Troian Bellisario has spent the last six years playing Spencer Hastings on Pretty Little Liars. But all it takes is a quick trip to her Twitter profile to understand that though we may see her as Spencer, Spencer is only a tiny part of the Troian whole: “(sometimes I play this chick Spencer Hastings on this show Pretty Little Liars). But only sometimes,” she writes in her bio.
When she’s not making the town of Rosewood come to life, Troian is following a whole slew of artistic pursuits including writing and producing short films, acting in shows like Suits or, her latest project, starring in the re-make of the famed French horror film Martyrs.
For those who have yet to hear of it, the original Martyrs, made in 2008 by Pascal Laugier, is a notoriously graphic horror movie placed squarely in the ongoing French film wave called the New French Extremity movement. Paste Magazine defined the movement pretty succinctly saying, “This recent string of films features bodily horror and exploitation that often teeters on the side of the unwatchable. The results are often politically transgressive, depicting contemporary society as isolating and emphasizing nihilism over more hopeful situations, to the extent that most have become deeply polarizing and controversial.” Basically, what’s happening in Martyrs makes the dollhouse episodes of Pretty Little Liars look like child’s play.
In the film, Troian stars as Lucie who, with the help of her childhood friend (played by Bailey Noble of True Blood), is out to seek revenge on those who tortured her as a little girl. It’s heavy, gruesome stuff, and much of it is not easy to watch. Still, it’s a story of perseverance and Troian spoke with us about what got her hooked on this film, and what being identified as Spencer Hastings is really like.
HelloGiggles (HG): What drew you to the Martyrs remake and particularly to the role of Lucie?
Troian Bellisario (TB): From the moment that I read the script I was drawn to the role of Lucie. Both of the roles are absolutely incredible and Bailey [Noble] did a wonderful job in her role, she was perfect, we had the best time working together. But really it was the script that drew me to the project.
I love the friendship between the two characters, and I also love that it’s a horror film but it’s really about strong women. It’s a horror film in which it felt like there was never any sexual objectification or sexualizing of these girls. They are also fighting something that isn’t supernatural. The thing with Lucie is that she’s fighting against her mind, and that to me is what was so frightening. It’s a horror film and yet I identified with this character so much. I’ve never been chased by a ghost, I’ve never experienced vampires (not to say that I wouldn’t love to make a movie about that), but for me I was like, “I’ve battled with my own demons. I’ve struggled with self harm, with self punishment.” It’s just that Lucie is externalizing them in a much greater way. I found it so interesting.
HG: The film is so gruesome and many of the scenes I found too hard to watch. How did you leave, those images and experiences at work when you went home at night?
TB: You do and you don’t. I found that the second you do something like, like the final torturing scene, you almost instinctively begin to joke around because it’s too much. You can’t stay in that mind-frame. Truthfully you’re there with a bunch of guys and girls (the crew members) who are making the same movie and they’re staring at you in this incredibly painful situation, screaming your head off, and they’re having to watch it. So when you walk away from that you almost feel like it’s your responsibility to let them know that you’re ok, it’s ok, I’m ok.
Then I’d get in my car at the end of the day and that’s when I’d just let it get to me and really go into what I’ve been doing and thinking about. That’s when I’d need to just make sure I get home okay and call people who I love and say, “today was absolutely crazy, I was covered in blood for 12 hours, I love you mom.” That to me is why I’m very fortunate to have a bunch of people around me who really love me and will pick up the phone at two in the morning to hear me talk about insane stuff like that because otherwise, a lot of people turn to substances. You don’t want to be alone at the end of the day, it’s not fun. What I do is I connect with people and that’s the only way I know how to get through it.
HG: And connection is such a wonderfully healthy way to get through anything. You’re talking about movies, and this movie, and yourself in such a self- reflective way, so let me ask you this: Why do you think horror movies are an important or meaningful genre? Are they able to articulate something that other genres can’t?
