Chandler Kinney is very good at keeping secrets. “I will spill my own before I'll spill anybody else's,” she says. Which is a very good thing, given that she’s starring in HBO Max’s Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, a reboot of one of the most famously blood-soaked teen thrillers whose seven seasons of over-the-top twists, betrayals, and reveals spawned one of the most rabid TV fandoms of the 2010s. So when we talk over the phone in late June, she’s on full spoiler lockdown as I try to squeeze whatever plot details I can out of her. “Oh no, you’re trying to get me in trouble!” she says, laughing.
Like its predecessor, Original Sin follows a group of friends as they’re tormented by the mysterious (and murderous) antagonist known only as “A.” But the reboot is not so much a continuation or reimagining of Pretty Little Liars as it is a remix of it, doling out plenty of Easter-egg nods to the previous series while leaning into the darkness the original couldn’t quite get away with on ABC Family, now known as Freeform. (Original Sin’s co-creators, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring, previously worked on Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.) Refreshingly, the characters actually act — and look — like teenagers, which makes their oh-my-God-did-she-just-do-that bad choices endlessly watchable. “There's this unique, addictive quality to the show,” Kinney says.
Original Sin isn’t just an evolution of a beloved franchise, though — it’s also an evolution for Kinney, who cut her teeth as a Disney star in TV shows like K.C. Undercover and the Zombies movies franchise, with a pit stop in fellow Disney alum Joshua Bassett’s “Telling Myself” music video. (The two met at 16 on the set of the Lethal Weapon TV series, and Kinney calls Bassett “not only a spectacular artist, but also a lovely human.”) Now, with PLL:OS, the 21-year-old is getting a chance to flex her ~serious~ acting chops — and learning how to gracefully grow up in the spotlight.
“When I received the audition, that was something that absolutely played on my mind. It's been a bit of a juggle and a bit of a balancing act,” Kinney says. “There's kind of a mystery to the Disney world and the transition out of it … going through it now, I'm navigating and trying to always be mindful of when I should turn right, when I should turn left.” She does, however, have a role model in her K.C. Undercover co-star Zendaya, who made a similar leap with her Emmy-winning turn in Euphoria. “She is someone that has made that transition beautifully,” Kinney says. “I have a whole lot of respect for her because I know that's not something that's easy to do.”
Kinney says taking on the role of Tabby, a headstrong horror buff who organizes screenings of Jordan Peele films at the local cinema, was “nerve-wracking” and “a weight [that] could feel heavy” at times. “Pretty Little Liars is a highly successful existing IP that has a very passionate fan base,” she says. “And I know because I was a part of it.” Growing up in sunny SoCal, she was obsessed with the series in middle school and watched it become a true pop-culture phenomenon. While PLL, adapted from Sara Shepard’s series of YA novels, was never a hit with critics, it was undeniably ahead of the curve. The show debuted in 2010, two years before Gone Girl ignited a cultural appetite for twisty thrillers and a few years before the boom in true-crime podcasts and docuseries. Today, the show still lives on daily with TikTok fan edits, breakdowns of the show’s most unhinged moments, and loving reads of the characters’ often-questionable fashion choices.
Thankfully, Kinney and her co-stars — Bailee Madison (who plays pregnant teen Imogen), Malia Pyles (the computer buff Mouse), Zaria (willful ballerina Faran), and Maia Reficco (recovering delinquent Noa) — had each other to lean on. “I was so continuously proud of her,” Madison says. “She stepped into the show and in this role, and it's just unlike anything that she has ever been given the chance to do. And I think the same for all of us in our own ways. But I felt like as every scene went on throughout the course of the season, I felt her just grow and get stronger and stronger in her choices and who she is and in Tabby.”
They spent nine months together in an isolated part of upstate New York — “I had never really experienced seasons before,” Kinney says — which perfectly captured the moody ambiance of the fictional, Rosewood-adjacent town of Millwood, Pennsylvania (technically a real town, but one with no confirmed connection to the series). “It was completely an immersive experience. We were, what felt like, off the map, in the middle of nowhere, in the woods,” she says. “That totally formed such a special bond between all of us, not even just the girls, but the entire cast. We worked nine long months together, away from home for almost everyone. And, so that really does form a family.”
That family also includes original Liars stars like Lucy Hale, who attended the Original Sin “Bloody Red Carpet” premiere in July and gave the next-gen cast advice, telling them to expect “a wild ride.” Which is as good a summary of Original Sin as any. “It will send you on a wild goose chase,” Kinney says. “I think it will set you up to think one thing and then completely inverse that idea. And send you completely in the opposite direction. So, trust no one is my advice, and have a good time.” That, at least, you can be sure she’s telling the truth about.
Photography by John Jay