Sorcerer Radio’s Kristen Hoetzel and Aljon Go, hosts of the WDW Tiki Room weekly radio show recently had a chance to speak with Troian Bellisario of ABC Family’s original series Pretty Little Liars. Bellisario portrays Spencer Hastings, a straight-A student and overachiever from a family that only expects the best. With the pressure bearing down on her from her family, Spencer feels like she must live up to the high standards set by her perfect sister Melissa.
Bellisario previously had a recurring role on the television series “NCIS” and guest starring parts on “First Monday,” “JAG” and “Quantum Leap,” among others. She was seen in the theatrical motion picture “Last Rites,” as well as the independent films “Peep World,” “Consent” and “Billboard Dad.” On stage, she appeared in “Farragut North” and “Equivocation” at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. With The Casitas Group, a theatre company of which she is a founding member, Bellisario appeared in an exclusive engagement of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” as well as a Sam Shepard double feature: “Fool for Love” and “True West.” She has also performed in university theatre productions of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “The Suicide,” “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Machinal.”
Bellisario lives in Los Angeles, where she graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Theatre, earning a bachelor of fine arts in acting. She enjoys dance, writing and playing the guitar. Here’s an excerpt from the interview.
WDW Tiki Room: We’ve certainly seen a really great evolution for Spencer’s character since Season One. Not even just with her family, but of course through relationships with her friends, the Liars, and of course with Toby as well. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about the evolution of Spencer through those three aspects.
T. Bellisario: It’s funny, it’s actually kind of difficult for me to speak about her evolution just because I’m steeped in it and I just feel like there is so much more that she can do. I think Spencer’s biggest evolution has been being able to let go in terms of she’s learned through getting her friends back how to keep friends and how to be supportive. I think Spencer because of the family that she grew up with has a very strong and black and white sense of what is right and what is wrong and she sometimes thinks that she can control other people.
She’s learned to kind of just be supportive of her friends and not let that get in the way of their friendship. I still think she has a long way to go with that in terms of being judgmental of other people and I think her biggest lesson in that was her relationship with Toby. She really ran the gamut as far as thinking that he was the one who killed Alison; he was the one who might be involved with A, and he was their mortal enemy and now there is nobody she holds closer than her friends and Toby.
WDW Tiki Room: Last episode we found out that Ian might still be alive. How does that change the dynamic between Spencer and Melissa?
T. Bellisario: Well, it’s funny because I totally understand where Melissa is coming from. This is the father of her child. This is the man that she saw herself being connected to for the rest of her life. To hear the possibility that he could have killed somebody in the past and attempted to kill her sister—there is almost a safety and finality in his being dead.
If he is alive—if she does, and he comes back and she now has the opportunity to choose between believing me and absolving him and choosing to go with him or believing me and getting away from him or you know destroy her relationship with her sister and leaving with a murderer. Her allegiance is to this man. It just makes things a lot more complicated than if he were to be dead and then we would just be dealing with Melissa mourning him. It only makes things more twisted, as all things in Rosewood end up being.
WDW Tiki Room: Do you think that Spencer tries to put herself away from the girls or tries to hide who she is a little?
T. Bellisario: I don’t know, I guess I feel like their relationship is a myriad of different things. Of course, when you consider it from a bunch of different aspects, I think when you consider Spencer’s coolness factor in the group she’s probably a bit of a pariah. As I’m coming to realize throughout the script, Spencer is really the sort of Nancy Drew of the group.
She’s the one who’s always got a dedication to and she kind of plays that by default especially because of the things that are going on in her family with Melissa and Ian, but there is a lot of—with Aria and her relationship with her family, the family’s problems that are going on, but also her relationship with Ezra. Hanna is struggling with relationship issues and finding herself within the relationship with Caleb, and also the relationships with her mother and father. It’s the same thing with Emily.
Spencer definitely, I think, has these familial issues that there is something that she’s not willing to let go of in regard to Alison’s death. I think Spencer, because she’s a control freak, she’s the one who takes A the most harshly. She cannot stand having someone play her like a puppet. I think in that sense that’s where Spencer kind of fits in with the group, is that she’s always the one who’s willing to run out into the woods in the middle of the night if it means finding another clue. Where I think some of the other girls might just want to forget about it, leave it alone, let’s not play this game anymore and that she just can’t let that go.
WDW Tiki Room: How are you personally different than or similar to your character?
T. Bellisario: Well, Spencer and I are very similar in that when I was Spencer’s age I was very studious. I was the valedictorian of my class; my academics meant everything to me and my family put a lot of pressure on me to do well, but it was also mostly coming from myself. I felt that I had to be the best and the brightest at everything otherwise I wasn’t worth anything.
