You may best recognize Janel Parrish from her role on ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, but there’s a lot more to Parrish than just her flair for playing the devilishly entertaining Mona Vanderwaal. Parrish is also a budding singer-songwriter and pianist, who got her start at an early as a stage performer. She recently got to showcase her pipes and on stage presence in a production of Spring Awakening, and will be showcasing her musical talents with her acting chops again in the upcoming film The Concerto, which she stars in alongside The Twilght Saga’s Jackson Rathbone.
When I spoke with Parrish for this interview, we discussed everything from how musical theater was her first love to whether or not Mona can be trusted in Season 4. For all the details, read on for the full interview…
The Daily Quirk: Your first big role was as Little Cosette in the National Touring Company and Broadway Company production of Les Miserables. Can you tell us a little more about how that role came about?
Janel Parrish: Yes! As you said, that was the first thing I had ever done. I was about six years old and I loved musical theater. So when my parents saw in the paper that they [the production] were advertising they were going to come to Hawaii for auditions for Little Cosette, my dad showed me the picture of Little Cosette and said, ‘You look like her!’ So I was like, ‘Oh, I want to audition for it.’ I had no training, no experience whatsoever and my dad just saw that I really, really wanted to do it and let me audition. I ended up getting it and from then until [age] 11, musical theater was my life. I hadn’t done any TV or film, and I was just living in Hawaii doing musical theater. That’s kind of how it started and then I stepped away from that to do film and TV.
TDQ: You returned to the theater last year to do an L.A. production of Spring Awakening. What was that like?
JP: Yeah! That was my return to theater after 11 years of not doing it and it was amazing because musical theater is definitely my first love. It’s where my heart has always been. So, it was wonderful to be able to return to the stage and do a musical that I was passionate about. I was in love with that musical since it first came out and to this day it is probably still one of my favorite experiences.
TDQ: Would you like to do more theater in the near future? I know you’re kind of busy right now with Pretty Little Liars, but is that something you’d like to return to?
JP: Yeah [laughing], definitely! The show keeps me busy, but I will always have it in my heart to do more musical theater. So if the timing allowed it, it would be great to return to that.
TDQ: Both of those roles called for you to use your talent as a singer as well as acting. I know you’re a songwriter, so is there any chance we’ll get to see you perform some of your own songs sometime soon?
JP: I am yes. I’m a singer-songwriter. I play the piano and I write, and it’s a passion of mine, absolutely. With the show, I haven’t been able to turn my attention to songwriting so far, but eventually I’d love to get back into that, definitely. I just did a film called The Concerto last year where I was able to play a singer-songwriter so it will showcase some of my music, which I’m happy about.
TDQ: Can you tell us a little more about The Concerto?
JP: So it’s me and Jackson Rathbone, and it was amazing because I got to play the female lead and he was my woo-man. It was kind of a dream because I love Jackson Rathbone from The Twilight Saga. It’s kind of a modern day twist on the movie Ghost. It’s about a girl who falls in love with this ghost and they have this romance, and they bond through music. It’s a really great film and I’m very excited for it to come out.
TDQ: Let’s talk about Pretty Little Liars and go way back to the beginning. What initially attracted you to the role of Mona?
JP: You know I actually tried out for the role of Spencer, had a couple of callbacks for it and didn’t get it. I was super bummed because I loved the script. So when they came to me to audition for Mona, I was like ‘You know what? I’ll do anything to be a part of this project.’ I really loved the script and I thought it was going to be a good show. So I auditioned for Mona and originally thought it was just a one-episode kind of thing, and then it sort of grew into what it is now. I’ve grown to really love the character, so I’m really happy I auditioned for Mona.
TDQ: Are there any similarities between you and Mona?
JP: [Laughing] No, definitely not! I don’t think I have any similarities to Mona, thankfully, because she’s, you know, not a very nice person. But, it definitely makes it fun to play a character that is 100% different from me.
TDQ: Since she’s so different, do you have a process that helps you get prepared for your transition from Janel to Mona?
JP: I get into character and just play. I mean, I’ve been kind of living with this character now for a while. It’s pretty easy to get into character because it’s kind of a switch I flip-on. But once I’m there, I enjoy it. I just play with her because I think that’s something that’s really fun about her. She enjoys torturing people.
