In an age of superhero movies and TV anti-heroes, fictional villains are more complex than ever before. This week, Vulture examines villainous entertainment in all its forms.
You better believe Pretty Little Liars went there. After seven seasons, the Freeform drama decided to drop one last bombshell before going out for good: Spencer Hastings had a secret British twin named Alex Drake.
We’ll leave the complexities of Alex’s origin story for you to ponder, but for now, all you need to know is that she became “A.D.” to honor her half-sister Charlotte’s murder, and eventually became so obsessed with Spencer’s happy life in Rosewood that she wanted to assume her identity and keep her trapped underground forever. But in the end, Alex’s plans get foiled and she’s captured by Mona to live the rest of her life in another underground lair in France. If you thought PLL was an ordinary teen mystery, you clearly have some brushing up to do.
The day after the series finale, Vulture spoke with actress Troian Bellisario about she developed Alex’s character, the inspiration behind her British accent, and her message for fans who didn’t love the ending.
The last time we talked, you mentioned how much you enjoy Twin Peaks. How does it feel to join Kyle MacLachlan in the elite club of TV doppelgängers?
[Laughs.] It’s an honor to be part of a group of actors in the world of television that get to play doppelgängers and twins and split personalities. It’s a total gift. I feel so lucky that everybody over at Pretty Little Liars wanted to put me in this position and see what I can do with it. I just had a total blast. It’s scary. I definitely was shitting bricks — well, I’ll say it a little bit more peachy — I was sweating bullets before yesterday. It was funny because everyone around me was like, “Oh, are you nervous because the show was ending?” And I was like, “No, I’m about to reveal an entirely new person to the world and I have no idea how it’s going to go over.” It’s risky and not everybody is going to like it or be into it, but it was so fun to go along for that ride. I’m happy that I got to do it.
You knew about Spencer’s evil twin two years before anyone else did. With this advance knowledge, did you have a lot of input into constructing the character’s demeanor and physicality?
Not really. When I first found out two years ago, Marlene told me, “This is what I want to have happen.” Every season, you have to pitch the idea of the next season, the ending of the next season, and where you’re taking the story. You have to pitch it to the network and the studio, and if they don’t go for it then something new has to come up. So for the whole first year that I knew, it was only the knowledge that she wanted to take it in this direction. We couldn’t fall in love with this character until it was totally ripe and given the green light between the sixth and the seventh season. We were given the green light to go in this direction, flesh her out, and figure out where she was from and such. I remember Marlene turned to me one day and was like, “Actually, I think I want her to grow up in the U.K.” So I was like, “Oh, okay, so does she have an accent?” Marlene was like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s find her an accent.” We built these things over the beginning of the seventh season until that first scene, where you see Alex for the first time when she asks Toby if she can kiss him. It’s interesting because, at that point, she was nowhere near as fleshed out as she was going to be, because that’s Alex impersonating Spencer. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to go the whole British route, because we didn’t know if Julian [Morris] was going to be available to play Wren in the finale. It was a lot of pieces that finally fell into place a few weeks leading up to the finale. It was a pretty Etch A Sketch kind of situation.
How did you decide that Alex would embody this “Cockney chav” persona, as opposed to something that parallels Spencer more closely, like a refined Oxbridge woman?
We wanted her to be extreme because Spencer was very privileged growing up. Spencer wanted to go to Oxford. Spencer went to country clubs, had money, had wealth, had a good family that was taking care of her. They were socioeconomically sound and wealthy. We really wanted to have that opportunity for Alex young in life, but because she mirrored her mother more than she mirrored Spencer, she had these behavior problems and this “good wealthy British family” that gave her away to an orphanage. When she ran away at 10, she was surviving on the streets. To me, I was like, “This girl is going to speak in the way that she needs to speak. She’s going to learn from her peers around her.” It was an opportunity for us to tell the entire history of the person just with the way that she spoke. There’s so much about how Alex got to Rosewood and how Wren found her. We didn’t really have time to go into Alex’s childhood and her psychology, so we wanted to create this real marked difference between her and Wren so you could see that you wouldn’t mistake her for Spencer if you ran into her. She was really doing everything in her power to change her identity, to change her tastes, to change her nationality, to become this other person. That’s why we went with that extreme route.
When we got in the room where Alex and Spencer were together, I really wanted them to seem like a yin and a yang. I wanted them to seem like two polar opposites rather than a slight difference between them. It’s more fun to play and it’s more fun for the audience to see that this girl really couldn’t be more different than Spencer.
Did you model your accent on anybody? I was getting some major Amy Winehouse vibes.
