Lifetime’s latest foray into its “Ripped From the Headlines” slate is one of the most provocative films yet. Cruel Instruction is a dark, unflinching look into how horrific residential treatment schools are. It’s a truly powerful, riveting film, and a must-see.
TV Fanatic had the pleasure of speaking with star Kelcey Mawema, whose performance is sublime and will move you to tears, about 16-year-old Kayla’s heart-shattering experience.
It was so great, we broke it down into two parts, so check out the second half tonight. But first, check out what she has to say about the film and why you should tune in!
You were absolutely fantastic in this film. Your performance moved me to tears. I think it’s such a powerful film, and I hope people tune in for it. I don’t have the words. It sits with you.
Oh, wow! It’s goosebumps, isn’t it? It’s goosebumps and beyond. It’s still something to wrap my head around.
Yeah, when I was reading the script for it, I was like, wow, this is an incredibly serious movie inspired by true stories.
You see a lot of things that are based on or inspired by true stories, but sometimes there’s a lot of fabrication that is added to make it palatable for T. V., but this was just you can tell how real and raw it was.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but yes, these are stories that need to be told and heard. I’m so glad that you can see that from what we made, of what we put so much of our everything into it, heart and soul. It means the world to hear that, so thank you so much!
What inspired you to get into the project? What was that process like?
It was cool because I worked with Stan Brooks, who was the director previously on a movie, Staten Island Serial Killer.
He just knows what he wants, and he’s just so good at letting you take control of your characters, and that was just really a great experience for me, and then, sure enough, I got the script for this one.
And I was like, “Oh, Stan, he’s such a joy to work with, and I couldn’t even imagine leading a film with him. I read the script, and it was just the fact that it was just so raw, and it carried a lot of impact.
As an actor, I can really dig deep into it, and as a person, it brought me to tears.
It was so moving, frustrating, and provocative.
I thought your portrayal of Kayla and her neurodivergency, anxiety, and dyslexia was remarkable. How did you prepare for that?
Oh, wow. For that, during the audition, I felt like she would have tics or little things that she’d do because when you’re in that school, you don’t get to talk to anyone or communicate. You can’t even read books that you want to read.
I grew up knowing people with dyslexia. It was a bit different because obviously, it’s hard to translate — reading a little slower, they’re moving a little slower in a moving world where everything’s fast, fast, fast.
It’s hard to portray it to its most authentic self, but we saw her reading, anxiety, and social things that can happen with people with dyslexia, especially when it goes undiagnosed.
I tried to add that a little bit to her. I researched youtube. I like to hear what people who have these conditions say because I’m very visual, but also, I have to hear to learn and take in information. So I’m glad that it worked.
I thought it was great. I have siblings, one with Aspergers and another who is dyslexic and struggled before getting diagnosed. Your performance made me think of them.
It also reminded me of the difficulties of people of color and women getting those diagnoses because what they are battling doesn’t always look or translate the same. It was great to have that representation in Kayla as a young woman of color.
Oh yeah, and it’s something you see even with Black women, I see with my friends, even with myself, it’s the common things of “they have to be strong,” or they’re just strong-willed women, and it’s like “yeah, I’m strong, but I also need help.”
It is a huge stigma and needs to be talked about more. I’m glad you brought that up. I’m so happy that women get to see that. That part hit me a little bit because it’s so true.
Kayla’s experience at the residential home was horrific, but she also finds some of the things she craves — friendship, camaraderie, love. Was it intentional, giving her some light amid the darkness?
Yeah, I liked that she had some light because it’s such a dark experience. I think it’s what you need as an audience sometimes.
It’s a lot of trauma, and it’s a true story that needs to be told and seen, and we need to learn these things, but to add that little layer to it makes it better. It shows that these people can still find light afterward as survivors. They’re not victims but survivors.
Kayla is so strong, but what she goes through sticks with her for the rest of her life. I love her finding people who help her find herself. It’s really gratifying.
How do you think Kayla changes from the film’s beginning to the end?
The experience forced her to grow up, and I relate to her in the sense that I, too, was forced to grow up because I had to take care of my little brother.
She went into this a naive young girl, and then the reality set in. A few things throughout the movie add levels to her, and she has to buck up or get eaten alive. She’s so badass, and the way she’s able to make quick decisions and so many of the things she did were inspiring to me.
I don’t think that I could do some of those things. Maybe it would kick in, but for Kayla to be the age that she is, it’s inspiring to me. It forced her to grow up. She’s still young, but she’ll take it with her.
You and Morgan have fantastic chemistry. Is that something you two had to work at, or did it happen naturally? Can you talk a bit about Kayla and Amanda’s bond?
She’s just so talented! It was very inspiring and lovely to watch her work. We met very briefly before we started shooting. We didn’t get to do a chem read, but I heard she was in the running for it.
And I saw that she had booked another role that I had auditioned for, and I wanted to see what she was like and saw her in it, and she was so perfect that role.
To see her transform from that role to Amanda was instant; Morgan and I had a moment when we were chatting. Stan, the director, stood back for a bit because we were just talking and facing each other eye contact. It was so great.
Morgan, my heart swells talking about her. It just made it that much easier because our characters were going through so much. It was so nice to have her there. We became linked. She was my rib.
It’s easy to go to such a dark place, but with Morgan, we were kind of on each other’s toes and challenging each other. Everything that you see on camera is genuine. The chemistry is still there. I still see Morgan to this day. She’s amazing. I can’t wait for everyone to see how talented she is.
Cruel Instruction airs tonight at 8/7c on Lifetime. It’s followed by a Behind the Headlines documentary about the subject matter.
We’ll have more of our exclusive interview with the exceptionally talented Kelcey Mawema after the premiere, so please return later for our Post-Mortem interview!
Jasmine Blu is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.