These are exciting days for Aria Mia Loberti. 

Netflix All the Light We Cannot See promo photo featuring LobertiSince the release in November of All the Light We Cannot See, the Netflix limited series based on the 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Loberti has been on a whirlwind tour of press interviews, photo shoots, and red carpet premieres. She had never acted before auditioning—on a whim—for the lead role of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a part for which she beat out thousands of trained actors. She’s been lauded for her screen presence and soulful portrayal of Marie-Laure—a character who, like Loberti, is blind—and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best breakthrough performance. She’s received thousands of social media messages from viewers across the world, many of them visually impaired, individuals with disabilities, or just those “clever enough,” she says, “to find my Penn State email address.”

When I meet Loberti and her guide dog, Ingrid, in the lobby of The Ned NoMad Hotel in Manhattan on the Monday after Thanksgiving, she seems at ease with the quantum leap she’s made from graduate student to breakout star. She leads me through two sets of heavy curtains to her favorite nook: the hotel’s library bar, a quiet enclave fitted with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books. “They’re real,” she says of the books as she settles into an antique leather couch, orders a pot of lavender camomile tea, and, with Ingrid curled up at her feet, proceeds over the next three hours to tell me about her life as it is now, and as it was before All the Light We Cannot See.


Aria Mia Loberti in a scene from All the Light We Cannot See
Katalin Vermes/Netflix (2).


Loberti, whose Penn State doctoral studies in rhetoric are understandably on hold, has wanted to act since childhood, but she never pursued her dream because, particularly for someone with a disability, “wanting to be an actor is as far-fetched as wanting to travel to the moon.” Her sudden success feels almost otherworldly—“a fever dream,” says her best friend, Molly Stevens, a former middle school teacher who travels everywhere with her. “We keep pinching ourselves and asking, Is this actual life, or are we going to wake up and have to go back to school and classes?”

It is actual life, and it’s all quite wonderful—the glitz and glamour, the designer clothes, the five-star hotels and celebrity parties, even her selection last summer as brand ambassador for French skin care giant L’Occitane en Provence. But it’s the recognition of her work that Loberti says she most appreciates, and that is propelling her forward, creating opportunities she never expected to have. She and Stevens will soon publish a book they co-wrote, The Enchanter’s Eyes, about an 11-year-old blind girl. Loberti has also finished a novel of her own, a Cinderella story told from the perspective of a blind protagonist, which she’s shopping to publishers. As for acting, just as shooting for All the Light wrapped, Loberti was offered a role in an adaptation of the popular children’s fantasy book series The Spiderwick Chronicles, which is scheduled to air on the Roku Channel later this year. Loberti can’t elaborate on additional projects, but she says there are enough that she’s had to turn down some offers.

All the light is shining on her, it seems, but the 29-year-old is trying to stay mindful of where her incredible journey began. Being the rare—quite possibly the first—blind actor to play the role of a blind character in a major Hollywood production has, she believes, broken a glass ceiling. She’s proud of this, particularly given the respectful and finely crafted role that has spoken to her since she first read Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel, set in Nazi-occupied France in World War II. But as she enjoys her newfound celebrity, harsh realities stay close to mind: the link between poverty, disability, and gender, the number of women with disabilities who live in poverty, and the fact that before this unexpected twist of fate, “I was there. I was struggling.” (Her only post-All the Light splurge, she says, is a flawlessly cut Christian Dior coat that she bought while visiting Paris after production wrapped.)

“My story is very far-fetched, I appreciate that,” Loberti says, “but I want success stories of any nature to be the expectation for everyone, regardless of what circumstances they might face or what society likes to label as a disability.”


Loberti head shot with her covering one eye, photo by Gregg Segal
A LUMINOUS DEBUT: Of Loberti’s screen presence, her Penn State faculty adviser says “there’s a kind of inner light to her that is hard to miss.” Gregg Segal.


