As an antidote to the type of prestige drama that’s been slapped with some leftover Jenny Holzer truism for a title, Netflix’s Teenage Bounty Hunters makes good on the promise of its poppy and eye-catching name.
The breezy, horny and heartfelt new action-comedy series from producer Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black, GLOW) follows two bumbling teenagers (Maddie Phillips and Anjelica Bette Fellini) as they navigate the tricky balance of life-work-bounty hunting, all the while wobbling into the canon of feminist adolescent action heroines like Buffy Summers and Veronica Mars. And, much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the silliness of the series’ title predicates its tone, which is equal parts gleefully tongue-in-cheek, risibly violent and earnestly optimistic.
Blair (Fellini) and Sterling (Phillips) are twin sisters enrolled at a Good Christian Girl academy in Atlanta, Georgia, and, listen, they’re in big trouble. The pilot begins with Sterling, who has just lost her virginity to her boyfriend (it took her a recitation of a Bible verse to make him orgasm). As if premarital sex wasn’t enough to atone for at her next confession, she and Blair then accidentally crash their father’s truck into the target of big-league bounty hunter Bowser Simmons (Kadeem Hardison). He mistakes them for one of his kind after Sterling pulls a rifle from their trunk (“Daddy got it for me for Christmas!”), and the girls join forces with Bowser to earn some cash for car repairs (all the while fronting as scoopers at his frozen yogurt shop).
The show, originally conceived as Slutty Teenage Bounty Hunters (“We were all sad about the name change,” said Phillips), contains breakout roles for its two leading actresses. Phillips, the Canadian-born actress who plays the more naïve and pernickety of the sisters, was cast while on holiday in Los Angeles. “It’s actually kind of a crazy story,” Phillips told me over the phone, before relaying the meet-cute with the manager of a “friend of a friend” who got her an audition. With only two hours to memorise her lines, Phillips “sort of totally winged it,” but it’s difficult to imagine her effervescent personality being anything but perfect for Sterling. “They asked me to do the chemistry read, but my flight was the next day, so I cancelled my flight […] I ended up fainting the night I found out I booked [the show] because I was so overwhelmed.”
Fellini, who plays the choker-clad, more rebellious sister Blair (“She’s like a confetti thing that just goes everywhere,” said the actress), had even less time to prepare. “I actually only did two auditions for this show.” Over a slice at Joe’s Pizza after their chemistry read, the two actresses bonded fast. “We joked that we blacked out [at the auditions]. We had our own twin vision, just in the corner booth kiki’ing and whispering in undertones after having just met each other,” said Fellini.
For Phillips, headlining a Netflix series was the logical outcome of a career path she’d decided on at the age of six. “I remember being weirdly serious about [acting]. I just remember saying to myself, ‘Maddie – you’re going to do this when you grow up, so you better be serious about it.’” Studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts prepared the young actress for the intensity of auditioning. When she moved back to Canada, Phillips found herself sick of both her blond hair and the “basic cheerleader roles” she was getting put up for. “I literally dyed my hair black like a year ago because I wanted to be seen as more edgy, and it worked!”
Fellini, born and raised in New York, trained as a dancer before an instructor encouraged her to give acting a try. “I had this teacher who was like, ‘You’re so loud and expressive with your face, you should be an actor!’” Fascinated by Broadway, Fellini would stand in the wings night after night, attempting to absorb what the performers were doing on stage. “I got into the habit of asking to come to rehearsals and talking to the actors about their choices.” Her persistence paid off: at age 20, the actress performed on stage herself in The Phantom of the Opera. Roles on primetime TV soon followed (she had a recurring arc in Marvel’s The Gifted on Fox).
Like the Vampire Slayer and teenage detective before them, Hunters is rooted in a “monster-of-the-week” formula, wherein Blair and Sterling use ‘skip-tracing’ methods – a tactic used by bounty hunters to trace fugitives who’ve skipped out on bail bonds – in order to make the payment on their dad’s truck (which, one quickly realises, must have cost a fortune). When the twins’ mother mysteriously becomes a target on Bowser’s Most Wanted list, the whole family gets involved. It’s Phillips’ and Fellini’s sparkling, infectious chemistry that helps to propel the show through its less plausible twists and turns. But under the tight plots and sparky dialogue, the show explores a surprisingly broad range of topics like burgeoning bisexuality, conservative zealotism, and the pressures of balancing school and work. And, of course, guns.
“The gun thing was really weird, especially for a Canadian,” relates Phillips, who grew up in Vancouver, where owning assault weapons is prohibited. “It was just so intense. I literally cried at the gun range [where the actors practiced a gun safety course]. You know what they can do, and so a privileged, white girl holding a gun, I was like, ‘I hate this.’ I felt so uncomfortable.”
The show’s depiction of Blair and Sterling as firearms-resistant is refreshing in an action series. “Our characters weren’t meant to be like Charlie’s Angels, you know? They’re awkward teenagers,” said Phillips. “The girls deal with guns in a real way that I’m sure young people in the South do. We see men handling guns in the media all of the time, and it’s empowering to see young women handle guns and [eventually] know how to handle guns,” said Fellini.
With news of a second season imminent, Phillips and Fellini are taking it easy in quarantine (though both mentioned they were still auditioning). “I’ve never worked as much as I did last year, and I feel so lucky that I got to work with some of the best people in the industry, and I just know that only good things can come from this,” says Phillips, who was preparing a move to Los Angeles before Covid-19 measures set in.
The last year has brought lots of firsts for Fellini as well, who filmed a role in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch before getting cast in Teenage Bounty Hunters. “It was my first time overseas, and just” – she still chokes up – “it was truly a fantastic experience.” She filmed a scene opposite Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, and Elisabeth Moss, and “forced the crew to regale me with every story ever” of the film’s other Anjelica (Huston).
Both actors are excited for the reaction to their show which is currently trending at Number 4 in Netflix’s Top 10 in the US. “I hope that the girls, and the whole show, bring a little levity to such a dark time,” Fellini said. “I hope that people laugh. I mean, the girls are funny and they run around like chickens with their heads cut off sometimes. So I hope it makes people smile.”
Photography: Emily Assiran
Hair: Marc Mena
Makeup: Juliet Perreux
Styling: Britt Theodora