TB: You know it’s so interesting because truthfully I struggle with that [question] a lot. Even in the fact that I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan and I have friends who are like, “I can’t watch it. Why do you want to watch that gore?” And for me I’m like, yeah but it’s funny, and satirical, and it’s so much blood that it’s grotesque. For me there’s something cathartic about that and for some people it’s too much.
Like my mother just really doesn’t do well with gore. She’s like, “I don’t like those images in my head and then I can’t get them out.” But I think for people who really enjoy horror films, what it’s about is the adrenaline, and the fear, and the release when you get to laugh and you’re like, “Oh we’re fine that was a complete jump scare. And OMG here’s the real scary part!” And then you walk out. and you leave it in the movie theater.
There are a lot of horrific things that we can’t escape in our own world: You turn on the news and you turn off the news, but that story is not going to go away. You know that it’s real. Or you might be in a tough situation at home, and you can leave your house but at the end of the day you’re going back home and have to deal with it. I think that a lot of people, I think it’s natural, need the cathartic experience of going to the theater and being in a communal place and experiencing — whether its drama, or comedy, or horror — and then walking away and not having it follow us home. I’m of that mind where analytically and psychologically this is the given space for the genre. That makes sense to me. But then I’m also of the mind where, like, how long do we need to tell these stories before we should be focusing on other things? Love, unity.
HG: To switch topics a bit, what do you find to be the biggest challenge about taking these new roles when so many people know you as Spencer Hastings?
TB: I don’t find that challenging at all. The only challenge that I find and have is whether people will give me the opportunity to do [new things]. If casting directors or studio financiers or anyone who’s making films, if they only know me on Pretty Little Liars then maybe they only think of me as that, and they might not let me come in for [other types of] roles. That’s my only obstacle.
As far as fans, I’ve been very fortunate. I mean you’re always going to have those people who are like, “Why do you do this? Just be Spencer!” And I’m never going to change those peoples’ minds. And like, I love those people, but they can watch Pretty Little Liars until the end of time and I can be Spencer forever on their TV. But for everybody else, who enjoys my work and maybe enjoys watching me be Spencer but also wants to watch me do something completely different — I love those people. Hopefully if you’ve been introduced to my work as Spencer and enjoy it then you’ll get to come see me in a different movie and enjoy that just as much. So I’ve never been presented with an obstacle other than the hilarious pigeon-holing of a casting director just being like, “Oh no, but she’s not that kind of girl.” But you know, I understand that. I’m Spencer every Tuesday night for the majority of the year. I get that it’s a hurdle.
HG: Touching back on the friendship aspect of Martyrs that you brought up, for you as a viewer are there particular female friendships that have really spoken to you?
TB: I’m a huge fan of Girls, I love that show to death. I mean every role that Jennifer Lawrence gets to play is a strong woman which is pretty awesome . . . I think there are a lot of super strong women busting out on the seams, but it’s still a lot of strong women surrounded by men. Which is why I think a film like Martyrs, or even on Pretty Little Liars we’re all about women and friendships with women and that to me is, it’s such a fun world to play in.
HG: My last question is this, I was wondering if you have any words of advice for young women who are struggling to get their artistic careers off the ground.
TB: Be patient with yourself and don’t be discouraged. I just wrapped up my first film that I wrote and I acted in, and I made it with my best friend who directed me in it.
TB: Thank you! But I wrote it two months before I auditioned for Pretty Little Liars so it’s taken seven years. So yeah, if that’s any indication. I mean, for those seven years I was working hard on a TV show, trying to make a name for myself, getting more successes and other film roles, and I still couldn’t get my own film made to save my life because still people didn’t trust me. Not that they didn’t trust me, but it takes a lot of money to make a movie, and when you’re a first time screenwriter and a first time feature film actor, it’s a lot for people to trust you with a lot of money and I get that. But I never stopped and I just kept on trying to create different things and write short films and make them happen, and invest in other roles, and then it finally happened. But it took seven years! I hope it will be shorter next time, but don’t let the time be a reflection on you. Just keep doing your work.
Martyrs will be in select theaters starting January 22, and On Demand starting February 2.
This interview has been condensed.
(Images via Instagram, FreeForm, Anchor Bay Entertainment)