In the middle of a July heat wave, Janel Parrish and I slide into the air-conditioned backseat of a Lincoln Town Car. She’s just finished a four-hour photoshoot for Elite Daily at the City College Of New York, an hour of which involved standing in full 88-degree sunlight in a fur coat, and yet she seems almost refreshed. She touches up her makeup in a small compact mirror, gives me a knowing smile, and tells the driver taking us downtown to get ready to learn a lot about her. “I’m almost 30 years old, and I feel like I know exactly who I am, and I don’t make apologies for it,” Parrish says. I believe her.
Hours earlier, Parrish looked just as comfortable posing on top of a classroom desk as she does sitting next to me. The school setting was familiar territory, as nearly a decade of her life has been spent in Rosewood High School, where most of the seven-season, massively beloved Freeform drama Pretty Little Liars was set. She's gearing up to head back into that universe when her character, Mona Vanderwaal, returns in the upcoming sequel, The Perfectionists — only this time, things will be much, much different. “[Mona’s] been a part of me, first of all, for seven years, but she’s hands-down been the most interesting character I’ve ever had a chance to play,” Parrish says. The PLL fandom has stayed ravenous for crumbs of information about the new series ever since the original show ended in 2017, but to understand where Parrish is going to take Mona in The Perfectionists — set to premiere in 2019 — it’s crucial to understand where she's been.
Unlike many actors who play one TV role for years, Parrish has range, and it transcends not just character, but genre, too. It shouldn’t surprise fans to learn that her time in the spotlight began long before her days on Freeform. Parrish's desire to perform emerged at an early age. "I was 6 years old [when I] watched Phantom Of The Opera for the first time, and I turned to my dad and said, 'I want to do that. I want to be onstage.'" At 8 years old, she appeared in Les Miserables as Young Cosette in the National Touring Company and on Broadway. "I feel like a lot of people don’t know that about me, because when I do musical theatre, they’re like, ‘Oh, is this your first musical?' or 'How do you like doing musical theater?’ or ‘I didn’t know that you sang!’ And I’m like, 'I’m the biggest musical theatre nerd you’ll ever meet.'"
Growing up in Hawaii, she traveled to New York all the time for auditions before eventually moving to L.A. for TV. Parrish began appearing on shows like Heroes, Zoey 101, Baywatch, and became known for her role as Jade in Bratz. Then in 2010 she landed her role as Mona and became synonymous with the Pretty Little Liars franchise. Watching the series unfold, fans saw Mona Vanderwaal transform from the Original A to a necessary ally for the Liars.
It was a long, fulfilling, but intense run, one that Parrish realized left her very much in need of a change. After the show wrapped in 2017, Parrish took a break from on-screen work and returned to the stage. She just finished a long run as Sandy in Grease at the Winter Garden in Toronto, a character she didn’t expect to relate to so hard and who ultimately helped Parrish refocus — professionally, but also personally. "What I identified with in Sandy, and what I wanted to bring to the stage, was the fact that she is very much figuring out what kind of woman she wants to be, but she sort of understands that she is a strong woman and [at] the very end, she owns up to it. And she’s like actually, you know what, I am a strong woman, I am a Pink Lady at heart," Parrish says. In her interpretation, Sandy is asking the same question most of us ask ourselves at some juncture: "’What kind of women are we gonna be?'”
I was like, ‘I’m really sad we have to say goodbye to this world.’ And I. Marlene King was like, ‘Well, what if I told you I’m not ready to say goodbye to Mona yet?'
Parrish looks out the window, watching the scenery change from campus greenery to Harlem concrete. She's considering her own formative years. "I feel like that was kind of my transition as a young girl growing up," she says. "You know, I was kind of scared to speak out as much as I wanted to, and the older I got the more I realized there is power in being honest and being vocal about your feelings."
Her self-assuredness and understanding of her own growth seem to diffuse into each character she plays, particularly in Parrish's recent role as Margo in Netflix's To All The Boys I've Loved Before, which premieres on Aug. 17. The coming-of-age movie, based on the YA novel by Jenny Han, chronicles what happens when Lara Jean Song Covey’s secret love letters become not-so-secret love letters. Parrish plays Lara's older sister who heads off to college in the film, leaving Lara behind and feeling lost, an experience that hit home for Parrish. "I remember when my sister went away to college and I cried. I was like, 'You can’t leave me. You’re my best friend. How am I going to go through school without you?' And she very much was like, 'Don’t worry, I’ll still be your best friend. We’ll talk all the time. I’ll help guide you.' And she did. And so I loved that I kind of got to channel my big sister in that way and be the big sister for once."
