Pretty Little Liar
A born entertainer, Kaneohe native Janel Parrish got her first break as Little Cosette in Les Miserables and now has a Best TV Villain award for her role on Pretty Little Liars
Janel Parrish – and her family – knew from an early age she wanted to be in show business. Her quest is paying off with a starring role in a hit TV series
When ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars revealed the show’s masked villain, solving a two-seasons-long mystery, it didn’t just surprise fans, it set a social media record. The episode received 645,000 tweets, and is considered to be one of social media’s most active hours for a television show last season, according to social TV analytics company Bluefin Labs. At the center of much of the buzz was Hawaii-born actress Janel Parrish, who – spoiler alert – portrays the bad girl, Mona Vanderwaal.
Her character’s foray into villainy may have come as a shock to viewers who had not followed the book series on which the show is based, but Parrish played the switch perfectly, transforming Mona from a snarky popular girl with a bit of a mean streak to a crazed mastermind with a vengeance.
In real life, the 24-year-old actress is smaller, or perhaps just less menacing, than on television – not more than 5-foot-2 and slender. Sitting in Stage Restaurant at Honolulu Design Center recently for an early lunch, Parrish, who’s half Chinese and half Caucasian, might easily pass for any other local girl. And in many ways, she is. Originally from Kaneohe, Parrish (whose middle name is Meilani) lived in the Islands until she was 14, when she and her parents decided to move to Los Angeles so she could pursue her career.
After working her way through Hollywood with a string of television guest parts and supporting roles in several films, Parrish, it seems, now stands on the verge of big-time success.
She was named a series regular on Pretty Little Liars at the beginning of its third season, which returns from its midseason break Tuesday (Jan. 8), upgraded from her previous status as a recurring guest star. And since she was revealed as the show’s psychotic villain at the end of season two, Parrish has had a chance to really show off her acting chops in the versatile role. For her performance, Parrish won the title of Choice TV Villain – her first award – at the Teen Choice Awards in July.
Upon her return to L.A., Parrish was set to begin shooting a new film, The Concerto, in which she will star as an aspiring singer-songwriter. It’s her first big lead in a movie. The Concerto is a girl-meets-boy romance with a twist – namely that the boy (Jackson Rathbone of Twilight) is actually the ghost of a musician who died years ago, and she’s the only one who can see him.
Parrish was back in town to film an episode of Hawaii Five-0 as a guest star just one week after Pretty Little Liars wrapped production of its third season. She’ll play a chemistry student who may or may not be guilty of a murder in an episode that airs Jan. 14 on CBS. She’s a fan of Five-0: “A lot of the reason why is the scenery. When we’re back in L.A., we miss Hawaii, so we like to watch it.”
But the trip wasn’t all work. It also was a return to the place that she still calls home, even after spending the last 10 years – the majority of her adolescence and all of her young adulthood – in L.A. Her parents, Mark and Joanne, and her older sister, Melissa, joined her, marking the first time in the last decade that the whole family was together in the Islands.
“We stayed with my grandparents, and we went all over the place,” Parrish says. “We went hiking. I ate all my favorite local foods. We went to the beach and took a drive around the island.”
By the time she’s enjoying a blackened ahi salad at Stage (“Fresh Hawaiian fish is so good.”), she’d been here about a week. Today, she’s wearing her long, ombre hair – which gradually fades top-to-bottom from black to blond – in tiny, neat curls with the sides pinned back while the rest hangs midway down her back. She’s donned a casual green dress that highlights her striking light-brown eyes. She’s perfectly put together, but in a breezy, effortless way.
At this point, the family vacation portion is coming to an end. Earlier that morning, Parrish had rehearsal for Five-0, and most of the rest of her time here would be spent on set.
“I love being busy,” she says. “All I want to do is work, so it’s great.”
While Parrish now is on the edge of success, it all began on the edge of a staircase in her childhood home in Kaneohe. Mark recalls that he and Joanne first realized their daughter had a penchant for performing when 4-year-old Parrish would serenade the family, pretending the staircase was a stage, decked out in dress-up clothes and a red toy microphone in hand.
“We knew she was a little ham, in other words,” says Mark, who sits across from his daughter at lunch. (Joanne joins the group later.) “The interesting thing was that they were songs that she made up.”
At age 6, Parrish realized she wanted to be a performer after seeing Phantom of the Opera at Blaisdell Center. By 7, she had enrolled in voice and piano lessons, and won the grand prize in Kiddieoke, the kid’s version of Hawaii Stars.
