When Mckenna Grace was 4 years old, her great-grandmother gave Grace her collection of DVDs starring Hollywood’s original precocious child actor, Shirley Temple. Grace was instantly captivated and, precocious herself, cajoled her young mother, Crystal, into signing her up for an acting class in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where they lived at the time.
The teacher — who happened to be Morgan Fairchild’s sister — swiftly assessed Grace’s natural talent, and told her mother her child needed an agent.
“I said, ‘What’s an agent?’” Crystal told Variety.
Ten years later, Grace, now 15, has already appeared in over 50 films and TV titles, including on the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless,” in the 2017 feature “Gifted” opposite Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer, and most recently, in an Emmy-nominated turn as a teenage wife on Season 4 of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Grace is best known, though, for a string of at least eight roles in which she plays the younger version of a lead character, including in 2017’s Oscar winning “I, Tonya” as the young Tonya Harding (played as an adult by Margot Robbie); 2018’s Netflix horror series “The Haunting of Hill House” as the young Theo Crain (Kate Siegel); 2019’s superhero feature “Captain Marvel” as the young Carol Danvers (Brie Larson); and 2021’s twisted horror hit “Malignant” as the young Madison (Annabelle Wallis).
“It’s just recently that I’ve started thinking about that a ton,” Grace recently told Variety with a laugh, sitting in the kitchen of her family’s sunny Southern California home with her mother. “I’ll get tagged in TikTok memes, like, showing me next to all of the characters that I’ve played. It’s really funny. I don’t know how that ended up happening. But I’m really glad that it did, because I definitely got to learn from all of the actresses that I played younger versions of.”
In “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” which opens on Friday, Grace finally has an opportunity to upend that persona. She plays Phoebe, who looks and sounds like a kid version of her dead grandfather, Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (as originally played by the late Harold Ramis). But as a lifelong “Ghostbusters” fan — she saw the first film when she was 3 — Grace takes quiet, confident command of not just the role, but the entire film, which director Jason Reitman has refashioned from the adult urban comedy his father Ivan directed in 1984 into an Amblin-style Midwestern kidventure. In one standout sequence, Phoebe winds up brandishing a proton pack and strapped to a jump seat on the iconic Ghostbusters car, Ecto-1, as her brother, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), careens it through a small, Oklahoma town in pursuit of a troublesome phantom.
“It was actually really hard to stay so stoic and focused because of how excited I was to be in the same vicinity as Ecto-1 and Ivan and Jason,” Grace said, radiating the kind of unaffected, earnest joy only a young teenager can muster. “I just kind of put myself in a totally different mindset, and then they’d yell cut, and I’d go, ‘Oh my god! I just shot a ghost!‘”
By way of illustration, Crystal pulled out her phone to show off a video she took during production of her daughter playing the determined and self-possessed Phoebe during the film’s dramatic climax and then, when Reitman called cut, instantly bursting into an irrepressibly giddy smile.
“She’s quite accomplished as an actor already,” said Carrie Coon, who plays Phoebe’s mother, Callie. “And so there is a level of professionalism just by virtue of how much experience she has. At the same time, she is very much a kid in the most delightful way, in the way that kids make the best artists, because they are so curious, naturally, and so filled with wonder.”
Should it prove successful, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” will make Grace the star of a major movie franchise before she’s earned her driver’s license. (Her first single, “Haunted House,” will play over the movie’s closing credits.) What’s even more striking, and impressive, is how much Grace still feels like a kid in a business that too often curdles child actors into cynical miniature adults.
When Grace auditioned for “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” she had no idea what the movie was supposed to be.
“It was just ‘Untitled Jason Reitman project,’” she said. “And it totally sounded like a Jason Reitman film: A single mom with her son and daughter moves to her estranged father’s old farmhouse after he passes away to discover their roots. I started hearing little rumors that it was going to be a ‘Ghostbusters’ film. I was like, ‘That’s baloney. No way they’re making another!’ And I was wrrr-ooong.”
Getting from her early childhood in Texas to that audition required some extraordinarily good fortune. After Grace’s first acting teacher suggested getting an agent, Crystal took her on a series of commercial auditions that she just kept booking.
“We thought that it was so easy,” Grace said. “We were like, ‘Look, you just put your name down and then they give it to you!’” Their agent suggested flying out to Los Angeles to see if Grace could book work in film and TV roles, and Crystal thought at the very least it would be a perfect excuse to visit Disneyland and Universal Studios. Then Grace booked both the 2013 post-apocalyptic indie feature “Goodbye World” and a recurring role on the Disney XD series “Crash & Bernstein,” and suddenly, the family was faced with a dilemma.
