CONCERT REVIEW: AUDRA MCDONALD AT NYC’S CARNEGIE HALL

Audra McDonald doesn’t need to sing a single note to get a standing ovation.

Audra McDonaldCarnegie Hall04.29.2015The second she walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage for a one-night-only concert last Wednesday (04.29), she was greeted with the same type of rapturous applause typically reserved for the end of an evening of phenomenal performances. This entrance alone was a testament to the star she has become: a living legend whose accolades not only are unprecedented, but one who is the envy of any aspiring Broadway actor.

McDonald, 44, is the recipient of two Grammy Awards and a record six Tony Awards. She’s also the first—and only—person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories. Most recently, she took home the prestigious award for her jaw-dropping transformation into Billie Holiday in last year’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (which I reviewed here). But for her solo show, unofficially titled “Songs from My Living Room,” McDonald wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.

Having curated a set list that consisted of everything from musical theater standards to contemporary compositions and lesser-known favorites, McDonald tied her song selections together by recounting how she grew up in Fresno, California, dreaming of one day becoming a Broadway performer. Citing idols and influences like Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and Judy Garland, she took her audience on a deeply personal journey through some of the songs that have inspired, impacted, and shaped her illustrious career thus far.

Accompanied by her music director Andy Einhorn on the piano, McDonald opened her show with “Sing Happy,” the first of four Kander & Ebb pieces she performed. A celebration of the uplifting power that music can have, this song perfectly introduced the theme of singing as an emotional outlet, something that McDonald would continue to underline in various ways throughout the night. Her other Kander & Ebb selections included “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink, and an interpretation of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time” so heartfelt that it would make you want to start a petition for her to play Sally Bowles.

But of all the Kander & Ebb she chose, it was McDonald’s rendition of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys that packed the hardest punch. Before singing the song, she talked about how once in between Lady Day performances, she walked over to Covenant House (a charity benefiting homeless children in New York) to make a donation. While she waited there, a teenage boy with only a trash bag full of belongings walked in, unsure of what to expect. She watched as the same workers who only moments prior had joked around and flirted with her went into superhero mode and welcomed the boy, offering him food, shelter and, above all, a sense of safety and belonging.

McDonald was so overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this that she is now is a member of the Covenant House board. She dedicated the hopeful and gorgeous “Go Back Home” to the children (or “my kids” as she now calls them) the organization helps – including those who were in attendance at the concert.

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As much as she loves classics and revivals, McDonald emphasized how important it is for musical theater to continue to evolve and remain current. Thus, she spotlighted the music of some very recent and rising composers who have particularly resonated with her.

These songs included “No One Else,” a haunting ballad from Dave Malloy’s War and Peace-inspired 2012 electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and a children’s lullaby by Shaina Taub called “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” which was divided into chapters to feel like a real bedtime story. The true standout of this newer material, however, was Kate Miller-Heidke’s “The Facebook Song,” a breakup song that McDonald believed to perfectly encapsulate “heartbreak in the 21st century” and that allowed her to dare to drop a number of F-bombs in Carnegie Hall.

But McDonald didn’t only pay tribute to up-and-coming composers. The crowd went wild at the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow,” the Carousel staple that produced her first Tony win back in 1994. She slowed things down for Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You” and picked them up for a revamped version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” that featured a new hilarious verse (with additional lyrics by Larry Dachslager) about all things Audra – including her undying love for Chipotle, manipulating her voice to sound like Billie Holiday, and advocating for marriage equality.

And speaking of custom-written lyrics, McDonald called upon the prolific Stephen Schwartz (who also was in attendance) to tweak “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife, making the song from Genevieve’s rather than Dominique’s perspective. This revised version of the song showcased McDonald’s stunning lyric soprano voice in ways that were nothing short of triumphant.

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Before going into “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden, McDonald took a moment to reflect on a very difficult chapter in her life. She spoke about how, when she was still a student at Juilliard, she survived a suicide attempt. Not long after, she booked her first Broadway role as Ayah in The Secret Garden, and she officially transitioned from focusing on opera to musical theater. While “How Could I Ever Know” was never a song she sang in the show (it’s performed by characters Lily and Archibald), it was one that she would listen to from the sidelines. It helped her find a new purpose in life and emerge from the darkness she felt in her past.

When it came time for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald applauded NBC for resurrecting the lost and incredibly difficult art of putting on live televised musicals. She told the audience that she never expected she’d be cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and was so grateful to the network for giving her the chance to play such an iconic role.

