Interview: Pretty Little Liars' Shay Mitchell

We’re just two episodes into Season Two of Pretty Little Liars and things are heating up, fast. “A” doesn’t give the show’s leading ladies a second to breathe after their dangerous run-in with Ian during the finale of Season One. While things get tougher for Emily and the gang on the screen, actress Shay Mitchell is reaping the benefits. Sure Mitchell had a bit of television experience prior to the show, but ever since the start of Pretty Little Liars back in June of last year, not only has Mitchell’s fan base grown quite a bit, but she’s become a stronger actress and gained some great new friends, too.

I had the opportunity to talk with Mitchell just before she got to work on the tenth episode of the new season and while the star does know a bit more about Emily’s future than we do, she certainly wasn’t spilling. However, she did dish out a tremendous amount of information on her preparation process, experience working with multiple directors, and the parallels and disconnects between Emily, Aria (Lucy Hale), Hanna (Ashley Benson) and Spencer’s (Troian Bellisario) friendship on the show and the one between their real life counterparts. Read all about that and much more in the interview below.

Can you tell me a little about how life has changed for you since the start of the show?

Shay Mitchell: Well, just for example, I just came back from Toronto; I went to the Much Music Video Awards and that was my hometown before I booked the show and now going home is a whole different experience. I was literally standing across the street signing autographs from the restaurant that I used to work at. It was just kind of surreal to be back there having a bunch of these girls who were waiting outside of a hotel to sign photos, so it’s kind of changed a little bit. Definitely people recognize us on the street a little bit more. It’s really nice though to have them come up and hear their feedback of the show and how they like to watch it and what they talk about and all that stuff. So it’s kind of changed in that way.

And how about as an actress? How has the show helped you grow?

Oh yeah. This is the best experience that you could ever have, being on a show and getting firsthand experience and then going every day. And then along with working with such an amazing cast and crew who’ve been in this industry longer than I have. I learn new things every single day, so it’s been the best learning experience I could ask for.

You’ve had some TV experience before Pretty Little Liars, but never to this extent. How is it playing one character for so long?

It’s great because I get to find out more and more about her and, you know, obviously the writers are coming up with it, but I’m getting to kind of build her a little bit more than from what I got out of the books. And just even getting to work on that relationship with the other girls and their characters. Like now, when we have our scenes, I feel like we’re all so much closer, not only because we’re closer off set, but even our characters now because we’ve been playing them so long, are getting more and more enriched. I think it’s really great. We’re going through all these different experiences together, so I’m learning more and more about Emily everyday we shoot.

Do you ever worry about subconsciously turning her almost into a caricature of herself? My mind is a bit movie-centric so I’m comparing it to actresses that tend to play the same types of people over and over again.

I totally understand what you’re saying. I totally get that and I think that way too sometimes about certain characters, but for me in my situation, I’m playing Emily who’s completely opposite of who I am and I feel like, yes, I play her on this hour of a TV show, but if you were to meet me outside of work or at any kind of red carpet event or any sort of thing outside of it, you would never know. I think she has a lot of dimension to her and I don’t think it’d be easy to get type casted with playing Emily, so I don’t really worry about that too much. And also, this is like one of the first things that I’m doing, first big TV show, and no, I don’t really look at it like that; but I do know what you mean because I have felt that sometimes too about other characters.

So what kind of preparation do you like to do? I know the cast gets to table read the script, but what’s your personal process like when it comes to preparing to jump into a scene?

Yeah, you know, if I’m having an emotion scene I do like to go off and be by myself; not to say that I’m a method actor or anything like that, but for scenes like that that are more emotional, I do like to take that night off and not be so social. That’s something I like to do and so everybody kind of knows that that’s just how I work. And I think for the other scenes, they’re just so fun with all four of us together, even when we are getting the crazy texts from A [laughs], we still have jokes and laughter on set. We’re all hanging out at our chairs together before we start shooting and we’ll rehearse our lines in different accents sometimes which is kind of fun [laughs], but for me, the only thing I really do is when I have an emotional scene just kind of go off and be by myself for a bit, so that’s it.

How about your co-cast? Does anyone have any prep quirks you have to adjust to?

No, not really actually. Now that I think about it, they’re always ready. When you say action, they go into character, so no one actually needs any kind of prep beforehand. Or at least I don’t know that they do; if they’re doing something internally, I wouldn’t know, but yeah, they’re kind of always ready.

You mentioned that you’re much closer to the other girls both on and off set, so how does that affect the work? Is it better to have that very friendly relationship off set, too?

Oh, totally. It’s so great because I’ve gotten to know all of their characters so much better, in the second season especially because I’ve seen so much more of them. So now I’m getting their characters that they play and then it helps when we have all of our scenes together. And then obviously outside of work, because we’re working together everyday, I mean, all of us become so much closer as well. But it’s different; I can differentiate between hanging out with Ashley Benson off set and then hanging out with her character with my character; it’s a different relationship. So it’s really neat, but I can totally see it now so when we have have Emily and Hanna scenes, it’s not the same relationship that I would have as Shay and Ashley, you know what I mean?

Just based on following you all on Twitter, I can see a huge difference!

