“Madame Web” Star Isabela Merced Talks Child Stardom and Living Fearlessly

“I’ve experienced love. I’ve experienced loss. Everything else suddenly becomes a game.”

Isabela Merced wants to remove the words "good" and "bad" from her vocabulary; no replacements needed. "I can be controversial because people will bring up questions like, 'Oh, what about murderers? What about this? What about that?' They like to go to the extremes, just to test me," the Peruvian American actor and musician tells Teen Vogue, eating her lunch over Zoom from Los Angeles.

"At the end of the day, they're just words that were made up. Concepts that we choose to believe," the 21-year-old continues, taking another bite. “We have power over the importance we give to things that happen to us. We underestimate that. It's as little as taking the words and saying, 'These don't mean anything to me.'”

On the surface, it might seem like Merced is just generally philosophizing, being a nihilist for the sake of being a nihilist. But the empowerment she's speaking of has become a central buttress for her, and to understand why, you have to pull back the curtain of her life: a childhood in the Midwest, months spent with relatives in Peru, a fire that shook her family’s world. All of these experiences helped shape the person she was when her acting journey began as a preteen, one that would lead to roles in Transformers and Dora the Explorer and soon, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The ebbs and flows, the many fragments, they are all chapters in her life, all at the heart of a young woman who is figuring out how to think about the world and her place in it.

Isabela Merced wears a Bach Mai gown, Essenshel hat, Melitta Baumeister shoes, Miscreants gloves, Dinosaur Designs earrings and ring.Jingyu Lin

Merced was born in Cleveland on July 10, 2001. Her mother Katherine, a first-generation immigrant from Peru, and father Patrick, a firefighter for the Cleveland Division of Fire, raised her and her two brothers. She's the middle child and the only girl, which meant, she says, she was always fighting for attention. 

She found solace in the academic world, and it became the testing ground for her first life-changing realization: "I figured out early on that it isn't about who's the smartest; it's about who can memorize the answers,” Merced explains. “I got good at absorbing information, using it when I needed it, and releasing it immediately. I guess that was my first experience with learning lines."

Savvy and aware, Merced started navigating school and, unconsciously, life differently. She skipped two grades, first and seventh, and moved to Huancayo, her mom's hometown in Peru, for a semester when she was seven years old. The move was strategic: Her mom felt she needed the push to perfect her Spanish, the native language she was losing due to assimilation. 

Merced settled into her mom's family house, but she didn't feel at home. At the time, the decision to send her to Peru felt like a punishment. Merced was "mad" that she had to trade her Northern Hemisphere summer for a Southern Hemisphere winter. She felt like a foreigner — and like a toddler, too, relearning the basics from scratch. Then, somewhere along this journey, something shifted for her, and the punishment became a reward.

Merced returned to Ohio with newfound appreciation for her heritage, culture, and food. Her life was by-the-book normal for a while, until an electrical fire destroyed her family home in 2008. She vividly remembers that summer evening. "I was over at my friend's house that night, and I was begging to sleep over," she recalls. But her pleading was futile. When the fire started, she was home with her two brothers and her mother. Her father, who was working that night, arrived at his own address to put out the fire. 

Just one day after the fire, Merced had her first proper audition for The Sound of Music. "I wasn't going to do it. I mean, it wouldn't make any sense," she says. But it was already scheduled. She had prepared for it and, above all, she was excited about it. So her family and neighbors rallied around her. It was the first time she felt a sense of compassion, of community. “I didn't have anything on me. They dressed me up and did my hair," she shares. "Everyone teamed up and tried to make it better. They were rooting for me, supporting me.” She booked the role.

Isabela Merced wears a Christopher Kane dress, Awake mode jacket, Keane earrings and ring, Jenny Bird ring, and a Tapley ring.Jingyu Lin

Though Merced’s life was literally and metaphorically on fire, she still hesitates to describe the situation as bad. "I'm noticing a parallel between that and the rest of my life," she says now. “Anytime there's any sort of emotional fire or shit hits the fan, I always have something important to do right after. And I always follow through. It's an incredible feeling, seeing how far you can go, put up with stuff, and succeed afterward.”

After the fire, Merced's family moved around a lot locally — a law prohibited Cleveland firefighters from moving outside of the district they served, Merced recalls — while their house was being rebuilt. Dispossessed of her childhood bedroom, her safe space became the stage. She says she wasn't good at sports, but, in her defense, she was "very coordinated." She had already taken up dancing and was fascinated by the arts. Her parents had been desperately looking for an extracurricular activity to distract her, and — by default or destiny — theater was the only option. “I lost myself in that world," she says. "I was pouring out every kind of frustration I had into it.”

Being surrounded by theater kids allowed Merced to experience community for a second time. After a while, she started attending the Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory, or FPAC, led by Broadway producer Fred Sternfeld, who tried to talk Merced's mom into taking her to New York to pursue auditions. Her mother protested immediately. "'She's literally a child, and she has to go to school,'" Merced says, imitating her mom. 

When Merced found out about her mom’s pushback, she internalized it as a judgment on her talent. With keen awareness and wisdom beyond her young years, imposter syndrome kicked in. "I don't remember the moment I found out, but I do remember the feeling, which was, 'I'm Ohio talented, but New York talented? Ain't no way.' I felt like Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray," Merced says in hindsight. 