She joked that she liked to tell people that she was “from the really sunny side of the Alps.” She also told an amusing story about how her nerves were calmed about performing for so many millions of people live when she received a text message from her daughter asking a question about the laundry moments before stepping in front of the camera. And just as it sounded during that telecast, her rendition was a true show-stopping tour de force.

Other highlights throughout the evening included the Depression-era “My Buddy,” which McDonald sang in honor of a World War II veteran she heard singing the song outside of (you guessed it) a Chipotle while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts working on Porgy and Bess; and “Rainbow High” from Evita, which she performed for the first time since starring in the show as Eva Peron at age 16 back in Fresno.

She also sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi because the song’s lyrics about finding fulfillment through bringing joy to someone else falls in line with some of the best advice she’s ever received; paid homage to Betty Buckley with The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “The Writing on the Wall;” and impressively showed off just how high she can sing with “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me.

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McDonald wrapped up her encore with a sensational take on “Over the Rainbow.” Before she started to sing it, she spoke to the audience about how original singer Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 helped inspire the Stonewall riots. That turned into a brief discussion about why she’s such a vocal champion for marriage equality. She talked about how, as an African-American, there are so many experiences she’s had that she wouldn’t have been able to have had she been born earlier. And that it was thanks to the civil rights leaders who stepped up to fight for what was right that she’s been given the chance to accomplish all that she has. Why then, she asked rhetorically, would she not support another part of the population who was being discriminated against?

Listening to McDonald speak about this, especially knowing that hearings on this topic were taking place in the Supreme Court at that exact time, the audience knew they were witnessing a truly monumental moment. Naturally, then, her “Over The Rainbow” shined with new meaning and beautiful encouragement.

McDonald will next be seen in the Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash, and the upcoming HBO special presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There was a lot of speculation about what her next Broadway foray would be. Would it be in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother, opposite Oprah Winfrey in her Great White Way debut? Or a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman alongside Alan Cumming? Or a new musical adaptation of the film Corinna, Corinna written for her by composer Alan Menken?

As it turns out, McDonald’s next project will be Shuffle Along, a new musical (set to open in 2016) that explores the origin of the nearly forgotten 1921 all-black musical of the same name. Helming the show alongside director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, McDonald may need to begin preparing room on her shelf for a seventh Tony Award.

After all, if her concert at Carnegie Hall was any indication, hers is a voice we’ll all be clamoring to hear for years and years to come.

Originally published on PopBytes

THEATER REVIEW: 12x TONY NOMINATED ‘FUN HOME’

Fun_Home_Hot.jpg.pagespeed.ce.sxd7h008XMfj3S2g_wRq“My father’s death was a queer business,” Alison Bechdel writes in her acclaimed 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home. “Queer in every sense of that multi-valent word.”

While some have used the term “family tragicomic” to describe Bechdel’s book, it is much more than that: it’s both a stirring account of her relationship with her father, Bruce, and the story of her emotional growth. A man who juggled many lives at once, Bruce was a high school English teacher, the head of a family-run funeral home, a husband, a father to three children, and a closeted gay man who was notorious for having affairs with his male students (amongst others). His suicide not long after Alison came out of the closet not only left behind a slew of unanswered questions, but became a defining moment in his daughter’s journey of self-discovery. The resulting story is profound, heartbreaking, and revelatory. And the same is true of its new musical adaptation, now playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.

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With music by the consistently terrific Jeanine Tesori (Violet; Thoroughly Modern Millie; Shrek the Musical; Caroline, or Change),Fun Home is without a doubt the most gripping musical of the year. It’s one of those rare new musicals that, thanks to its explored themes and masterful book, feels at once completely timeless and unlike anything that has come before it. No wonder that it received a staggering 12 nominations when the Tony Awards were announced on Tuesday (tying with An American in Paris for the most total nominations).

As Alison navigates her journey, she’s played by a trio of actresses, each depicting different ages of her life. Showing us Alison at 43, Beth Malone plays the cartoonist at the same age her father was when he died. Acting as a narrator of sorts, this Alison reflects upon her father’s suicide and her life leading up to it as a way of understanding their relationship and contemplating what his life and death meant to her. Malone, who originated this role in The Public Theater’s off-Broadway production of the show in 2013, sympathetically portrays Alison as a secure, self-aware adult who yearns to make sense of her father’s legacy in an attempt to bring balance to the memories of her unstable childhood.

