Like Regina George, Heather Chandler, Heather Duke, and Heather McNamara (the Heathers) before her Pretty Little Liars’ Alison DiLaurentis is the most cunning of mean girls, highly intelligent, fearless in the face of authority, and able to take down a classmate or so-called friend with a single quip. But unlike those big screen mean girls, half-way through the ABC Family’s break-out hit’s fourth season, Alison, as portrayed by the wise-beyond-her-years Sasha Pieterse, 17, is beginning to show cracks in the veneer of her perfectly malevolent personality (Alison revealed uncharacteristic tenderness toward one of the Liars in the most recent episode).
It’s a foregone conclusion that without Alison there would be no Liars. The quorum of high school girls seeking to pull back the curtain on their collective blackmailer (appropriately, if not ironically, named A), grew out of Alison’s machinations as the ruthless leader of their school, and their bond was galvanized by her disappearance in the show’s pilot, and later by her murder.
Alison’s story, told primarily in flash backs, with a few moments that hint that she may still (somehow) be lurking around the tiny fishbowl that is Rosewood, Penn., is completely nuanced in the hands of Pieterse, who breathes fresh life into what could have been a stock character. It’s a hat trick that Pieterse, who was 12 when she shot the PLL pilot (as was revealed at a forum at the Paley Center in Los Angeles this June), has quite literally grown up on set, deftly lending more and more insight into a character who can’t really age (as she is presumed dead).
But Pieterse, a native of South Africa, who moved to the states with her family when she was just a toddler, was already an acting veteran by the time she landed the role of Alison. Her career really kicked off in 2002 when she scored the role of Buffy in the remake of the beloved ‘60s series Family Affair. She went on to play a recurring role in the cult favorite Heroes. But the actress, who also has a successful music career, is not limited to television.She’s taken on choice roles in movies including Robert Rodriguez’sThe Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl (3-D), and the indie darlingGood Luck Chuck. This summer Pieterse made the LGBT film fest rounds with the future teen classic GBF (Gay Best Friend).
On the brink of PLL’ssummer finale and the World War A television event, SheWired chatted with Pieterse about the show’s success, the Halloween episode, Alison’s soft spot for Emily, and just what is up with the creepy Mrs. DiLaurentis (Ali’s mom).
SheWired: First off, PLL swept the teen choice awards!
Sasha Pieterse: It was absolutely amazing. I can’t believe they honored us that much with seven awards. That’s mind-boggling. I think I speak on behalf of all of us when I say that it’s extraordinary. Really, our show wouldn’t be anything without the fans. We’ve had such amazing support from the beginning. The fact that they like it in return is really amazing for us.
Sasha and PLL cast at the Teen Choice Awards
The summer season finale is already upon us. Are you still shooting the season or are you on hiatus?
SWe only have a few episodes left (of the entire fourth season). We’ll be done in the beginning of November. We only have five, six episodes left, which will go by so fast.
When did you begin shooting for the season?
We film April to November. We have 24 episodes in a season, which is kind of unheard of these days. We’re really thankful for it.
And you already have a fifth season that you’ve been signed on for…
We do, which is also kind of unheard of in this business -- to be already confirmed for a fifth season. It makes it great for the writers too. They do this slightly anyway, but now they don’t have to worry about being picked up, so they’re going for it. They have a lot of the fifth season already sketched out, and of course they won’t tell us anything. We’re kind of in the dark for the most part, but it’s really exciting.
Do you know Ali’s trajectory at all ahead of time? As an actor, how do you justify her motivation when you don’t know where she’s headed?
I know a little bit more than the fans, obviously. But they really don’t tell us a lot. We do have several secrets that some of the other cast members don’t know. I know quite a bit of what’s going on with Alison now.
But, Keegan knew that he was A from the first season (or knew that he was going to be involved from the first season), and he didn’t tell anyone. So when we found out we were really mad at him for not telling us. When we found out we were so shocked and angry about that.
And so were the fans.
