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It’s nearly impossible to write this story without hearing Kennedy McMann’s voice, slowly and quietly narrating each sentence, the same way she would an episode of Nancy Drew. Much like the theme of the CW series, the actress playing the title character is still a mystery herself. At 23, she’s a newcomer, a fresh face, who just so happened to land the role of a lifetime shortly after graduating college.
“It’s been crazy,” McMann agrees, speaking with me over the phone following InStyle’s photo shoot. Originally, she says, her goal was simply to get a callback during pilot season. “You just never expect it. So many stars have to align, and I feel extraordinarily fortunate that it all came together in the way that it has. It doesn’t happen every day.”
But McMann isn’t exactly an overnight success story. Acting is something she’s been doing since childhood as a way to cope with OCD, something she’s spoken about at length, and she went on to study drama at Carnegie Mellon. Add in the fact that Nancy Drew has been a staple in McMann’s life for years (she devoured the novels growing up, played Nancy Drew computer games, and has even been compared to the character a few times IRL) and, well, it almost would have been weird if she didn’t land the role.
“I think I have it in a text to one of my dearest friends that once I got an audition in New York, I said, ‘I will be Nancy Drew,’” she says. “It was something that I felt, after how she’s weaved through my life in different areas. People have even commented on this sort of likeness in the past. I never expected anyone else to trust that I could do it. I knew that I might be capable of it, but it felt very cosmic that other people agreed.”
“I feel like I spend more time as Nancy than I do as myself,” says Kennedy McMann, lounging on a couch at the Wagner Hotel in downtown Manhattan.
The actress, who plays the titular character for the CW’s “Nancy Drew” series, was wrapping up her first major press tour in New York pegged to the show’s premiere. In a few hours, she was due to catch a plane back to Vancouver, where she’s currently in the middle of filming episode eight of the series. So it was hard to say who she was at the moment — likely a little bit of Nancy, and a little bit of Kennedy.
“I work 16 hours a day, every day, and weekends that I have off are nice to decompress and detach. But my mind is just always drawn back in, because it’s so consuming and Nancy and I are really similar in a lot of ways,” McMann adds after changing into leggings, an oversized blue sweater that complements her blue eyes and strawberry blonde locks, and Teva-style sandals for the cross-country flight.
It’s a big role for the 22-year-old actress, who recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s drama program and approached her first pilot season this past spring with the goal of simply getting called back for a project.
“I felt, ‘If I get callback, I’ve made progress, that’s a great sign for me,’” she recalls. She was living in New York at the time and playing Dungeons & Dragons when her agent texted about “Nancy Drew”; after reading the script, the stakes got higher for the lifelong fan of the character.
Kennedy McMann remembers sitting with three other women in the final audition for The CW’s “Nancy Drew.”
“Usually, it’s like sitting in a room of clones when you audition,” she says. “But we were all different. Everyone was super-kind and super-lovely, which made it easy to go into the room and do your work.”
Executive Producer Stephanie Savage says McMann brought “a real sense of confidence and maturity and intelligence when she spoke. When she had scenes with the adults, she owned them and owned the words. You felt like this girl is going to solve a mystery.”
Since childhood, McMann has been a fan of the Nancy Drew books, Nancy Drew computer games and, yes, the Pamela Sue Martin version that aired on ABC.
“When it came about, I was like, ‘I’ve been doing this my whole life. I’m ready to go,” she says. Purposely, she avoided the books when she was cast. “I wanted to be true and dedicate myself to the Nancy that we were creating.”
1. Spice Hunting
No matter where I am, I’m obsessed with finding the best curry; Indian and Thai are my favorites. My fiancé is excellent at cooking international cuisine, and there’s a great restaurant in Brooklyn called Gandhi that has some of my favorite Indian food. But honestly, the bodega at the corner of my street has the best food. We order the lamb over rice for $6. It’s a hidden New York gem.
2. Young Adult Fiction
My mother is an author, so I spend a lot of time keeping up with the young adult fiction world. I’m really into the Shadow and Bone trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, and I’m in the middle of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, who is a classic fantasy writer. But To Kill a Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book. That’s what I go back to when I need a little warmth.
3. Cat Play
We’re a big cat family. We have two cats whose names change all the time. We have a tree stump in our tiny New York City apartment and it’s the only thing they’ll scratch. They knock it over in the middle of the night all the time—it’s so loud. But we still find a way to laugh at it, even when they’re waking us up at 3 a.m.
It’s not exactly surprising that Kennedy McMann picked up a Nancy Drew book when she was a kid. Practically every girl in America has read at least one of the classic mysteries. What does feel like a bit more than coincidence (or dare we say fate) is how obsessed Kennedy became.
She didn’t just read the novels—she played the computer games too. She cowrote a musical in college and referred to herself as Nancy Drew in one of the songs. Later, before the TV series even existed, her fiancé nicknamed her “Nancy Drew.”
To Kennedy, Nancy never seemed like just a fictional character—it almost felt like she somehow lived inside Kennedy or like they were the same person: a strong-willed, small-town girl not afraid to take risks. So yeah, it’s both crazy and not at all crazy that this, of all the roles, is her first big one.
The CW’s “Nancy Drew” may technically be adapted from the long-running mystery novel series of the same name, but diehard television viewers may be unable to resist comparing pieces of the show to another teenage sleuth series, “Veronica Mars.” After all, both shows center on a young woman who sets out to solve crimes and mysteries in her small town, and each of those young women are living with a single father who supports his daughter’s inquisitive nature — to a degree.
But although both relationships come with a sense of banter and support, there is one key difference at the outset of “Nancy Drew”: When the show begins, Nancy (Kennedy McMann) is already an adult, which greatly affects how she relates to her father Carson (Scott Wolf), and vice versa.
“When she decides to push the boundaries of the law, it’s a felony, and not a casual, cute little thing to do anymore,” McMann tells Variety.
CW’s new Nancy Drew, Kennedy McMann, knew she was meant to play the role before she even auditioned.
“I had gotten a text from my agent while I was playing ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ with my friends,” McMann, 22, told the audience during the show’s panel on Thursday at San Diego Comic-Con. “She was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Kennedy, there’s a “Nancy Drew” script,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ … and looked up at my friends and was like, ‘Guys, I’m going to be Nancy Drew.’”
When she finally got the script, McMann — who was a nanny at the time — spent the evening practicing her lines while watching the kids.
The new series follows a post-high-school-age Nancy who’s given up sleuthing, but a murder and a local town legend of a ghost gets her back into detective mode.
The CW has put its own spin on the classic character.
“Nancy Drew isn’t perfect in the year 2019,” executive producer Noga Landau told the crowd. “She was always very prim, she did everything right in the earlier books, but now she’s complicated. She has tragedy, she’s lost things, she has complicated relationships with family and friends.”
As for whether or not the Hardy Boys will come through at any point, producers teased, “We shall see!”
© Lindsey Kupfer
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