Danielle Fishel emits a warmth and familiarity that can be explained, in part, by her firm seat on the throne of millennial nostalgia. The actress and director first gained notoriety as the iconic Topanga Lawrence from the ‘90s sitcom Boy Meets World, a staple of ABC’s TGIF lineup during an era often hailed as the golden age of TV. Boy Meets World followed a young Cory Matthews’ (Ben Savage) progression into adulthood as he juggled the trials and tribulations of life, friendship, and love alongside his soulmate Topanga (Fishel) and best friend Shawn (Rider Strong). The series remains a standout of ‘90s TV, due in large part to its exploration of formidable issues fairly progressive for its time: racial discrimination (Season 1’s “Teacher’s Bet”), domestic abuse (Season 4’s “Dangerous Secret”), and #MeToo even before the movement’s inception (Season 6’s “Everybody Loves Stuart”). We’re first introduced to the eccentric and bright Topanga in Season 1’s “Cory’s Alternative Friends.” In the episode, Fishel, then 12, all but cements her ‘90s icon status as she smears red lipstick all over her face amid an impassioned interpretive dance. That was 1993.
It is now 2019. Specifically, it is a Tuesday in February, and Fishel comfortably settles into a couch on the set of Sydney to the Max, the Disney Channel series she spent a few episodes directing. Sydney almost feels like a metaphor for Fishel’s career from its start to now, in that she simultaneously resides in two eras—one as ’90s icon, the other as director. Sydney to the Max weaves the narrative of several generations living under one roof—telling the story of a young teen, Sydney (Ruth Righi), and her single father, Max (Ian Reed Kesler), through flashbacks that fluctuate between present day and the ‘90s. It also stars Caroline Rhea, beloved for her role as Hilda Spellman on the ABC sitcom Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, as the matriarch. On set, I’m shown variations of Sydney’s current day bedroom and Max’s childhood bedroom—along with two variations of kitchens and living rooms that help differentiate from current day and the nostalgic ‘90s.
As we settle into our interview, Fishel (who has also directed episodes of spin-offs Girl Meets World and Raven’s Home) tells me why this particular script resonated with her the most.
During our talk, Fishel also reflected on the impact of Topanga Lawrence, the possibility of a Boy Meets World film, and her love for The Good Place. Read on for more insights from our interview.
HelloGiggles (HG): You first gained recognition for the role of Topanga in Boy Meets World. What do you think it is about Topanga that still resonates so profoundly with fans?
Danielle Fishel (DF): She was so absolutely sure of who she was and who her friends were. And she held them to that standard. She never let the people around her decide that it was okay to be less than the best that they could be. And being that kind of person, and being around that kind of person, is such a comforting feeling because you know you can totally trust them to not lead you astray. That was, I think, one of the things that’s still so special, and the reason why people resonate so much with Topanga. She’s the character we all wish we were a little more like and that we all wish was our best friend. She’s aspirational and she’s your friend. And she wasn’t intimidating. She was never a bully. She never made anybody feel bad. I mean, she’s who I aspire to be.
HG: The series was, at its core, a family comedy, but also touched on heavy moments—one of which being sexual misconduct in “Everybody Loves Stuart.” How did you approach these scenes?
DF: It was difficult because I as a young girl that age. I had never experienced anything like what we were putting on screen. And yet I knew that it was the unfortunate reality for a lot of people. And so when any time you’re acting in something and you haven’t experienced it personally, I always would just take a lot of time—I think this sounds cliché or simplistic—[to] truly imagine the reality of the situation. This person is my teacher. This person has a position of superiority or authority over me. And what if I were in these shoes? And the character and I were the same age and we really weren’t too much different. She wasn’t like a character that was too much different from how I was in real life, [so it was] easy to imagine that kind of a reality and to be petrified and terrified of it. But yeah, Boy Meets World was very ahead of its time, and I give all that credit to Michael Jacobs. He was a very forward thinking individual. And he thought about a lot of things. And we covered a great deal of them.
HG: What is the significance of telling such impactful stories on screen?
DF: I think if you have been prepped for something, if you have been told that something is a possibility, if and when it does happen to you—you have already had some sort of tools inside the tool box to have a better understanding of how to handle it for yourself. It doesn’t mean you’ll handle a situation exactly the way you want to. There’s obviously so many other emotional factors that go into a scary situation that you may not have ever thought you’d be in. But it’s a bit like the way the flu shot works. If you get a tiny little bit of something, if somebody says to you, whether it’s a parent or an episode of a TV show, ‘This is what’s out there.’ You’ve got a little bit of an inoculation to it. Then when you encounter it in real life, it’s not the first time you have seen other people experience the same thing and you know that you’re not alone. And hopefully it makes you go forward and handle a situation with tools that you wouldn’t have otherwise had. I mean, TV is honestly, for a lot of people, their first teacher.
HG: You’re reuniting with the cast once again at MEGACON Orlando. I know there was a sequel, Girl Meets World, but is there a possibility of a Boy Meets World movie?
DF: I feel like we’ve pretty much touched on all of those chapters of the possibility for more reunions. I feel like we have definitely gone off to do different things. I don’t necessarily know that we have anything more we need to revisit or go back into with a movie or a show. I don’t know if there’s anything left that we haven’t covered. But I also will never say never. You never know what’s out there but I’m really happy moving into the second phase of my career as a director, and I know all of the guys are really happy moving into the next phase of their careers as well. So I think we’re ready to honor and love Boy Meets World, but maybe leave it in the past.
HG: If you could play absolutely any role, or guest star on any series, what would it be?
DF: Oh my gosh. I would guest star on The Good Place. I love that show so much.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Sydney to the Max airs on Fridays on the Disney Channel, with the first episode directed by Fishel airing on March 8th.