Now that she has the world’s attention, Loberti wants to advocate for that cause. She wants her experience to serve as a beacon for the greater visibility of, and accessibility for, people with disabilities. “If [these] stories are told, they’re usually through a lens of ‘look at this person, they overcame an obstacle,’ whatever that obstacle is—a couple of cells in their eye, a difference in their limb, or whatever,” says Loberti, who was born with achromatopsia, a rare genetic condition characterized by the absence of color vision and high sensitivity to light. “The true disabling factor is how society treats you and doesn’t give you access to opportunities. I’ve spent my life fighting for that. I shouldn’t have to be the exception.”

Acknowledging progress in improved accessibility for people with disabilities, there are bigger, global issues thwarting that progress and holding people back. Loberti points to climate change, the impact of which deepens economic disparity and exacerbates gender inequality. In traditional cultures, that leads to an increase in instances of child marriage, but girls and women everywhere, especially those with disabilities, are particularly susceptible to systemic threats, she says, and as a result are being pushed further away from opportunities to reach their potential and lead independent lives.

Loberti wants to use her celebrity to draw attention to issues like these. Last December, she delivered the keynote speech at UNICEF’s annual New York gala. (Loberti traveled last summer to Kosovo with UNICEF, which employs youth-led programs to empower young advocates around the world.) At the gala, she shared her personal journey and the obstacles she’s faced as a woman with a disability, and how important it is for organizations such as UNICEF to create opportunities so that others can, like her, realize their dreams.


Aria Mia Loberti in white gown at Unicef gala
Dominik Bindl/Getty Images.


Inside the modest family home in Johnston, Rhode Island, that her Italian immigrant great-grandparents built, Loberti was told she was as beautiful and talented as any other girl, and that she could be anything she wanted to be. Outside, it was another story.

Elementary school, she says, was almost Dickensian: Teachers neglected her, told her she had no future, that she would amount to nothing in life. At recess, Loberti was the only student not allowed to play outside. She was left alone in a confined space in the classroom, for fear she might injure herself; no teacher wanted to be responsible for her. Loberti is legally blind, but she has significant residual vision and can read very large type; her parents had to fight for every accommodation, including getting their daughter a seat in the front row of her classrooms so she could see the whiteboard, and pushing for her inclusion in their school district’s gifted program, to which she’d been denied entry despite her high score on an IQ test. Fierce advocates for their only child, the Lobertis spearheaded the creation of the Rhode Island Parents of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, which fought to establish resource centers for blind and low-vision students to avail themselves of assistive technology and learn to read Braille. Two years ago, when funding was cut for these centers, they were back on the streets, fighting for the same cause they’d fought for when their daughter was 8 years old.

It was around that age that Loberti’s parents began homeschooling her. The experience was fruitful for her and for her parents, and Loberti says she never lacked for company: She volunteered at senior and assisted living centers, and as a teen, she interned at the mayor’s office. Interested from a young age in the work of the United Nations, Loberti was a youth delegate to UN Women in high school. Alongside her parents—whose activism continues to inspire her, she says—she advocated from a young age for people with disabilities. Over the years, her advocacy efforts have taken her to the UN and to speak to corporate audiences.

Loberti studied ballet for 13 years and was told she was talented enough to pursue dance professionally. She chose instead to attend the University of Rhode Island and study rhetoric, because language, she says, was always her most powerful tool, the best means she had to express herself. She went on to get a master’s degree with distinction in ancient rhetoric from Royal Holloway, University of London, while on a Fulbright scholarship to the U.K. In August 2021, she joined Penn State’s Department of Communication Arts and Sciences as a doctoral candidate.

Loberti chose Penn State because of the CAS department’s reputation in classical rhetoric and its highly regarded faculty, and because of her interest in the work of her adviser, Michele Kennerly, specifically her research on women in ancient Athens. But Kennerly, an associate professor of communication arts and sciences and classics and ancient Mediterranean studies, believes Penn State was the lucky one. Loberti’s reputation preceded her.

“Aria applied to graduate programs across three countries—the U.S., the U.K., and Germany,” Kennerly says. “She was accepted everywhere. When she told those schools she had chosen Penn State, faculty who knew me emailed me to express envy, calling her a ‘once-in-a-generation student.’”