TDQ: Mona’s kind of multi-dimensional because you get to see she does have a very compassionate side, it’s just different than how we would assume compassion would be.
JP: Yeah, she has a lot of different layers and it’s fun to pull them out.
TDQ: Early on we learned that Mona was bullied by Ali and had to fight her way to popularity. Do you think this had anything to do with her willingness to join A and seek revenge on both Ali and the other girls?
JP: Oh yeah, I think that’s the sole purpose for her becoming A. It’s that she was so tortured and wanted so badly to almost be Alison that she took on this different persona of A. In her own twisted, dark way she was becoming Ali by being A.
TDQ: At the end of Season 3 and beginning of Season 4, we learn that even though Mona had been working for A she’s now also being targeted along with the other girls. What was it like finding out that the hunter was now being hunted?
JP: Crazy! I did not see that twist coming, which it made it easy to play as Mona as well. Mona has been thinking for so long that she knew everything and then finding out she didn’t know anything at all made it easy for me to play because I didn’t see it coming at all either.
TDQ: Unfortunately, even though Mona is getting threatening texts now too, Spencer and the other girls still don’t entirely trust her… and to be honest I’m a bit skeptical too. Is Mona still playing both sides? Can Mona be trusted?
JP: I think that’s one of the biggest questions of the season so I’ll have to let fans figure it out for themselves [laughing]!
TDQ: So in the latest episode, Mona takes the fall and confesses to the murder of Detective Wilden after investing all that time with Hanna trying to get her alibi and her motive good to go to confess to save her mom. Was that Mona’s plan all along to take the fall for Hanna, or was it like she’s not going to go through with this?
JP: No, I think she just saw in trying to coach Hanna that she wasn’t ready and she wasn’t going to pull it off. And like Hanna said, no one can lie like Mona can so Mona had all the confidence that she [Mona] could pull it off.
TDQ: I read once that you and the other cast members only know what you’ve filmed so far, meaning you know just as much as the viewers do. Is that true? And if it is, what has it been like figuring everything out as you go along?
JP: Yeah, we only find out what happens when we get the script. I’m probably about six episodes ahead of the fans from what they’ve seen. I only know what I film, so it’s been interesting and exciting. We’re constantly trying to find out information from the writers, but their pretty closed-lipped about it. But yeah, it’s exciting! Every time we get a script we find out what’s happening and kind of get to piece it together ourselves. I don’t know, I kind of feel like I’m right along with the fans and I’m just as excited as they are to find out what’s happening.
TDQ: Is there an episode that sticks out as having been the most fun to film so far?
JP: It’s probably still my A reveal, the finale of Season 2. It was a fun episode and it was a challenge for me. I’ve never played a role like that before, so I had to rise up to the occasion. So it was just really exciting for me, it was an exciting week, and it will probably always be my favorite episode we’ve ever filmed.
TDQ: One more Pretty Little Liars question for you. If you could take home the wardrobe of any of the Liars’, whose would you choose?
TDQ: I would have to agree. Her wardrobe is awesome!
JP: Yeah, she has such spunky outfits. I love it.
TDQ: How do you like to spend your time when you’re not busy working?
JP: Well, my family lives in the area so I spend a lot of time with them; I’m very close to them. Then I have a great group of friends, so whenever I’m not filming I’m with them. We like to have our movie nights, our game nights and our beach days so I’m pretty chill. I just like to spend my time with people that I love.
TDQ: Here at The Daily Quirk we like to end our interviews with something quirky. You had mentioned you grew up in Hawaii and I’m aware that you know how to hula, so I was wondering if you know any other styles of dance and if there are any you would still like to learn?
JP: Well I actually grew up doing every single type of dance, so since I was six I did ballet, jazz, tap, pop, contemporary, modern, hula, everything. So yeah [laughing]… Let’s see. If there’s one type of dance I’ve not done… Actually, you know what? I’ve never done ballroom dancing. I’d love to learn ballroom dancing!
The Daily Quirk would like to send a big thank you to the multi-talented Janel Parrish for taking the time to speak with us. To find out more about Janel, you can follow her on Twitter and check out her Official Site. You can catch up with the Pretty Little Liars every Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST on ABC Family.