For a child actor, transitioning to older roles can be challenging. For 13-year-old Hala Finley, who began acting at four in short films and the occasional commercial, that transition came last year when she was cast in the feature film Paradise Highway.
The thriller, which comes out July 29, stars Juliette Binoche as Sally, a truck driver who agrees to pick up illicit cargo to help her jailed brother (Frank Grillo). Assuming the shipment will be drugs, to Sally’s horror, it’s a young girl named Leila (Finley), who is being trafficked for sex. When things go wrong during the transfer, the two embark on a cross-country journey to safety while being pursued by a police officer (Morgan Freeman) on mission to stop human trafficking.
“Leila is a kid who was forced to grow up too fast because of the things she experienced,” Finley told Casting Networks in an interview. “It makes it hard for her to connect with others who might not have gone through the same thing. I became emotionally connected to Leila and wanted to share her story.”
But how does a 12-year-old girl — who recently starred in the Robert Rodriguez/Netflix superheroes kids’ movie We Can Be Heroes – delve into such an adult topic that no child should ever go through in real life?
“I did a lot of preparation and spent several weeks immersing myself in Leila’s world,” Finley explained. “I wanted to make sure I represented a real person in this situation, so I watched a lot of documentaries on trafficking and survivor stories. I kept digging deeper into Leila’s past to see how someone from her upbringing would deal with this.”
Although the film doesn’t show the worst sexual horrors of human trafficking, Finley still had plenty of tough scenes to handle. She credits co-star Binoche for fostering an environment where the youngster felt safe tackling more emotional scenes involving screaming and crying.
“She’s such a great actress and a great person,” Finley said of Binoche. “On set, she sometimes felt like a mother figure because she would always protect me and make sure I was okay. I was super inspired by her.”
Binoche, and the film’s writer/director Anna Gutto, seemed equally inspired by Finley, with Gutto likening her to a young Jodie Foster or Jennifer Lawrence. “As soon as the camera rolls, you can see her focused, you can see that she knows exactly what she’s doing,” Gutto has said, while Binoche has described her young co-star as someone who “knows how to prepare; she puts her heart into every single moment.”
Despite her young age, Finley has come a long way since nabbing her first TV role as Matt LeBlanc’s daughter on the CBS sitcom Man with a Plan.
“I booked that when I was six years old, so [at that time] it was the biggest role I had gotten so far,” Finley recalls. She notes that another milestone was her first feature film, 2018’s Back Roads, opposite Juliette Lewis, Jennifer Morrison and Alex Pettyfer — who also directed the film.
With Paradise Highway being her most mature role to date, Finley appears to be slowly but successfully transitioning toward the next phase of her career. She recently re-teamed with Rodriguez on the more grown-up feature film, Hypnotic, a thriller starring Ben Affleck as a man searching for his missing daughter (Finley.)
Whether she was playing a 4-year-old acting in shorts, a 6-year-old on a sitcom, or a 12-year-old playing a victim of human trafficking, Finley’s roles she’s played only confirmed to Finely that acting is what she loves doing most.
“I still wanted to keep going,” she says of each experience in front of the cameras before adding with a laugh, “And, well, here I am now.”
Lionsgate Films’ Paradise Highway will be in select Theaters, On Digital and On Demand on July 29.