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As 19-year-old Alison, Emily Skeggs is a marvel. This Alison has just left her small-town and Victorian-era Pennsylvania home for college and is discovering what independence means and feels like. For the first time, she allows herself to reach beyond her comfort zones and figure out who she really is. Skeggs’ voice is gorgeous and her solo, “Changing My Major,” is a true comedic highlight in the otherwise largely serious production. In the song, Alison has just had her first lesbian sexual encounter and is reveling in the afterglow. She sings affectionately about her lover Joan and the world that she has opened up for her. Skeggs’ performance brims with youthful excitement but feels like it is delivered by a seasoned veteran. In fact, you may be shocked to learn that she is only now making her Broadway debut.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Sydney Lucas, who plays Alison at 9-years-old. Lucas’ remarkable command of her character makes it immediately clear why the role made her the youngest Obie Awards recipient in history, and garnered her Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League nominations. Now, she’s also up for a Tony and will face off in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role category against co-stars Skeggs and Judy Kuhn (who plays Alison’s mother, Helen). While I believe that the three Alisons should have been given a shared Tony (à la Billy Elliott) to recognize each of their individual brilliant performances, it’s Lucas who shouldn’t be leaving Radio City Music Hall empty-handed if only one will win.

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Lucas’ Alison rejects wearing the pretty dresses her father has chosen for her and coyly asks for crew cuts. But, above all, she longs for her father’s love and approval, so she delays pushing for what she wants to accommodate what he thinks is best for her (this results in a heartbreaking scene in which she starts to express herself artistically and Bruce won’t rest until she corrects her technique). Lucas’ acting is nothing short of extraordinary, in particular when she sees a butch mail delivery woman and for the first time feels a sense of connection and that she’s not alone in the world. In the scene’s accompanying song, “Ring of Keys,” this revelation is written all over Lucas’ face and its game-changing impact is pronounced with every syllable of her unforgettable performance. Lucas isn’t just one of the best child actors on Broadway today, she’s one of the best actors period.

But it’s not only the myriad of Alisons who make Fun Home so exhilarating. Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris’ layered depiction of Bruce illustrates him as a man desperate to use the appearance of perfection as a mask for his own pain. This creates a haunting portrait of someone too ashamed of himself to ever fully be able to love anyone else. And as Helen, Kuhn expertly plays a woman conflicted between the life she knows and the truth that could make it all come undone. Her nuanced performance will make you want to hug and comfort her and also shake her and tell her to run.

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Rounding out the cast are Roberta Colindrez as Joan, who, with her effortless charisma, excellently counterbalances Skeggs’ naivety, and Joel Perez, who terrifically plays an assortment of Bruce’s secret lovers. As Alison’s brothers when they’re children, Zell Steele Morrow and Oscar Williams are nothing short of exceptional when they join their sister for “Come to the Fun Home,” an adorable fake commercial the trio makes for their family business. It involves using a casket as a prop in ways that only kids could do without it being horribly creepy and inappropriate. This is the type of musical number that will have the entire audience smiling and provides a nostalgic yearning for a child’s boundless imagination to anyone watching.

With such personal source material, Fun Home impeccably retains its sense of intimacy in the Circle in the Square Theatre. Sam Gold’s intelligent direction allows theatergoers to feel like they’re in the Bechdels’ living room with them, almost watching the events unfold before their eyes directly alongside Malone’s Alison as she remembers them. No matter where you’re seated, the actors play to all sides of the theater, allowing the show to keep some of that Off-Broadway smaller scale feel that is rarely a part of big Broadway musicals.

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Of all the shows to choose from this Broadway season, Fun Home will surely be the one to stick with you the longest after the curtain falls. It’s as important as it is beautiful, with a powerful story told by enormously talented actors. Whether you’ve read Bechdel’s book or not, this musical will not just tug at your heartstrings, it’ll stay with you as one of the freshest and most exciting contemporary new shows of this century. When the Tony’s come around in June, don’t be surprised when all the other nominees are disappointed in the wake of its success.

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING HILLARY AND ‘CLINTON: THE MUSICAL’ WITH KERRY BUTLER

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Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign headquarters may be based in Brooklyn, but about 5.5 miles away, her iconic blue pantsuit is getting a lot of wear.

