Phylicia J. L. Munn/NETFLIX © 2021
When Isabela Merced was around eight or nine, her family lost their Cleveland home in a fire. “My parents were like, ‘How do we distract her in a way that’s healthy, so she’s not so bothered by the fact that we lost everything?’ ” the now 20-year-old actress recalls.
Knowing she was a fan of Judy Garland, Merced’s parents asked whether she’d like to audition for a local production of The Wizard of Oz. She enthusiastically replied “Yes!,” excited about the prospect of being cast as Dorothy. “I ended up playing a Munchkin, but it was still a good time,” she says with a laugh.
The hobby stuck, and it wasn’t long before a local theater director was telling her parents that she needed to go to New York. Motivated by her raw talent, Merced’s family relocated to Brooklyn, sleeping on air mattresses and navigating the subway system together in support of her Broadway dreams. By age 10, Merced was performing opposite Ricky Martin in Evita, singing in Spanish, a language she’d grown up speaking at home with her mother, a native of Peru.
Eventually, Merced outgrew the stage, literally—“They had a height limit for kids; if you’re taller than the main actors, the audience can’t tell you’re a child,” she says—and set her sights on Hollywood. Now Merced stars alongside Jason Momoa and Adria Arjona in Netflix’s Sweet Girl, a psychological action thriller that mines the fallout of America’s broken health care system. “I had studied psychology for two years,” says Merced, who enrolled in college at age 15. “I was ready to delve into this.” She also felt a connection to her character, Rachel, the film’s titular “sweet girl,” who is reeling from trauma: “She got through it, which is sometimes all you can do.”
Top, skirt N°21 BY Alessandro Dell’Acqua. Earring, $3,600 (for pair), ring, $2,500, Roberto Coin.
This article appears in the September 2021 issue of ELLE.
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