The thirty-two-year-old Roswell native has been a supporting cast member in several major film releases, including 2010’s Valentine’s Day with Julia Roberts and Jamie Foxx and You Again with Jamie Lee Curtis, Betty White, Kristen Bell, and Sigourney Weaver. She’s playing a young stepmom-to-be on the CW’s Hellcats and did an episode of Melissa & Joey for ABC Family. She was chosen to voice news anchor Joyce Kinney, a new and recurring character on Family Guy, after a mutual friend brought creator Seth MacFarlane to one of her plays. She’s part of a pilot for MTV from Bert Royal, who wrote the 2010 Emma Stone film Easy A. And she’s in the staged musical version of the 1988 cult favorite film Heathers—as Heather Duke, originally played by Shannen Doherty—which has performed to sold-out crowds at New York’s famed Joe’s Pub.
So really, she’s poised to show you big things. Limousine-worthy things, perhaps. But for now, my beat-up Honda Civic—in this state because I ran out of time to clean it—is serving as humble transport as I tag along on Lakin’s recent visit home.
First, we call on her eighty-nine-year-old grandmother, Helen Niedwick, who lives in a tidy little Roswell condo where paintings of Jesus feature almost as prominently as Lakin’s promotional stills. Next to the fireplace sits a basket of magazines—including the issue of Jezebel with Lakin on the cover and the issue of Vanity Fair with Lindsay Lohan’s bloated lips on the cover—as well as a periodical on the culture of the Czech Republic.
Though Lakin’s sense of humor can veer toward the dark and ironic—she gleefully participated in a live Hollywood reading of a banned Family Guy episode that focused on abortion—she enjoys the more G-rated banter she shares with her beloved granny.
“Can you read that Czech magazine, Grandma?” Lakin asks.
“No, I can’t read Czech. I speak it, but like a twelve-year-old kid,” says Grandma, whose brothers and sisters were born there. “Remember when we went to Prague, nine years ago?”
“When we visited your cousin in the country? They had been baking for us for two days, and they had chickens out back, and beautiful gardens,” Lakin says. “And then we’re going into the side bedroom, and I trip on something, and I look down and I think, ‘Oh, a bearskin rug.’ But . . . no . . . floppy ears . . .”
“It was their dog.” Grandma laughs. “They turned it into a rug. We have a picture of it, don’t we, Christine?”
“Maybe they thought he had such a nice coat, they shouldn’t waste it?”
Lakin was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1979 but moved to Roswell when she was six. Her parents still live in the contemporary four-bedroom house where she grew up, and her room remains the same, all pink carpeting and floral bedding (though her parents finally bagged up her stuffed animals and old school uniforms). She’d often stand on the step of the living room’s stone fireplace and perform karaoke, once staging her own version of the Jerry Lewis telethon. At her own urging, her parents put her in acting classes at Atlanta Workshop Players in Alpharetta.
Lakin’s first professional audition came at age seven, a “Got milk?” commercial she didn’t get. At age eleven, she was cast as “young Rose,” the daughter of a Confederate spy, in The Rose and the Jackal with Christopher Reeve. It was a speaking part—and a crying one.
“Chris Reeve was such a nice man,” she remembers. “He was very tall and thin, and I remember he met me at the pool of the hotel while I was waiting to do my costume fitting. His hulking hand grabbed my little paw and shook it as he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I couldn’t believe Superman kissed me. I vowed never to wash my cheek again.”
Then Lakin got the role of tomboyish daughter Alicia “Al” Lambert on the 1991 network television show Step by Step, which was on the air for about seven years. While Lakin’s father worked as an executive for the technology and cable company Arris, she and her mother moved part-time to Los Angeles, returning to Georgia one week a month, with Lakin attending the Lovett School in order to maintain some sense of normalcy—a stipulation her mom built into the contract. Lovett faxed and overnighted lesson plans to Lakin’s Los Angeles tutors so she could keep up with her classmates.
“I don’t have siblings, which is probably the biggest reason why my parents were able to give the attention to my career that they did,” she says.
The cast of Step by Step, which included Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers, became like an extended family.
