Whether it's the plight of a television star or simply the reality of someone who excels at a particular task, it's an extraordinary feat to separate one's self from others' boxed-in visions and expectations. But for Troian Bellisario, whose public identity has become somewhat synonymous with her character Spencer Hastings, it seems high time that her other projects stand alongside the fascinating, confusing phenomena that is Pretty Little Liars.
In the past five years that Freeform—formerly known as ABC Family—originally aired the young adult adaptation, Bellisario has quietly dipped her feet into indie cinema, starring in more than 10 short films, a Sundance hit (C.O.G.), and the military rape-centered web series Lauren. Last month, she released her most interesting project to date, a remake of the sadistic French film Martyrs. While the film has all the makings of a typical horror film—blood, gore, slashings, and the occult—it's easily one of the most chilling films released in recent years. Because when you play a teenager who has been continuously stalked by a murderous, manipulative shadow character named "A" for half a decade, your idea of terror is bound to become a bit altered.
We caught up with Bellisario to talk about the film, her venture into screenwriting, and the strange, perverted space that is the Internet.
For the entirety of Pretty Little Liars, you were playing a high schooler who had to deal with a lot of different issues that typical teens go through—aside, of course, from also dealing with a sociopath...
The insane issues that hopefully a typical teen doesn’t have to go through.
Exactly. Was it a challenge to ever have to relive those moments and to go through fallouts with friends and other issues all over again?
Yeah, I think it challenged me more because when I first started filming [Pretty Little Liars], that wasn’t that far away from me. I remembered what it was like to have to answer to your parents and I still felt very strongly if my dad would call me—it was like, 'Oh, I’m in trouble.' And then over the course of playing Spencer for six years, you get so far away from these feelings. There’d be a little voice in the back of my head going 'Alright, I’m done.' So, yeah, it became more difficult for me over the years. And yet there was also something about it that kept me from that mind frame. I don't know quite how to describe it. I believe everything happens for a reason. I just got to make a film [Feed] that I wrote and acted in. The older I got, the more I was like, 'I'd never get to play this role.' And then when I got to play it, I was grateful that I went to my high school to catch that version of myself alive. It was there and it was accessible. Whereas I feel like a lot of people never have it. Like take Jennifer Lawrence's general course— she's usually playing older [characters] and exercising that part of her. I've been exercising a younger side of myself for six years in my career. So, yeah, it's been equally challenging and also useful, but I'm ready to let it go.
Now that everyone’s five years older, what kind of everyday issues can we expect the girls to be going through?
Balancing work with love and… It’s difficult to answer that question in regards to our show because we kicked off [the new season] with these girls, five years later, having a normal life. So I’m super excited to get into Spencer being in Washington and trying to climb her way up the political ladder. Then last night with the season premiere, it’s like, 'Oh crap, somebody’s dead and you can’t leave town again,' so it’s a little bit like what we've always played. These girls want to have the normal problems and yet they can’t deal with the normal problems—they don’t have time to deal with them because their circumstances are so fantastical.
Right. And can you tell me about the movie that you wrote?
Oh, Feed. Well, we’re just editing now. We wrapped in December. Tom Felton and Ben Winchell are in it with me. It’s my first feature film that I wrote and it was directed by my best friend and collaborator of ten years [Tommy Bertelsen], so it was a dream come true to work with him. It’s really not about me, but it’s sort of semiautobiographical and about some of my experiences in high school. I hope I’ll be proud of it. I’m supposed to see a screening of it this Saturday. Yeah, so, we’re gonna edit it and then hopefully do a festival circuit, and then we’ll see about distribution probably sometime in the fall of the new year.
Talking about your new film Martyrs, what drew you to the film in the first place?
The script. As an actor, I want to explore lots of different genres, and horror, for me, was always pretty problematic because I felt like, in order for me to be in a horror film, it was going to be me showing my boobs or having sex. There’s so much sexualization of women in horror films. When I read Martyrs, there was no sexualization of women—in fact, it was not even about men and women at all; it was just about these two strong females and their love for each other. It was also about something that really scared me, which is people torturing for religion. I think it’s wonderful to make and go see horror films that are supernatural or have things that I’ve never experienced, like being possessed by a demon. The thing that I really liked about Martyrs is that, even though it’s an exaggeration, it’s almost hyperbolic in some way. It is based on some really truly horrific things that happen all over the world. I was also drawn to the character of Lucy. In most horror films you begin innocently and then by the end it’s like, 'Ah-ha and the serial killer!' And with Lucy, it sort of begins with you thinking, 'This crazy bitch, she’s the fault of everything.' And in the end, she has to redeem herself.
