Troian Bellisario still feels like a bit of an outsider in Hollywood — and maybe that’s because she is one. She’s never felt completely comfortable under the blinding lights of the Sunset Strip. Despite being born and raised in Los Angeles, and the daughter of successful producer parents, Bellisario hasn’t yet found her place in the industry. For the “Pretty Little Liars” star, it’s a wonderful freedom.
In many ways, Bellisario is at that critical point in her career. With the end of “Pretty Little Liars” in sight (though unconfirmed by the network, Bellisario remains candid about Season 7 being her last), there’s an opportunity to forge her own trail, to become the actress, writer and creator she wants to be.
“I haven’t quite found where I fit in the world of Hollywood, which is weird because I grew up here,” Bellisario told MTV News. “Even when I was driving down the street looking at billboards — even when I was on a billboard for “Pretty Little Liars” — I never really felt like I fit in.”
Those feelings of exclusion and her intimate insecurities have framed Bellisario’s career from an early age. After graduating valedictorian of her class, she attended Vassar College for a couple of months before taking a break for her own mental health. Bellisario struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager, and her time at Vassar only her paralyzed her self-worth and intensified her need for perfection. “I would withhold food or withhold going out with my friends, based on how well I did that day in school,” she said in the January 2014 issue of Seventeen magazine.
The young Angelino ultimately transferred to the University of Southern California after taking some time for herself. Shortly after earning her degree in fine arts, Bellisario planned to move to New York to pursue a career on the stage, but a chance audition in Hollywood changed her trajectory. She stumbled into television on a whim, booking the very first pilot she ever auditioned for: “Pretty Little Liars.”
“When I was auditioning for Spencer, I thought there was no way that I was going to get it, that I was actually going to book this pilot,” she said. “I didn’t think I wanted to be on television. And then when they were like, ’No, actually, we want you as Spencer,’ I was like, ’Alright. This is going to fall through. You’re going to fire me.'”
They didn’t. Instead, Bellisario landed the role of Spencer Hastings on ABC Family’s new series “Pretty Little Liars,” adapted from Sara Shepard’s popular book series of the same name. The show became a ratings hit for the fledgling network, sparking social media trends and Tumblr chatter worldwide. Six and a half seasons later and “PLL” is a juggernaut; it’s a machine. However, that doesn’t mean Bellisario hasn’t struggled with feeling out of place in Rosewood.
Whatever Bellisario thought about her place in the series, and whether she belonged there or not, it wasn’t stopping or slowing down for her to find out.
“In several ways, whenever I felt like I was out of place or confused, and I would talk to the writers about it, suddenly, they would give me ’Spencer Goes To Radley in the Third Season,'” she said. “That stemmed from me going into the writers’ room, and saying, ’I don’t know how to play this character without her going insane. She’s been through too much.’ And they were like, ’OK, great. You’re going to Radley next season.'”
As one of the four main leads on “Pretty Little Liars,” Bellisario spends nine months of the year filming on the Warner Brothers lot. In between 12-hour days and delirious night shoots, the 30-year-old actress expels her energy on independent projects. Whether it’s starring as Juliet in a queer adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” or playing a female soldier reeling in the aftermath of a violent sexual assault, Bellisario tends to embody characters who are layered and nuanced. Her latest onscreen role is no different.
As Lucie, a victim of abuse in Kevin and Michael Goetz’s horror film “Martyrs,” Bellisario portrays her most demanding, both physically and mentally, character yet. A remake of French director Pascal Laugier’s extreme 2008 horror film of the same name, Bellisario signed on to the controversial project because of its central heroines — not for its sickening, genre-defining subject matter.
“Even though ’Pretty Little Liars’ skews a little bit horror, I feel like everybody should do their one horror film, at least once,” she said, noting that she was “raised” on a steady diet of extreme horror films. “It’s kind of like a rite of passage. But the cool thing about this horror film was that there’s no sex, there’s no sexualization, it’s purely about two girls and their love for one another as friends — and also, their power and their will to survive.”
“I had never seen a character like Lucie, one who from the very beginning you think she’s the villain and then by the end, you realize that it’s completely different,” she added. “So for me, I was just so blown away by the character of Lucie and the relationship between her and Anna.”
This film, unlike its disturbing predecessor, isn’t based on the grounds of nihilism, a common thread throughout the horror genre. In fact, the “PLL” star said she was “too scared” to watch the original film. “I just lived that, and I wasn’t sure if I could go back into that world and watch it.” Instead, Lucie’s story is one of strength, determination and the unflinching will to survive.
