When Olivia Holt rose to prominence on Disney XD’s “Kickin’ It” in 2011, she was barely 14 years old — the same age as Jessica Biel when she began working on the family drama “7th Heaven,” 15 years earlier.
Now, the two women are teaming up for “Cruel Summer,” Freeform’s psychological thriller in which Holt stars as Kate Wallis, a high schooler who goes missing. Her classmate, Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), is accused of being connected to her disappearance, which becomes the central mystery of the series, told in a nonlinear fashion over the course of three years in the mid-’90s.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to be part of this project is because of the incredible team of women behind [it],” says Holt, referring to Biel, who serves as executive producer, along with showrunner Tia Napolitano and Michelle Purple, Biel’s producing partner at their Iron Ocean production banner, which is also behind USA’s “The Sinner” and Facebook Watch’s “Limetown.”
“Having the perspective of a multiple women on the creative side is so important,” Holt says. “There was just so much communication in the way that we dissected these scripts and executed them.”
Though Holt is barely into her mid-20s, the actor — who boasts nearly 5 million Instagram followers — has seen a progressive change for female characters, since she started out in the business as a pre-teen.
“Just by the scripts and the auditions that I’m getting, I’m noticing such a massive shift. When I was a kid, I don’t think I really understood why there was only the same role for women — they arm candy of the guy. There wasn’t anything interesting about the women,” Holt says. “We can now see ourselves, and that’s so important, especially for generations to come.”
Holt, who began her relationship with Freeform as the female lead of Marvel’s “Cloak & Dagger,” is acutely aware of her large platform and influence on young fans, which is why she’s proud to be part of the young-skewing network, which she says “fiercely” airs conversations about real-world issues from minimizing women to dehumanizing Black culture.
In “Cruel Summer,” the whodunit plot is escapist and twisty, akin to the network’s smash hit “Pretty Little Liars,” but the subject matter digs deep. “There are some heavy issues we talk about, from gaslighting to manipulation and trauma,” says Holt.
“‘Cruel Summer’ hijacks the microphone from the media in the ’90s and hands it to two young women who don’t find their voice, but instead come to embrace yelling their truth from the rafters,” says Napolitano. “The show celebrates the female perspective, female friendships and girlhood aspirations.”
In addition to showcasing complex women, the show should also appeal to true crime lovers, says Jamila Hunter, Freeform’s executive vice president of original programming and development.
“Tia, Michelle and Jessica have done a fantastic job of creating an addictive mystery that true crime fans crave,” Hunter says. “Because the series is centered around two complex young women and their shifting points of view, there are cliffhangers in every episode that will hopefully keep viewers coming back.”
Napolitano shares that Holt was part of the creative team that developed her character, as well. “Olivia brings these themes to life with sophisticated, nuanced choices that surprise at every turn. She had a huge hand in creating the Kate Wallis I now know and love.”
Holt is excited about playing Kate Wallis because she is a character who speaks her mind. When asked about future career goals, she excitedly suggests that she’d love an action role like Lara Croft or going back to “The Great Gatsby” times for a period piece, but first and foremost, she is interesting in portraying strong women.
“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to play such different characters, but at the forefront, these women have all had such a strong voice and I want to continue on that path,” Holt says.
She is also interested in dipping her toes into the producing waters, and spent time on set learning from the female forces about developing projects in her future. She specifically recalls her conversations with Biel, who told her that she was around her same age when she began to learn about producing and development.
Holt — who wasn’t born yet when “7th Heaven” premiered — says, “I remember growing up watching her. She’s so funny because she’s like, ‘I’m ancient!’”
Biel, meanwhile, is in awe of the maturity, confidence and fresh ideas her cast, including Holt, brings to the table.
“I would tell these ladies the pitfalls that I stepped into and what to watch out for, but these young women are so much more together than I was at that time,” Biel laughs. “They are dedicated and driven and they have a plan — they want to be involved behind the scenes, they want to write, they want to direct, they want to sing, they want to do it all.”
Starting off as a kid actor herself, Biel wasn’t inspired just by her Gen Z cast but also by today’s evolving teen television genre.
“‘7th Heaven’ was a really particular show. It was one side of being a teen and being a kid,” Biel says. “It was much more protected and not really pushing boundaries; it was dealing with issues, but being really sensitive about them for families.”
“But now, we can tell everybody’s story and tap into really challenging experiences that teenagers are going through,” Biel continues, noting shows like “Euphoria” and “Sex Education.” “When I was working and looking and trying to be stimulated creatively and be challenged, I definitely did not have those opportunities.”
Biel says she would have jumped at “Cruel Summer” when she was starting out, which is why her production company signed on to the series.
“What I’m always looking for is stories with complex female characters to really provide a platform for female perspectives and female stories,” she says. “As an artist, I look at that and would be really interested, from a creative standpoint, to play one of those characters.”
She cracks, “I’m clearly too old for this project. But it is really intriguing to talk to a younger set of women and what their experiences and perspectives and letting them tell their story.”
“Cruel Summer” premieres April 20 at 9 p.m. on Freeform.