I think Spencer definitely feels that and that’s something that I have grown out of. I’ve only grown out of it with age and by having life experiences and that’s more important to me. Spencer hasn’t had those life experiences yet. She’s truly steeped in the middle of trying to be perfect in every way. I would say that that’s the biggest similarity and difference between Spencer and I. I hope one day Spencer will get to go through the sort of life-rocking experiences that I have that make you re-evaluate what’s really important and get off your own back a little bit.
WDW Tiki Room: A is almost kind of like a super villain on the show, so I was wondering, what would you say are Spencer’s super powers and her vital super hero accessory?
T. Bellisario: That’s great. Well, the interesting thing about Spencer, Spencer has a whip-smart intellect. It’s both her super power and it’s both her kryptonite because she is able to, I think, almost be ahead of A at certain points and come up with plans to try to trap A or to try to trick A. So she has this incredible mind that’s able to get the girls as close as they possibly can to discovering who A is, or discovering how to protect themselves at the last minute.
That also is, like I said, her greatest weakness because her mind works so fast sometimes she doesn’t take a moment to think and determine the difference between A’s red herrings and A’s actual moves. Just as often as Spencer is right about something she also grabs something that A gives her and runs with it and it’s hugely wrong. It’s what she did with Toby when she just adamantly went this is the guy; this is who killed Alison with finding proof and she was very headstrong about it and it got them into nothing but trouble and it was something that she had to come around and accept that she was completely wrong on.
WDW Tiki Room: Is there is story behind how your parents came up with your name?
T. Bellisario: Yes, it’s actually an old family name, a family surname. My great grandmother was Maria Giuseppe Troian Bellisario—it means woman of Troy. So I’m fortunate enough that in a family full of Michaels and Nicks and Davids, I got a pretty epic, historical name.
WDW Tiki Room: Does your family have a nickname for you?
T. Bellisario: Everything. Usually people call me T or one of my friends call me T-Rizzle—anything with T, T-bone, T-bird, T-Rex, whatever.
WDW Tiki Room: Do you know who the mysterious character “A” is or is that being kept secret from the cast by the producers?
T. Bellisario: Oh, my gosh, I feel like I could answer this question a million times and nobody would ever believe me. They will not tell us who it is. To be honest I don’t even think they know who it is. I don’t mean that they don’t have a few different choices, but every time I speak to them they are keeping their options as open as possible. I think that—maybe Marlene, our executive producer and our creator of the show has a hard fast choice and she’s now working towards that, but I remember there was a time in the writer’s room where they told me she has six different options for people that could be “A”.
WDW Tiki Room: Spencer has been in so many life-threatening experiences – how do you, as an actress, mentally prepare for these kinds of scarier scenes?
T. Bellisario: It’s quite hard, because to be honest we’re always having our lives threatened. There is always something that if it were actually happening to you, if the things that were happening to the girls were happening to me I feel like I would just need a break and I would ask my parents to commit me to a mental institution and just leave me there for my own safety.
You can’t play that all the time. There are moments when A threatens the girls and it’s just a nuisance and there are moments when A threatens the girls and it throws Spencer into a rage. It’s like as human beings we don’t ever have one reaction so I think it’s determining where we are in the story, what was the last time A tried to get under our skin, what are the stakes at this present moment and really connecting to all of those things to determine is this truly a scary moment. Or is this a moment where I completely lose my self-composure or is this a moment where all four of us are in the jungle and we’re all being scared and if I go to pieces everybody else goes to pieces so Spencer has to be stronger.
That’s what gets you out of the moment of oh, my God, I just have to feel scared again because I might jump off a cliff if I thought that that was the only way that I was going to be doing this acting for however many seasons this show is going to be running. It’s not just about that, it’s about what are the circumstances? Am I completely alone? How much fear do you show when you’re alone? Is it more, is it less? It’s those things.
WDW Tiki Room: What do you do when you are not filming? I know that you spend a lot of time with the other girls and I was wondering if there was anything that you guys like to do when you have free time on the set?
T. Bellisario: Oh free time on the set. For me personally, I try to sleep if there is any free time because we’re all really tired all the time pretty much so sleeping is a big thing. I also try to write and to just to work on other projects that I am trying to keep afloat while I’m doing this.
WDW Tiki Room: When you’re reading the script do you find yourself getting surprised by what’s happening? Do you have oh my gosh moments about realizations and events that come up in the show?
T. Bellisario: Absolutely. Now I’ve spent over two years as Spencer and so when something happens to her it’s very close to my heart. Even when something happens to the other girls that I really love, I love being surprised and the great thing about the show is that I’m guaranteed one of those oh my gosh moments when I’m alone reading the script all the time. That’s why we’re always so excited and so antsy to get the script.
WDW Tiki Room: You’ve done some movies and some live theater and some smaller television roles in the past – how are you enjoying this larger role on a regular basis in comparison?
T. Bellisario: Yes, it’s very, very different. I was actually just speaking to this really wonderful guy on our crew last night about this because even though I grew up in TV, I studied theater. One of the things that I love about theater is that you have a huge rehearsal process to explore one section of a narrative of a play.
