Industry Star Myha’la Herrold Talks Harper Stern and Embracing Boldness

"Harper makes me feel seen because I'm not what anybody expects me to be either.”

Industry star Myha’la Herrold’s Catholic high school was as renowned for its performing arts program as it was for being committed to a severe dress code, which included hair: It had to be long enough to be pulled back, and no “unnatural” colors allowed. But Herrold bucked that system — with a trick up her sleeve. “I was like, ‘How can I rebel against this as hard as I can, but also make myself indispensable?’” she recalls for Teen Vogue. She had learned from an early age that talent can give you status, that confidence can allow you to break rules. Within her first year at the school, Herrold was leading the jazz and rock bands while proudly rocking dyed blonde hair. 

“I cut my hair and immediately went for the mohawk, and then I did frosted tips and argued that it wasn't unnatural,” she says. “I was really waiting for somebody to tell me Black people couldn't have blonde hair.” Herrold’s mother, a hairstylist and her biggest supporter, encouraged her with every dramatic style change. The actor went from short hair to braids and back again, infusing looks with color, beads, and accessories to make each style that much more unique. Multiple times, Herrold was sent to see the dean, who came to know her on a first-name basis. "It's just borderline, Myha'la,” he’d say to her. "What's ‘borderline’?" she'd reply. To which he'd answer, “The hair is. It's borderline." 

But after gently reminding Herrold to stick to the dress code, the dean would let her move on with her day. Herrold became more emboldened in her difference. “I pushed the limit of everything. It was very much waiting for one of these white people to tell me something,” she says. “They were policing me, but at the same time, begging me to sing the national anthem at every game and to sing at their auction. I felt very much like a prized hen. A prized Black hen.” 

As a young, queer, biracial woman, Herrold was often reminded of how her natural presentation and positioning differed from what the school encouraged among its students. But with the support of her family and friends, she learned she didn’t have to play by those rules.

Myha'la Herrold wears Loewe dress and shoes and Dinosaur Designs earrings.Jingyu Lin

On HBO’s Industry, Herrold is the enigmatic Harper Stern, a determined and ambitious antiheroine whose path in the high-stakes world of finance goes anything but according to plan. In real life, the 26-year-old is chill, relaxed. She arrives at the Teen Vogue offices wearing her most comfortable clothes: yoga pants, a cozy knit blazer over a sweater, Uggs in tow. She is a calm person, she later explains, who prioritizes her well-being amid her rising stardom.

The path she's on, however, is not necessarily where Herrold saw her career going years ago. As a teenager in San Jose, California, she envisioned herself performing eight shows a week on Broadway. She majored in musical theater and had, growing up, channeled as much of her energy into singing as acting. She used the stage space to thrive — and to express what it meant to exist on the borderlines of convention in her predominantly white hometown. By the time she reached high school, she had done a national tour of The Book of Mormon, as Nabulungi. She held strong to the knowledge that she had her work, her craft, and her self-expression. She could be creative. She could be bold. She could be what no one expected her to be.

Unintimidated by the perception of her difference, Herrold knew who she was, and that she was talented. Standing out wasn’t a burden; it was a choice. Her skill in the performance arts served as an unconscious shield, enabling her to be seen and celebrated for something that was distinctly her own. “It wasn't like an escapist thing,” Herrold tells Teen Vogue. “It was like, ‘I love this and I'm going to make sure I'm going to be the best at it.’ And I was.” She didn’t mind people pointing her out for her craft because she knew it was the space where she was trying to succeed. 

This level of confidence made it possible for Herrold to exist comfortably in her community. Her talent superseded her otherness and gave her the ability to focus on the skills that made her who she was. She was a product of contradictions, simultaneously outside the fold but well-adjusted socially.

“People made a point to point out that I was different, but not too different,” she says, reflecting on her time as a token Black girl. Nevertheless, she felt aligned with her peers in their common interests and hobbies. She had her family and her theater community, which made her feel like less of an outsider. “Culturally, I and the people I grew up around were very much the same. It was only randomly that I was reminded that I didn't look like anyone else.” 

Herrold, in turn, knew she had to construct her own visage of Blackness, one she needed to define for herself. Despite those many shared interests, she and her peers did not have the same life experiences. She developed a sense of self that was as well-rounded as it was rebellious and prodigious. In this way, Herrold is very much like her character Harper Stern: a young Black woman building a life beyond others’ preconceptions.

