Scroll To Top

Pretty Little Liars' Troian Bellisario Plays a Queer, Modern Juliet for the Ages  

Pretty Little Liars' Troian Bellisario Plays a Queer, Modern Juliet for the Ages

Pretty Little Liars' Troian Bellisario Plays a Queer, Modern Juliet for the Ages

The Pretty Little Liars star plays Juliet in a fascinating, super-queer short of Romeo and Juliet, which screens at Newfest this weekend. 


“Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I'll no longer be a Capulet,” is one of the most recognizable lines in all of Western literature. But when Pretty Little Liars star Troian Bellisario utters them as Juliet speaking to both a male Romeo (Brandon Crowder) and to a female Romeo (Tinuke Oyefule) in the fascinating and super-queer short film Still a Rose the words take on an entirely new meaning, imbuing the lines with gender and sexual fluidity.

The short, from Hazart (Matthew Stewart and Kyle Hasday), made its premiere in June at San Francisco’s renowned Frameline festival. This Sunday, Oct. 25, the film plays for east coast audiences at Newfest: New York’s LGBT Film Festival. Still a Rose marks Bellisario’s second collaboration with Hazart, a pair of Chapman University grads who caught the attention of Bellisario and fellow Liar Shay Mitchell when Stewart and Hasday were production assistants on Pretty Little Liars, Bellisario said in an interview with SheWired. Her first collaboration with Hazart featured Bellisario and Mitchell as sole survivors of a cult’s mass suicide in the gorgeously dystopian Immediately Afterlife.

Bellisario, 29, who's played smart and savvy Spencer Hastings on ABC Family’s juggernaut Pretty Little Liars for going on seven seasons, has also made a name for herself as an indie darling, starring in shorts like Immediately Afterlifeand Still a Rose, directing and starring in her short film Exiles (a take on what might have happened if Romeo and Juliet did not take their own lives), and playing the lead in the band The Head and the Heart’s heartrending period piece video “Another Story,” about tragic but enduring love between teen girls.

Hazart approached Bellisario, a confessed “Shakespeare nut” to star in Still a Rose, their reimagining of the ubiquitous Romeo and Juliet balcony scene that features the traditional heterosexual pairing of a female Juliet and a male Romeo, but swaps them out with a male Juliet (Will Branske) and a female Romeo. The result is a film that turns tradition on its head. Switching out the traditional pairing of Bellisario with Crowder for her female Romeo (played by Oyefule) not only imagines the danger of a same-sex pairing but also speaks to the fluidity of gender and the universality of love. Most compelling is the film’s close, which features rapid cutting of the four couples (female Juliet/male Romeo, female Juliet/female Romeo, male Juliet/male Romeo, male Juliet/female Romeo) in which they all nearly morph into one, making this Romeo and Juliet a tale to represent all of humanity.

Bellisario chatted with us about her early obsession with Shakespeare, her motivation for this very modern Juliet, Spencer Hastings’ appeal with queer women, and how the Pretty Little Liars set is like a “big sleepover.”

Do you recall your first introduction to Shakespeare?

I always knew I wanted to be an actor and I loved the theater. I remember being as young as fourth grade and being fascinated with my dad’s Complete Works of Shakespeare. It was this big, leather-bound book. I would always my dad to pull it down, and I really didn’t understand a lot of it. But my dad, he saw that I was interested in Macbeth, so he would show me a version of Macbeth, with Ian McKellen, or Hamlet. I would sit there and pore over the lines. There was something about iambic pentameter, and I remember, I was like 11… I went in to get my first agent. I went in there and said, “I really want to be an actor.”

She said, “Okay, I’d love to work with you.”

I said, “You need to see my work first. I’ve memorized Ophelia’s monologue for you.”

She’s looking at this girl who’s 11 and she’s like, “Yeah, let me see what you can do with Ophelia.” And I’m sure it was awful. I had no idea what I was doing, and she was so sweet. She let me sit there and try to be Ophelia at 11. I’ve always loved him (Shakespeare).