Kennerly says it’s easy to understand why reviewers have raved about Loberti’s performance and why so many, including series director Shawn Levy and her costar Mark Ruffalo, have described her on-screen presence as “radiant” and “luminous.” “I do think there’s a kind of inner light to her that is hard to miss,” Kennerly says. “The poise, the professionalism, and the profundity she has—they are all of a much older, more experienced person. Aria is remarkably well-read and thoughtful, and her language is alarmingly fluent.”

Loberti was warmly received at University Park and formed close relationships early on with Kennerly, then–department head Denise Solomon, and other faculty members and graduate students, but she was not particularly happy in State College. It wasn’t the town, and it wasn’t Penn State; instead, she realized she was feeling burned out and dispirited, that the expectations and workload of academia—where she’d always excelled—were weighing heavily upon her.

“You spend your whole life fighting to get not only your education, but other people access to their education, and you’ve focused all your efforts on attaining said education, and then all of a sudden, you’re grappling with this idea of, Why isn’t this making me happy?” Loberti says. “And you just don’t know how to navigate that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to Loberti’s malaise. She was in England through the worst of it and spent months in isolation in her apartment outside London with Ingrid as her sole companion, far from family and friends, and with plenty of time to think about her future life as an academic and how it might pan out.

“I think Aria always thought she’d have a pretty public-facing career and still be doing a lot of advocacy work,” Kennerly says, “but I think she had a hard time envisioning what that would mean as an academic.”


Loberti standing before a big window in a beautiful blue satin coat cinched at the waist, photo by Gregg Segal
FASHION FORWARD: Loberti has embraced the photo shoots and red carpet opportunities that have come with her newfound fame. Gregg Segal.    


The email from a former teacher informing her about the open casting call for All the Light came at the perfect time. Loberti had been at Penn State for about six weeks and decided on a whim—without telling anyone—to submit a video of herself reading for Marie-Laure LeBlanc. “I had to read lines with someone, so I recorded all the lines from Marie’s father in my iPad and the space between them so I could say Marie’s lines,” she says. “Then I recorded myself doing Marie. I just did one take and I sent it in.”

Two days later, Loberti got an email asking her to read lines, live on Zoom, with All the Light’s U.S. casting director. The next day, she received another email informing her that Levy, the director known for his work on the Night at the Museum series, which Loberti loved as a child, and Stranger Things, one of her favorite Netflix series, wanted her to read for him.

She and Levy had multiple calls over a three-week period, sometimes late at night, sometimes early in the morning; a couple of times, Loberti had to leave class to read with him. Before each call, Levy would send her 10 to 12 pages of new lines to memorize. Sometimes, she’d have only a few hours to prepare, which she says was no problem. “I memorize things easily—that’s why I’m an academic,” she says. “They’d send me a script at 8 p.m. and tell me, ‘You’re getting on the phone with Shawn at 8 a.m. tomorrow.’ I’d immediately get on the phone with Molly and say, OK, let’s do it.”

After Loberti’s last call with Levy in early November 2021, the director told her that it would take about two weeks to make his decision. At that time, she’d either hear from him or not. “Shawn said, ‘I want you to know that you did really, really well,’” Loberti says. “He said, ‘You were up against well-known sighted actresses and people who are blind and low-vision and have been acting their whole lives. Please take time to appreciate that.’”

She did. The audition process—“the best three weeks I’d had in the last 10 years, maybe my whole life,” she says—and Levy’s praise for her performance boosted her confidence, giving her the shot of inspiration she needed to shake off the doldrums. Nothing could dampen her optimism, not even her mother telling her there was no chance she’d get the role. She began making plans—to find out about auditioning for university productions or local community theater plays, to perhaps even audition for other movies.

Instead, three days after that last conversation, Levy called back to offer her the role of Marie-Laure LeBlanc.