Myha'la Herrold wears Sandy Liang jacket and pants and Mounser earrings.Jingyu Lin

“I felt very seen by her," Herrold says of Harper. “Because I don't think I fall under anybody's typical Black girl umbrella. I don't live there. And I never felt particularly seen by Blackness in the media.” She adds, "But this was so unexpected. Harper makes me feel seen because I'm not what anybody expects me to be either.”

Television and movies weren’t really on Herrold's radar until after college. At Carnegie Mellon, she studied musical theater, honing her storytelling abilities and inching closer to her childhood dream of Broadway. The pursuit of that dream led her to New York, but she soon learned there were compelling roles awaiting her onscreen. Notes Herrold, “It wasn't something I had ever considered.” 

It turns out, Herrold thrives onscreen. In the past three years, she’s had breakout roles in Industry and Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, alongside Amandla Stenberg and Rachel Sennott. Both projects feature Herrold playing characters who are strongly self-affirmed young women, remarkable for their ability to wade through chaos. The stories these characters tell, Herrold says, exemplify how femme characters can stand on their own without exacting a moralistic commentary on what they should do or who they should be. 

“That's what I like particularly about Industry, that Harper, this character, the entire show is not trying to tell anybody anything about anything. It's literally just showing you a story and then letting you have the discourse on your own,” she says. “The show is not about women in the industry. The show is not about capitalism. The show is not about whatever. It's about these people's lives. Then you can decide. You can say, ‘Oh, well, I saw this point being made or that point being made.’”

As a character, Harper is known for keeping audiences guessing. Her at-times questionable quick thinking and brash decision-making open a new space for what a Black female character can be. “She does not fall under any typical umbrella,” Herrold tells Teen Vogue. “She's flawed in ways that you wouldn't expect. She's gifted in ways you wouldn't expect. She makes decisions that, when you're looking at Black media, you're like, 'Black people don't do that.' Well, but they could.”

Myha'la Herrold wears Sandy Liang jacket and pants, Mansur Gavriel shoes, and Mounser earrings.Jingyu Lin

Harper’s intensity, though, could not be further from who Herrold is in real life. She views some of her onscreen characters as alter egos. “There's something very cathartic about playing Harper for me, because she's like pure, chaotic energy, and I'm just so not that,” she says with a laugh. At her core, Herrold puts peace and comfort first. During this interview, she speaks fondly of her apartment in Brooklyn, where she enjoys spending time with her boyfriend, her family, and her cats. That space is her happy place, and she’s becoming more protective of it as time goes on, prioritizing her privacy offscreen. 

“I wouldn't necessarily say I'm building a persona, but I am withholding some parts of myself to keep them safe,” Herrold says. “At first, I was like, 'I'll be an open book.' Now I'm like, ‘Ooh, maybe that's enough.’ I think I'm just trying to protect things that mean the most to me and my family.”

As for the version of herself that Herrold does want to be more accessible to the public, she hopes people know she puts craft above all else. Artistic integrity has guided each decision in her career thus far, even when she was planning for Broadway. Each step in her path has led her to opportunities she takes seriously and wants to use to highlight the best storytelling possible. That is her goal, and it only gets stronger as her roles multiply.

Myha'la Herrold wears Loewe dress and shoes and Dinosaur Designs earrings.Jingyu Lin

“I'm incredibly passionate about what I do and I take serious ownership over it,” Herrold says. “I have so much respect for this mode. It is very sacred, that space we create when we create something. And my integrity is so important to me. I love it so much. I defend it, I maintain it, I grow it very aggressively.” All roads lead back to the work. 

In the future, Herrold plans to continue choosing roles with truth in mind, to seek out the opportunities that most align with who she is meant to be as an actor. She never wants to compromise herself for the scope of a role. Today, she thinks of new horizons she hasn’t yet approached. She still thinks of the theater, anticipating the day when she returns to the stage. As for future screen roles, she wants to get creative. She could play an ingenue or sing in a movie musical. These future characters are people she wants to watch herself. 

“I hope that in five or whatever years, I'm still in a similar state of being,” Herrold says. “I want to continue to do my thing as I am now, but on a different scale. I'm already sort of living the dream. So if in five years I'm in the exact same place as I am right now, I will be very grateful.”