On June 8, 2010, the network formerly known as ABC Family debuted what would quickly become one of the biggest crazes to grace the small screen: Pretty Little Liars. Based on a series of young-adult novels by Sara Shepard, the teen murder-mystery, led by showrunner I. Marlene King, introduced the complex world of Rosewood, with its high-tech anonymous villain, “A,” hell-bent on terrorizing a group of high-school girls through sinister text messages and unbelievably elaborate schemes. Of course, the show has evolved a lot since then — there are now multiple “A”s with varying motivations, for starters — but its devoted fanbase has stuck with it, red herrings and all. Hours before the show’s final season premiered last week, Vulture sat down with Lucy Hale, Ashley Benson, Shay Mitchell, Troian Bellisario, and Sasha Pieterse to reflect on the highs and lows of their past seven years in the spotlight. They were quick to finish each other’s sentences, and candid about some of the criticisms the show has received.
Let’s start from the beginning. Were you all immediately interested in auditioning for the show when you received the first script, or did it take some convincing?
Lucy Hale: I knew just by hearing the title that it would be something I wanted to be a part of. I was familiar with the books. For me, it was pretty instant that it was something I wanted to be in.
Sasha Pieterse: Originally I was reading for Hanna, and I loved Hanna’s character description. It was definitely something I wanted to do, so it was worth a shot.
Troian Bellisario: I had the opposite reaction, actually. I did not want to be here! [Laughs.] You guys talk to me about The O.C. and what that meant to you, or Gossip Girl, and I’ve never seen any of those shows. I had this idea in my head about what a “teen show” would be, and I thought I wouldn’t want to be a part of it because I didn’t want to watch those shows as a teen. So I was like, why would I want to be a part of that world? But when I read the script and the sides for Spencer, there was a really risqué scene that actually got cut out of the pilot, but eventually we started doing stuff like that more and more. It was a scene between her and Wren, when she was bumming a cigarette from him outside of a restaurant.
LH: Oh god, I remember that.
TB: She was bumming a cigarette and flirting with her sister’s fiancé! It was well-written, I remember that distinctly, and I related to it. That was a moment for me when I was like, oh, maybe I don’t know what this kind of show is about and I don’t know this world, and I have this idea about it. Truthfully, Pretty Little Liars was the first time all of my expectations broke down.
Ashley Benson: I was actually on a show while they were casting it. I was at a movie theater, and I got a call from my agent and was like, okay, whatever, this can wait. But my show had been cancelled that night. So they were like, “Yeah, you have to go in tomorrow for Pretty Little Liars.” I remember meeting Marlene for the first time and I was crying and so upset. My show had just been cancelled! She sat in the room and she said, “The second that you walked in, I felt you as Hanna.” It was a really crazy connection. I didn’t read the script or anything, I just read Hanna’s sides. I also knew that Lucy was doing it, and we’ve known each other forever, so that was really exciting. I had this weird instinct that this would become a really big thing.
Shay Mitchell: I was living in Toronto, and I was doing bottle service. I wanted to be on an American show more than anything. I was a big fan of Gossip Girl, so that to me was something I always had on my vision board. When I got the pilot for it, I actually read for Spencer first, that scene that she did. I had the same reaction she had. I was like, wow, yes, this is a little risqué! They’re smoking cigarettes! So I put myself on tape for that. They called back, and said they had already found Spencer, but they haven’t found an Emily character yet. They gave me the sides for that, and it was perfect. I put myself on tape for that, and the rest is history. I didn’t read the books until I had landed the part. And then once I read the books, we all read the books at the same time.
TB: We were in sync!
SM: We we all like, oh, this is cool. This is going to be good.
When did you all feel like you finally got a grasp on your characters’ ever-changing intentions and motivations? Did you reach a point where you could give feedback to the writers and be like, “You know, I don’t think she would do this because … ”?
LH: Our writers and producers made it very clear to us that we could come to them, pitch ideas, or if we hated a line we could change it. I really didn’t speak up about my character and things I wanted to do until these last ten episodes. I was like, “Can I just do something that I haven’t done before?” And they were like, “Yeah, sure!” I was like, what, it’s that easy?! Cool! Before then, I knew my role on the show was the romantic relief. I knew that was Aria’s part. I was like, man, maybe she can just do something outside of the box for the last ten episodes. And they let me do it.