Soon after that, Les Miserables visited Hawaii to hold auditions. The role required relocation to New York City, so Mark and Joanne were hesitant. After months of their daughter persuading them, they agreed to at least let her try out – partly, Mark says, because they figured with the stiff competition, what would be the chances of her getting the role? Parrish beat out several hundred girls and spent the next year touring the country as Little Cosette, followed by a stint on Broadway.
When she returned to Hawaii, she continued participating in local theater, landing the leads in many productions, including Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird and Wendy in On Dragonfly Wings.
Parrish began traveling to L.A. for pilot seasons and during summer breaks. But the back-and-forth was tough; some auditions gave less than 24 hours’ notice, and eventually it seemed like the next logical step would be to move there – a move that a young Parrish desperately wanted to make.
“The reality is we wouldn’t have considered the move if Janel didn’t do her part,” Mark explains. “Our criteria for moving there was that her work ethic needed to equal her talent level … We knew talent alone would not be enough on a larger stage.”
So she studied her lines, prepared for auditions and researched potential roles – all while keeping up with schoolwork and chores.
After Parrish completed her freshman year at Moanalua High School, she, Mark and Joanne moved to L.A. (Melissa, who is 8 years older than Parrish, was already pursuing a military career on the Mainland.)
“Ultimately, the decision to move to L.A. as a family was made because we already saw that she was realistically capable of fulfilling the dream she had from childhood, and because we knew she would find her way to Hollywood anyway,” Mark says. “We wanted it to be done as a family so that we could support her in her quest.”
That familial support has remained strong through the years, and through Parrish’s increasing fame. Whatever the cause, Parrish doesn’t seem to have befallen the traps of young Hollywood – which, as Mark elucidates, are plentiful. Parrish spent the night before this lunch meeting listening to Christmas music in her Waikiki hotel room after her parents had stopped by. By all three of their accounts, this low-key night is illustrative of her life in L.A., too. Parrish lives in North Hollywood, a family-friendly district that she prefers to the larger city. She often has movie nights or cooks dinner with her tight-knit group of friends. She and Mark have a father-daughter coffee talk once a week, a ritual that has been going on for years. And every Sunday night the whole family has dinner together at Mark and Joanne’s home.
Sitting next to her parents at Stage, she speaks easily and candidly, even about touchy topics like dating and her tattoos – she has several small ones, including the words “Made In Hawaii” on the arch of her foot.
Moving to L.A. was a time to start over for the whole family. Joanne took an early retirement from her career as an occupational therapist, while Mark relaunched his real estate business in the area.
For Parrish, it was, at first, a scary transition. Entering the Hollywood scene at just 14, Parrish already felt like she had some catching up to do with her peers.
“There are just so many talented people in L.A. who have all been there way longer than you,” Parrish says. “I felt really new, and I felt like there was so much to learn … There are so many girls who look like you and act like you and do all the things that you can do.”
But Parrish kept striving to hone her skills and worked constantly, throwing herself into acting, voice and dance classes. For years, she went to as many as seven auditions in one week.
“I think that one of the hardest things about this business is that there is a lot of rejection, and there is a lot of competition. There are definitely those projects that you go out for that you don’t get, and it’s always a little bit of a letdown,” Parrish says, adding that she had been considered for the role of Alice Cullen in Twilight. She got as far as few callbacks in front of the director before she was told she would not be going any farther. “But you learn from it and go on to the next, and that is just why you keep going – because you love it so much.”
Parrish admits that being a hapa actress has presented its own set of challenges. Those same hapa features that render her a girl next door here in Hawaii make her stand out in Hollywood – and not always in a good way. Casting directors sometimes aren’t sure where to place Parrish; even if they like her for a role, her looks might not match an onscreen family.
“In Hollywood, they have a certain look that they look for when they want the girl next door,” Parrish says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve auditioned for that girl and I have gotten the friend.
“I love who I am and my heritage, but it is sometimes hard to get Hollywood to see you in a different light.”
Despite any setbacks, Parrish landed guest spots on popular shows including The O.C. and Heroes in her first few years in Hollywood.
At 18, she made her feature film debut as one of four leads in the movie Bratz. While many critics came down harshly on the movie, Parrish credits it as being a valuable learning experience. Plus, it gave her a chance to show off her singing and dancing abilities. Also a singer-songwriter (she was signed to Geffen Records in 2007), she composed a song, Rainy Day, for the movie.