The film does have a lot of elements of these really iconic horror films, especially with sacrifices and religious cults and, as you mentioned before, it’s kind of terrifying because this does happen sometimes in some places. But what do you think is intrinsically different about this film?
There are a lot of horror films that have very strong female voices, but I don’t see a lot of horror films that are centered around female friendship. There’s always the final girl who’s the bitchin’ one that gets away, but she’s usually perceived by a man. And in this film it really is about these two women doing everything they can to not only to save other younger women, but also to save each other. And the main villain is also a female—and there are several men around who are doing her bidding—but what was so interesting, to me, is that it was kind of a bizarre world in which only females are going to occupy the central characters. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in another horror film. I mean, maybe The Descent, which was just badass. We should have more of them.
I agree. It’s nice how there’s been so much talk about women in Hollywood and how we have to make sure these kinds of roles are being created, whether women have to create them themselves or not. You can see that the public is really interested in that and it’s nice for young women to see their voices represented.
Yeah. That’s why I wrote my own film. Both of my parents are writers and they taught me, 'If you wanna be an actor, never wait around for somebody to give you a role.' I love stories written by men, and some of my favorite writers are men, but I’m also finding more and more women, like Lena Dunham and Lake Bell, who are coming forward and creating their own stories and content that’s fascinating. I love it. It’s a great time.
Are you a big fan of horror films as a whole?
It’s really funny; I grew up on horror films. My mom likes to tell me that Bambi was the first film I saw, but my aunt is like, 'No, it was Aliens.' And my aunt, kind of raised me on scary movies, and she told me that, 'It’s like going on a roller coaster—if you scream, you’ll have more fun.' That’s the whole point of going into a scary movie: You want to get scared, you want to clench every muscle in your body until the jump happens. It’s like a ride. So I was kind of raised with that mentality, and then, as I got older, I started really getting into psychological horror films—the classics like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist—that were really about the things that terrify us internally. Every parent is terrified of their child and with Rosemary’s Baby, every pregnant woman is really secretly terrified that that thing inside of her is actually the evil of all the world. So I became fascinated with these films and I started to stray away from just the jump-scare-and-gore [ones]. This is why I found Martyrs so interesting—it has all of these elements, like Saw or something, that are a little bit more sheer fun and gore, but it's rooted in and mostly takes place within a psychological landscape. That is the type of horror that I lean towards.
There are so many different horror films where you get scared and then you laugh afterward and think “Why was I scared by that?” This film isn’t so much that—it’s terrifying in the fact that people can actually be thinking in this mindset and be doing these horrible things.
Playing Lucy made me realize that we are not very far from those executions of ancient Rome. It made me think about the cruelty that is still going on all over the world. There are still beheadings, there are still stonings, there are still these ancient, brutal ways that we are killing each other and that, to me, is a terrifying reality of our present time. I mean, yes, this is just a horror film, and as an audience member you watch it and then you get to leave at the end of it, but these kinds of things are really still happening. That was a reality that was difficult for me to let go of after shooting this film.
Did you watch the original French movie?
I didn’t want to because it was very, very different and I also know that my character dies midway through, so I just didn’t want it to affect me. Also, in everything that I read about the film—and I read a lot about it—it talked about how those two actresses really were so incredible and unforgettable in those roles. Then, after I made Martyrs, I was like, 'I really don’t need to watch anything like this for a while.' I had my fill of blood and gore for a little bit, so I just never got around to watching it, but I want to one day. Everybody says it’s absolutely incredible.
I would imagine the set was a lot different from the other sets that you’ve been on. Did you learn anything from being in a different environment?