Were there chances to improvise new dialogue on set?
LH: Troian …
AB: She changes a lot!
TB: [Laughs.] I’m very much up in the writers’ business. There wasn’t a lot of room for improvising per se, because the studio and the network were so involved with every draft and every script. By the time it got down to you, you were like, “Can I just not say the two names ‘Noel Kahn’ ever again? Don’t we know who Noel Kahn is? Can’t we just say ‘him’ or ‘Noel?’” They were always very involved. And as Lucy was saying, it was more getting in at the ideas level with the writers room. They were always very welcoming of me coming in and sitting down and saying, “Have we thought about this? What if this happened, how would it feel?”
How have you all evolved as performers working on the show?
SP: Alison got to change so much emotionally, and I didn’t really see that coming. There was a part of her that was really broken, and I wasn’t sure we would actually see that side of her. When she came back in season five and told her whole story about how she was buried alive, it was so emotional for me and unexpected.
LH: I know I’ve exponentially grown and learned from each of the girls. It was obviously very fun and it opened so many doors for us, but I’ve learned aspects of television I wasn’t even interested in, like lighting. It’s obviously going to help us in the future for other things.
TB: I feel like in the beginning we all were certain archetypes, and over the course of seven years we got to be many different things. The writers started to write more well-rounded characters. Something I was really surprised by was the various addictions she would have, either to sex or speed or whatever. I didn’t really see that coming, and I realized that as intelligent as she was, she was also incredibly self-destructive. I agree with Lucy, the whole thing was educational. Even though I’ve been working since a child, I learned how to be on a set and put in consistently crazy hours even when you’re exhausted or sick, and still be fully invested.
AB: We’ve had the best crew we’ve ever worked with.
SM: You’re vulnerable being an actor, so having a family that’s supportive of you on set is just the cherry on top for seven years of experience.
SP: They’re so protective.
AB: They were all, like, our dads. I still text them all the time. They’re so happy and wondering how we’re doing. If they knew we were having a bad day, they’d talk us down. Every guy on that show was so amazing.
How do you think Pretty Little Liars has influenced the newer crop of teen shows since it premiered in 2010? It seems like shows revolving around teenagers these days, such as Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why, are really fueled by mystery and murder as opposed to “normal” high-school experiences.
AB: Big Little Lies!
LH: Maybe not that. [Laughs.] I watched both the pilots of 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale, and I’m not saying that we influenced their shows, but you can definitely see lots of similarities. All of us, the writers and producers, have paved a way for a lot of new shows. To take on stuff that young-adult shows wouldn’t normally tackle.
AB: We took a lot of risks. The great thing about our show was that because there were five strong, female leads, we’re all dealing with different issues that teens nowadays go through — we each had a specific issue that we dealt with or overcame. For all of us, I feel like our fans really connected. There would be an episode where I would get a message, they would get a message, everybody gets a message. Especially with Emily, I know Shay has gotten an outpouring amount of support from fans just being like, “Thank you so much, I’ve been able to come out to my family and friends.” And with Hanna, when she was dealing with the eating disorder earlier on in the series, I got a lot of nice messages about that, too.
One phenomenon that emerged early in the show’s run was that it became an instant hit on social media — tens of millions of people tweet about episodes every week, and you all do a ton of fan interaction, too. I would even argue that it became the first “social-media show.” Why do you think such a large demographic had an immediate, visceral response to it?
AB: The cool thing is that older females watch it. My mom and all of our moms watch it. Our moms on the show were beyond helpful. My mom was a huge fan of Laura Leighton [who plays Ashley Marin] from Melrose Place. I talked to Laura a lot when we first started, and she has become my second mom. I still ask her for advice. It was wonderful to follow them and see how they dealt with a huge show. Holly Marie Combs, too.
LH: Agreed one hundo perfect. All of the stars aligned, and it was the right time for social media and our show.