“They are some of the most wonderful, graceful, kind people; I’m still in touch with them,” she says of the stars. “And it was exciting and cool to suddenly be surrounded by all these new brothers and sisters. We’d tease and play and laugh and cry. But it also felt like a dream world. I suddenly had school in a trailer with a tutor. I didn’t have many friends my age, other than the kids from the show, so it was wonderful being at work but obviously a big transition for me and my family the first few years.”
The show made Lakin famous for a time, making it difficult to go to malls and skating rinks in Atlanta without being recognized and crowded by fans, and stamped her with the bittersweet label of “child star,” one that’s taken years to shed.
“I’ve seen all your movies,” Grandma says as we sit for a spell in her living room. “But I didn’t like all of them.”
Lakin laughs. “Which ones didn’t you like?”
“Of course I didn’t care for, um, uh . . . the one where you had your face so—”
“The Hottie and the Nottie?”
Grandma’s nose wrinkles up like she’s smelled something bad.
“You could have done so much better,” she says. “They didn’t have to make you look so ugly.”
“That was part of the experience, I guess,” Lakin says.
One role that was a challenge for her was Grace Cunningham in 2007’s Georgia Rule, the Garry Marshall movie that also costarred Jane Fonda, Felicity Huffman, and Lindsay Lohan. Lakin has nothing but love for Marshall—he’s since cast her in several projects, including a stage version of Happy Days—and no problem with Huffman or Fonda.
“Lindsay, her troubles had come to a peak,” Lakin says, glancing at the cover of Vanity Fair by the fireplace. “She’s a very young girl with a lot of money and not a lot of guidance. It’s frustrating. It’s not like I haven’t seen it happen before. We all have. But when you’re someone like me who has gone so far out of my way not to become that—it’s just frustrating to see that she has a lot of opportunities and she squanders them.”
As the film’s producer noted in a letter to Lohan (which was later leaked online), the actress was chronically late to set, complaining of exhaustion. “We are well aware that your ongoing all-night heavy partying is the real reason for your so-called ‘exhaustion,’” the letter said. “We refuse to accept bogus excuses for your behavior.”
She would regularly show up nine hours late, Lakin says. “That was every day. Jane Fonda tried to help her and give her some real tough love. People were genuinely trying to help her.”
Lakin has a sort of weary, old-soul outlook on the perils of child stardom. She wasn’t trolling clubs as a preteen, berating bouncers with a “Don’t you know who I am? I’m on a TGIF sitcom, dammit!” attitude. Her parents were present during her formative years and kept her out of trouble.
“It’s not like I was a perfect kid. I did my fair share of stupid stuff in high school, like anyone,” she says. “I had a healthy fear of my parents, and I certainly never wanted to disappoint them. That would be the worst thing I could ever do. Thankfully, the Internet then wasn’t what it is now. So I could make mistakes and learn from them instead of having them glorified, positively or negatively, by the world.
“I’ve been around for a long time, but I had to reinvent myself as an adult,” she says. “A lot of people still wanted to see me as a kid actor, and it was surprising to me how long it takes to get them to take you seriously in another way. You almost have to work harder than someone who is brand-new.”
Grandma grabs a pair of two-pound dumbbells and starts doing curls. “I can’t waste time,” she says, then looks earnestly at Lakin. “Your visits are always so short.”
“I know, Grandma.” Lakin smiles.
With just one more night left before her return to Los Angeles, Lakin has plans for lunch and then a visit with a friend she’s known since third grade. The actress needs a ride—she never thinks to rent a car when she’s “home”—so my car will have to do.
“Sometimes people stop me when I’m out. They say, ‘I know you. I know that I know you,’” Lakin says. “Then they say, ‘Wait, are you in my yoga class?’”
For now, that’s fine—Lakin isn’t striving for paparazzi-stalked uberstardom. She lives in Los Angeles, where she likes to watch The Office and Survivor with her longtime boyfriend. And while she enjoys working in film and television, she gets the most satisfaction out of live theater and would love to do a big Broadway musical.
“Coming from a place like this, my parents are very down-to-earth and keep me honest. Everybody needs that. If you’re in it for the long haul, the best thing you can do is not think about it in the short term. It’s a super-fickle business. I’m so appreciative for every job I get.”
Photograph by Aaron Fallon