At long last, Pretty Little Liars has come to an end. After 7 seasons and 160 episodes, the identity of the show’s villain was finally revealed, leaving fans suspended in a superb state of disbelief. Troian Bellisario has been with the murder-mystery from the very beginning. Even after all these years, she was able to transform and cultivate her character by bringing a unique range of depth to the show’s protagonist, Spencer Hastings. As bittersweet as it may be, Troian is not sitting pretty on the sidelines. The end of this beloved series has given her the chance to discover her next great act.
Although she is best known for her breakout role on Pretty Little Liars, Troian is a Hollywood veteran. The daughter of renowned television producers, she made her first acting debut at 3 years old. She continued to guest star in a string of television shows, mostly produced by her father. Regardless of how she got the roles, it was clear Troian had an absolutely remarkable command of her artistry. The glitz and the glamour was a part of her landscape, but she was never blinded by it. Even at a young age she was aware of its intricacies; that you have to treat it like a business if you want a long-standing career. Growing up in the industry, Troian has lived it, seen it, done it, went there and also got the t-shirt.
Yet, being in the spotlight wasn't always so pretty. During her high school years, Troian faced pressures and personal problems that resulted in an eating disorder. Through that experience, she was able to learn how to honor herself, her health and ultimately her happiness. Due to release this summer, Troian wrote and stars in her latest project Feed, a semi-biographical film about dealing with the illness. It shares a darker side of the actress, while showcasing her exceptional aptitude as a writer.
Troian is closing the chapter on PLL, embarking into the unknown; but she isn’t doing it alone. She recently married her long-term boyfriend and Suits actor Patrick J. Adams. On top of it all, Troian is ending her tenure on the show with a director’s credit, another accomplishment to add to her dossier of work. There's no question it's an exciting time for Troian Bellisario, she holds the entire world in the palm of her hands. And that’s no pretty little lie.
Both of your parents are quite renowned individuals in the entertainment industry. What was it like for you growing up in that world and how did it shape who you are today?
I think an easier question to answer would be: how didn’t their work shape me! Thanks to my mother and father I got to grow up on a set, in a production office and on a back lot. I was incredibly fortunate to have experienced these environments since before I can remember, which was very helpful when I found myself working in them. My parents have always been the most inspiring storytellers and they taught me so much about the business of entertainment but also the craft of telling a story. Whether they were directing an episode of television, or working out a storyline while making risotto for dinner or even just telling me a bedtime story, they always shared their process and their work with me. They taught me that it wasn’t some kind of elusive magic, or some sometime-muse inspiration; writing, directing, and creating are jobs that demand dedication and hard work.
Although it seems it was always clear to you that you wanted to work in the industry, if you could pursue any other career what would it be?
I think it was Sam Shepard who said something like, everyone’s first choice in life would be “Rock Star”, but we just figure out what our fall back plan is and go from there. Yeah, well, he either said that or I’m starting a rumor about Sam Shepard, ha! But if he didn’t, I’m pretty sure he would agree with me. I’m really fortunate, I have always wanted to work as an actor and so far, it’s been working out. But since Rock Star is out (I need way more musical talent) I will admit that I have always been in love with the sciences. I used to want to be a forensic pathologist or a marine biologist.
Of course, we all know you from your breakout role as Spencer Hastings on the hit Freeform show, Pretty Little Liars. How does it feel ending this very big chapter in your career? Shooting the last episode must have been an incredibly moving moment for all of you.
I am still in shock. It comes in waves. The girls and I all feel really sad about it being over, about that chapter being fully written and closed in our lives; but, truly, all good things must come to an end. As heartbreaking as it is to say goodbye to Spencer, I do feel like it is time to move on. Our fans have been incredibly supportive but they also are growing up. I want them to look back on the show as something special and beautiful. I don’t want them to get bored of it.
