KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 27, 2023 – Since the release this month of the Netflix miniseries “All the Light We Cannot See,” its star—University of Rhode Island alumna Aria Mia Loberti—has been a little amazed, maybe a bit embarrassed, by all the attention.
Reviews have called her a “breakout star” and her performance “luminous.” Her face is seemingly everywhere, on news websites and TV, and in fashion magazines such as Marie Claire. Even on a billboard in Times Square—25 feet tall—which Loberti saw one day recently.
“Stuff like that just doesn’t happen,” said Loberti in a recent phone interview from New York City. “It’s very jarring but it’s really extraordinary to see.”
The attention has extended to her being stopped when she’s out in public. Her automatic reaction is to ask if they know each other from URI. “Being from Rhode Island has weirdly helped because I think everyone from Rhode Island is used to ‘Hey, I think we know each other from something,’” said Loberti, 29, who grew up in Johnston and now lives in East Greenwich. “So, weirdly, I feel like Rhode Island has prepared me for this.”
The occasions are far from unpleasant.
“They usually come up to me and tell me how much the work means, or they’ve read an article or they’ve seen CBS Sunday Morning or something,” she added. “It’s just really cool to share those moments with people and see how much [the series] impacted them and get to give them a hug and thank them.”
For Loberti, her role in the Netflix adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is her first—which she landed on her first audition. It is also a big budget production. And she is the lead. Loberti plays Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind teenager in Nazi-occupied France during World War II who meets a young German soldier, Werner Pfennig, as they try to survive the war’s devastation in seaside town of Saint-Malo.
Loberti was a big fan of the 2014 novel. She heard about casting for the miniseries in fall 2021 while she was pursuing a Ph.D. in ancient rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University. On a whim, she sent in an audition tape, one of thousands of hopefuls from around the globe.
Loberti said she has wanted to be an actress since she was 4 years old, memorizing movies and dance numbers to put on one-girl shows of Judy Garland songs or “Phantom of the Opera” for her family. But she lacked the role models who were, like her, blind or low vision to show her that acting was a realistic career path.
She is grateful to series executive producer and director Shawn Levy and Netflix for taking a “risk on a complete unknown,” she said. Loberti, who has been an advocate for people with disabilities from a young age, said the series could be the first step to a wider commitment to authentic casting.
“I wish the world were a little bit more accepting of people like me so that we could follow our dreams freely,” she said. “There’s so much talent. Thousands of people auditioned for this role and not all of them were blind or low-vision. There were a lot of sighted actors and famous sighted actors who sent in auditions.
“There are so many people who want to make it in so many different careers who because of disability or another marginalized identity are deterred from those paths,” she added. “I think [the series] is one of the most definitive examples of if you look for and celebrate people as people, good is going to come of it. This is the first time something like this has really happened and I feel the weight of that every single day.”
(Netflix photo/Atsushi Nishijima) (Netflix photo/Timea Saghy) (Netflix photo/Atsushi Nishijima)
In her first role, Loberti said she found the hardest part was being a newcomer. But she received a lot of help from Levy. Before her first scenes were shot in Budapest, she was able to shadow the director for three weeks as they filmed scenes with Louis Hofmann, who plays Werner.
After shooting her own solo scenes for about three weeks, she finally started acting alongside veterans Mark Ruffalo, who plays her father Daniel; Hugh Laurie, who plays her uncle Etienne; and Marion Bailey, who plays her aunt Madame Manec. They were very warm and full of good advice for a new actor, she said. Ruffalo would crack jokes on the set and they’d goof around in between scenes, sharing inside jokes and making up games.
“It was really a lovely group of people to be around and not intimidating at all after I got over the fact that I was existing in the same room as them,” she said. “I really hope that we get a blooper reel for the show because that was the atmosphere. I think when you’re dealing with such difficult subject matter, it takes a real psychological toll on you if you stay in that headspace all day.”
Before filming started in Budapest and France in spring 2022, Loberti worked closely with Juilliard acting coach Bob Krakower and dialect coach Neil Swainto to prepare for her first role. She also pulled together a lot of pieces to build the character of Marie-Laure. She combed through Doerr’s novel, kept spreadsheets and notebooks and even wrote diaries and fan fiction from Marie-Laure’s perspective. She also did research into the psychology of what makes a person who they are.
“I don’t come from acting training,” said Loberti, a Fulbright scholar and honors student who graduated in 2020 with degrees in philosophy, political science and communication studies. “I’m an academic, so I have to use what I know to prepare. I did a lot of research into what makes a person behave the way they do and what life factors contribute to certain behaviors. A lot of it led back to senses, which is really interesting because, of course, this is a blind character.”
One of her favorite parts of the filming was doing almost all of her own stunts, including surviving constant explosions and being drowned by a crazed Nazi officer. She had to convince Levy to allow it.
“When I asked the question, I didn’t know how atypical the request was because almost no one is allowed to do their own stunts. There are few exceptions,” said Loberti, who has an athletic background that includes ballet, martial arts and yoga. “By having me do my own stunts, when typically actors wouldn’t be allowed to do that and in a show that is extremely physical,” she told Levy, “you’re sending a message of empowerment and inclusion that you want to tell.”
Levy agreed with one exception—she wasn’t allowed to drive a car. “But everything else you see on screen from the bombings and the falls and the trips and the drowning, that is all me.”
The drowning scene, highly choreographed and safely staged, itself took four days to complete. Filmed in a man-made grotto with controlled tides, Loberti is repeatedly dunked under the water by Lars Eidinger, who plays Standartenfuhrer Reinhold von Rumpel. Eidinger “was a human teddy bear,” she said. “We had a lot of moments where we would just hold onto each other in between takes and breathe together to get ready. He was like, ‘I’m sorry I have to do this.’”
While Netflix released the miniseries on Nov. 2, Loberti has only recently been allowed to do interviews about the show because of the six-month-long actors and writers strikes. She has enjoyed the reaction from fans.
“A month or so ago, there was an early screening of the series in Toronto for fans of the book and the film,” said Loberti, who couldn’t be part of the event because of the strike. “That was really extraordinary to see what was coming out of that. I really appreciate the outpouring of support and love from the fans and the industry itself because of this groundbreaking piece.”
Loberti, who has put her Ph.D. studies on hold, is already adding to her resume. She has several acting projects in the works and has already completed filming of one of them. Next spring, she will appear in the miniseries “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” a role she landed the day after finishing filming of “All the Light We Cannot See.” The eight-episode series is scheduled to be released in early 2024 on the Roku Channel.
She has also narrated an audiobook of Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” and is the brand ambassador for L’Occitane en Provence, along with working on two novels.
“It’s so exciting that things can start to open up again,” she said. “I’ve gotten such an outpouring of support to continue pursuing this. It is the career that I’ve always wished I could do. Now that I have the support, I’m really excited and I feel really lucky and fortunate to be able to say that I can do it. I can’t wait to see what’s next. That’s the beauty about being an artist. I think you can do anything.”