Grace’s father, Ross, was just finishing medical school and poised to land a coveted residency in orthopedic surgery in Dallas. Splitting up the family was not an option, and they couldn’t afford to continually fly back and forth. But Mckenna’s parents also didn’t want to deny their daughter the opportunity to continue to act. So Ross applied to a highly competitive residency in Ventura, Calif., instead. Against steep odds, he got it.
“I’ve had blonde hair and lived in L.A. ever since,” Grace said with a laugh.
Work for Grace has remained so steady that Crystal set aside her job selling medical equipment to be at her daughter’s side at all times. Grace has also never attended a traditional school, learning instead via on-set tutors and home schooling. It’s a lifestyle that Grace has only grown more enamored of as her career continued to bloom.
“It’s so exciting to walk into a new hotel room,” she said with total sincerity, before gesturing to her mother. “It’s always an adventure because we get to do everything together. And, like, my mom is my best friend.”
Crystal wrinkled her nose. “Well, Augie is your best friend,” she said to her daughter in gentle protest.
“But in the long run, like, you’ll always be here for me,” Grace said. “So it’s really great, because it’s like traveling with my friend.”
At this point, Crystal shifted in her chair. Life as a professional actor can be — and very much has been — a corrosive force in the lives of many children for the entire history of Hollywood, an uneasy fact that seems to sit in the corner of her mind.
“I just always looked at it as: She’s having fun, I’m having a blast, and it didn’t seem like it was hard on her,” Crystal said when asked about what limits she may have on her daughter’s career. “Whatever she wanted to do, I wanted her to be able to do it. And I think she always knew that we would never want her to do something that she doesn’t want to do.”
That’s not to say that Grace’s parents haven’t drawn some clear boundaries. While Grace has a robust social media presence on Instagram and Twitter, her mother maintains it — the only social media app on Grace’s phone is TikTok, and even then, she’ll still run those posts by her mother first. Asked whether she’s experienced anything like the ugly online campaign against the cast of the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot in 2016, Grace shrugs. “Being a young female in Hollywood, there’s always going to be very disturbing and gross comments,” she said. “I have comments on my TikTok limited only to my friends because I’m under the age of 16, but I might plan on keeping it that way. I mean, if people are upset about it, then they’re upset about it. There’s not much that I can do. But personally, I think it’s pretty badass that there’s this young girl holding a proton pack.”
Besides, by design, Grace’s highly curated social presence has an added layer of self-protection, since it’s devoid of the kind of everyday, confessional transparency that’s been a default mode for so many of her generation — famous and otherwise.
“When we’re at home here, it’s extremely normal,” Crystal said. “My husband comes home and they go to the skate park, or they watch movies together, or she has a friend spend the night. The agents are like, ‘You don’t post your regular life.’ I’m like, ‘Well, why do we have to?’”
For her part, Grace bristles at the presumption that her life is in any way unhappy or unfulfilling. “I get so many comments being like, ‘Oh my god, somebody let that girl live! Let her go outside! Teach her how to ride a bike!’” she said. “You know, I just learned how to ride a bike about a year ago and I’m very proud of myself. I do normal things, I go out, but just because I don’t post that I’m going out and about all the time, doesn’t mean that I’m not happy.”
Take Grace’s big break, “Gifted.” She plays Mary, a child math prodigy who’s lives with her Uncle Frank (Chris Evans) after her mother, also a prodigy, died by suicide. Despite Mary’s abilities, Frank desperately tries to keep her life as normal as possible, to save her from becoming as dangerously unhappy as her mother was.
Grace, who was 9 when she shot “Gifted,” knows there are obvious parallels in the film to the life of a successful child actor, especially the notion that taking advantage of a kid’s preternatural talents can end up robbing them of a regular, everyday childhood. She just doesn’t see that applying to her own life.
“Now that I’m getting older, I definitely think about that, but I’d never wish that I had anything else,” she said. “I didn’t have a conventional, normal childhood, but it wasn’t by any means a bad growing-up process.” She sighs. “I enjoy this. This is my life, and I love it.”
Grace has no plans to slow down, either. She’ll return for Season 5 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and she’s set to star alongside Thomasin McKenzie in “Perfect,” director Olivia Wilde’s depiction of the American women’s gymnastics team at the 1996 Olympics. (McKenzie will play Kerri Strug, but Grace is sworn to secrecy on which member of Team USA she’ll depict.) She’s most excited, though, to make the sequel to “The Bad Seed” that she co-wrote with her father, which she expects to start filming by the end of this year for Lifetime.
With so much going on, though, there is one everyday childhood experience that Grace is still hoping to have.
“The only thing that I could ever want to do is go to a school dance,” she said giddily. “I have friends who aren’t home schooled, so I’m slowly working at the process of trying to convince them to bring me to their prom.”