Loberti does not fear new spaces, is not intimidated by unfamiliar environs, and loves meeting new people from every walk of life. But even as the process of performing was every bit as magical as she’d dreamed, she was a bag of nerves her first weeks on set. Ruffalo and Hugh Laurie, who play Loberti’s father and great-uncle, respectively, helped her relax. “Hugh and I would nerd out about school—he was really interested in what I was studying,” Loberti says. “Mark and I had dad jokes left and right. He has a lot of imposter syndrome, too, and it was really reassuring for me to see that someone like him, who’s been doing this for 30 years, is still nervous and still not sure he’s doing good enough.”

Stevens, Loberti’s best friend, was a huge support during filming. They met as sophomores at Rhode Island and bonded over their dogs: Loberti had just gotten Ingrid, and Stevens was raising a guide dog puppy. On set, Stevens, a keen observer of Loberti and how she navigates the world, was able to suggest nuances for Loberti to better convey Marie-Laure’s blindness: a wider step of the foot when navigating an unfamiliar space, a specific kind of hand movement to feel for a glass or delicate object. She also helped refine Loberti’s Spiderwick Chronicles character, a blind fencer.

“People have this idea that blindness should be conveyed to an audience through a vacant look,” Stevens says, “and a lot of people don’t know how to word things around blindness because they don’t want to be offensive.”

That’s key for Loberti, who’s on a mission through her advocacy, and now her acting, to destigmatize disability and help people understand that disability is not monolithic in nature. Take blindness—society treats it as one-dimensional, she says, but there are many different types of blindness, and each one speaks to a different kind of lived experience. Loberti does not use a cane or use Braille to read; in fact, she purposely eschewed both for years because she felt they automatically stigmatized her. (She says she got Ingrid only because “people are friendlier when you have a dog.”)


Loberti in a red and blue plaid dress standing beside the Nittany Lion statue with her black Labrador, Ingrid, photo courtesy
NEW FRIENDS: Loberti, who introduced her guide dog, Ingrid, to the Nittany Lion when she arrived on campus in 2021, took a break from her Ph.D. program but plans to return to her doctoral studies in rhetoric. Courtesy.


Not using a cane, though, meant “portraying a sighted person for a majority of my life just to be accepted,” she says, “just to get by.” That in turn translates to a different lived experience from that of Nell Sutton, the actor who plays a young Marie-Laure in All the Light, and who has congenital glaucoma. And those experiences are different from that of the show’s accessibility consultant, Joe Strechay, who became legally blind at the age of 19 and now has no sight at all.

Bringing these kinds of distinctions to blind characters on screen is necessary to dismantle the image that generations of audiences have had of blind people—that, as Loberti says, “they all see only darkness, they all walk around with shuffling feet, hands extended, with milky eyes and staring into space.” It matters to her that she’s played a big part in smashing that image, but Loberti does not want to be pigeonholed into playing only blind characters. “Why should I be limited when my sighted counterparts are not limited in their careers?” she asks.

She’d make an exception, she says, if someone were to remake Wait Until Dark, the 1967 thriller starring Audrey Hepburn as Susy Hendrix, a blind woman trapped inside her New York apartment with a murderer. Hepburn—Loberti’s favorite actor, and to whom, with her dark hair and thick eyebrows, she bears a certain resemblance—deserved her Academy Award nomination for her role, Loberti says. But she believes the classic film is due for a modern retelling.

Loberti has a list of “well-rounded, multidimensional female characters” she’d love to play on screen: Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; Violet Sorrengail, the female protagonist in Fourth Wing, one of her favorite fantasy fiction books; and of course, she’d love to play the lead in her own Cinderella story, once her novel is published and if it’s ever optioned for the screen.

To Kennerly, Loberti herself is the epitome of well-rounded and multidimensional, a young woman whose advocacy and artistry set an example for so many others. To that end, Kennerly is sure that Loberti will finish her Ph.D. when the time is right, accomplishing what she set out to do: set the record straight with anyone who doubted her intellect and ability as a child, and in so doing, once again break new ground for other young women whose voices she hopes to elevate.