Yeah! [Laughs] We’re completely opposite. I don’t know if she knows this, but I always say she’s like the little sister that I never had. I mean, obviously she’s not that far of an age difference from me, but she has little sister qualities and she is a little bit more of a jokester than I am. She brings out the lightheartedness in me and the goof in me that might not have been brought out so much over here. When I go home, it’s another story, with my friends that I’ve been friends with. But in LA, she kind of brings that out in me so it’s nice and I’m very fortunate to have the friendship that we have.

How about some of the other girls? How would you characterize your relationship with them?

Troian [Bellisario] is like my little movie dictionary. We do movie nights, so that’s kind of our thing. She’s watched every movie I feel under the sun, so she’s kind of educating me on that. And then with Lucy [Hale], her little thing that I kind of learned from her is her country music because she’s obsessed with country and at the beginning, I wasn’t a huge fan of it, but I was listening to some songs that she plays in the hair and makeup room and she’s also so funny, too. She does these character impersonations and they’re just so funny. Made up characters of course, but she can switch into someone else so fast. I’m always laughing at Lucy and she’s like a little Polly Pocket, you know? The tiny one.

How about working with your directors, too? How is it working with someone new each episode?

Honestly, I don’t know because I haven’t had so much experience on other shows or anything, but everyone I’ve talked to, they’ve said that this has been the best crew that we’ve all gotten to work with. The guys on our crew are unbelievable. And with the directors, I can say the same the same thing. I feel like we’ve gotten the best of the best in every category! And we’re so close to the directors because some of them we’ve gotten over and over again. They keep coming back, which is amazing; we loved working with them. And then I think this season we’ve gotten a couple new directors that we’ve never worked with before that now are also our favorites. We’ve been really lucky to work with such amazing directors that each have their own style of shooting. So it’s great; we can kind of pick it up when we watch the episodes. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is totally a Norman Buckley episode,” or even with the writers; ‘This was written by I. Marlene King,’ you know? It’s neat because we can kind of differentiate who directed who and who wrote what script.

Do you have a preference in terms of an actor’s director? Is there are certain way you like to work with the director?

No, no, really; I love listening to all of them and switching it up a lot. Certain directors I can talk to more and certain directors give you more notes, other directors don’t and just let you feel it out because we do know our characters. I like just switching it up. I think it’s really great. It keeps everything fresh and they don’t get tired because it is very long days especially for the directors. They’re there all day. But yeah, I just like getting to work with each of them. They all have something different to bring to the table.

And now how are you feeling about your character specifically? She goes through a major change in the first season and I don’t even mean the literal things we see play out on screen. In generally, she just seems stronger and more self-assured. Are you excited to approach season two with that attitude?

I definitely am. Even though A is still throwing curveballs at each of the girls, they are a lot stronger and they’re closer, which makes it a little bit easier to deal with A’s antics. With Emily specifically, I do feel like she’s a lot more comfortable, you know? Season one, she had a huge weight lifted off her shoulders when she came out to her friends and family and now that that’s off it’s more about just finding somebody who she wants to spend some time with. I know a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, Emily has so many girlfriends,’ but something’s kind of happened with them. The first one obviously got murdered [laughs], the second one got sent away and then with Paige (Lindsey Shaw), it kind of just drifted off. She was still really fighting with herself and herself coming out and Emily didn’t want to go back into the route because she’d just come out herself. And now with Samara (Claire Holt), she’s having fun with it, so I think that Emily might be more ready to have a relationship, a more serious relationship, kind of like the other girls.

In just two episodes, there’s already been quite a bit of Maya (Bianca Lawson) namedropping. Any chance she’ll return?

I mean, there’s always a chance, but she got sent away and in our episodes, even though it feels like it’s been a long time since Pretty Little Liars aired and they’re only once a week, in Rosewood days, I think it’s actually only been like three weeks all together, everything that’s happened. So, you know, she was sent away for quite awhile and so we’ll see if she comes back this season.

At this point, how much of season two have you filmed?

We are on the ninth episode.

And how much of the story do you know at this point? Do you only get the scripts as you shoot?

Yeah, we get the scripts literally two days before we start shooting them. We had the cast read through yesterday and we’re shooting the first scene of the new episode today. So, yeah, it’s very fast paced. They don’t give us a lot of time to find out too much far ahead about the scripts.

In terms of what you do know, how do you feel about where the writers are taking Emily?

I am so excited because the fans, they loved the first episode back, they loved last week’s episode and that’s not even the start of it. [Laughs] Some of the stuff that we’ve shot recently, I cannot wait for people to see. It’s already getting like, ‘Oh my god, these are my favorites episodes!’ I mean, I love those episodes, but A gets even feistier. There’s a lot to look forward to in this season and I’m very excited for everyone to see it.

You’ve only shot nine of 25 episodes, so is there something in particular you’d like to explore that the show hasn’t touched on yet? Is there any new side of Emily you’d like to explore?

Maybe more of the wild side that Paige brought out, the karaoke thing. I think all of the girls need an outlet to take them away from this whole A thing. So, yeah, I would like for her to find a new relationship with a girl that she really connects with. I think that’d be great. Hopefully that happens.

I’ve got a good feeling the show is here to stay for quite a bit, but have you thought at all about non-Pretty Little Liars things you’d like to do? Maybe some film work?

Yeah! I would love to do a movie. We have a short time for a hiatus at the beginning of next year, but I’m reading scripts right now and I would love to keep working and shoot some things. Maybe in a far away place, too. [Laughs] I’d love to do a destination shot. That’d be fun!

Pretty Little Liars airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC Family.

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.