At only 17 years old, actress and dancer Julia Goldani Telles, who plays mouthy ballerina Sasha on ABC Family’s Bunheads, has known great heartache. Or at least its teenage equivalent. Somewhere in her East Village apartment (where she lives when not shooting the series in L.A.), Telles has journals full of what she calls “sad poetry,” written after labral tears and tendonitis in her hips forced her to stop dancing. “When I got injured, I discovered boys. Then I discovered sadness,” she told Vulture, blushing into her lunch at the Sunset Gower studio commissary in between scenes last month. She recalled burying herself in Pablo Neruda, then smiled and sighed mock dramatically. “I know, I know. In my seventeen years, I’ve gone through so much.”
However crushingly felt, Telles’s self-awareness of her own teen angst is one reason why she’s so good at playing the simultaneously self-assured and anxious Sasha on Bunheads. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s hyperliterate series follows an out-of-sorts Las Vegas showgirl (Broadway’s Sutton Foster) who winds up teaching dance in a sleepy California coastal town, but Telles has emerged as the show’s standout ballet student, a character as naturally graceful on the dance floor as she is at dressing down fools. “I think her sarcasm is great. I’m sarcastic, too,” said Telles. “Hopefully, I’m less blunt.” Sasha is a caustic cynic one minute (berating cheerleaders and jocks doomed to peak in high school), fumbling adolescent the next. And in the show’s first season (which ends with tonight’s finale, airing on ABC Family at nine), Sherman-Palladino has singled out Telles to turn all of that teen turmoil into dance, assigning her beautiful, expressive numbers that are alternately angry and sad.
Telles appreciates that she isn’t asked to portray the typical type A ballerina she’s trained among for years. “Sasha doesn’t necessarily think ballet is awesome,” she said. “She’s bored and sarcastic and dark without being the conventional mean girl.” Telles has been studying ballet since she was 5, beginning when she lived in Brazil (her first language is Portuguese). She later trained under Yvonne Mounsey in L.A. and at the School of American Ballet in New York, where she remembers committing to dance at 10 years old, immediately after she was scolded for eating a bowl of pasta in the school’s lobby. “I remember thinking, Wow, this is really serious,” she said. “It was so strict, and all the girls were strong and dedicated with this razor-sharp focus I’d never had before.”
It was years later, after her injury waylaid her ambitions to be a professional ballerina, that she tried out acting. Her parents, both sociology professors at Princeton, were against it, afraid it would deter her studies, but they relented after all her newfound free time made her both stir-crazy and boy crazy. “I bribed my acting teacher to call my parents and convince them to let me audition,” Telles said. “I needed a creative outlet!” She had auditioned for just two commercials when Bunheads came up, and a show from the creator of Gilmore Girls was the perfect marriage of Telles’s two loves: words and dance. (It didn’t get any better for Telles than when the two were very literally combined during a scene in which the girls were feuding during a dance — what Sherman-Palladino referred to as “the yammer dance” inspired by “the darker the berry” scene from Fame. “God, so good,” Telles said.)
Telles says she’s still wrestling with acting, a real challenge for her meticulous personality. “Ballet is either right or wrong. With this, I never know if I’m doing it right,” she said, looking pained. “I was telling a director the other day, ‘Just scream at me! Tell me I’m terrible!’ because I want to improve and figure out how to do this.” If only she could be more like Jennifer Lawrence, she mused, who “is so chill … People ask her these actor-y questions about substance and research and she’s like, ‘I don’t know. I never know what scene we’re shooting. I just walk in.’”
Fortunately, she’s found a lot of common ground with Sasha, who in the second half of Bunheads’ first season has had to grow up faster than her friends and essentially emancipated herself from her parents. On one hand, she’s nailed Martha Stewart’s guide to hosting and housekeeping, but she’s a wreck when it comes to boyfriend Roman. “She’s really falling in love with this guy and it scares her. Anything sweet or real she usually shies away from,” said Telles, who wasn’t surprised to see that Sasha’s posturing about boys was mostly talk. “She’s kind of a prude,” she laughed, teasing that in tonight’s finale, Sasha will “drag the girls on this hilarious journey of sexual exploration.” (Not to worry, she adds, “Boo and Carl still plan to have sex in 2025.”) But Telles isn’t judging — she had even less success on the dating front while in L.A. “I went on a date with this guy — well, I thought it was a date. He clearly didn’t,” she said, again, blushing. “He was like, ‘Hey, wanna pay me back for gas?’ So, to start, I need to learn how to drive.”
While Telles waits for word on whether or not Bunheads will continue on to a second season, she is back in school, with plans to take her writing more seriously. “It’s always been my favorite form of expression,” she said. “Acting and dancing still really freak me out. I don’t know where to go next with either of those, and I don’t know if I want to necessarily go to college for either.” Instead, she’d like to major in creative writing, thanks in no small part to her experience on Bunheads, where she tried to glean as much as she can from hanging with the writers. “I just want to keep saying Amy’s words,” she said.
Telles already appears to share Sherman-Palladino’s varied and eccentric tastes. “I was always the weird kid where everyone’s reading Harry Potter and I’m reading some bizarre … God, this is going to make me sound so pretentious!” But she couldn’t help but excitedly talk up her all-time favorite books (A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale, David Ives’s collection of plays All in the Timing) and her current projects (Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter). “I definitely have reading ADD,” she said. “Is that even a thing? I just made it one.” One book that’s never going on her reading list? Fifty Shades of Grey — not because she isn’t curious. Her friends were into it, but when she asked about Twilight’s erotic off-shoot in a bookstore in Paris, the saleswoman laughed at her. “That French cackle! ‘Ho ho ho, you want to read zat?’ I got so made fun of … I can never read it now.”