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Higher Power

Higher Power

Lili Simmons converts from typecast Disney roles to provocative actress in Cinemax’s new series, Banshee. By Caitlin Smith. Photographed by Andrew Stinson

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When Lili Simmons first started acting professionally at 15, she knew one thing for certain: She didn’t want to go the Disney route. “I was reading Shakespeare in fifth grade,” says Simmons, 19, clutching a cup of coffee after her Aritzia photo shoot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I’ve got a dark soul.” Of course, being a beautiful blonde with hazel eyes as big as Belle’s and Ariel’s (she’s a former model), Simmons seemed like a shoe-in for the wholesome, slapstick-prone characters that have made actresses like Selena Gomez and Victoria Justice famous. And, naturally, her first roles ended up being on the Disney Channel, on shows like Zeke and Luther (as Mia, the pretty girl all the boys clumsily pursued) and the made-for-TV movie Geek Charming (playing your typically mean popular girl). As her manager told her: “Hey, you’ve gotta get stuff on your résumé, you’ve gotta start somewhere.”

But now Simmons is taking on a role that’s more to her liking: a lead in Banshee, a drama series from True Blood creator Alan Ball about a corrupt Amish community in Pennsylvania that premieres on Cinemax in January. “It’s kind of like a dream,” she says of the opportunity, beaming with pride.

Simmons plays Rebecca Bowman, a seemingly devout young Amish woman who leads a nefarious and promiscuous second life in secret. Simmons originally auditioned for the part of 15-year-old Deva Hopewell, another rebellious girl in the community, but she wasn’t the right fit. “They said, ‘She’s too old or too sexy’ or whatever,” she paraphrases. It was an unfortunate circumstance, ultimately, that got her in the right place at the right time to audition again for the role of Rebecca. “I had to go to Philadelphia for my grandmother’s funeral and they said, ‘While you’re up there would you mind driving to New York and reading for Rebecca Bowman?’ So I went, met Greg [Yaitanes, the director], I auditioned, we fell in love with each other, and the rest is history.”

Seeing as Ball is the mind behind Banshee, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be no shortage of impassioned love scenes. “I do some pretty risqué stuff in the show,” admits Simmons. “[My parents] were totally supportive, though. At first they were like, Whoa! Okayyy…but we kind of knew going into the audition that there’s going to be nudity. My mom read the pilot with me and we were like, This is a great script, we’re really excited. It’s good quality stuff. So I decided, You know what? It’s OK.”

For someone who has actually played a role identified as “Hot Teenage Girl” (on the Matthew Perry sitcom Mr. Sunshine), Simmons does a surprisingly good job taming her, well, hotness when she’s donning a bonnet and a prairie dress; her large, wide-set eyes can convey sweetness as much as they can sexiness. “It was difficult, but I loved the challenge and I really took it on,” she says. “I went on YouTube a lot and researched. I was like, What do Amish people wear? How does it feel to be wearing those outfits? And they have the strangest undergarments and rules about underwear….” Simmons adds, laughing. “Thank God I didn’t have to wear the underwear.”

Stylist: LARA BACKMENDER
Hair: LIZZIE ARNESON
Makeup: ERIN GREEN