Yeah they were, and it all turned out. But it’s a very interesting process. We’re in the dark for the most part. Sometimes we kind of band together and try to figure out what each other knows.
In our production office we have, literally, peoples faces and pins in them, and then the red string connecting the dots – just like in a detective’s office or something that would be in A’s lair. It’s really funny when they (writers and producers) have to keep track of it just like anyone else would. It’s a really cool thing to go and look at it. We have to sneak in to go and look.
You have to be kind of A-like to get in there.
Yes, you know, put on a black hoodie and some gloves and slide in there after dark. When we get a script we’re all excited because we’re like, “Oh, that’s what’s happening,” and then we’re like, “No, that’s not what’s happening.”
Ali is isolated from what happens in the here and now. How exciting is it for you when you do get to do group scenes with the ensemble?
It’s awesome. We don’t get to that so often. It’s usually with one of them or two of them – not all four. But we have a lot of fun. Alison always picks on them, and when they’re in a group she kind of targets all of them. It’s an interesting way for me to think. I mean, yes, Alison is very manipulative and she can be mean and all that. But every scene is different and there are so many layers to her character. Even though she’s disappeared and we’re not sure if she’s dead or alive, playing those flashbacks, I still have to tie it in to what’s going on in the story as of now, and think of how the girls are feeling and target them in that way.
In the last episode we saw an uncharacteristically tender moment between Ali and Emily. We’re getting insight into Ali’s character, and it seems to me that there’s more to her than meets the eye. Like with Mrs. DiLaurentis – I don’t think Ali was just born “the bad seed.” Something is up with her mother.
I completely agree with you, I have to say.
Do we know that for sure, or is that your instinct?
Well, I don’t know for sure. There are definitely some suspicions on my side, and I think I’ve pinpointed a few – not really that I can share with you – but you’re definitely on the right track with that.
As far as the tenderness with Emily goes, Alison has a very soft spot for Emily, and likewise, Emily has always been infatuated with Alison. They have a special connection for sure, and actually, you see a lot more of that in the last half of this season, and probably in the fifth season as well. That plays a really big part in Emily’s life, and just the way Alison reacted as well. Those moments weren’t fake for Alison either. Sure, she has hidden agendas, but she definitely does care for Emily – a lot. And she trusts her. You’ll definitely see the product of that.
Emily (Shay Mitchell) and Alison season one.
Do you have a backstory for yourself as to why Alison took Emily under her wing?
I think she sees innocence in Emily and the genuineness in her heart. Even in the books you see that it’s something rare for Alison to have, so I think she admires that about Emily. Alison and Spencer’s relationship – they kind of go head to head a lot. And I think Alison deep down respects Spencer’s character. With Aria I think she thinks she can kind of keep her under her thumb a little bit. And Hanna -- Alison tries to help her in a backwards sort of way. Hanna’s character to Alison is so fun to mess with. But when it comes to Emily she has a soft spot for her, and I think she see the real goodness in her heart. It’s something that she’s drawn to. It’s a completely different aspect to her life, because obviously, there are a lot of messy, crazy situations that are going on in her life.
With the summer season finale imminent, the next thing we have to look forward to is the Halloween episode – and those are always epic. What can you tell us about this year’s episode?
The Halloween episode is probably one of my favorite episodes so far. There’s a lot in the second half of the season that I adore, but the Halloween episode is phenomenal, and I love the way they’ve done it. Not just for the answers you get, but for the way it looks. The cinematography is awesome. It’s our first real look at Ravenswood. It is a cursed down, so naturally, that is the best place to go for Halloween right?
Are there any costumes we can look forward to, or can you not talk about that?
I think I would get in so much trouble. I can tell you that it takes you into a whole different time. Ravenswood is on its own time. A cheat sheet – if you look at the synopsis for Ravenswood, it’s a cursed town dating back to World War II. You know, the girls are always prepared for those kind of things. It’s a very high-intensity episode.
It’s such an interesting, cool combination with the costumes that they’re wearing, what they’re doing in the episode, and (laughs) Hanna, as usual (the way Ashley plays Hanna is awesome, and I don’t think anyone can do the same with her character), is hysterical. She’s just hysterical.