I learned to be patient. I learned that fake blood is the worst substance on earth; I was covered in it every day. It dries in three seconds so before every take they have to come and just spray you down with bottles of cold water and put more blood on you. You stick to everything, your clothes stick to you, your hair sticks to your clothes and then it breaks off. Because we shoot Pretty Little Liars for nine months out of the year, I had to shoot Martyrs at the same time. For a full month, I had no days off. There was one night where we were out really late and we were shooting this crazy scene where I was stabbing somebody like you do, and I was covered in blood. We wrapped at 4am and I got in the car and I went straight to Pretty Little Liars. I took a shower, they did my hair all glamorous and then we filmed a scene at a blood bank. It was all four of us and I was looking at Lucy [Hale] and I had to make a joke with her about a cookie for my line and I was just like, 'I’m so grateful that I’m not very cold, wet, and covered in fake blood right now, and that my job is to look very lovely and make a joke about a cookie.' Normally I might have been really frustrated by that and been like, 'This is all I’m doing today?!' It gave me a really great appreciation for both sets.
Was there much interaction with the other actresses on the set of Martyrs?
It’s difficult to do something that’s very emotionally extroverted when you’re surrounded by a crew that has to uncomfortably hold a mic over you as you sob your guts out or stab somebody. Once they yell cut, I feel compelled to immediately turn around and make a joke just so that they feel a little bit more comfortable. I’m trying to get out of that and just allow myself to have my process and be quiet. It was a really nice set because Bailey Noble who plays Anna was really amazing. We were both always on the same wavelength: When she needed to joke around, I was in the same place so we could joke around and have fun, and when she needed to be quiet, we were both just kind of finding ourselves and being okay being very quiet and letting the situation be what it was.
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Did you have many female role models growing up? Were there any film, TV, or even literary characters that you found yourself drawn to?
Wow, yes, so many. There was an Alloy book series—which is so funny because I’m now on an Alloy TV show—called Fearless. It was about this vigilante girl that was trained to be a spy by her father. She was a total genius! She was this little blond thing who lived in New York City, liked to go to the parks at night, and pretend to be completely helpless, and then kind of secretly teach anyone who would listen. The whole book series was based on her inability to feel fear. So I grew up devouring these books about this girl who couldn’t feel fear and who also, for that reason, couldn’t relate to society. And then, growing up, there were so many actresses that really captivated me. I was, and still am, a huge fan of Angelina Jolie; she’s just the most incredible human being. Cate Blanchett is really my role model, I would say, just because she balances family life, runs a theatre company with her husband, and does film and stage—she does everything. So that to me is kind of what I look up to as my ultimate 'goal.' I just love anybody who plays a complicated woman.
What advice do you have for girls who are growing up and trying to find themselves?
I would say be patient with yourself. I grew up on the tail end—I was in high school and junior high when everybody was really starting to go out on the Internet, in a very social way, on LiveJournal, DeadJournal, Myspace, and Friendster. I remember getting to college and setting up my first Facebook account. I think that the dangerous thing in this time, especially with young women, is the Internet. It is so much a part of our lives, and we also use it to represent ourselves in a way that’s mostly false. I’ve been having so many conversations recently about Instagram. I love Instagram, but I also know that everybody that I follow, their feeds are not a reflection of their lives. I know that the person who’s killing it every day and looks amazing, spends 15 minutes taking pictures of themselves, editing with filters, and tagging things. I know because as a public persona, I do that, too.
When I post a gorgeous picture of myself where I tag a dress, it’s because I had to because they sent it to me for free. Or I wanted to raise funds for a wildlife campaign so I wanted to take a good picture. But I may have also been crying in my car earlier because I was frustrated because I didn’t get an audition that I wanted and because I’m in a fight with my fiancé, or something like that. I’ll see a comment underneath that picture where people say, 'You’re so flawless. Your life is perfect.' We’re putting out these expectations of ourselves to always be perfect, to always be beautiful, or to be doing something interesting, or be somewhere awesome, and most days I’m really boring and on the couch and I feel terrible about myself, and I’m like, 'Oh my god, what am I doing with my life?' I think that what’s dangerous—we’re getting more and more into a false representation of ourselves and I feel that if I were younger, that would seem more real to me.
When you’re young, you shouldn’t have a job that you’re going to have in ten years, you shouldn’t be dating the person that you’re going to marry, and you shouldn’t have even grown in your nose yet. And yet we have all these expectations of where we should be because of people like the Kardashians and all of these people that are prosthetically perfect for no good reason. The piece of advice I would give is to put down your phone every once in a while and see what happens. See what you see when you look out a window or what thoughts you think if you’re not constantly engaging in a back-and-forth dialogue with people that are only reachable through social media.