Joey King is only 23, but seems to have been around forever. Even before her starring role in the Kissing Booth movies, she appeared as the young Marion Cotillard in The Dark Knight Rises, and as a china doll in Oz the Great and Powerful. She was five when she appeared as a “little girl at a party” on an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. Thirteen, when she was spooked by ghosts in The Conjuring. This is a Hollywood veteran. And yet she still often feels undermined.
It last happened “not even a couple of months ago”, she says, with a shrug that suggests she’s used to it. “Because of how I look. Because I’m a young woman. Because I’m very polite to people. I think I’m often underestimated or overlooked in a way that I’m just like, ‘Guys? Don’t f****n’ do that!’” She half-wails, pointing to herself comically. “‘I’m right f****n’ here!’”
Whether she’s playing The Kissing Booth’s teenage wallflower, or a child abused by her mother in the acclaimed limited series The Act – for which she received an Emmy nod in 2019 – King has brought an “every girl” spirit to her roles so far. Her characters feel grounded. Relatable. Absolutely not extraordinary. Perhaps that’s why she believes some try to downplay her potential off-camera. Her newest role is one she hopes will bring her days of being underestimated to an end.
In the action-comedy Bullet Train, she stars as one of several hired killers on separate, clashing missions aboard a high-speed train across Japan. Headed up by Brad Pitt but also starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry and a cameoing Sandra Bullock, the zippy blockbuster is adapted from Kōtarō Isaka’s graphic novel and is gearing up to be one of the summer’s biggest movies. It’s a project that King immediately knew she wanted to be involved with.
“I remember auditioning, and I thought to myself: ‘Oh that’s nice, I’ll never get this part but, y’know, I’ll give it my best,’” she says, demurely. “But I also really wanted this. I had that feeling in my stomach like, ‘I have to have this.’” We’re speaking in a luxury London hotel room, King dressed in a black velvet mini-dress, with thick black boots and tiny replica daggers hanging from her ears. She makes an immediate statement. It also feels like a perfect nod to the fierceness of her character in the film. As Prince, King is one of the most unnerving of the bullet train’s assassins – she’s creepy, cut-throat and nearly pantomimically evil. Her ruthlessness – hidden just under the surface – is an intentional subversion of her assumed damsel-in-distress status. “That’s my one connection to Prince,” she explains. “She’s really underestimated because of her appearance alone, and I think that’s the thing that I, personally, feel. Otherwise, she’s just a sociopath and a b***h.”
Where Prince feels like the outright malevolent force of the film, Pitt’s character – an assassin codenamed Ladybug – is the reluctant hero we’re meant to root for. “Brad always says the most fun roles you can play are the chump or the villain,” King notes. “He says he’s the chump, and I’m the villain.” King says she finds herself talking about Pitt often. But thankfully, she doesn’t mind: “This man, he embodies true leadership,” she gushes. “He’s an amazing person but really such a good example of how you should treat people: on set, in life. He’s wonderful – I never get tired of [talking about him]. But could you imagine if he sucked?”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, King was in a prime position to get her career started early, as her elder sisters were also actors – Hunter King, 28, still works today. Early auditions led her to playing a round of daughters to Hollywood’s A-list: Adam Sandler (in Reign Over Me), Steve Carell (in Crazy, Stupid, Love), Channing Tatum (in White House Down). One of King’s most notable child roles came in 2010, with the children’s comedy Ramona and Beezus. The film adaptation of Beverly Cleary’s novels saw King star as plucky nine-year-old Ramona, a lovingly annoying little sister to Selena Gomez’s Beatrice (or, “Beezus”). As well as giving King what was then her most prominent acting credit, the film flipped an internal switch in the young star; acting wasn’t just a hobby anymore, but now something she wanted to do long term.
“I carried a movie at nine years old – that’s like, insane,” King says. “It was such a huge responsibility, but it was so much fun. That was the movie where I thought, ‘I know that this is what I wanna do forever’. You can’t contextualise that moment as a kid, but when you get older, you’re like, wow, that was really how I felt then. I’ve never felt differently from that point on. I feel very lucky to have known at such a young age what I wanted to do and then had been able to do it.”
It’s clear that her years in the industry have only deepened her love for making films and TV – there are no hints of jadedness in sight. She’s animated and alert, peppering her stories with gags and expletives in a way that feels off-the-cuff, rather than stiff or rehearsed. While she admits that she’s been part of some projects that she’s not as proud of as others, she has no time for anyone’s hate towards The Kissing Booth.
The 2018 Netflix film – sequels followed in 2020 and 2021 – starred King as a teenage girl who finally gets close to her crush when she signs up to run a kissing booth at the spring carnival. It turned King into something of a tween icon: 19 million Instagram followers later, her young fans are vocal with their adoration, often flooding her comments sections with high praise. Yet the franchise was also critically panned, with some branches of social media taking pleasure in meme-ing earnest scenes and branding the series pure hate-watch fodder. King, though, has no time for any of that. “I couldn’t be prouder of those movies,” she says, sitting up a little straighter in her chair. “I loved them so much and playing that character made me happy. I’ll never regret those movies, and I love them so much no matter what anyone says.”
King’s unmistakable air of confidence feels hard-earned, the result of professional experience and recent personal growth. “In the past couple of years I’ve really stepped into myself in a way where I feel much more comfortable with who I am,” she says. “I feel good about who I am as a person. With that comes the ability to stand up for yourself and what you believe in, because you actually believe in yourself at that point.” For King, the anxieties of adolescence made it harder for her to stand up for the things she really cared about. “When you’re going through your own insecurities, you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess they’re right, I don’t deserve…” She drifts off. “[That] I should just be quiet. Now, I’m like, ‘I know what I’m doing here, I’ve been in this a long time.’ I have so much to learn, always, but I do know a thing or two about a thing or two.”
After stepping into the action space this year with Bullet Train and the fantasy film The Princess – which is currently streaming on Star via Disney+ in the UK – King is looking forward to changing gears with her next roles. That includes the limited series adaptation of We Were the Lucky Ones, about a Jewish family separated during the Holocaust, and a currently untitled romcom with Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron. “Another cool thing I get to shoot this year!” she beams. Career-wise, there’s no grand plan, but that’s just how she likes it.
“I think if I set too many goals for myself, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to be happy until I reach them,” she explains. “I really do try to stop and realise how special this experience is. If I play too much of the same thing too many times, I’m not gonna enjoy myself. I’m not going to feel challenged enough. So I’m just kind of doing whatever the hell I want.”
‘Bullet Train’ is in cinemas now