But, yes, shooting that last episode was a bittersweet feeling that I have never experienced before. It was like being in love with someone but knowing you must break up to live a different life. Saying goodbye makes you more aware of how much you love them. I felt everything slowdown in those last two weeks of filming. I had more fun, laughed with more people, cried more, hell, I probably smelled things more acutely, than I had in all 7 years on that set because you know the sand is running out of the hourglass. You want to take every little piece of it with you, but you can’t. It’s already gone.
After playing Spencer for 7 seasons, how were you able to grow with and develop this character as the story unfolded?
The writers of this show have been incredible. Every single one of them helped me craft Spencer from a girl into a woman. We all knew that she was an intelligent and funny character, but her vulnerability, her faults, her loyalty, and above all her ability to bend but never break, that was something we all built together with each episode.
I think we all felt a freedom with her as the years went by; to take greater and greater risks, and when we took them it pushed me as an actor. Making the choice together to have Spencer end up in Radley, or struggle with addictions, or find out she was adopted and eventually to lead to Alex… well, I just had to keep rising to the occasion as an actor. Spencer helped me strengthen and diversify my abilities as an actor.
We want to know all of your secrets. After spending so many years with this incredible cast and crew, share with us one of your favorite behind-the-scenes stories.
I know for some this won’t be a secret, but it was always my favorite thing about the sets. The girls’ bedrooms were all connected by one hallway. I loved watching the show knowing that every time someone ran into Emily’s room from the left, they were actually coming in from Spencer’s room and if they kept going two steps they would be in Hanna’s and Aria’s. We used this to our advantage in the Dollhouse episodes, when our “rooms” that kept us in were all next to one another, connected by one cement hallway.
You recently wrapped up a sci-fi film, Clara. Not only is this quite the deviation from your previous work, you co-starred alongside your husband, Suits actor Patrick J. Adams. What was that experience like for you?
It was a total blast. It’s a joy working with someone who knows you so intimately. Emotions are never very far out of reach and you feel instantly comfortable in a scene. It’s also a challenge in the best way because he is just so incredibly talented. Working with him always makes me better because he holds your hand to the fire, you can’t get away with anything less than your best with him.
Your latest project is something quite personal, as you both wrote and starred in it. Tell us about your upcoming film, Feed.
I was 3 years into my recovery from anorexia and I still had trouble describing to people that struggling with an eating disorder was more than just not wanting to eat. Mental illness is very complicated and for the most part invisible. If someone is physically ill often you can see the outward manifestations of their illness or injury and offer to help to alleviate that pain or work towards restoring health. Your leg is broken? Here is a cast to help you mend the bone. You have a fever? Stay in bed and drink lots of fluids, etc.. But a mental illness? There is no scan of the brain that can detect an eating disorder, but it is still the deadliest mental illness, recovery is incredibly difficult and death tragically common. This is a disease that is acutely painful; life threatening, but at times it can make no outward appearance. Yes, sometimes people with an eating disorder lose weight in such a drastic way that you can see them as clearly needing help, but often people battling with this illness can look totally “healthy” on the outside and have a war raging inside against themselves. It’s horrible and beyond that, it’s also greatly misunderstood and not spoken about often enough.
After being hospitalized and seeing many different men and women, young and old, who were struggling with an eating disorder and dealing with their own experience and recovery process I realized I couldn't tell all of their different stories. (I’m not that good of a writer). But I did want to start a conversation about this illness. I wanted to find a way to make someone who had never even thought about an eating disorder, empathize with it, even if just for an hour and a half. I wanted to encourage someone who might be struggling silently to speak to their friends or family and ask for help. I wanted people to know that struggling with this illness is more than just wanting to be skinny. It affects men and women, of all races, socio-economic backgrounds and religions, because it is a serious illness, not just a diet or a choice.
So, I thought, what better way to try to start a conversation than a film. In a film you can use a narrative to put the audience inside the mind of a character. If I could successfully put an audience inside the experience of the illness than perhaps I could also inspire empathy for those living with it and generate more awareness of the disease itself and also the identifying signs. So, I wrote, Feed. I know, I know, it’s all very ambitious and a lot to take on for a first film, but I’m proud of it. It’s not perfect by any means, but I hope it starts a conversation and inspires people who might be struggling to find help.