You would have been a kid when it came out… Were you obsessed with Claire Danes and Leo DiCaprio as Juliet and Romeo (in the Baz Luhrmann film)?

Oh, for sure. That was my jam every weekend.

When you were about 10…

That truly opened up a world of play within Shakespeare and modernization. When I wrote my first short film, Exiles, I wanted to explore these stories almost as if they were myths.  These are such classic stories, so many people know them. They work time after time. When Matt and Kyle (Hazart) came to me and wanted to mix up the gender within the couples there was a part of me that was like, “that’s going to be really exciting to have happen.”

What was it like for you to take a text you were very familiar with and adding the dimension of swapping out gender?

It’s interesting because we didn’t modernize the period, but it brought the danger back to the story. I was lucky to grow up in Los Angeles, in America and nobody told me which boy or man I could fall in love with. There’s no hatred between families here, there’s no long-term blood war, so something like Romeo and Juliet doesn't really play the way it did when families, and bloodlines, and arranged marriages were a real thing in the culture. In Western culture (they’re obviously a still in existence).

To me, making it a woman and a woman or making it a man and a man within a very wealthy family that brought back that there are a lot of places where that would be hidden. The danger became immediately real again. Suddenly you look at these two lovers and you say, “I know this story. I love this story.” And it suddenly doesn’t seem fair that just because they’re now a same-sex couple…

Or even the reverse -- I love when we get to have a female Romeo and a male Juliet. For me, it breathes new life into it. But in the playing of it, there was really nothing that needed to change.

When you’re doing theater, and I’ve done Romeo and Juliet a number of different ways, you’re always adjusting yourself to, as Juliet, your Romeo – this person has a different energy or comes at it a different way. When I was working with Tinuke or Brandon it was just working with two different Romeos. There was never a moment when I was like, “this is a girl.” It was just, “That’s my Romeo now. How does that change my energy as Juliet?”

Watching Will and what Will did as Juliet informed my Juliet, almost more than whatever Romeo I was across from. It was really more who Will and I were building together as a character.

Can you elaborate on that?

I never thought about it as masculine and feminine. I thought about it as the aggressor in the scene – the pursuer and the person being pursued. Juliet is one of the strongest women in Western literature. She’s a girl of all of 14 without any worldly experience, and she meets, falls in love and decides to marry completely against her family’s wishes. She’s incredibly and confident and really powerful. I don’t look at her power and say, “Oh that’s masculine power.” I look at her and say, “That’s a powerful character.”

That’s what Will and I were playing with. It wasn’t, is she being male or female? It’s when is she being active and when is she being passive?

Are there other classic text you would like to see benefit from this sort of examination?

(Jokes) Let’s have a Little Women with all men…

The great thing is that you can do anything with these texts. They’re so powerful. Sarah Bernhardt did a female Hamlet like 80 years ago. This idea has been around, and it’s powerful because you really just want to see what a specific human being is going to do with that role. The great thing about Sarah Bernhardt, I imagine at the time, is that she was such a powerful and moving actress that people wanted to see what she would do with any text. It didn’t matter whether she was playing a man or a woman.

What’s your ultimate Shakespeare role?

It’s changed. I adore Juliet. I’ve never gotten to play a full production of Juliet. I think that would be a dream for me. I’ve always loved Ophelia. As I get older I feel like I could approach now, and kind of touch, Lady Macbeth. She’s such a powerful an unapologetic character. To speak about sex, and gender, and power, and energy – what she does in the very beginning is ask the spirits of the world to “unsex” her, to remove, what was perceived then, as weaker or more feminine aspects so she could really become like a man in this world of men. That, to me, is a really interesting role, as are a lot of the comedies. Viola in Twelfth Night plays within the world of men as a man.