I did listen to Amy! It’s funny, my friend called me and was like, “That was the best Michael Caine I ever heard.” [Laughs.] I knew that I was really interested in an “Essex sound.” I wanted her to be an Essex girl. I eventually I found this reality show called The Only Way Is Essex. It’s pretty much the Jersey Shore for the U.K. It’s reality TV, so the characters are very dramatic and very outlandish and very funny and very brash. I saw a musicality in the way they spoke — the slang and the way that they related to each other. So I was like, “I don’t know, this sounds like Alex to me.” So the voice was actually based off that reality-TV show.
PLL viewers love fan theories, but they rarely predicted the show’s big twists in the past. Did it surprise you that the “Spencer has a twin” theory cropped up so early this season?
It didn’t surprise me. For a lot of the other finales and plot twists, Marlene and the writers really did everything they could to throw the scent off of the villains. There were so many red herrings. When Mona was first revealed, they didn’t tell Janel for an entire year to ensure she wasn’t playing it as a villain in any way. The interesting thing about Alex was since we knew she was going to be a new character, we didn’t want the audience to be blindsided by it. We actually wanted to lead people along a little bit. By revealing Mary Drake was Jessica’s twin and by knowing that the ending to the book series is that Alison has a twin … twins run in the family and it’s expected as a part of this world. We didn’t want people to be totally surprised. I think it’s ultimately more fun that way. If you find out in the end that it’s Jerry the Maintenance Man that you never laid eyes on in your life, you’d be like, “Uh, okay.” If you didn’t know anything about Alex but you had this hunch then it’s fun because then you’re along for the ride.
The reactions to the finale have been pretty divisive. Some viewers think it’s a fun and appropriate way to end the show, while others think introducing a brand-new character was unfair and manipulative. What would you say to people who weren’t pleased with how the series ended?
Ultimately what I would say is that there’s no way in the world that we could’ve pleased everybody. It’s really unfortunate. Every other reveal in this show, you could like it or not like it, but you always knew that we had more episodes ahead. When it was Mona, you could be like, “Uh, I didn’t want it to be Mona,” but you knew there would be a continued story line afterward. With Charlotte and Charles, you could like it or not like it, but you knew the show was continuing. I think it was really tough for people to swallow because they knew this was the last episode ever, so if they didn’t get everything they wanted out of that story, they’re going to be upset. I totally understand that. But the thing I want to say to those people is: I think the show was supposed to end in year six with Charlotte revealed as “A.” When we decided to continue working on it and decided to create a new character, it’s a genesis story. It’s going to be a genesis story because somebody had to pick up the lead from Charlotte. I don’t know what to say other than I’m sorry. I’m literally trying not to go on social media because I know that people are going to be brutal.
I know that the show means a lot to people and they’re going to be passionate either way. I would also say to look at all of the other things that you got. You got your Ezra wedding. You got Haleb. You got Emison. You got Spoby, even. The writers broke their backs to make sure that they gave so much to the fans. Even the last good-bye scene and all of these little nods were in the finale, because I know Marlene poured her blood, sweat, and tears into making sure she gave the fans a really beautiful love letter.
I guess what I’m getting around to is: If people are dissatisfied with the creation of a new character, look at all of these other awesome things that you got. I’m not trying to be like, “Be grateful,” but there’s so much beauty in this show. To focus on that small little thing, is that really what you’re going to remember? Or are you going to remember seven years with these characters that you loved that you got to say good-bye to in a really beautiful way?
The fandom works in mysterious ways. I personally thought it was fun and an enjoyable twist.
That’s what matters. There are those people … like, I thought it was going to be really good fun for Spencer and Caleb to explore a relationship. It was pretty much like death threats for me. So many girls were like, “You’re a whore, I hate you!” I’m like, “You’re calling Spencer a whore?! I have other tweets from you where you’re like ‘I love you, Spencer!’” I don’t understand it. It’s a totally different level of dedication from the fans. I don’t personally relate to it, but to each their own. I’m grateful that they watch the show and that they love certain things about the show. I’m sorry if I broke up your ship for a while or if I happened to be a villain that you didn’t like. I’m doing my job. [Laughs.]
If nothing else, I’m glad it was suggested that Spencer and Toby ended up together.
I think that’s really fun. They’re obviously my favorite couple. Keegan [Allen] and I were joking about how the finale is the literal embodiment of that line in that Drake and Rihanna song: “If you had a twin, I would still choose you.” We were obsessive. It’s true love because even though she had a twin, he still chose her.