SM: I didn’t even know what Twitter was when we started.
SP: Younger kids were watching it, and their parents were monitoring it. And then they loved it and it became a family thing, which is so unusual that teens would watch it with their parents. Who wants to watch Gossip Girl with their mom? Even though it happened, it wasn’t a norm.
TB: It’s very cool to see, even how television has evolved. You know the Nielsen ratings system? With the Nielsen box? They realized it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of the viewership of certain shows, our show included. They developed this whole new rating system based on tweets to track how popular a show was. They looked at social media and hashtag interactions, and our show was consistently number one, it was crazy. It was interesting because for a long time, I remember going to work the next day and asking our producers, “What were our numbers last night?” And they would respond, “We could give you the numbers, but they really don’t matter.” Even though this many people tuned in live, there were 200 million tweets.
SP: Or streaming it. There are so many different outlets, too.
LH: No one watches live anymore.
SM: Remember when you would race home to watch The O.C.?
AB: Every Thursday I was at a watching party with my friends!
One of the main criticisms that has emerged over the past few seasons is that the show has bitten off a bit more then it can chew — plots have become a bit too convoluted, and there seem to be more questions than answers with each passing episode. Do you think those concerns were justified?
TB: 100 percent.
LH: Oh, definitely. We often had questions. Often these story lines just disappeared into thin air. We would be like, Whatever happened to that character? Why didn’t we ever mention this again? Why did Hanna only wear a cast for an episode? Things like that. You have to remember, it’s TV, but definitely — we heard the frustrations of the supporters of the show loud and clear. The writers have tried their absolute best to give them all of the answers that they could.
TB: It was really different. Because it’s not like this was a show where every season there were ten episodes, so that the writers could get into a room two months ahead of time and break the full story for the year. This was a show where in one year, we were asked to do 25 episodes. Which is crazy!
TB: To make a mystery last for 26 episodes and make it engaging …
SM: It’s impossible.
TB: And on top of it, not knowing if you were going to come back for another year, and then when they tell you you are going to come back for another year, okay, well, those answers that you were going to give at the end of the finale, make it stretch into the next year. I think the writers did a really good job of rolling with the punches by creating new characters, new story lines, and expanding the world from Sara Shepard’s books, in a way that sometimes became convoluted and frustrating. The fans that have stuck it out — your answers are in the last ten episodes.
SP: I think the one thing we didn’t answer was how the moms got out of the basement.
SM: That’s never going to be answered, I’m sorry. That’s the one question that won’t be answered.
SP: They did get out.
TB: Thank god.
Do you think the show would’ve benefited from a smaller episode count per season?
AB: Hmm. The last two or three years we only did 20 episodes.
LH: So it got condensed a little bit.
AB: It was also so much work. Every year, pulling 20-something episodes for seven years. I also think that goes with … they wanted to push the story lines a little bit faster and move them further along. As the seasons kept going on they were like, “Okay, we’ll do ten and ten and make it a little bit shorter.” I think in the end it was fine.
LH: I think it would’ve been the same result without fewer episodes.
SP: They worked it out.
What was the actual filming structure for you all?
TB: Filming starts every Monday at about 5:30 in the morning and lasts until Friday. Because we did a lot of night scenes, we would stack those at the end of the week.
SP: We would call them “Fraturdays.”
Were there any plot points for your respective characters that you weren’t necessarily thrilled with?
LH: Where do I begin? Just joking. I just thought it was funny … sometimes I feel they didn’t really know Aria’s place, so they just had her date a hundred guys.
SM: I think that was true with every character, to be honest. But remember, 25 episodes.
AB: With what Lucy said, when you have 25 episodes, you can’t make every single episode mind-blowing. So I think we all had times when we were like, ah, that’s not an interesting story line.
TB: For example, yesterday when we were doing something for press, we had to plan out all of our different hookups along a timeline, and there were whole story lines of ours that we totally forgot.
LH: It was just bad!
SP: We totally forgot!
SM: Oh my gosh.
AB: We didn’t even know the characters … who people were.
SP: Who people were hooking up with. We were like, we don’t remember him.
TB: I don’t remember anybody.