The episode is very satisfying. Marlene King said, “This is the season for answers,” and I think, more so in the second half of the season because it gets so meaty and has so many surprises you would never dream of. I love the way they’re going with it.
Alison and Spencer (Troian Bellisario) Halloween episode season two.
Speaking of the Liars in Ravenswood, we got a glimpse of Spencer and Toby there earlier this season, and the writers/director threw in some really strong visual references to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I’m a movie buff who loves this aspect of PLL. Are you into the film and literary references the show makes?
What I love about it is that it’s not just your average teen show. The writers put so much thought into it, and we have a younger generation of viewers, but at the same time, our viewers go up to 50-year-old women. On average, 13 to 50 is kind of our age group. What’s so cool about that is that the writers have taken that opportunity and have smarter remarks. Spencer’s the one that really says the most, and she knows everything about –well, anything about everything really – but at the same time, it’s so smart because of that.
They’ll tie it into something that they’re studying in school, to what A’s doing. It’s inspired by Psycho, by all those kinds of movies, and it makes for a lot smarter remarks and a smarter story, really, and it ties things together in way that isn’t your average teen show. Someone who’s into it will pick up on those little things, and it makes it more special.
I want to switch gears for a moment to GBF. How much fun was it to work with Megan Mullally and Natasha Lyonne?
Let me just say that they’re brilliant, and not only brilliant, they are sweethearts. Everyone on that set was so down to earth and so amazing to work with. Our cast from Pretty Little Liars is awesome. I’ve never had a bad experience in my career with cast members, and that’s a great blessing. On GBF we love each other so much. And Megan Mullally – oh my word—is she brilliant. I love that she was in a lot of the trailer, because her moments are classic. She’s such a rock star.
I think it’s one of those movies that’s going to be a cult classic, kind of like Mean Girls, Clueless and Jawbreaker. It’s the new teen movie of the decade, and I think that will carry on for a while. It was a real treat to be in that movie.
Sasha and the cast of GBF.
Between starring in GBF, and I must tell you that all of my gay male friends who watch PLL just love Ali because she’s that classic mean girl… With both of those roles you’re pretty much poised to be a gay icon. Are you ready for that kind of responsibility?
(Laughs) Oh my gosh, of course! Of course! That’s so funny that you say that because, honestly, I was expecting that with Alison as well. I knew… I mean, she’s like a Regina George. I have a lot of gay male friends as well, and they were so excited when I was doing this movie. And of course, Alison as well, but they fell in love with GBF, and I don’t blame them at all. It’s an honor.
It made quite a splash at the LGBT film festivals this summer. Do you think it has a wider appeal than just that demographic?
The film appeals to a wide audience. It kind of turned out to be one of those things where you actually don’t pay attention to that part of the movie (the main character being gay) It’s there. It’s underlying, but at the same time, it’s just a part of it. It’s just a part of life for them. It’s a very cool and modern way of putting it across.
Which is exactly what PLL has done with Emily’s story.
That’s the cool thing. Only when you really think about it do you notice it. Emily being a lesbian, it wasn’t a huge shocker, we didn’t lose viewers. In the show the girls embraced it and they supported her. It was like, “That’s a part of you? Okay, cool. We love you, that’s awesome.” It wasn’t a shocker. We saw Emily and her mom, and how her mom handled that. The girls and the rest of society embraced her for that, and I think it was an important way of showing it. After that it wasn’t a big deal anymore. I think it was important for those episodes to show that (Emily’s coming out), and now it’s just a part of life. It’s a special part of Pretty Little Liars. Every character has a relationship issue, or a life issue, so that was just Emily’s.
Is there anything else you would like to say about the season finale?
They’re calling it “World War A. “ It’s a perfect slogan, because from now on, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a war going on between Red Coat, A, and all these other characters. It’s a very exciting episode. It will leave you speechless, really. It will leave you craving for the Halloween episode and the second half of the season, but in all kinds of good ways.