The other thing that’s really funny about this gender-swapping being totally new is that all of these female characters were played by men in dresses originally. The real intense shift was when a woman stood up on the stage for the first time and played a woman.

So true.

(Jokes) “What? This is crazy!” So, to take that back and put Juliet, again, as a man… We’re really just returning to what it was once. Those are a lot of the roles (I’d love to play). In the spirit, let’s just throw in a Hamlet.

Of course!

Ophelia’s great, but why not?

Between Still a Rose and your role in that beautiful The Head and the Heart video for “Another Story,” and the universal queerness of Pretty Little Liars, you must have amassed a lot of LGBT fans at this point. Do you get feedback from fans for queer roles you’ve played or about Spencer’s appeal?

I’ve spoken with a lot of LGBT publications, or even just my friends, especially my friends who identify as lesbian. I’ve been like, “Why do you think the Spencer thing really works for women? Because, you know, if I were watching and I were attracted to women, Emily (Shay Mitchell) is representing that, and also, she’s super hot.”

All of that is true.

(I asked) "What is it about Spencer?" And my friend turns around and says, “Well, it’s the Lauren Bacall voice. And, also, honestly, you’re smart. You play a smart woman.”

Troian Bellisario

Smart and savvy. It’s the whole Nancy Drew thing.

To me, that was the funniest moment. I was so proud to have a heterosexual character on the show be so beloved by the LGBT community. A lot of my gay male friends love Spencer. I’m super grateful. At this point, I’ve played a number of women who are attracted to women and they’re either struggling with it or confidently moving forward with it. I don’t know that it becomes a thing for me. I’ve been asked a lot of times, “What did you think about playing this character who’s a lesbian?” And I’m like, “I didn’t think about it.” It’s a person.

One of the many aspects of Pretty Little Liars that I love so much is the girl power. At the end of the day amidst the trouble with A, and various romantic pairings, the girls have each other’s backs. Can you speak to the importance of girls/women helping and supporting each other? 

That’s always been the core of our show. I feel incredibly fortunate that I work on a show that is written by a lot of really strong women, or men who adore women, directed by so many strong women, and that I’m surrounded constantly by a cast of strong women. I often look around when we’re all sitting around eating donuts, belching, and talking about, pretty openly, men. And I’m like, “Wow, sets like this are rare.” Sets that have women who don’t make other women feel like they’re not powerful enough, they’re not beautiful enough, they’re not skinny enough. Our set is like an extended sleepover with your best friends.

Pretty Little Liars

I love that.

I feel like a lot of sets are like that for guys. I think about Entourage or something, and I think about the women who come on to Entourage for a day, who are wearing a bikini for the entire day, who are playing a very beautiful, sexualized role, and it’s a bunch of dudes who get to sit around in comfortable clothes, t-shirts and sweatpants, and shoot the shit. (Adds a caveat) I know nothing about that set. I’m sure it’s a lovely, welcoming set. But do you know what I mean?

I would imagine that kind of set is the norm.

I feel incredibly lucky. Even when we get told that a sex scene is coming up, it’s funny because we know, “Okay, that means we don’t have to do anything different.” But when any of the guys on our show are told then they need to go to they gym. “You’re going to be shirtless. You’re going to need to get waxed.” I’m told we’re doing a sex scene and that means nothing to me because I’ll just be under the covers. Cool.

That is amazing.

It is amazing. I’m sure if I were on any other set and they said, “You’re doing a sex scene” I’d be like, “Uh oh.”

Right. Off to get waxed for you.

Yeah, like I’m going to be in some lingerie. It’s a wonderful reversal and I feel really lucky to be on the set with really strong women. At the end of the day, that is entirely a product of our show really valuing the female bond and the female support. I feel so lucky that, as crazy as our show gets with the insane moments it has, it still always comes down to these four girls always having each other’s backs.

Have you liked us on Facebook?



















30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

author avatar

Tracy E. Gilchrist

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.