At this point in the series, how would you define the group’s friendship dynamic? If they still weren’t being hunted by “A” after the time jump, do you think they would’ve actually remained friends?
SP: I don’t know if they would’ve been as close to Alison. There was a lot of still unresolved conflict. But I think the four would’ve.
LH: I want to believe they would.
AB: I think they would. I also think they would with Ali, too. They had such a strong bond regardless of what you did.
SP: What I did.
AB: What you did to us! Torturing us! They are, at the end of the day, a family.
SP: There’s so much history.
SM: But we did need you to die for us to become close at the beginning [of] the season.
LH: It’s true, we needed that.
SM: Otherwise I don’t think we would’ve been friends, because we did have that year off after you died. So, you dying brought us together. Thanks for that!
TB: And when we did the time jump, you felt that our characters were still keeping up with each other, but they were living totally different lives. It’s like those friends that you have — you don’t have to talk to them every day, but when something major something happens …
LH: It’s like no time has passed.
Who do you think has grown the most throughout the past seven seasons?
LH: Ali, right?
TB: Oh yeah.
LH: Everyone has grown into their own, but Ali has had such a remarkable change.
TB: Her personality!
SP: They literally changed her personality. I think her character broke down her own walls and realized how much she had put away and forgotten about and suppressed. Once she realized how terrible her family was, and why she was the way she was, she worked on that, and it helped having great friends that helped her through that. She really did change for the better.
SM: All of us matured, have you seen the pilot episode? My eyebrows got thicker!
SP: Look how mean I was!
AB: Me and Shay got thicker eyebrows!
SP: Alison looked like a mom when she was 17! [Laughs.] She was so slutty in the beginning!
AB: Alison went from a mom to real estate.
SP: She had her phases.
AB: You became a teacher so you had to dress the part.
SP: Sure, we’ll go with that. [Laughs.]
If Pretty Little Liars was to have another non-Ravenswood spinoff, who and what do you think it should focus on?
LH: Ali. I love her character! I love all of you guys, I even love Aria, but I think you have so many places you could go because you have such a messed up past.
TB: There’s so much to mine.
SP: As much as she’s grown, she’s also still very unstable.
LH: You could just go back to being crazy Ali. I loved bitchy, crazy Ali.
SP: I did too.
TB: Those flashbacks were the best. Remember the lakeside scene? That’s one of my favorite scenes. When we were all by that lakeside and Ali was just being awful.
SP: I was so mean.
LH: It was my 21st birthday!
AB: You brought Coldstone!
LH: [Starts singing “Memories” from Cats.]
I know a lot of people who are still hoping Alison turns out to be “A” in the end.
SP: [Laughs.] Yeah. I am aware.
AB: You never know.
TB: You never know. You can keep on mining that story forever. She could be “A” and then have her own show.
SM: And then “B” and then “C” and then “D.”
AB: The whole alphabet!
How did you all actually find out who the ultimate “A” was?
SP: We all got little hints along the way. I think we all found out in our own ways. In the end, it was a huge shocker.
LH: No one told me, and then I heard that an actor who never works on the show knew about it.
AB: What! Who?
SP: No one ever tells you anything!
LH: Drew Van Acker knew about it! I’m like, “How did you know and I didn’t know?”
AB: I get so much anxiety talking about it.
LH: Usually we just read it with the scripts.
AB: They were very tight-lipped about it, obviously, but I remember forcing it out of someone. We were on a late-night shoot and I was like, “Dude, you gotta fucking tell me right now, because if you don’t tell me, I’m gonna go insane. Marlene’s not fucking telling me, I wanna know.” And then I got told and was like, ahhhhh! It was great.
SP: I was really happy about it.
LH: Typically they don’t tell much.
AB: I was pissed that it wasn’t Hanna. [Winks.]
TB: I was super nosy about it and I remember I cornered Marlene. I think Marlene might be slightly afraid of me. [Laughs.] Because it worked. I was like, “You’re gonna tell me, and you’re gonna tell me now.” And it was a while ago. She was like, “Do you really wanna know?” And I was like, “Yes, I really do.”