Now playing at New World Stages in Midtown Manhattan, Clinton: The Musical is a hilarious off-Broadway satire of the eight years that Bill Clinton served as President. Parodying everyone from Paula Jones to Al Gore to even Eleanor Roosevelt, this new show is a laugh-out-loud and over-the-top foray back into the 90’s when Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp were still BFFs and Hillary got her first taste of the White House.

Kerry ButlerFeaturing an excellent cast that includes Emmy Award-winning comedienne Judy Gold and an unforgettable star-making performance by Kevin Zak, Clinton: The Musical stars Kerry Butler as the future Madam President, Hillary Rodham Clinton. I chatted with the Tony nominee about her transformation into the First Lady, her real-life politics, how Hillary’s official campaign announcement has impacted the show, what she’s up to next, and much more.


ALEX: Part of what I think makes this show so brilliant is that it can easily appeal to those who both love and despise the Clintons.

KERRY: I agree!

Clinton: The MusicalIn their review of the show, The New York Times called your portrayal of Hillary, “peppy, very funny” and “whose ambitions are huge but whose capability is never in question.” Given that you’re playing an actual person within a highly satirized world, how did you find the balance between the absurdist comedy and staying true to who Hillary really is?

Well, Hillary is so normal that there isn’t really that much you can make fun of, and that was my challenge in the beginning. At first I thought maybe the Clintons are just grounded people with these zany, over the top people around them. People like Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr aren’t actually like how their characters are in the show – great liberties have been taken with those parts. I definitely did not want to do that with Hillary. But she is funny and sarcastic in the show, so I thought, “I have to bring it up a little bit” because it is a comedy.

When I was doing research on her, I was trying to figure out what I could click into. In the 90’s, she had a stronger Midwestern accent so I exaggerated that a little bit. She always had that really big smile. She’s a little bit stiff when she’s giving speeches and things like that. I watched videos of her dancing and I was like, “Oh, that’s really funny, I can totally play with that.”

Then what really clicked for me was I watched when the President was being inaugurated and I thought that she must be so happy at this moment. Before I watched that video, I had been playing it like she was so excited and over the moon happy with this big smile on her face. Then I watched the video of it and she was so intense and had this crazy look on her face. She wasn’t smiling and it just looked like she just had this drive underneath – almost as if she was trying to contain all the emotions she was feeling in that moment. So that’s when it clicked and I realized, “I need to exaggerate that” and “That’s what I need to do with her.”

At the same time, I love her. The more research I did on her, the more I fell in love with her, her politics and who I think she is. I do really think that she wants to make the world a better place so I was very careful and precious with her and was always very protective of her with the writers. We fought to make sure that her intelligence came across and to show that she was a partner with Bill in everything that he did. It was important to make her strong but still be able to poke fun a little bit. I don’t think she’s going to come see the show, but I feel like if she did, she wouldn’t be too upset with my portrayal of her. I hope.

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In the show, there are two actors who play the President. There’s William Jefferson, who’s the more grounded, public face of the administration, and there’s Billy, the carefree, sex-crazed, sax-playing fast food enthusiast – and Hillary is the only one who can see them both. What do you think the choice of having Bill Clinton be two separate characters accomplishes and how did that impact your approach to playing his wife?

It’s fun to actually see them fight with each other! And, you know, most people have two sides to their personality. I know I do! You’re different around different people. Paul Hodge, our writer, read in a lot of books that people constantly said that Bill has these completely split personalities. So I think that it was just something fun to add to the show – like a gimmick that clicked into the comedy and to make the story telling different.

As far as playing opposite the two of them, I just decided that she treats them like they’re two different people. One she has to mother and take care of, and the other one is an equal partner who she listens to and takes advice from and he takes advice from her. She loves both sides of him, and she loves the one that she has to mother because he’s like a little kid and he’s fun and he brings out the little kid in her, so they can have a good time together. But, at the same time, because of her strong desire for her career and her life that she’s kind of carved out, that’s the part of him that I think, initially at least in this play, she wishes would go away.

cast-sign-leftThe show takes a somewhat serious turn during “Enough,” the song Hillary sings after she finds out that the rumors of the Lewinsky affair are true. It’s a heartbreaking ballad that makes you really sympathize with her and that you as a performer really sing the shit out of. What’s your personal favorite song to perform in the show and which one do you find to be stuck in your head the most frequently?

