Playing off-beat characters — and notably off-kilter ones at that — is turning into something of a hobby for Sasha Pieterse. Known for her role on the hit ABC Family series, Pretty Little Liars (PLL), the 18-year-old Californian (by way of South Africa) has become a natural at feigning duplicity over the course of the show’s five season run, thanks to her character, Alison DiLaurentis, and the antagonist’s intensive plot stirring.
“I mean, Alison is still a psychopath” says Pieterse of her character through a chuckle. And that is precisely what the actress likes about playing Rosewood High’s most notorious mean girl. “There are so many different layers to her.”
Through her perfection of the rogue queen bee act, Pieterse has garnered herself an army of ardent fans spanning around the globe (just see Twitter for proof), and recently captured the attention of auteurs the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, the director behind her upcoming film, Inherent Vice.
A departure from PLL, Inherent Vice — an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel — ups the…well, vice in the storyline, and takes audiences for a stroll in the underbelly of society, shoulder to shoulder with derailed and degraded misfits, amongst whom saunters a Miss Japonica Fenway.
“I’m pretty sure I will never have a better character name,” laughs Pieterse, who goes on to gush about landing the part of Japonica and working with Anderson, as well as the film’s star-studded ensemble cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon and Josh Brolin. “It was literally a dream to be involved with the movie,” she says. “I’m really happy with what part of the film I’m in; I have so many fun scenes…and so many dark scenes.” A one-time runaway with a nasty drug habit, Pieterse’s character is not quite the type of dissolute soul that audiences (or critics) would associate with the actress, but, as she shares, that’s the point. For Pieterse, the role is a step in guaranteeing that diversity, rather than typecasting, defines her career. “When you’re on a show for so long, people start to categorize you as one type of actress. I’m really happy that I’m starting to have such versatile roles; I don’t want to be categorized for one type of role.”
As much is apparent upon closer examination of her reel. While a part of the young Hollywood circle, Pieterse has already clocked a veteran’s share of hours on set, stretched across a variety of genres. Her first major role dates back to 2002, a WB sitcom entitled Family Affair (based on the ’60s hit), which saw her play opposite comedians Tim Curry and Gary Cole. Only 6-years-old at the time, the actress won a Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a TV Series in the Young Actress Ten or Under category for her portrayal of the show’s Buffy Davis. From comedy, the actress moved to action, taking on the part of telekinetic pyromaniac Amanda Strazzulla in NBC’s Heroes. And then, 2010 arrived and with it her breakout role as the beautiful and unhinged mean girl-next-door, Alison DiLaurentis, in the mystery-drama, Pretty Little Liars. And, shortly after this, the eerie inability to leave her house without throngs of teens chasing after her for autographs and pictures. “I don’t think any of us thought it would get to this point,” says Pieterse. “It’s a real compliment.”
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The addictive quality of PLL (affirmed by its ever expanding demographic), is a testament to the actors’ ownership of their characters, as well as the writers’ ability to invoke mental and emotional turmoil. Aside from the thrill of playing out the drama, for Pieterse, Alison’s inner demons and dubious machinations are also handy practice for exploring even darker and more complex roles, such as Japonica in Inherent Vice. “I know Alison more than the audience,” explains the actress. “So when I know what is coming next — when I know what she should feel in that scene, even though the audience doesn’t know what’s going on — it makes it more fun for me because you move and talk differently; your interior motives are different. I try to bring that to every role, not to play them just how they were written, but ask what is causing them to do that. It just portrays more interesting on screen.”
And while Japonica’s particular brand of “crazy” may differ from that of Alison’s, in both cases, the strange bits of each character is the carrot for Pieterse. “The oddball characters are more fun to play because you get to really think about what the person would do, when it’s not yourself…and when they’re bizarre.”
Hence her immediate interest in Wenor Herzog’s screen adaptation of the controversial novel, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre and the character of Taylor Figueroa, the beautiful (and unbalanced) object of the title character’s obsession. “This [role] will be all over the place and that’s exactly what I want,” says Pieterse. “She’s a very funny character…interesting vibe. The way she fits in is odd.” So, aside from the obvious artistic thrill of working with a director of Herzog’s acclaim — “to be able to work with him would be an honour” — it would seem it’s Pieterse taste for oddity that has her intently eyeing the role in the satirical black comedy.
Only weeks away from the world premiere of Inherent Vice at the 52nd annual New York Film Festival, where it will screen as the Centerpiece Gala, the actress actively anticipates audiences’ and critics’ responses to her dark turn as Japonica Fenway. “I’m really excited to hear the feedback, and see what people think of this amazing movie.” Given the buzz surrounding Inherent Vice, and with not yet a month passed since the mid-season finale of PLL (which currently happens to be television’s most tweeted series, according to Nielsen social media ratings), Pieterse’s name is in the air. “This is an amazing time for me,” sighs the actress. “And I’m truly living it and truly happy.”
