Murder, infidelity, girl-on-girl make-out sessions, Machiavellian power moves, teacher-student love affairs, and downright addictive drama have manifested themselves in the unlikeliest of places: ABC Family. The network’s hour-long dramatic thriller, Pretty Little Liars (which was recently renewed for a third season), follows the clandestine lives of four teenage girls whose bond is tested when their tyrannical leader, Alison (16-year-old Sasha Pieterse), goes missing.
Together, the remaining girls—Aria (Lucy Hale, 22); Emily (Shay Mitchell, 24), Hanna (Ashley Benson, 22), and Spencer (Troian Bellisario, 26)—struggle to solve the presumed murder of their friend, all the while receiving threatening texts from “A,” an anonymous sender. Is it Alison’s killer? Could it be Alison herself?
Pretty Little Liars might seem like a younger Gossip Girl, or a less affected Revenge—but it’s tackled serious issues and taken on adult themes with surprising grace. On a warm Los Angeles afternoon, we sat down with four of the series’ bright young things to talk about the turbulent, lavender haze of adolescence—on-screen and off.
BULLETT: What sort of things did you lie about as a teenager?
LUCY HALE: I definitely used to lie about my age. I’m from Tennessee and everyone would vacation in Destin, Florida, where there are lots of cute guys. I would go with my older sister and lie about my age to them.
SHAY MITCHELL: I was the queen of lying about where I was. I would be at a party, but as soon as my parents called, I would run out into the quietest part of the forest or wherever and be like, Hi! I’m just at home. Huh? I’m so tired, going to bed.
Do you think being a liar is a fundamental part of being a teenager?
SASHA PIETERSE: Being a teenager is such a sensitive time—you are always trying to prove yourself. You’re constantly telling little white lies because you are always trying to make yourself seem better and more appealing to people.
SM: You lie when you’re a teenager, I think, because your parents are treating you like you’re younger and you—in your mind—think that you’re so much older. You make up all of these lies because you think it’s what you should do.
LH: The lies that these girls tell are pretty extreme. I don’t think what they are going through is normal. But little white lies here and there is human nature. Everybody does that.
Throughout much of the series, Aria is secretly dating her high school English teacher, Ezra. What do you think about romantic relationships between teachers and students?
ASHLEY BENSON: Well, I had a really hot math teacher in seventh grade—he was also a lifeguard—so I can relate to Aria’s character. [Laughs.] I think the writers have done a really good job steering clear of controversy. Aria and Ezra have never had sex, they just have this really wholesome relationship that you can’t help but root for.
LH: I think age is just a number. It all comes down to how you feel about the person. Both Ezra and Aria get the danger in all of it. They have tried so hard to not be together, but they are like magnets— they keep getting drawn back to each other. I think it’s a genuine relationship and they know they’re supposed to be together. They’re soul mates.
SM: He’s also a super-young teacher. I didn’t have any teachers who looked liked that.
SP: Not only that, but Ezra doesn’t come across as this creepy old man. You can tell that he really cares about her and he’s not predatory.
If you had a daughter, would you be freaking out if she were involved with a teacher?
LH: Absolutely! There comes a point in a girl’s life when she can make her own decisions, but I don’t know if Aria’s quite there yet. I think I’m going to be a strict mother.
Emily’s struggle with her sexuality and her eventual embrace of lesbianism is also a controversial storyline in the show. Do you think that ABC Family has done a good job with it?
SM: The most amazing thing about our show is that if you were to look at the poster, you wouldn’t be able to pinpoint who plays the lesbian. We take away all the stereotypes, because there shouldn’t be any stereotypes in the first place. You can be the girl next doorand wear bright pink lipstick, and still like girls. I don’t have to be the goth girl in the corner, or a clear outsider. I love that about our show.
What has the feedback been like?
LH: We recently went to the GLAAD awards because Pretty Little Liars was being honored, and I kept watching people come up to Shay—they were just in awe of her.
SM: I really feel for Emily. It was extremely difficult filming her coming-out scene, but I felt so liberated after it happened. She could finally be herself. After seeing the show, I think I might have given someone even just a little bit of strength to do it too.
Two of your characters, Hanna and Alison, could be considered Mean Girls, but is there anything you admire about the blonde queen bees?
SP: Alison is very protective of her friends because she has kind of handpicked them. She knows how to handle them, which is of course manipulative, but at the same time, she really does care about them. As much as Alison picks on Hanna, she doesn’t like when other people pick on her. She’s almost like an older sister. At some point, she will do something that will protect them. There will be other enemies who will try to trash on them.
AB: In the earlier episodes, Hanna was kind of a mean girl, but I think she has grown the most of all the characters. Her heart has gotten bigger. She was the chubby, unpopular girl before she met Alison, and I think she’s slowly returning to her original self. She’s becomingmore genuine and truly caring about the people around her—even if it’s in a sarcastic, sometimes tough way.
What are the main qualities that separate teenagers from adults?
LH: Confidence, hands down. I look at who I was in high school—I was so insecure—and I was trying so hard to look good for guys. As I got older, I got more grounded and confident about who I was. Now, I’m like, This is me. Take it or leave it. But in high school, I was like, Please take me!
AB: Even though I grew up in this business—I’ve been acting since I was 4—it really hit me that I was an adult when there was no one around to clean up my messes.
SM: It’s also about trying to handle your independence, and some people handle it better than others. I grew up fast when I moved to Thailand after high school to model, probably because I had this huge distance separating me from everyone who’d been taking care of me.
What would each of you like to do when you grow up?
SM: I’d like to be a Bond Girl, kick ass in high heels.
Styling by Krissie Torgerson.
Photography by Logan White