The one that’s stuck in my head most frequently is “Monica’s Song” (“I’m fucking the fucking President!”). Obviously, that’s not actually my song but I think it’s the catchiest one in the show and it’s just so fun too. It’s funny because when I read the script, that’s the song that turned me off the most. When you read the script for the show, you’re like, “Oh, noooo.” I did it because initially Dan Knechtges, our director, was working on it and I trusted him and I thought, “Well, it’s just a reading, I’ll do it.” And then, I quickly learned that it’s just so much better on its feet than on the page. It’s much less insulting and much more fun, you know?

As far as my songs, I love singing “Enough” because I like the through line of the song and how it builds. And I definitely think it’s important to the story. It makes you see that Hillary does have a backbone and I love that you said that it makes you feel for her because that’s what I was hoping would happen. I also really like how another song that I sing, “Both Ways,” gets all fun and Celine Dion-like at the end. Just in terms of having fun with something, I really like that part. That’s kind of Hillary’s onereally silly moment in the show.

Looking at your resume, it seems as though you enjoy moving back and forth between big Broadway shows and smaller off-Broadway and regional venues. As an actress, what have you found to be the biggest differences and advantages of these larger vs more intimate productions?

Off the top of my head, you get paid a lot more money for the big shows. You can’t really make a living doing the Playwrights Horizons shows, but they’re very fulfilling. One of those shows I did, The Call, is one of the things I’m most proud of. It was about adoption, something that I did in my life, and something that I feel like I’m called to do and to tell people about. Sometimes you can do jobs just because it’s something like that, something that’s so personal to you.

With Broadway, you obviously reach a bigger audience. Those big Broadway shows tend to be like a high. I’ve missed doing musicals. Even though Clinton is only around 300 seats, it’s just fun to sing and dance and be silly. We feed off the audiences’ laughter. It’s exciting to be able to give that to them and then they give it back to us.

It’s interesting when you have a matinee crowd. Sometimes they’re older and they aren’t as responsive as the evening crowds, and that kind of unintentionally affects the show for everyone. I don’t think a lot of people realize that when they go to the theater they have a control over the experience as much as the performers do. You know what I mean? Because if you go into a show where you know it’s going to be silly and you know you’re going to have a good time, you can just let go and do it. Then it’s infectious for the whole audience and then that even is infectious for the actors on stage because they respond off of what you’re giving them. Actors definitely try to give the same performance every night, but you have this live audience and are fueled by their energy.

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You’ve played a whole slew of iconic women – Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Eponine in Les Miserables, Penny in Hairspray, Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, and Clio/Kira in Xanadu to name a few. What was something you discovered about yourself as an actress through playing Hillary that you never knew before?

Clinton: The MusicalIn terms of me being an actor, I was petrified to do this part. I did not think I could do it in any way. I thought Dan was crazy to ask me to do it. I consider myself an activist, but I’m not political. And I’m not composed like Hillary is. I’m much more giddy and over the top than she is. Plus, I’ve never played anybody who’s living before. That’s something that people on Saturday Night Livedo, that’s what impersonators do, that’s not what I do. So it’s been really exciting for me that I did it, even though I was scared to death. I guess now I have more confidence in myself since I was able to pull it off. People aren’t like, “Oh my God, what were they thinking casting her?” so that’s been very nice. It’s great to be able to tap into the strength that she has. It brought me strength to see through her strengths. There’s something exciting about doing things that you are petrified of and that you don’t think you’ll be able to do. And then to actually accomplish it feels really good.

That’s awesome! It’s definitely a great new way to challenge yourself. I read that you actually volunteered for Clinton’s 2008 campaign. How were you involved in that and is there anything you took away from those experiences that helped inform your depiction of Hillary?

I actually didn’t volunteer for her campaign specifically. I volunteered for the Democratic Party when she was in Senate, so I had to call up and ask people to give money to support her getting her seat in the Senate and things like that. But once I had kids, I could not volunteer anymore because it was too much to try to balance volunteering and being a mom and working. But it was really fun when I did it. I think Al Gore was running then, so I was volunteering for his campaign in a way too. It’s funny when you do that. I was just this young girl who didn’t really know that much about what she was saying, and when I’d call other Democrats up to ask them for money, they’d just start talking to you. Whereas if anybody calls me, I’m like, “Please put me on the do not call list!” People actually want to talk to you and think that you know what you’re talking about, as if I’m actually friends with Hillary and I know all the in-and-outs of her campaign and what she’s going to do. So it was fun.

