I love acting. It is so much more real than life.
Adolescence—that heavy word that ripples with fear and apprehension. It implies the wearing of masks, the changing of costumes, the building and tearing down of facades, of standing on a world stage and loudly, if hesitantly, proclaiming that This is Who I Am. Or maybe This, or That. It’s its own form of acting, born out of curiosity and desperation and a desire to present a version of one’s self that the world finds acceptable, a version that is at once independent and enveloped in the safety of childhood. We’re all such talented actors for a time, covering up anything within us that is different or dark or strange or scary, struggling in earnest to silence the pieces of ourselves we have yet to accept. It’s only later when we realize the darkness doesn’t go away. It just waits to be embraced.
Troian Bellisario knows the darkness of adolescence. The 28-year-old actress plays the overachieving Spencer Hastings on the teen drama Pretty Little Liars. Bellisario is intelligent and uncompromising, not unlike her fictional counterpart. She provides us with candid views on growing up, inner demons, and being the funny valedictorian.
Give me an image of you as a teenager. What were you like in high school?
Well, I was a huge nerd. I had giant curly hair—like if I was a cartoon character, I probably would have a huge triangle drawn for my head. I was painfully awkward, and I was valedictorian but I was also voted funniest girl because I think I just ingratiated myself into every group by being funny.
So you used humor as an ice-breaker?
Right. And I was—and I think I still am, in my heart—a very dark person. That’s the side I show to my one or two best friends, but everyone else… I just try to make everyone laugh as much as possible.
Being a nerd, did you share that smart girl, type-A quality with your character on Pretty Little Liars?
Totally. When I went in to audition for Spencer, I thought they 100% were never going to hire me. But I was 100% confident I was this girl. I was so concerned with being perfect and getting every good grade and being the best at everything and being well-liked, and then on top of that, covering up this insane neurosis and darkness. So [with Spencer] I was like, oh, this is my jam.
How did you balance acting with school?
My father still wants me to be a writer, and probably a producer and director, because he thinks it will be, you know, better for my mental state. Which, it probably would. But it was their big rule that if I’m going to act, I’m allowed to do it on summer vacations and winter vacations. The deal that I made, whether they were aware of it or not, was that I will be the most amazing student until I get to college, and then I can study my craft. I can study my passion and nobody can tell me otherwise, because I [would have] done my time being a good student. So when I got to USC theatre school, it was the first day of my life. I was being the person I really always wanted to be instead of being who everyone else wanted me to be. Which is also why I connect so much to Spencer, because so much of her story was who she wants to be versus who everyone else wants her to be.
I know you said in the past you dealt with some hard personal stuff, like an eating disorder. What do you think it is about high school that makes people turn to unhealthy methods of coping?
You have this thing that is sort of latent. It’s circumstances that pull the trigger. In high school, you’re going through so many changes. I do not fault any parent anywhere; it’s really hard to create a safe environment where you are allowing your child to grow up and away from you, but also one where your kid feels like they can come talk to you. For me personally, I felt like my mental state and my emotional state were threatening to get out and if I let it out everyone would hate me. I think a lot of kids keep everything inside. It’s because they don’t even know who they are. High school is a place that automatically puts you in the spotlight—What are you? Where do you fit in? Are you this? Are you that? Go there. Be happy.
Did you go through a party phase in college?
No, not at all. Because when I got to college, I wanted to study what I’d been waiting 18 years of my life to study. I just went hardcore into acting. My late nights were staying up with my friends reading plays and experimenting with scenes, and it was so tame. My party years actually came, hilariously, after college. I was like, “Oh, wow, I don’t have any tests to study for.” But they were still my favorite years of my life. I think it was my junior and senior years of college. They were just complete excitement and possibility and happiness.
If you could say one thing to your younger self, what would it be?
Chill out and enjoy the moment.