By Gina Marinelli
Like many Disney Channel stars that have come before, Rowan Blanchard is ready to take control of how she presents herself to the world. Longtime fans will recognize the 19-year-old as someone who’s not afraid to speak about her personal struggles with mental health and advocate for marginalized members of society, be it giving a speech on intersectional feminism at the 2017 Women’s March or encouraging fellow white, able-bodied folks to participate in Black Lives Matter protests this past summer. She’s also recently slain a Rodarte lookbook and Cultured magazine spread in extravagant styles you won’t likely find on a Girl Meets World set. But for all else who still associate Blanchard with her memorable childhood character, Riley Matthews, the upcoming second season of Snowpiercer is a major breakout moment, the opening of a new and action-packed chapter for the actress.
In the second season of the TNT sci-fi drama, which premieres today (January 25), Blanchard takes on the role of Alexandra Cavill, a character who only appeared in the final moments of the first installment’s cliffhanger finale. Snowpiercer tells the story of a 1001-car-long (give or take a few, depending on how much you’ve watched) train revolving around the world indefinitely. The globe itself is frozen, essentially lifeless, due to an experiment intended to reverse the devastating effects of global warming gone horribly wrong. Alexandra is the daughter of Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), the train’s recently overthrown leader, who was previously assumed dead having missed the train’s departure seven years prior. The passengers, plagued by class division and scarcity of resources, have only just emerged from a gruesome revolution when they meet Blanchard’s Alexandra. The season brings more of the exceptional teenager’s story to life in this frightening fantasy world.
As far-fetched as the premise may be, Blanchard knows a thing or two about living an unconventional teen’s life, and this role is her way of showing she’s ready and capable of work that looks nothing like what we’ve seen from her in the past. Also peculiar is the manner in which she talks about it. “This is my first time doing everything from home. So, that’s funny,” she tells MTV News by phone. Any traditional press tours or celebrations associated with Snowpiercer are, of course, happening remotely, which means we’re also catching the actress in her new home. “I moved to New York in July. I got my own place here and I’ve just been kind of setting up,” says the Los Angeles native. “I feel really lucky that I can have a comfortable setup and I’ve been able to do the things that I’ve wanted even in the midst of this pandemic. I’m super happy to be living here. It feels really creatively inspiring to me.”
Yet even on the day of our call, she couldn’t help but be reminded that Disney — or rather Disney Channel-star gossip — is sometimes closer than it seems. After all, that morning, a Google search for Blanchard caused headlines to pop up regarding former co-stars and love triangles that don’t actually concern the Snowpiercer actress. We weren’t about to discuss any of it, but funnily enough, she subtly winks to the headlines anyway, perhaps acknowledging the lingering reality of the kind of fame she’s had, even when she’s grown so far beyond it.
MTV News: Let’s get into Snowpiercer. How did the opportunity to work on the show come about?
Blanchard: I first heard of the show back when they were casting Season 1, which I think is pretty different than what I initially read. But the character of Alexandra was brought to me toward the end of Season 1, since that’s when she’s introduced. I just felt super excited and grateful to be a part of something with actors I really respect. Jennifer [Connelly] is so inspiring and special to me. To be on the same set as her was something I was really grateful for.
MTV News: I see you as someone who hasn’t really shied away from showing different sides of yourself, especially through your presence on social media. But this role is a big change of pace for anyone who knows you as the actress from Girl Meets World. Is that something you’re conscious about when taking on a new and different project?
Blanchard: I kind of expect that now, since Girl Meets World has been off-air for a while, people have the capacity to see me in whatever light I choose to present myself. I know that that’s probably naive to say because I have noticed — especially today — that Girls Meets World is pretty fresh still in people’s memories, which is funny because it feels really far away in my personal life. But I’m happy that, every opportunity I get, people embrace me and let me try out and experiment with different things that mean different things to me and different parts of myself. I’m really excited that Snowpiercer is coming out and people will have a different context for me.
MTV News: Do you also feel a creative pull toward working on something that’s such a contrast to what you’ve done in the past?