That’s so funny. One of the many things I found to be hilarious in the show was Hillary’s obsession with Eleanor Roosevelt and her constant desire to quote her. Who are some of the women who you look up to and are inspired by?

Well, Mother Theresa. Now I really love Hillary Clinton. I’ve already started collecting quotes of hers. I love a writer named Madeleine L’Engle. She’s written a lot of children’s books. Her husband was an actor and so she had to raise her kids on a Broadway schedule and have this other lifestyle which I kind of have to do. Like I’m working all weekend so my husband takes the kids and stuff like that, so I really love her writing. It’s very spiritual and just how she was able to kind of manage being a working mom and everything is very inspiring to me.

Obviously, Hillary just officially announced her plans to run for President in 2016. With her headquarters based in NYC and given that she was recently seen attending Hamilton at The Public, what would it mean to you to have her attend this show?

I would just love to meet her. I actually reached out to her people and said, “I’m going to be doing a lot press. If you guys want to tell me something specific to say to people, I’m happy to because I would love to help out the campaign any way I can.” But I think they’re afraid of the show. Hopefully they’ll hear things like you saying that we’re not being negative towards Hillary. Hopefully that will change their perception of the show. But I think at first they were afraid of it and didn’t really want that kind of press.

news-monicaHow did you and the rest of the cast celebrate and/or react to her announcement?

Well, it was a really fun day because she announced right before our afternoon show started. And so in the cast we didn’t know and then we found out as soon as the show was over. Then we had another show that night and that was when the audience went crazy. The show opens with me saying, “I’m Hillary Rodham Clinton and I would like to tell you the story of my first Presidency.” They went crazy and then again at the end when I said, “Vote for me!” So since she’s announced, it’s been really, really fun because now it kind of seems like a place where Hillary supporters can go and be together. They love the parts when we talk about how she’s already the President or how she’s going to be the President. The audience goes much crazier than they did before. So that’s been really fun.

I’m sure! How often do you were a pantsuit when you’re not in character as Hillary?

I own one pantsuit that I only got from doing a soap opera. They actually wanted me to wear it for press and I was like, “I can’t! I have one pantsuit, I can’t keep wearing it for every press thing I do!”

Politics is often such a touchy subject for so many people. But when a farce like this comes along that can really make people laugh at it, what do you think is the greatest takeaway an audience member can have when leaving the theater?

That’s what I love about the show. I think it’s very even-handed. One thing you can takeaway is the circus of the press surrounding the Clinton era. It was so silly how crazy that was when there were so many other important things going on, like healthcare costs. Everybody was so concerned with Whitewater, which wasn’t even a real thing. Obviously the Monica Lewinsky scandal got completely blown out of proportion. Those were personal matters and Newt Gingrich was doing the same thing as Bill, like you saw in the show. So I would hope people would instead decide to work together and focus on the issues that matter. Nobody’s perfect.

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If you could star in the Broadway revival of any musical of your choosing, what would it be and why?

The first show I ever did was Blood Brothers and I was the understudy and I never got to go on for the part that I understudied. So if I’ve aged out of that part, Linda, I would want to play Mrs. Johnstone, the mother in the show. That’s one of my favorite shows and I’d love to be in it again.

Do you already know or have some ideas of what you’ll be doing next after Clinton: The Musical?

I don’t! I did Seth Rudetsky’s show Disaster! and that may be moving to Broadway so I may do that. I’m also doing a workshop of a musical based on the TV show Hazel. So you never know! That’s life as an actor!

 Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: THE REBIRTH OF THE VERONICAS

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The Veronicas are back and better than ever.

In the seven years since the release of their last album, Hook Me Up, Australian twin sisters Lisa and Jess Origlassio fought a highly publicized battle with their old record label, traveled the world to find inspiration for their masterful and biting songwriting, fell in and out of love, and above all else, rediscovered themselves artistically.

Their comeback single, You Ruin Me,” off their new and superb album The Veronicas (released via Sony’s Red label), spent several weeks at #1 in Australia and quickly became certified over 3x platinum. After a hugely successful and hotly anticipated tour in their homeland, The Veronicas have returned to the United States for a series of intimate, acoustic shows before bringing their full rock concert stateside later in the year.

I caught up with the girls over a bar of peanut butter chocolate about their new record and its upcoming deluxe edition, the band’s rebirth, their gorgeous latest music videos, their passionate social activism, their Real Housewives taglines, and much more.