It would seem that the budding hobby of Pieterse’s, previously mentioned, is in fact a full blossomed passion, one cunningly guiding her towards roles with depth to bite into. At the beginning of a new chapter in her career, we talk to Pieterse about her move to the big screen, working with Paul Thomas Anderson and her increasing attraction to the offbeat and atypical.
To start, I’d love to talk about the fact that you have so many interesting and diverse projects on the go right now, seems like 2014 is a big year for you, no?
Yeah, I’m very happy with how this year has turned out! Moving into the next year, it’s going to be awesome as well. I have a lot of stuff to show you guys, you’ll be seeing a lot from me.
We’re especially excited to see you in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Are you looking forward to premiering the film in September at the New York Film Festival?
I am so excited to be in New York for that. I’m just honoured to be around all those amazing people — it’s going to be a really great ride. I’ve never been to the festival before; it’s going to be an amazing experience. It’s blowing me away. I still have one of those feelings where I’m like, “pinch me, this isn’t real.”
Have you seen the film yet?
I have not, so it’s going to be a big surprise for me too. I hope I get to see it before hand. I might…Paul is not secretive, but he doesn’t want to show anybody till it’s perfect, which I totally understand. I’m just really excited to see it. I know what to expect, but I don’t at the same time. It’s going be crazy to see it all come together; it was just such an amazing shoot and [Paul] has such an amazing process…I’m just over the moon about it.
You must be so excited; it’s so soon! What did you think when you first read the script? It’s based on a pretty intense and unique book, and I imagine the script doesn’t stray far.
No, being a Paul Thomas Anderson film, he puts in as much as he wants. The difference between the book and the script is more so a little bit of flavour, it does though still ring true to the story. And actually, what I respected most about Joaquin is that he would have the book and the script side-by-side, so basically he would say, “what do you want out of either?” People who are big fans of the book will appreciate that. Joaquin was just so amazing and so in it.
How was it acting opposite him?
He blew me away. I was not sure what to expect, and I was intimidated for sure at first, but he’s wonderful. And he’s cuckoo for sure (laughing), but in the best way possible. He’s such a talented person and such a nice person.
He’s a rare talent.
To work side-by-side with him was incredible. He has fun, but he’s so in character that it’s easy to be in scenes with him because it just flows; there’s nothing to stop you from really diving into that scene. It was fabulous working with him, and fabulous working with Martin Short, who is hysterical. We had so much fun filming — when you watch it, it will show in the scenes.
We’ve talked about Joaquin Phoenix and Martin Short, but there are so many more actors in the film; it features a huge ensemble cast, Anderson’s biggest since Magnolia I understand. What was it like working alongside so many veteran actors?
It was different than I expected…I don’t know what I expected, but what I got was that people love their jobs. There was just a vibe about this set that was great because they all wanted the same thing. They are veterans, but they’re down to earth, and there really wasn’t much drama or anything like that. I mean Maya Rudolph was nine months pregnant while we were filming, and she had the baby while we were filming (laughing)!
Oh wow, that’s commitment.
Yeah, she had a trailer right outside the stage door, and she had the baby in quarantine. She would literally film a shot and run out to breastfeed (laughing). It was crazy, but so cute!
Was there one actor you were especially excited to share the screen with?
I wanted to work with all of them, it’s such a crazy cast, but I think Joaquin. He’s brilliant; he truly is brilliant. I was just awe-struck by him.
Paul Thomas Anderson is such an incredible director, what was it like working with him? How does he help prepare you for a scene?
He is so funny and so sweet, and he has such an amazing vision. He’s incredibly hands-on, but in the best way possible. He’s there at rehearsals, barefoot and like, “hey guys, what’s up?” He’s very very chill. And what I really respect about him is — though I don’t think the studios always like him for this — he will literally take as much time as possible to get a scene where he wants it to be. If he takes 4 hours or 8 hours on a scene, he doesn’t care; that’s just how he rolls. It’s so amazing to work with someone like that. On the first day, he’s like, “this is kind of what I want out of the shot, so do it that way, and then do whatever you want to after that.”
He gives you a chance to explore your character.
To have that freedom and flexibility to really dive into your character and shape the scene, and really have free reign in that, it’s an actor’s dream.
Can you tell us a bit about your character Japonica Fenway? I understand she’s something of a free spirit.
She is a very unique person. She’s a drug addict and her part of the story, based on what is going on, is kind of one of the missing pieces. Joaquin Phoenix’s character travels to so many different places and there are so many different layers [to his story], and I’m just glad I’m one of them.
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