We won’t name names, but superhero TV shows can often feel like black holes of thespian charisma. Not so in the Freeform series Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger. The newest televised Marvel outing features crackerjack performances from Aubrey Joseph and Olivia Holt, its two relatively unknown leads. Joseph and Holt play Tyrone Johnson and Tandy Bowen — two bright-but-struggling teens who are cursed with superpowers and whose destinies intertwine on the streets of New Orleans — and the actors prove to be wise beyond their years in their command of mood and nuance. Ahead of Cloak & Dagger’s Thursday premiere, Vulture caught up with the two to talk about the show’s unusual audition process, the phrase Marvel TV chief Jeph Loeb uses with all of his stars, and why working for Marvel is very different than working for the Disney Channel.
Where were you at in your careers when you got the call to audition for Cloak & Dagger?
Olivia Holt: I was in a very transitional head space. I had worked on the Disney Channel for six years of my childhood, and I finished strong with them, turning 18. I found myself trying to figure out where I fit the best, not just in my career, but in my personal life. I was being very picky on the things that I was going out for, the auditions that I was going on. I ended up getting a call about this show, and what was very bizarre is, we didn’t really get a rundown, a log line, a character breakdown, or anything like that. Everything was very vague. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going out for. I was aware that it was the Marvel comic series Cloak & Dagger. I read the first comic to get a hint of what the tone was like, what the characters were going through, what their stories were.
Forgive me for my ignorance about Disney Channel contracts, but is it the general policy that they end at age 18?
OH: No, it just happened to work out that way. I turned 18 when my contract was up, which was sort of the perfect time. When you’re 18, you’re going through your transitional phase of life. Not just as an actor, but as any sort of human. I was leaving this job that I had been working at the past six years of my life. For six whole years! That was definitely a big step.
Were you Marvel fans?
OH: Oh yeah, big fan. I mean, when I was a kid, I remember going and seeing all of the movies that were coming out. Iron Man has always been my favorite. Hard to believe that came out ten years ago.
You were, what, 10 years old when Iron Man came out?
Jesus, you’re making me feel ancient.
OH: [Laughs.] Yeah, I definitely was a massive Marvel fan. My entire family was.
And you, Aubrey?
AJ: Yeah, of course. At the time that I got the audition, I was in the middle of trying to watch season one of Luke Cage, so it was crazy just how ironic everything was at that moment.
Tell me about the audition process. How did the opportunity come about?
AJ: I was going back to USC from another audition. My manager texted me and said that there’s this new Marvel show that’s trying to cast pretty quickly. They can only see me today and tomorrow. I said, “I’ll go today.” I had to rush back to my dorm room, study the lines, change, and go to the audition. I really just locked myself in a room, told everybody to leave me alone for 15 minutes, and then just dove into the lines and went into the audition.
You only had 15 minutes to prepare?
AJ: Yeah, I literally just locked myself in a room and ran lines. I really wanted it.
And you, Olivia? What was the audition like?
OH: I heard it was an audition based on the Marvel comic Cloak & Dagger, about a Caucasian girl and an African-American boy who develop powers at a young age and have to learn how to cope with not just the powers, but their lives. I feel like a lot of superhero anything, whether that be a book, or a movie, or a show, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it could be your life, any person’s life. Reading the side, I remember my lines were something that I would say as an 18-year-old girl. I just remember really connecting with it, even just based off the few scenes I had.
Marvel is known for being secretive. How did that manifest itself during the audition process?
AJ: Marvel is a very secretive entity. I just brought together what I could from the character, you know? With no script. It was great, though, because it gave me and Liv a chance to bring what we thought should be brought to the role too.
OH: I’ve never been told to not say anything more in my entire life. As a kid, I remember, my parents would be like, “You’ve got to be quiet. Keep your mouth shut.” But this was on another level. This was really intense secrecy. Even I didn’t get all the scripts all at once — I got the scripts a day before we started shooting them. That’s the thing that made our time shooting in New Orleans that much more exciting, because we didn’t really know what was going to happen. We just went with the flow.
What were you told about your character, Aubrey?
AJ: Just a little summary. That Tyrone was a young, shy kid. Kind of angry with the world. When I reviewed the lines, I tried to compare it to anything that I’ve been through or anything that my brothers have been through. I’m one of three boys; I’m the middle child. Anything I do in acting, I pull from anything I’ve seen or gone through myself, or anything with my brothers. I definitely pulled from some stuff that my little brother was going through at the time, so that was really even therapeutic for me. To just act that out.
What do you mean?
AJ: Anxiety and depression and things like that. That type of feeling, not really knowing what it is, but going through it and not knowing how to tell people that you’re going through it. Things like that, I immediately saw it in Ty.
What was your chemistry test like?
AJ: Basically, Liv was in the room and [pilot director] Gina [Prince-Bythewood] stepped out of the room, called me over, and said, “So, Liv has something prepared in there. I want you to just go in and improv off of whatever she does.” Apparently, Jenna told Liv the same thing, so we went in the room thinking that the other person knew exactly what they were doing, but we literally just improv’d an entire scene.
AJ: We were so into it that we were in tears by the end of the scene. It’s moments like that, there’s just that undeniable connection.
Do you remember what you guys did in the improv?
AJ: It was Tandy telling the story of the night when her father gets killed, and talking about the fact that we met on that night. It was a crazy experience to have that experience like that and improvise a whole scene. That was a good moment.
OH: The chemistry read between Aubrey and I, and a couple other people, lasted about six hours, which is pretty intense.
I’ve interviewed a lot of Marvel’s TV actors, and they all have one thing in common: They found out they got cast because Marvel Television chief Jeph Loeb called them and said, “I’m going to tell you three words that will change your life: Welcome to Marvel.” Did that happen to you two?
AJ: Of course!
OH: [Laughs.] Yeah! I was in Orlando, Florida, two days after Aubrey and I’s chemistry read. I was getting ready to sing the national anthem at the Pro Bowl. Before I went to the stadium, I was taking a quick little power nap and my phone started ringing. Usually, I’m not happy when somebody wakes me from a nap, but that was definitely an okay move. I remember Jeph calling me, as well as [Cloak & Dagger showrunner/creator] Joe [Pokaski], and he was really excited. He said to me, “There are three words I can’t wait to tell you and that is: Welcome to Marvel.” That was really cool.
AJ: Yeah, the life-changing moment. I was on the way to the beach with my friends and I was just like, “Aw, I’m getting a call. Everybody shut up!” I got the three words, “Welcome to Marvel.” It’s one of those moments when, in the movies, that one tear just goes down. It was probably one of the best moments of my life.
Olivia, how is working at Marvel different to working at the Disney Channel?
OH: As far as the work that I was doing, it’s very different. I was working on a sitcom five days out of the week. We would do live studio audiences. The energy was definitely way more intense. Especially being so young, I was doing school on set. I would get up, go to school, do a table read, do rehearsal, go home. Wake up, go to school, shoot some of the show, do some rehearsals, and then go home. It was a very intense routine. Working with Marvel, it’s the same way, but the tone of our show is way more dramatic. A lot of the days, I remember just feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. I’m not in school anymore, so I don’t have to do school on set, so that was a different experience for me because I now have to work longer hours.
AJ: This is something I never thought that I would be doing. It’s just crazy that we get to have so much fun, but still get to tell such a important story. It’s been a whirl.
This interview has been edited and condensed.