The film delves deep into the psychological and physical aspects of anorexia. You’ve spoken openly about your own experiences with the illness. What was it like preparing and immersing yourself in this role?
It was difficult. Honestly, I was scared because engaging with this character meant engaging with someone in the throes of their illness. I have worked for many years to recover, and I will be honest, it is not always easy and still a journey. Recovery is not something you just achieve and then you never have to look back, it is a constant choice. So, to welcome with open arms the compulsions, restrictions and voices back into my head and heart, I was very aware of the challenge and the risk. Thankfully, I have an incredibly supportive and loving family who was there for me. I worked closely with a nutritionist to lose weight and then, more importantly, put it on afterwards under the eye of a medical professional. And above all I worked to make sure that I was doing this film for the right reasons. My director, Tommy Bertelsen, who is also my best friend, was amazing. He made sure that I knew he had my back, no matter what. He said, “Go as far as you need or feel you can go, but I won’t risk your mental or physical health for this. I will walk with you to the edge of this, but I won’t let you walk over.”
What were some of your learnings after the project was complete?
I learned so much about the process of telling a story. How to weave a narrative, what things engage an audience and what things cause you to lose them. I learned about not having the time or money to do things the way you imagined them in your head and the sacrifices involved in letting them go. These were tough lessons, but these are the lessons of a first film. You have to experience these failures because those are the experiences you take with you into the next project. That’s how you grow as an artist… I hope!
If you could speak to someone suffering from an eating disorder, what words of support would you give?
If you feel like you are suffering or struggling in anyway, please, reach out. Talk to your friends, your family, ask for help and support. There are incredible resources on the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website that can point you in the direction of treatment and help. You do not have to suffer in silence, mental illness is serious and it deserves treatment.
You have become such a great role model to young women and men from all over the world. What is it like having such an incredible fan base?
It’s overwhelmingly wonderful. Honestly, I struggle a lot with the question of worthiness. Do I do enough to communicate my gratitude? Do I provide the men and women who look up to me and support me with a positive and honest message? I want to continue cheering them on in the same way they do for me, so it keeps me actively engaged and constantly growing on and off screen.
Pretty Little Liars is our ultimate guilty pleasure (or rather not so guilty, to be honest). What is yours?
I know, right?! I struggle with that term. Guilty pleasure implies shame, and I don’t want there to be shame in doing or watching what you love. Whenever I meet people who say, “your show is my guilty pleasure.” I’m like, “Why, are we having an affair?” If you like the show, great! If you don’t, that’s cool too! But, I’m proud of all the shows I watch! Especially the sensational ones… Game of Thrones, for sure. All my friends gather to eat pizza and watch it together.
Tell us two truths and one lie.
• Watching TOWIE (or The Only Way is Essex) to work on Alex Drake’s accent. It’s the first and only reality show I have watched in the past 10 years.
Truth: I wanted Alex to have a very specific Essex accent and watching that show was an easy way to have it in my ear for hours at a time. I hate reality TV so I never watch it, but that show is really addictive!
• I recently did the calculation of how many hours I have worked on the Pretty Little Liars set and it was almost 7,000!
Lie: It was actually between 9,500-10,000… crazy right?
• I am currently writing this interview at a height of 35,000 feet.
Truth: I’m flying over Denver, Colorado as we speak.
Photography by Nolwen Cifuentes
Styled by Tiffani Chynel
Hair by Bobby Eliot at Tomlinson Management Group
Makeup by Jenna Kristina at Tomlinson Management Group
Production assistant: Ryan Kevin
Special thanks: Andre Hendrata, Dawn Tan, Gaby Aw at Bottega Veneta SEA, Yoshino
Location: NOH/WAVE Art Gallery