

You guys call the roommate stuff "the takeout scenes," and there has yet to be a moment that felt like you were trying to get something over on them.

That's good. And the sex stuff, people might judge her a little bit, but we'll see. I think the main thing about it, and what I would love to do this if we have another season, is find someone for her where you're like, "Come on! You can open up!" The right person hasn't shown up. It's going to take someone, I think, pretty specific to crack that nut.

But also, I can see it being the last person you'd expect. 

100 percent.

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Like a K.O. Kelly (Zane Holtz) type.

Oh, yeah! Because I don't think she trusts easily. I think that's ultimately the thing. And I should mention, if you don't already know this, we really get a sense of her romantic history. We do meet somebody who meant a lot to her.

That she ended up hurting?

Of course! [Laughs] Well, it's in both directions. And I didn't see that coming at all.

Isn't that fun, when you get a surprise about your character?

Oh, God, love it. They're like gifts, you know? Every script is like a present, when you come on set and it's in your inbox, finally. Because, you know, I do what I'm told. And then they lay out this path for you and then you get to be creative. And they're so open about collaborating. One thing I found really amazing about this show, and I've not really experienced this before, is that the words come so easily. And maybe that's partly because she sounds a little bit like me, I suppose, but I feel the writers have her voice so down so specifically. And it makes my job so much easier.

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Do you find it odd that The CW now has two British, potentially bisexual grifters? Nancy Drew also has one.

Do they have a British — oh yeah! What's the name of that lovely actress? Maddison Jaizani, I met her. She's great.

Maybe we should pitch a crossover.

A little team-up? Don't they spend most of their time in a diner?

They do!

I don't know if Pepper's ever been to a diner! [Laughs]

Oh, come on! In New York?

That's her next project. [Laughs]

Katy Keene, Thursdays, 8/7c, The CW