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JESS: Do you like peanut butter? You have to try this chocolate, it’s so good.

ALEX: I love peanut butter. Thank you!

LISA: Jess, what the fuck? How did you know this was so good?

JESS: I just saw it at the Whole Foods on Houston Street. Listen to the description on the wrapper: “creamy peanut butter cradled in dark chocolate.”

LISA: Are you kidding? I would like to jump in that.

JESS: I like how it says “cradled.” That’s so specifically worded.

ALEX: That is seriously unreal. I don’t want it to end. So, there was a seven year gap between the releases of Hook Me Up and your new and self-titled album. In your opinion, how had the landscape of pop music changed between these two records and in what ways – if at all – did that impact you as artists/songwriters while creating this album?

LISA: Oh god, was it that long?! I thought we’re getting younger not older.

ALEX: Well you look younger, so …

LISA: Bless, bless.

JESS: I think that the biggest change was the up rise of social media. That happened at such a rapid pace. When we first started, we were one of the first bands on MySpace. So that just goes to show how it was back then and how these things have changed. I think the accessibility between fans and artists has become so intimate, which is unreal. We’re so stoked about that because even back then, we were so excited to be able to be close with the fans, and I think it’s important to have that direct interaction and we like to see their reactions firsthand – what they think about the music and giving things to them directly from the artists. It takes out the middleman. Whoever fucking likes the middleman anyway? The middleman is always there just to you know –

LISA: Buffer.

JESS: Yes! He’s always the buffer. And I understand the middleman is important for a lot of things but taking him out gives you that direct, personal, genuine relationship with fans, which as artists –

LISA: Is everything to us.

JESS: It’s the greatest. We love that.

LISA: I mean, it’s so interesting to know that we have fans all over the world.

JESS: It just gives us such a great concept of where things are being embraced. And just on a completely pop culture level, you are able to stay connected to so much information. I think that serves as a really great source of inspiration.

LISA: For us, inspiration for our writing and for our music is life. All the different experiences in life.

JESS: I think that being able to educate yourself with the internet at your fingertips and being able to research your own passions and even look into what your fan base is into and where things are progressing is a really important part of it. You just didn’t have the ability to be able to do that before. You needed someone else to be able to go log in and look at statistics. Now we’re able to do that ourselves.

LISA: And then obviously sonically the landscape has totally changed. Back when we were releasing our last record, Hook Me Up, and “Untouched” and all those songs, it was very hard to get them to be played on the radio because they were deemed “too electro dance.” And when you look at music now …

ALEX: That sound is everywhere!

LISA: Back then, “pop” was kind of a dirty word. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry hadn’t come out yet. There came a rise of the female pop star that was doing things a little more in that sonic vein. So I think it’s so crazy how just radio and pop culture is –

JESS: Now sitting.

LISA: It’s cool. It gives you a place to react off, that’s what we do as artists. This is where things are and you continually react off that middle ground. So creating this record, we didn’t want to make something that sort of seemed like we’d already done that. At the beginning of this, we decided that we weren’t going to just go back and do that sound again because it’s now happening and relevant. Instead, we went back and challenged ourselves.

JESS: We just started writing songs and telling our stories. And I think the next record, which we’re going to start working on really soon, will be very production heavy in a completely different way. But for this one, we really needed to just go back to our roots. We wanted to leave all the shit behind with the old record company and just go back to finding ourselves at our most base foundation of The Veronicas, which was us sitting down, writing on guitar and crafting the melody, vocals, and lyrics from that.

ALEX: Part of what I think makes this new record so brilliant is that it expertly fuses the pop/rock aesthetic of your first album with that more electronic feel of your second album to create something that’s not only a sophisticated evolution of your sound, but an exciting new one as well. Was this amalgamation a deliberate choice or did it just kind of come about organically?

JESS: Very much organically. It was very much led by us. If we could physically produce our own records, we would do it ourselves. We’re just that type of personality. That being said, we haven’t yet mastered the art of full production, so it’s just all our opinions and our thoughts. We sat down and we really worked with each producer on what we wanted to hear.

LISA: As we did with our second record with Toby Gad. Songs like “Untouched,” “Take Me On The Floor,” “Popular,” – with all those songs, we very much dictated how we wanted them to sound. But those had a very 80s electro template, whereas these songs didn’t have a template. The song itself was the thing that we started with, it was like the seed. And then we built around that and we didn’t try to overdo it.

