Katherine McNamara has a full list of credits at an age when many actors are just beginning their careers.
The 20-year-old Lee’s Summit native is already a veteran of stage (Broadway’s “A Little Night Music” in 2010) and screen (a supporting role in last year’s “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials”).
And now she’s the lead of a prime-time TV series: “Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments,” which debuts Tuesday
McNamara plays Clary Fray in the series based on Cassandra Clare’s popular young adult book series “The Mortal Instruments.”
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In the premiere, Clary is shocked to learn on her 18th birthday that she’s actually a human-angel hybrid tasked with hunting down demons. McNamara can relate, sort of. Like Clary, she’s the central player in a whole new world.
But she did have an advantage.
“Clary is the character that is most similar to who I am that I’ve ever played,” she said Saturday during a news conference at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. “She is a young girl. She’s growing up. She’s making mistakes. She’s learning how to navigate relationships and parents and everything that growing up involves, and I feel that I bring my own personal growing-up experience to that.”
McG, director of “Terminator: Salvation” and “We Are Marshall,” directed the “Shadowhunters” pilot and said his lead actress possesses a brilliant mind and the look — in the books, Clary is a redhead, and McNamara is naturally strawberry blond — that made it easy for her to find the Clary character.
“She’s a monster talent,” McG said. “She’s earnest, young and really captures the idea of what it means to think you’re living a pedestrian life and then be called upon to do something extraordinary.”
McNamara felt a calling to act after her first live performance. She started taking ballet lessons when she was 2. When she was 11 or 12, a family friend who was directing Raytown Arts Council’s “The King and I” needed a dancer.
“I was a kid who would try anything, and I said, sure, I’ll try theater, sounds like fun,” she said after Saturday’s news conference. “I remember walking onstage in the first performance, and something hit me like a brick wall, and I just knew at that moment that this is something I had to do for the rest of my life, and I’ve never looked back.”
From there, McNamara landed roles at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the New Theatre and the Coterie.
“I feel so fortunate to have grown up in a town like Kansas City that has such a vibrant theater community,” she said. “I credit Kansas City with my work ethic and learning from the amazing artists that are in that town.”
Home-schooled by her science professor mother, who then traveled with her as her acting career took off, McNamara graduated from high school at age 14, and soon she was on her way to Broadway. She expected to return to Kansas City after her role in “A Little Night Music,” but other job offers kept her on the move.
She relocated to Los Angeles to star in Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” spin-off series, “Madison High,” which never moved beyond its pilot episode. But other offers followed, including guest spots on “CSI” and “The Fosters” and a supporting role on the short-lived MTV comedy “Happyland.”
“I thought I’d do my six months in New York and come back,” she said, “and then I booked a job in Los Angeles and thought I’d move back to New York. I’ve been in Los Angeles for the past five years working in film and television.”
In the meantime, she graduated from college at 17 from a combination online/in-person program at Drexel University, where she studied business. She’s now in an online/in-person master’s program in applied economics at Johns Hopkins University.
“I thought, what else can I do to round myself out as a human being? Finance and economics is something I’ve always had an interest in,” McNamara said. “I’m a huge math nerd.”
McNamara did make it back to Kansas City for the holidays to spend time with her grandparents before heading back to Los Angeles to promote “Shadowhunters.”
“The Mortal Instruments” book series was adapted into a 2013 movie that fell short at the box office and disappointed the books’ legion of devoted fans. Producers hope to rectify that with the new TV show.
“The movie did as good a job as it could for that medium,” McNamara said diplomatically, noting the books run more than 500 pages each. “What they did in two hours, we’re doing in 13 episodes.”
“Shadowhunters” showrunner Ed Decter said producers were impressed not only with McNamara’s performance but also with her as a person.
“We got amazingly lucky, not just with her look, but she’s smarter than everybody else, she’s faster than everybody else, she’s at the gym more than everybody else,” Decter said. “And the whole thing about Clary is she was brave and strong even before she found out she was a shadowhunter, so that’s where Katherine McNamara and Clary dovetail.
“She’s also completely balletic and she sings like an angel so — spoiler alert — we are going to find somewhere for her to sing in Season 2.”
While she awaits word on a second-season pickup for “Shadowhunters,” McNamara will probably shoot another “Maze Runner” film. Then if “Shadowhunters” gets renewed, a pretty likely bet, she’ll be back on the show’s Toronto set.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really known what normal is like,” McNamara said of her busy schedule. “And I think that’s kind of great. Nobody becomes an actor to play it safe or live a normal life. We live these crazy lives and go through these experiences and get to these emotional places nobody wants to go because we enjoy it and it’s our way to share that with the world.”
Freelance writer Rob Owen can be reached at RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Facebook and Twitter as RobOwenTV.
Where to watch
“Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments” premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on cable’s Freeform, the network formerly known as ABC Family.