“When I sat down with the directors, I was like, ’I’m a little bit scared because I’ve never done a film like this,'” Bellisario said. “I know a lot of people say, ’Why do we need more gore and violence in our world? There’s so many awful things happening when you turn on the news. Why do you want to do this?’ And, you know, what they both said to me was, ’We’re both fathers, and we both have daughters, and horror is a genre that is incredibly successful and people are going to make horror films, but what we like about this film is that it really celebrates the strength and the power of this friendship between two women.’ And these are two incredibly strong female characters. That, to me, was something completely different than what I had heard about the genre, which was, More blood! More blood! Slash! Gore!”
“It’s one thing to say a demon is never going to chase me around and rip off my head after I just had sex with my boyfriend — that’s what happens in a movie sometimes — but what happens to Lucie, who was brutalized from a very young age in the name of religion, is very real,” she added. “I couldn’t get it out of my head, whether I agreed with its depiction or not.”
Bellisario filmed “Martyrs” on nights and weekends in between shoots on “Pretty Little Liars.” Up until this point in her career, the show’s nine-month filming schedule has dictated the kinds of projects available to her.
“There was a week straight where I would shoot all night on ’Martyrs’ and then go straight to ’Pretty Little Liars,'” she said. “For me, the only way that I’m going to wrap my head around doing that, because you’re not eating or sleeping or talking to anybody for a month, you have to believe and love the character that you’re playing. I wouldn’t say yes to doing that for a character that I thought was reduced or thin because that’s exhausting. It would have to be somebody that I was really hungry to play.”
However, with “Pretty Little Liars” nearing the end of its run, Bellisario has begun to think of life, and career, after Spencer Hastings — and the thought has been equal parts creatively thrilling and absolutely terrifying.
“I am so excited to see what’s in store for me, and then at the same time, I know that I’m going to be freshly out of my 20s, and for the first time in my life, since I left college, unemployed,” Bellisario said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when I don’t have the show to go back to, but at the same time, I feel so excited because it’s a very rare opportunity that I’ve had, to be a young actor who’s been asked to turn up to set, often multiple sets, every single day since I’ve left my training. And that is an insane secondary level of education at the school of life. So I’m very excited and also very nervous to see what’s going to happen next year.”
Of course, Bellisario isn’t just pursuing a career in front of the screen. She wants to do it all — act, write, produce and even, one day, direct. She recently financed her first feature screenplay, a project seven years in the making. The indie film, titled “Feed,” stars Bellisario and “Harry Potter” alum Tom Felton as 18-year-old twins Olivia and Matthew Grey, who were “born into a world of privilege and high expectations.”
“I’m nervous,” Bellisario said. “I want to make so many other movies. For the rest of my life, I want to continue to write and act in and maybe one day direct. But I want to continue to create in this medium. It’s a really nerve-wracking thing to step out with your first feature because if it doesn’t go over well, you have the task of picking yourself up and saying, ’Am I going to continue, even if this wasn’t as successful as I hoped it would be?'”
“And then if it does go well, then it’s like, now I have to figure out how to keep doing this thing.”
For Bellisario, bringing “Feed” to life was an “insane struggle.” Given her limited amount of time between shooting “PLL,” Bellisario fought to get her film financed. Though, she often found herself not being taken seriously by studios and financiers. “Because I’m a name in television, studios or financiers don’t trust you with a feature,” she said. “I’m not a proven feature actor, nor am I a proven feature writer. This is my first script. It’s my first leading role in a feature film.”
So, after years of telling herself, “If I don’t make ’Feed’ next year, I’m never going to make it,” Bellisario had finally accepted that she was never going to make her first feature. That is, until a friend stepped in to give her a much-needed boost of confidence.
“I just really fully accepted that I was never going to make this movie. I was like, ’Maybe, if I want to, when I’m like 40, I’ll direct it.’ I completely gave up on making this film. But it took my best friend and collaborator, and trusted director of 10 years [Tommy Bertelsen]. took it from me. He said, ’As long as you show up to these meetings, and you support me in what I’m saying, we’re going to do this.’ He didn’t really give me an option. I was completely blown away that he took my dream, when I had completely given up on it, and made it his dream and then we made it our dream — and them we made it a reality.”
“I hope, now, when I have my next feature, if ’Feed’ does well, then studios have a little bit more faith in me and people will want to come onboard,” she added. “So things will be easier for me there.”
Until then, Bellisario will happily continue to find herself within the artifice of Hollywood, while redefining her own measurements of success. She doesn’t need to see her name up in lights to know that she’s made it — and most importantly, made something authentic.
“I think that’s the reason that I choose these roles that are complicated or complex,” she said. “I don’t know what I am yet as a person. I don’t know where I fit in, which is kind of this wonderful freedom.”