ABC Family opens the book on “Pretty Little Liars”

Troian Bellisario, Shay Mitchell, Ashley Benson and Lucy Hale star in "Pretty Little Liars," premiering tonight on ABC Family.
Troian Bellisario, Shay Mitchell, Ashley Benson and Lucy Hale star in "Pretty Little Liars," premiering tonight on ABC Family.

By Stacey Harrison

Today is a huge day for fans of Pretty Little Liars. The eighth and final book (Wanted) in Sara Shepard’s popular teen saga comes to bookstores, and the TV series based on the books premieres on ABC Family.

The twisty drama follows four popular high-school friends — Aria, Emily, Hannah and Spencer — in the town of Rosewood, Pa. They have become estranged following the disappearance of their friend Alison a year ago. But they reunite once they all start getting messages from “A,” a mysterious sender who knows all their deepest, darkest secrets — secrets they only told Alison — and is threatening to expose them.

Ashley Benson plays Hanna, who on the surface is a snotty girl who “thinks she’s the greatest person on Earth.” But, as with all the characters, Benson says Hannah is harboring secrets that present a far more complex and vulnerable person. She shared with us what it’s been like bringing the characters to life, and trying to meet the expectations of the hardcore fans:

Tell me about Hanna and how she fits into everything.

Ashley Benson: Hanna is the popular girl in school and she kind of thinks that she’s the greatest person on Earth. She treats everybody like they don’t exist. … She’s dealing with losing her best friend, Ali. Before Ali had gone missing, [Hanna] had been the outcast, awkward, chubby, no-style kind of girl, and in dealing with Ali’s disappearance she kind of made herself to be just like Ali, so she’s lost weight, she’s dressing really fashionably, and she does her hair like Ali. She’s just this perfect little clone of her. She starts receiving messages from this person “A,” who’s threatening to let out all of her secrets that she told Alison. All the girls are trying to deal with these threats and text messages and letters and they don’t really know what to do.

What kind of secrets does she have?

Things she did and said about other people. All of the girls only came to Alison with their secrets. They were all best friends, but only Alison knew the other girls’ secrets. … They don’t know if she’s alive, or if she’s spying on them. It’s creepy, they don’t know who’s watching them.

What are they afraid of if the secrets get out?

It’s embarrassment. If the secrets got out, it could really ruin a lot of relationships. They’re pretty deep secrets, so they’re trying to do whatever to not let them get out because for one it would bruise their self-esteem and their whole image. It just wouldn’t be good.

pll_1It sounds like Hanna didn’t used to be such a mean girl. What caused her to want to be so much like Ali?

She was the outcast and she kind of always looked at Ali and watched her closely, what she did, what she wore. Hanna struggled with this eating disorder to lose all the weight, and she still struggles with that and binges on occasion with food. She doesn’t think she’s pretty at times, she doesn’t feel loved. She’s a great character to play, because I can play that bossy, queen bee girl and I can also show a completely different side to her when she’s very vulnerable and sensitive and doesn’t feel like she fits in, so she kind of puts on this mask every day to everyone else, but inside she feels like her old self, that she doesn’t really belong. She’s just really insecure.

So there’s a lot that the characters are hiding from each other, and the audience. That has to be fun for you to play, as an actor.

It’s so much fun. I’ve been reading the books, so I kind of know what’s happening. We get to try and play it off like you have no idea what’s going on, if she’s alive … we have no idea, so it’s kind of fun to play into that a little bit and to keep the audience just guessing what happened to Ali. Honestly, when you read the books, you think you know what happened, and it completely turns around. Even I’m stuck, I still have no idea what happened, because I haven’t finished all the books. … It’s such a mystery and there are so many cliffhangers.

I see that you met with the author, Sara Shepard. How did that go?

Sara’s so awesome. We went to New York and she came out and met us and we had dinner with her and we just really got to know her. She’s just the sweetest person. It was just so cool to ask her about how she started writing the books, and what gave her this idea and if the characters were based on her or her friends or certain things she’s been through. She was so open to letting us know about our characters. She wouldn’t really give anything away about the eight book, which comes out June 8, the same day we premiere. So we don’t really know what’s going to happen, so I’m definitely reading it, and I’m sure the other girls are. She’s great. She’s genius for making these books.

Did meeting her affect how you played the role?

Well, when I first got the project, I went out and got the books because the description of her character is she’s the queen bee of high school, but there wasn’t much detail. So I started reading the books, and I found out she struggled with an eating disorder and she didn’t think that she’s pretty, and suddenly there were these different aspects of the character that I didn’t know I should play. On our way to Vancouver, where we shot the pilot, I just kept reading book after book and it’s really helped me make Hanna come to life for all the readers who have read the books, so it’s really cool.

Speaking of the fans, they seem to be up on every detail, like how your hair color is different than what’s described in the books. Have you had much interaction with them?

They’re hard-core fans. A lot of the fans are disappointed with the looks, like for instance my character has brown hair, and the other girls have different-colored hair [than the descriptions in the books]. I think they’ll get used to it as time goes on. The promos have started showing, and I think they’re actually really happy with how I’m portraying the character, so they’re getting used to it. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the fans. At first, they were like, “You look nothing like Hanna! At all!” But now they’re really excited. They’re really seeing how it’s coming together. If you’re playing the character right, they’ll be happy.

Will they be happy with the plots staying faithful to the books?

They do follow closely to the book series. I believe that we’re doing books 1-4 in the first season. We’re covering a lot of stuff, but there’s always going to be stuff that’s left out that we could put into other seasons, little details, stuff we didn’t get to touch base on. So far, everything’s very close to the books, and it’s very detailed and the same characters are coming on, the same events are happening.

Your character is 16, but you’re 20 and have been out of high school for a few years. Was it difficult to get yourself back in that mindset?

I never went to high school. I was working, so I was home-schooled, so it’s kind of cool to actually play a high school student and sit in the cafeteria and be in the locker room and have a locker in school. It’s really fun, I never got to experience that. Hopefully, we have a prom or dance or something, because I never got to do any of that, so it’s great to be on a show that has that.

Photos: (Group) ©2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. Credit: Andrew Eccles; (Ashley Benson) ©2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. Credit: Jaimie Trueblood