Blanchard: Yeah, I think I’m just really attracted to things that challenge me. And Snowpiercer is a legitimately challenging show for me to be a part of. It’s like playing pretend. All those things are fun challenges, and I just feel really excited to try out and test out what it’s like achieving in that kind of fantasy space. It’s a really nice challenge.
MTV News: How do you think your past roles in comedy and sitcoms have prepared you to play Alexandra Cavill?
Blanchard: Snowpiercer is one of the most challenging things that I’ve worked on because it feels legitimately like work making these really far-fetched scenarios appear and feel real. Making them resonate and making them feel tangible is actually really hard.
MTV News: Even as a viewer watching Snowpiercer, it can be a challenge to wrap your head around the dark theme: the threat of global warming, civil unrest. It also sometimes hits a little close to home. Is that part of what compelled you to be a part of it? Do you think it feels particularly relevant in 2021?
Blanchard: I mean, of course. I don’t really think of the films and the TV we do as having to change the world. I don’t think that’s necessarily important, but it’s definitely cool to have different fantasy worlds and think about the various degrees of how much the probability of things. Snowpiercer is a far-out storyline but there are certain elements of it that feel really relevant and tangible.
MTV News: So, Alexandra came in at the very last minute of Season 1 and basically threw everyone for a loop. What was it like joining a cast that nearly completed an entire season together, as well as a group of characters who literally just emerged from a bloody revolution?
Blanchard: Surprisingly, and thankfully, it was really nice. Everybody was super welcoming of me and made me feel really safe. It helped me work better to see how everybody had already had so many conversations about Snowpiercer. And getting to step into everybody else’s world made it surprisingly easier for me to develop my character, which I think makes sense.
It felt like I could place myself easier in the world because it had already been somewhat established.
MTV News: What qualities of Alexandra do you find most compelling? What were some of the most challenging and fun aspects to explore?
Blanchard: Gosh, well, it was really fun finding Alex’s humor because she’s so hard and tough, as kind of a security mechanism. It was fun finding the moments that could be just lighter: what makes her laugh, what touches her, what makes her feel vulnerable. A lot of that came from my scenes with Jennifer, which I was really thankful for.
One thing that was actually funny and hard to portray was how cold it is outside. That was actually kind of hilarious, figuring out how to make that real.
MTV News: Sure, 117 degrees below zero is pretty unfathomable. Was there anything specific you did to prepare?
Blanchard: Once I got onto the set and saw [the cast and set] physically, it became easier for me to conceptualize. Like, OK, what would it really be like having so few resources, answering to so many people, and being a part of this weird world where I’m half a child, but not really, because everyone’s been treating me like an adult my whole life.
MTV News: Has this show sparked ideas for new roles to take on, especially projects that are different than anything else you’ve done?
Blanchard: Being on Snowpiercer and seeing how fun it is to play somebody and be in fantasia-fake world, I just want to do more stuff that’s imaginative and creative, that’s harder to make real. It’s a really nice challenge for me as an actress to try parts where a lot of the things that make them difficult are making these far-fetched situations feel real. I want to play more things that challenge the fuck out of me because I think that Snowpiercer really challenges me, and I feel like the most gratified work-wise when I feel like I’m learning something.
MTV News: Since the second season wrapped at the start of the pandemic, how has that affected the premiere now?
Blanchard: I mean, I definitely am shocked to be doing all this press stuff from home. I’m sure that there would have been much grander premiere plans, which would have been really fun, but, you know, it’s an interesting year. We’re all just figuring it out. I’m hoping that. because more people are at home, it’ll work in the show’s favor and more people will see it.
MTV News: I can see that! I mean it’s a show that’s easy to binge, too, because you just keep wanting answers.
Blanchard: Yeah, I hope so. I’m really excited for people to see me in a different light and see me play something that’s really surprising for me and different for me.
MTV News: That said, how do you anticipate what the response might be to this new chapter for you?
Blanchard: It’s been a long time for me, personally, to be able to have a little more control over how people see me because — anybody who comes from Disney will tell you — it’s just extremely hard to break out of that and have people take you seriously. I’m really excited and thankful that this show’s a really good opportunity for me to be able to do that.