One of the hardest things for me is—not hard as in difficult, but hard as in I feel like something can be left behind in the speed of television, but then again it’s also the excitement of what you’re doing. You really only have a couple of takes to get it. You’ve got to bring what you have to the table and your opinion and everybody is there to play fast and hard and you just try to do the best you can under the circumstances.
The other thing that I’ve learned that I feel is the most important thing about this job for me is that I’ve learned truly how to carry on. When you’re working ten months out of the year on something there are going to be times when you have bad days. There are going to be times when you aren’t tough enough. There are going to be times when you’re sick and I think a lot of people have a lot of ideas about how glamorous it all is and how fun it all is.
Sometimes it’s just making sure that you are giving everybody what they need and you’re doing your best job for the show, and you’re trying not to want to die from 104-degree fever and to keep up good morale for the crew. I’m not saying it’s a terrible experience, I’m just saying I think that’s what this show has taught me is how to be a professional.
WDW Tiki Room: Aljon is an avid guitarist and we notice that you do play guitar. What type of music do you like to play?
T. Bellisario: Oh my God, that’s so sweet of you to say that I play guitar. What an exaggeration! I’m only saying that because I literally started teaching myself guitar what was a while ago, but I really have not gotten to – really taken to it as much as I would like to. As far as guitar goes, I mean I originally started playing guitar so that I could just play myself—one of my favorite bands, Bright Eyes, song.
Then that morphed into trying to play an Elliott Smith song, and so I could play myself Arcade Fire songs; it really was just sort of I wanted to be able to do that because whenever anybody sits down in front of me and picks up a guitar and music comes out it’s like one of the most magical things.
If I could one day be capable of doing that it would be really, really exciting, but as far as music goes, yes, I really—my favorites are probably Bright Eyes, Elliott Smith, Arcade Fire, and the White Stripes. I think Jack white, especially on the guitar is a god. He’s crazy.
WDW Tiki Room: The show has become so known for its fashion and style – have you been able to keep any of the things you’ve worn on the show or like what’s your favorite piece you’ve worn on the show?
T. Bellisario: No, everybody always asks me that question and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh! You must have such great clothes.” I’m like no I go home in pajamas every day. We unfortunately are not allowed to keep anything and that’s because they want to keep it in case they have to revisit the item or we want to pull it up later. It’s like these girls really don’t go shopping all the time and yet they never wear the same outfit so they have to repeat certain pants and certain shirts and items like that.
WDW Tiki Room: If you could give your character Spencer one piece of advice what would it be?
T. Bellisario: Chill out. Seriously, take a chill pill. Life is too short and you need to spend one night maybe going to the movies instead of like sneaking around the house and trying to find Ian. Maybe sleep, maybe find time to do your homework. I don’t know how Spencer maintains such good grades and like literally never does her homework.
WDW Tiki Room: I know that your family comes from a great pedigree, great acting. If you couldn’t act what profession would you be in?
T. Bellisario: That’s actually kind of funny because I remember when I first wanted to act my parents were supportive, but it was that they were like please if you can find something else in the world, don’t do this. So it wasn’t even they’re like oh we’ve been waiting for you to arrive, welcome to the family business kind of thing.
If I could do anything else, in a fantasy world I’d be rock star. I mean who doesn’t want to be a rock star? I think that was a quote from Sam Sheppard and Sean Penn when they were making the so-called disaster The Late Henry Moss somebody asked them what they would do if they couldn’t be actors and writers and they were like, “What we’d always want to do—be rock stars, because that’s what everybody wants to be.”
When I was younger, I had a very intense obsession with death and I was fascinated by forensic scientists, but also morticians. I had this draw to work with the dead in some sense so maybe I would go back to that. I don’t know.
WDW Tiki Room: When you’re not working on your own show what other TV shows do you watch in your time off?
T. Bellisario: I have not had cable for the past five years and I really never watch TV. The only show that I really ever got into was when I got all five seasons of Six Feet Under on DVD in college and that became my obsession. Now I’m really trying to keep up with Game of Thrones because I read the pilot and I auditioned for it and I fell in love with it. I think they’re doing such an amazing job. Yes, I guess that’s really the only show that I keep up with, but I’m really more of a—if I have time I want to go see a movie because I like that containment.
Tune-in to all-new episodes of ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, airing on Tuesdays at 8/7c!
Pretty Little Liars Official Site: http://abcfamily.go.com/shows/pretty-little-liars
Hear the entire interview on Sorcerer Radio’s WDW Tiki Room with Kristen and Aljon – The Show About ALL THINGS DISNEY – Friday June 24 at 8 a.m./eastern – www.SRSounds.com
*Interview made in partnership with Sorcerer Radio, Chip and Company and ABC Family.