Given the next transition in Parrish’s own life — she’s getting married in September to long-time boyfriend Chris Long — the thread of that narrative was a nice reminder of the ties that bind. “It’s just lovely to see a family that’s very, very close. Even when they’re going through things like distance, like one sister moving away... at the end of the day, like, if you’re family and you're close with your family, those little things don’t matter because you’re best friends."
Parrish’s relationship with her Pretty Little Liars character turns out to be similarly enduring. For seven seasons and seven years, Parrish peeled back the ever-changing complexities of Mona Vanderwaal. Over the course of the show, Mona weaves in and out of her role as the primary antagonist, leaving audiences grappling with a love-hate relationship with the character. The thought of leaving her was a hard pill to swallow for Parrish.
Recounting the final days of shooting for PLL, she recalls, "[I.] Marlene King, our creator, asked if she could go on a walk with me around the set, and she asked me, ‘How are you feeling?’ I was like, ‘I’m really sad we have to say goodbye to this world.’ And she was like, ‘Well, what if I told you I’m not ready to say goodbye to Mona yet?'" Parrish lights up remembering the moment she learned about the spin-off series, smiling slyly and finishing the narration with, “'I’m intrigued.'”
Darkness still seems to follow Mona everywhere. There’s a new murderer, a new mystery, and she’s got to cope with that.
But the Mona we will meet in The Perfectionists is not the same Mona we left sipping tea watching Alex and Mary Drake inside her dollhouse. “Now she’s not trying to hide who she is anymore. I think she understands that she is a complicated person, I think the audience understands that, I think that’s kind of what makes her interesting to watch,” Parrish smooths her fitted denim skirt as she begins to dive into Mona’s evolution.
Mona's on-again-off-again role as a Liar combined with her consistent affiliation with "A" leaves fans with a lot to unpack.
“She’s never really just on anybody’s side, she’s kind of on her own. I think she’s established herself as one of the good guys, but she’s definitely got darkness, and issues and secrets, and that will stay the same [in The Perfectionists] because she’s Mona.”
Parrish assures fans that although Mona has grown in the time between the series, "She’s still going to be the smartest person in the room, which I love playing. I think that’s such a fun thing about Mona. She’s always kind of three steps ahead of everybody else.”
In order to play a woman who’s consistently steps ahead of the other characters and the audience, Parrish has to be the same way. When I ask her to spell out more details of Mona’s new role, she's ready. “It starts with you guys seeing a completely new Mona. I mean, one thing I love about [the] character that they’ve given me to play is that she has so many layers, she’s always evolving. And now you’ll see an even more evolved Mona. Time has passed, she’s obviously not in Paris anymore [and] I think she’s really trying to be a person that people can trust. However, darkness still seems to follow Mona everywhere. There’s a new murderer, a new mystery, and she’s got to cope with that."
Starting a new chapter is scary. It’s usually also very exciting. But you just trust the fact that life is going to happen no matter what, and sometimes you kind of just have to start a new chapter and see.
Darkness, murder, and mystery are all fine and well in this universe, but something else may also be in store for Mona. "I think Mona deserves some love," Parrish says. "I mean, out of all the PLL girls, she only had two boyfriends. I really liked Mona and Mike together. It would be kind of cool to see if maybe he could make a cameo. I’d be down for that." Although fans know a few new details of the upcoming show, including the two-year time jump and that it also stars PLL alum Sasha Pieterse, the fandom is hopeful more former Liars will make an appearance — and Parrish shares that wish. "Absolutely. I hope so," she says, thinking it over. "I think that that’s the goal, absolutely." When it comes to spoilers about the upcoming show, she is as calculating as her character. She's never been more Mona than when she notes that "there are a couple Easter eggs that Marlene has hidden" in The Perfectionists, but won't say more. Finding them is up to the fans.
One thing Parrish emphasizes is that The Perfectionists is for everyone. "I think it really is for a PLL fan, as well, but I’m also excited for newcomers who haven’t seen PLL [to] watch the pilot and then get hooked.” So, for Parrish and fans alike, the return to this world combines the comfort of familiarity with the anticipation of new beginnings.
Not that a fresh start is always easy. Parrish gets that. The best advice she ever received, she says, is, "Trust the fact that life is going to happen no matter what, and sometimes you kind of just have to start a new chapter and see. Why not try something new and see how you feel?”
We're now driving through West Chelsea, as close as we’re going to get to my office without her having to take a detour through crosstown traffic on my behalf. I say I’ll hop out, and Parrish asks the driver, who did indeed learn a lot about her, to pull over. She hugs me graciously and waves goodbye, and that's when my mind darts to a Mona quote from Pretty Little Liars, Season 5: "What’s the point of breaking your shell if you turn into such a dull omelet?" Parrish is defiantly chipping away at her own shell, but dull, she most certainly is not.
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