Troian Bellisario is shaking things up.
You probably know the 30-year-old actress from the kitschy, cheese-drenched (but crazy intriguing) teen soap Pretty Little Liars, which airs Tuesday nights on Freeform (formerly ABC Family). For six campy seasons–and one left to go–Bellisario has played the preppy, type-A Spencer Hastings, the metaphorical mother hen of the show’s central clique. It’s a role that’s taken Bellisario to an asylum and a prescription pill addiction, with snappy one-liners and slay-worthy outfits mixed in. In other words, it’s a character that will probably follow Bellisario for the rest of her life.
Not that this is a bad thing. This can be tricky waters to navigate, though. When an actress embodies a character as well-loved as Spencer, it’s difficult to break free and establish a diverse career. It’s easy to fall into the Rachel Green trap, where an actress–in this scenario Jennifer Aniston–takes roles that are essentially variations of her claim-to-fame. Too many talented stars are placed in these constrained boxes. It’s unfair, frustrating, but unfortunately, a reality of the biz.
Bellisario is making sure this doesn’t happen to her. Her choices in films couldn’t be more different than PLL. From a queer retelling of Romeo & Juliet (Still a Rose) to Feed–an upcoming indie she both wrote and produced–she is shedding Spencer’s well-defined coat with each meaty project.
And she’s making serious headway with her latest film Martyrs, which hits theaters January 22nd and VOD, DVD and Blu-ray February 2nd. The 2008 horror remake is not easy to watch. It’s filled with violence and torture, but make no mistake: It’s not gratuitous or sloppy. It’s smart. Bellisario plays Lucie, a young woman who was brutalized as a child and seeks revenge on her attackers. But soon she and her best friend Anna (Bailey Noble) find themselves back in captivity…with only their unbreakable friendship giving them strength.
“My agent just sent me the script and said, ’Look, it’s a horror film. I don’t know how you feel about it, but read the script and let me know how you feel,'” Bellisario told us when we caught up with her a few weeks ago. “I immediately called after reading and I was like, ’I don’t know how I feel about this movie, but I do know that I really want to play Lucie.'”
“[Martyrs] was centered around an incredibly strong female bond. I was really relieved there was no sexualization of the female characters. It’s just about their love and support for one another.”–Troian Bellisario
Which was a brave move on Bellisario’s part. Lucie goes through some unspeakable trauma in the flick–watching people burn alive, imprisonment and one scene involving getting skinned (yup) you have to watch to believe. What about this physically taxing–and at times downright disturbing–movie appealed to her?
“It was very interesting to me,” she said. “[The movie is] torture in the name of religion, which is a real thing. “[Martyrs] was centered around an incredibly strong female bond. I was really relieved there was no sexualization of the female characters. It’s just about their love and support for one another. It was really about a woman struggling with her own internal demons.”
Those demons took Bellisario to some pretty dark places, too. “I really had to be very moment by moment about it,” she said. “When I thought about it too much in the future or in the after, it was very overwhelming.”
Bellisario’s schedule during Martyrs was equally as overwhelming. For an entire month, she played two parts. By day, she was Spencer in PLL; by night, she was Lucie. This type of militant schedule left no room for family or friends, so how did she survive without succumbing to cabin fever?
Finding humor wherever she could. “I will never forget there was one moment I spent all night on the set of Martyrs until like 4 in the morning. I [then] had to get in the car and drive to Pretty Little Liars at 5:30 in the morning,” she said. “I remember I was sitting on the set in this episode where we were all giving blood, and the joke was about how Aria wouldn’t share her cookie. I remember sitting there tired out of my mind and I was just like, ’Oh. This is lovely. I just have to sit here and make a joke about a cookie and be here with girls who I love?’ It was one of those moments where it was like, ’I can do this. This is a lovely morning.'”
And while Martyrs isn’t lovely, it is engrossing. Bellisario’s searing, nuanced performance will leave you thinking long after you leave the cinema.
Just one piece of advice, though: Don’t watch it alone.