But Sternfeld kept insisting on New York, and the idea eventually grew on Merced's mother. They decided to give the city a chance — for one month only, during summer break. Then, again, destiny: Merced booked her first assignment, a Claritin commercial, on what was supposed to be her last day in NYC. "That paid for the rest of my career until I got a solid gig," the actor says with a laugh. 

After the commercial came Broadway, which "didn't even pay that much," Merced admits, but it was "just so fun." When she was 10, she landed her breakout role in Evita, alongside Ricky Martin. Then came TV gigs (Growing Up Fisher, Nickelodeon’s 100 Things to Do Before High School), and finally, Hollywood (Transformers: The Last Knight, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Instant Family, Dora and the Lost City of Gold). With the world watching, Merced spent her preteens and teens ticking things off her bucket list, striving to be the best. But behind the scenes, she was striving to find herself, longing for a reintroduction on her own terms.

Isabela Merced wears a Bach Mai gown, Essenshel hat, Melitta Baumeister shoes, Miscreants gloves, Dinosaur Designs earrings and ring.Jingyu Lin

In 2019, seven years into her career, Merced announced she was changing her stage name from Isabela Moner to Isabela Merced as an homage to her maternal grandmother, Yolanda Merced Salazar. "This is when I begin writing my own story," she said then. Whose story had she been writing until that point? "My parents', I guess," she answers, a hint of doubt clouding her voice. 

The name change ushered in her adulthood and a new chapter of her life as a singer. It was the outward result of an inward process, a conscious separation between her private and public personas. There's Isabela Moner, the person. Then there's Isabela Merced, the actor, and Isabela Merced, the singer. “Actor me is just a canvas,” she explains. "Anyone gets to put whatever paint they want on it, and I'll follow along. It is [also] my therapy, like it was from the day I started, when we had the fire.”

Singing puts Merced at her most raw and vulnerable, at least publicly. In a YouTube Q&A from 2015, then-14-year-old Merced proclaimed one of her biggest fears was sharing songs she had written. "I want my music to represent who I am," she later told Refinery29. Still, something about it all now feels inauthentic in hindsight. "Singer me gets to take charge of the scenarios I'm in and the stories I'm telling," she says now. “[I have] more music coming out that feels more like who I am instead of who I wanted to be. My old music was me writing for who I wanted to be, or who everyone wanted me to be, which I've started growing out of.”

We are all dynamic individuals, and recognizing that disconnect is a testament to Merced’s growth. Her biggest fear now is losing her loved ones. “It feels like my life is full of random tragedies that didn't feel like they should have happened,” she says. “That's also why I had to change my mindset from 'good' and 'bad' to ‘it is what it is,’ because it became a 'why me?' kind of feeling, and I don't like that. I don't like feeling like the victim.” Merced adds, "I don't think it's about what you've gone through; it's more about how you've gone through it.” She says she learned that from her family — her support system; her peace.

Online, Merced is mostly reserved, but she does occasionally share snapshots of her private life, most significantly in 2019, when she posted a public update on her mom's battle with breast cancer. “It's the same as the good and bad thing I was talking about. You look at cancer and think, Oh, bad. But I do think it was a blessing,” she says now, pensive. “Any near-death experience where you come out on top is a blessing because it allows you to do something that people spend their whole lives avoiding, which is confronting death. The prospect of it and what it might bring, and what it might take.”

Isabela Merced wears a Christopher Kane dress, Awake mode jacket, N°21 shoes, Keane earrings and ring, Jenny Bird ring, and a Tapley ring.Jingyu Lin

Through her mom's experience, Merced learned that unless you develop some level of acceptance with the thought of dying, you can't live your life to the fullest. It’s not a good or bad thing, she reiterates, just a reality. After she came to terms with death, she developed an appreciation for simplicity, she says, which now rules her personal and professional lives.  

For Merced, the prize of life is to keep learning and growing. Her priorities have shifted. Nowadays she focuses on staying true to herself and what feels authentic. Love has become her most treasured currency. She's found a romantic partner. She values the time spent with her family, friends, and dogs. She enjoys physical activity as a way to decompress — Pilates, yes, but also Sky Zone, to feel as free and "sweaty and stinky" as she did when she was just a child, blissfully unaware of the dangers of fire.

She is conscious of not being distracted by things that don't matter. She calls herself an optimistic nihilist. "I've experienced love. I've experienced loss. Everything else suddenly becomes a game. Everything becomes optional," she says. “I feel like we're just as much in control as we are out of control of our lives. It's a good balance that I like to live by.”

That balance is particularly relevant in her work life. To prioritize her mental health and avoid panic attacks, she now limits her yearly schedule to two projects. The next few are already lined up: Madame Web with Celeste O'Connor and fellow New Hollywood alum Sydney Sweeney, the long-awaited adaptation of John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, and the newly announced Ballerina Overdrive. She’ll also star in the forthcoming Alien franchise expansion, directed by Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Álvarez.

Merced is booked and busy now, but her instincts tell her that acting might not satisfy her creative cravings going forward. She's gotten a taste of producing and wants to get into directing. It doesn't matter right now, though. In fact, work is not even mentioned in Merced's vision of her future. 

"Hopefully, I'll have an empire of loving relationships,” she says. “I also hope that I'm just as life-savvy as my mom. I hope I have eight dogs. I want to be in some random area, some place of the world that's secluded, in a villa like the one Lenny Kravitz has. And I want horses. I don't know. That's just a thought." Not a good one or a bad one. Just an exciting one.