By Annie Zaleski
When actors are just breaking into the film industry, their first movie roles might be minor — for example, uncredited appearances or characters with just a few lines. However, Kiera Allen is launching her career in a major way: by making her feature film debut opposite Sarah Paulson, that’s how major.
In Run, a new thriller that premiered November 20 via Hulu, the 22-year-old portrays Chloe, a whip-smart high school senior who’s eagerly awaiting news of college acceptance letters while attending class virtually, presumably because she has several health conditions, including hemochromatosis (where iron levels are elevated, causing symptoms such as nausea) and asthma.
Her mom Diane (Paulson) seems supportive of her daughter and her ambitions at first. However, Chloe soon discovers that Diane’s overprotective tendencies — barring the teen from having a smartphone, grabbing the mail before she can look for college letters — obscure sinister motivations. As this caring façade falls away and reveals a much uglier side, Chloe learns unexpected facts about her life and is thrust through several terrifying ordeals, all the way through to the film’s surprise twist ending.
Run is the second feature from director Aneesh Chaganty, whose 2018 film Searching won the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Film Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. (Chaganty also co-wrote Run with his Searching co-writer Sev Ohanian.) In it, the bulk of Allen’s scenes are one-on-ones with Paulson, leading to intimate, often harrowing moments that generate tension and up the suspense.
“She’s so incredible,” Allen tells MTV News of working with Paulson. “And she’s also just a generous actor in that, even when the camera isn’t on her, she gave it her all every time. She played it fully, so I would have something to react against. Even if it meant that she was literally crying for six hours straight. She would do that for me; she would go through that intense emotional experience, even though maybe half of it would never be seen on camera.”
At the start of a virtual junket for Run on a Saturday afternoon in mid-November, Allen reveals her 30-minute chat with MTV News is her first junket interview ever. You wouldn’t know that from the conversation, which is lively and insightful, touching on her love of music (“Billy Joel is one of my favorite writers of all time of any kinds of writers — fiction, nonfiction, music. I just think he’s the most brilliant lyricist and has such a gift for melody”) and her vast collection of Harry Potter-themed socks, which she cherishes in no small part because they were given to her by friends and family. (“They make me happy to wear them. And you can also be a stealth nerd when you’re wearing Harry Potter socks,” the self-proclaimed Gryffindor says.)
Growing up in New York, Allen always loved theater and films, and she acted in local and school productions. Her mom is a writer, and she too gravitated toward the power of the pen. “Basically, when I found out that there were professional storytellers when I was in elementary school, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it. That’s it for me. I’m never going back.’ And I never did. It was never one over the other. It was always acting and writing. To me, they really come from the same core, the same place of wanting to tell stories.”
Fittingly, Allen is currently studying creative writing at Columbia University — in fact, she planned to Zoom into her neuroscience class from Los Angeles the morning of Run‘s premiere — and lights up when asked about favorite or inspirational authors. Her list includes James Baldwin, Edith Wharton, Proust, and one of her professors, Heidi Julavits.
She applied her love of writing and storytelling to her performance in Run. Allen did extensive research on Chloe’s medical conditions, but she also worked closely with Chaganty to develop the character’s biography and backstory, even composing journal entries in her voice. “My homework was to write these things,” Allen says. “And that was how we got to the root of who we felt the character was and felt and was going through. And then on my days off, I was writing. I was pretty much journaling about this script. It was non-stop.”
This hard work paid off, with Chloe acting as Run’s center, never overshadowed despite the icon status of Allen’s co-star. Paulson’s Diane is a cipher: We know she occasionally works as a substitute teacher and is often shown drinking wine, but her inner life and motivations are a mystery. Instead, Chloe, a science buff who tinkers with motherboards for fun, is fleshed-out and relatable.
“That’s one of my favorite things about this character as well, is that she’s a teenage girl who gets to be a full person,” Allen says. “That’s not something that you see a lot in movies. I feel like I was starved for that kind of representation as a teenage girl, to see a girl my age who was smart and driven and had strong desires, and was going to go after them — but was also kind and sweet. As an actor, to get to stretch in so many different directions and play so many different states, it was a really rich [and] exciting experience.”
Like Allen, Chloe uses a wheelchair, and Run occasionally sets up plot points around this fact. During one pivotal scene, Chloe crawls out her bedroom window onto the roof to get around a locked door, and soon after, is forced to figure out how to navigate a malfunctioning staircase lift. These translate as realistic accessibility challenges to puzzle through.
“I love that Aneesh and Sev in their script made inaccessibility, in a lot of ways, the main villain of the story,” Allen says. “It’s so often framed where, like, the disability itself is the obstacle to be overcome. And then they just make [Chloe] such a badass in the way she does get past [obstacles], the things that she does to gain access, even when it’s violently denied her. There’s one of my favorite parts of the movie.”
In recent years, conversations about the importance of representation in the film and TV industries have reached a boiling point, resulting in a wave of wins for actors with disabilities. Ryan O’Connell, who has cerebral palsy, was nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series for the Netflix series he created, Special. Actress Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, won a Tony Award after starring in a Broadway revival of Oklahoma!. And in early 2020, Shoshannah Stern, who is deaf, portrayed a doctor on Grey’s Anatomy. When Allen is asked what it means to her to be an actress portraying such a rich character — Chloe has a disability, but it doesn’t define her — the significance is clear.
“I just got chills listening to you say that, because it’s such a beautiful way of putting it, and it’s so true,” she says. “It’s amazing to be part of this moment, this groundbreaking moment of representation — the first major thriller in over 70 years to star a real wheelchair user. Which should not be the case, but it is, and I’m very glad to be a part of breaking that barrier down.”
“There definitely is a world in which that moment happened in a story that was not this empowering, and this truthful, and this authentic — where it was maybe, you know, a story that pitied the disabled character, or that painted her as an inspiration,” Allen continues. “And I feel so lucky — like, I can’t believe how lucky I got in so many ways. Not only that they were looking for authentic representation, but that it was authentic casting within an authentic story, and a story that I could get behind and that I believed in.”
Allen also credits Chaganty and Ohanian for this portrayal, in no small part because of their commitment to research and how mindful they were with the script. “They cared so much about it being a good representation, about it being authentic,” she says. “And they listened to me, and they made space for me to disagree, maybe, or to bring my own perspective to it. It was such a joy to work with this amazing team.”
Now that Run is wrapped and released, Allen can see herself going in many different directions in the future: acting in more films and theater, authoring fiction and nonfiction, or writing for movies. “Why put limits, right?” she says with a laugh. “I would love to do any and all of it.” Luckily, filming Run laid a strong foundation.
“It was life-changing to me as an actor and as a person,” Allen says. “I left that set saying, ‘If no one ever saw this movie — if they went and destroyed all of the tapes, and it was never seen by anyone — this experience would still have changed my life. It was so extraordinary.”
“It taught me that I can be tougher than I thought. It taught me that I can be more vulnerable than I thought,” she adds. “It taught me that I was a lot more capable than I thought. Just having that many people believe in me, and these really, truly, amazing artists believe in me, and take a huge risk on me, of casting a complete unknown as the lead in your second movie. I have so much respect and gratitude for that.”