When Trinkets actor Kat Cunning arrives for our interview, she’s immediately struck by a floor-length mural hanging on the wall of the Sky Square lounge in New York’s Viacom building. The work features a fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio portraying the character of Jack in Titanic.
“Oh, my god,” Cunning says with a laugh, throwing her hands up toward the wall. “That’s me—Dad!”
She goes on to explain a running gag from her personal life. “I have this joke—my friends and even my girlfriend call me ’Dad,'” she says. “And I’m like, Aw, cool!” Cunning considers herself genderfluid and has a particular weakness for the dreamy “pretty boy” aesthetic. Titanic-era Leo is the perfect embodiment of that.
A classically trained dancer and sultry-voiced singer who also dabbles in photography, Cunning is a young force to be reckoned with, an undeniable talent who gives off a vibe that’s more Stevie Nicks than Lenny D. You can see it in the way she dresses and moves, and you can hear it in her baroque-pop tracks like “King of Shadow” and “Birds,” which marry melancholy lyrics, evocative drum beats, and Cunning’s powerhouse vocals.
But if she comes across as naturally poised, almost unfazed, the Oregon native is quick to clarify that she’s not actually like that in real life. In Trinkets, the new Netflix original series about three teen girls who form an unlikely bond at a Shoplifter’s Anonymous group in Portland, she plays Sabine, the elusive, slightly older love interest of Elodie (Brianna Hildebrand), the show’s protagonist. While Elodie is soft-spoken and grieving the unexpected loss of her mother after relocating to live with her estranged father and his family, Sabine is bold and flirty, oozing an ethereal, rocker-chick allure. Like Cunning, Sabine is a singer-songwriter with a striking sound, but unlike Cunning, Sabine is relaxed and noncommittal, enticing Elodie with a spur-of-the-moment offer to join her and her band when she hits the road on tour.
“It’s funny,” Cunning says, reflecting on where she ends and Sabine begins. “All my friends who’ve watched it were like, ’You’re not that hot.'” She laughs. “I’m not like that. I’m not that cool.”
The casting directors of Trinkets clearly disagreed, even if Cunning auditioned for the series on a whim. Last fall, she had a “life-changing experience” unexpectedly performing with a sword swallower onstage at a music gig in New York City. (The event resulted in a small tattoo on her inner forearm—a tiny, easy-to-miss sword in black ink.) On the way home from the show, she looked over the materials on Trinkets her agent had given her and decided to read for the part the next day. That spontaneity was out of character for Cunning, who says she’s type A and usually practices excessively before auditions.
“I came home later [that night] than I would’ve liked,” she admits, “but I was like, You know what? This is you. Like, not only are you a queer person, a real musician, and a very aggressive person when you’re hitting on someone, but also, you’re from Portland, Oregon. You would be really jealous if someone else got this role.”
The rest, Cunning says, is history. She landed the role and loved every moment on set, especially since it was shot on location, meaning the actress, who had moved to New York City for work, was able to reconnect with friends and family back home. She was blown away by how Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith—who penned the 2013 novel on which the Netflix series is based and helped develop it—captured her hometown. “Trinkets feels like a love letter to Portland,” she says.
Cunning also adored getting to perform her own songs on the show, including her most recent single, “King of Shadow,”, which Sabine sang with Elodie toward the end of Season 1. Elodie, who makes her queerness known early in the series, is transfixed by Sabine from the get-go. The pair share a hot, albeit ill-timed kiss, and despite a few notable red flags—Sabine’s possessiveness of her ex, her general nonchalance about drug use and shoplifting—Elodie latches onto her.
“From a heartfelt place, I know so many people are like, ’No, she’s going to be bad for [Elodie],'” Cunning says. “But my first girlfriend was so bad for me—and also the biggest love I’ve ever experienced. So I hope we get to see that nuance. I think that Sabine is not so untouchable. She’s not just a villain in this story.”
While Sabine tells Elodie upfront that she’s not into labels like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” and never explicitly declares her sexual orientation, Cunning has a slightly difference stance on those matters. She sees labels as incredibly helpful for conveying who we are and how we live our lives to others. “When I communicate that I have a girlfriend, it’s so that people can respect her,” she says. “It’s so we can have the rights we want to have.” But she’s less preoccupied with how people perceive her gender identity or presentation, and somewhat indifferent to pronouns. “I’m an amoeba!” she says jokingly.
She generally goes by “she/her,” but, she says, “for me, it’s not super important that everyone in the world gets that sometimes I feel like a boy. It’s a conversation I want to have, and something I’m down to put on record, but it’s not something I feel super strict about. Like, I [don’t expect] the people in Middle America to get the intricacies of my gender. My goal is to be open and approachable, to keep these conversations going.”
Those conversations surfaced on the set of Trinkets, where Cunning collaborated with the styling team to find a middle ground for Sabine’s wardrobe. The actor remembers her first few fittings, when her character was styled more along the lines of ’80s-era Madonna versus where she ended up—which is more or less an homage to Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence and the Machine. Cunning, who didn’t feel entirely comfortable in her initial super-revealing, ultra-feminine outfits—high heels, tight tops that accentuated her curves—pushed for a more subdued look that still rang true to Sabine’s otherworldly persona. The Sabine viewers know and love is now more laidback, sporting chunky boots, translucent button-downs, and long coats.
As for her own style, “I haven’t made any extreme strides to look ’queer’ in my life because honestly, as an actor, I don’t want to limit myself,” Cunning says, noting that her first major acting gig was playing the super-feminine Christina Fuego in HBO’s The Deuce. “I want to have access to play every kind of person. Someday, I’ll probably say ’fuck it’ and dye my hair green, but I’m not any less gay for not changing my appearance. I stand by the fact that queer people are everywhere, and they look like everything. There’s no one way to look queer.”
Netflix hasn’t announced whether Trinkets will get a second season, but Cunning, who plans to release two new singles soon, is game to reprise her role. (No spoilers, but Season 1 ends in the greatest, gayest way possible for Elodie and Sabine.)
“I ship Elobine so hard!” she says, referring to the portmanteau for her and Hildebrand’s characters. “I love that the name is kind of gross, too. I love it so much that I actively hashtag it on Instagram.”
Trinkets is streaming now on Netflix.