More recently, Parrish has put her music career on the back burner to focus on film and television, but she hopes to get more involved in music in the future. At the top of her to-do list is to combine her two passions and appear in a musical movie. Kim in Miss Saigon would be her “absolute dream role” if it ever comes to the big screen: “If I ever got to play her one day, I would die.”
Bratz wasn’t quite Parrish’s big break, but it did lead to smaller roles in both television and film.
In 2009, she returned to the Islands to shoot film festival favorite One Kine Day, in which she plays the troublemaker best friend of a Hawaii high school girl who finds out she is pregnant. (“They always make me the troublemaker! What is up with that?”) For the role, Parrish had to learn to speak pidgin, studying Frank De Lima tapes and spending time with her grandparents in Moanalua.
During filming, she got a call from Mark, who had news from her manager: They wanted her to audition for a television pilot called Pretty Little Liars. But Parrish, who says she has “kind of a one-track mind,” almost didn’t do it.
It was Mark who convinced her otherwise. “He said to me, ‘I know you’re focusing on (the film), but I really think that you should read the script, because it’s a great script and it’s going to be a hit,'” Parrish recalls. “And I read it and just fell in love.
“I called and said, ‘You were right, Daddy.'” Turning to a smiling Mark, “He loves hearing me say those words.”
It turns out that Mark was right about the show being a hit. Pretty Little Liars has become a new queen bee when it comes to teen shows. It centers around four friends – Aria, Emily, Hanna and Spencer – who are reunited one year after their best friend Alison goes missing. When her body is found, the girls start receiving texts from an anonymous person known as “A,” who knows things they thought only Alison knew and threatens to expose their darkest secrets. Parrish’s character Mona is Hanna’s best friend who replaces Alison as the town’s “it girl.”
The show certainly has a degree of romantic melodrama like others aimed primarily at a teen audience, but Pretty Little Liars, with its mix of mystery, thrills and drama, is an animal of its own – and has garnered comparisons to a wide range of shows from glitzy Gossip Girl to unnerving odyssey Twin Peaks. In addition to Parrish’s win, the show as whole swept last year’s Teen Choice Awards, being named Choice TV Drama, and three of Parrish’s co-stars winning awards.
The show’s following extends beyond its teen target market; it also won last year’s Favorite Cable TV Drama at the People’s Choice Awards, beating out hits like Dexter and True Blood, and has been nominated for the same category again this year.
Mona’s transition into the show’s bad girl – and her subsequent descent into psychosis – has been a highlight for Parrish.
“I knew that something big and meaty was going to come that I could just really sink my teeth into and have fun with,” Parrish says. “I finally got a chance to really, really play with the role.
“Every time I get a new script, I never know exactly what my character is going to do, and it keeps it really fresh and fun for me,” she adds. “Even after three years, I still look forward to going to work. It is so fun.”
Parrish promises viewers will continue to see a lot of Mona throughout the rest of the season. She’s careful not to reveal too much, but does say that Mona has been released from the insane asylum, where she had been locked up earlier in the season.
“(The rest of the season) will be putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, showing that there’s more than just one (villain), and how and why, and what the main goal is,” Parrish says. “There were some really fun scenes, and I am really excited for everyone to see it.”
It’s now mid-afternoon, and Stage Restaurant is nearly empty. Before she leaves with her parents, a couple of servers cautiously approach Parrish for a photo. It’s a scenario she has gotten used to lately, but one that she still happily welcomes. She smiles and agrees.
“Before, people were always like, ‘Mona, Mona, Mona,'” she says. “But lately – and what I love – is when people come up and say, ‘Are you Janel Parrish?'”
When Parrish returned to L.A. a few days later, she was scheduled to go right into filming The Concerto. Pretty Little Liars, which recently got picked up for a fourth season, will resume filming in March.
Looking back at last season’s big revelation, Parrish admits that she initially was intimidated by the transition.
“The first time I read the script for the season-two finale when I found out that I was going to go insane … (I thought) I had never played a role like this before. This is going to be a challenge,” Parrish recalls.
“The key for me is having fun,” she says. “Sometimes, you look at a script, and you go, ‘Am I going to be able to pull this off? How am I going to play this?’ And we can have those doubts and those questions, but for me it’s just going, ‘No, I can do this. I am just going to go and play and have fun and just really get into the zone and see what happens.'”