AB: And guess who told me? [Stares at Troian.]
I know you all got matching tattoos to commemorate the show. I think you should pressure Marlene into getting one, too.
TB: She wanted one, actually.
Did you not let her?
AB: No, don’t worry. We actually FaceTimed her when we were getting tatted up because we were right down the street from her house, and we were like, “You sure you don’t want to join us right now?” And she was like, “No, I’m in bed. I’m tired.”
LH: She’s going to get one.
TB: Later she’s going to get one, 100 percent.
AB: She’s going to get a full sleeve.
SP: In red. A bunch of interwoven “A”s.
TB: She should get a PLL script tramp stamp. Just right across the back.
SP: “Written and directed by I. Marlene King.”
What do you hope the show’s legacy will be?
TB: Recently, I put on a show that was very important to me. I started to rewatch Twin Peaks.
LH: There are so many similarities.
TB: Watching the discovery of Laura Palmer I was like, oh god, a blonde dead girl. Listening to that theme song, watching the way it was shot, and being reintroduced to the characters I felt was like a homecoming for me, watching it again. I was like, I forgot how good this was.
LH: I hope it’s nostalgic for people in that same way. When you hear that opening song.
TB: When our fans are older and they look back and put on our show, I really do hope they feel that.
SP: That it brings them back.
SM: Like I feel when I watch Dawson’s Creek.
Do you embrace the “Twin Peaks for teens” classification?
TB: It’s an honor.
SP: We also got I Know What You Did Last Summer comparisons a lot.
TB: We used to get “Twin Peaks lite.”
LH: Remember when we were compared to Desperate Housewives?
AB: For sure. A lot.
TB: That’s what the books were supposed to be, right? “Desperate Housewives for teens.” I never saw it.
LH: Season one, that’s all I heard from anyone.
As you all have been so closely associated with Pretty Little Liars over the past few years, have you found it to be difficult securing roles outside of the network?
SP: The main thing was scheduling. We worked nine months out of the year.
LH: I’m sure there’s some type of typecasting, because it’s human nature. Everyone has their preconceived notion of who I am as an actress and a person, same with everyone here. I’ve worked with these girls and I know what we’re capable of. I know we all can do whatever the hell we want to do. I love a good challenge. Can’t wait to prove you wrong.
TB: It’ll just be about walking into those rooms. I do think that’s the journey that’s ahead of us.
LH: We’re from a commercially popular show. We have very recognizable faces. You see us every week, you think that we are those characters. I get called Aria more than I get called Lucy. It’s a quality problem to have.
SM: Typecasting is funny. I only get called to play swim coaches now. [Laughs.] “We see you in Converse, we know you’re very sporty!”
SP: Swimfan 2.
TB: Or people think you’re stuck in time. I still get called in to read for high-school movies. I’m like, girl, you don’t want me to show up for that.
With the show ending in a matter of weeks, it’s natural that people want to know if you’ll continue the story in other ways, with a follow-up film or special episode. Would you consider revisiting the Pretty Little Liars universe at some point in the future, or do you think the series finale would be the definitive time to say good-bye for good?
AB: Anyone want to take this? [Laughs.]
SP: I think it’s a little bit of both. They ended it so well. Not to sound cheesy, but they put a pretty little bow on it. They really did wrap it up in a way that we all felt really good about. I think there’s always a world where Rosewood lives on, and you really do never know, but I think we were all satisfied.
LH: Anyone can take the ending and take it in a different direction. I think that Marlene’s secretly hoping that we’re all going to come back.
SP: She’s holding out for that.
TB: Like a Sex and the City movie. The Liars goes to Dubai! What are we doing?
LH: They’re definitely going to Dubai, let’s put that idea in the universe.
SM: I would do a movie if we can shoot it in Europe.
Get off the Warner Bros. lot.
SM: Exactly. But then they’d tell us that we’re shooting in Barcelona and then be like, “No, actually, we’re shooting on Barcelona Street on the Warner Bros. lot.”
TB: Oh yes, I shot in “Barcelona” on the Warner Bros. lot for a few episodes.
SP: We have to be very specific with our contracts.