JESS: But songs like “Did You Miss Me” and “Line of Fire” have very obvious production elements to them. We really just had fun with that in a way that we hadn’t really done before because there was no predisposition to a genre.

LISA: Yes. It was just what we heard in our minds. We felt very free and very inspired through every little part of the process. From each sound to each lyric to the way things were mixed and mastered. We’re very, very hands on in a way that made for music that is just a natural progression.

JESS: Did you just eat a piece of chocolate off your arm?

LISA: I was like “peanut butter chocolate mmm.” Very organic progression for that chocolate to make its way from my arm to my mouth.

JESS: Sorry to interrupt. That was just really funny. Anyway.

ALEX: It’s too good to waste! There were many songs you had written since Hook Me Up that didn’t make the final cut of your third album. Was it difficult to curate the track listing given that this record was in a way a reintroduction of your band to the world?

LISA: That was very important to us.

JESS: To get that right, yeah. There were a few different combinations we tried. It wasn’t too hard though, because I feel like the songs themselves sat in a storyline of what we’ve been through anyway naturally. So it was just placing them right.

LISA: I started saying it sort of embodies the themes of life, death and resurrection. So starting with “Sanctified” just made so much sense as far as this being our rebirth. And, you know, regeneration comes in seven year cycles, so it’s so funny to hear that it’s been seven years since the last record. When I hear that, I’m just like, “this is not a coincidence.” We truly do feel like this is our rebirth.

JESS: It’s definitely not a coincidence.

LISA: I was very much into that whole swampy, bluesy, soulful, moody scene in our downtime. I went to Nashville and did a lot of writing and jamming with a bunch of different artist friends and that inspired “Sanctified,” which just felt like such a good place to start. Then we move into “Did You Miss Me,” which we felt like was our sort of real signature song. Lyrically, we actually draw a lot of inspiration from the movie we named our band after, Heathers. So we actually quote a bunch of Veronica Sawyer’s lines in that. And then obviously ending on “You and Me,” which is completely stripped back and bare. For that song, we did one take, harmonized the whole way through together, just on an acoustic guitar and it just felt like the truest form of where we’re at and who we are. So there’s a lot of soul bearing on this record. I like to say that we wear our hearts on our sleeves and the knife is in our hands. In true Veronicas form, we still do write about heartbreak and we’re a bit vengeful sometimes.

JESS: We write about the every mysterious understanding of love. It is the hardest thing to be consistent in understanding love. It mutates and it takes on different forms at every moment of everyday and things change and people are insecure. Love in its purest form shouldn’t affect what love in its purest form is but it does. And it’s crazy that we as humans still have not mastered the concept of just the simplest form of what love is.

LISA: We’re always trying to conquer what that is. It’s that mysterious kind of force that fucks us up or is our driving force. It’s kind of wild. So we love to write about that in all of its forms.

ALEX: You’ve teased that a deluxe version of the album will be coming out with seven unreleased songs added onto it. When do you anticipate that to hit stores and how do these new songs compare to the rest of the record?

JESS: In June or July. I actually just sent an e-mail to Sony about it yesterday. They’re some of my favorite songs. Some of these songs mean an incredible amount to us. They’re very, very personal.

LISA: These are ones where I was like, “Man! We should have put that one on the first version of the album!” So yeah, they’re some of the best ones I think we’ve ever written, definitely.

JESS: One song you may have heard online, “Sugar Daddy.” We’re going to include the full version of that and six other songs.

ALEX: I love that song! That’s exciting. From the moody “You Ruin Me” to the calls for social change in “If You Love Someone” to the most recent and gritty “Cruel,” shot on the set of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, all of the music videos that have spawned from this new album thus far have been incredibly cinematic. Which of these were the most fun and/or challenging to film?

JESS: Thank you! I think the most challenging one out of the three was “Cruel,” just because of the physicality and stunt work.

LISA: Yeah, definitely.

JESS: Even the weather. We were in the desert about two hours out of LA and it was –

LISA: Below freezing.

JESS: So fucking cold! And we were wearing these latex outfits. There was a moment in the video where I thought I was going to freeze to death. But it was worth it because the location was unreal. We did our own stunt work, including a knife fight I did with the lead actor. It’s hard enough to think straight when you’re freezing in the middle of the night in the desert! And he had a real knife that he was using. So he was getting really close – I mean, he’s a proper stunt guy so it was fine – but there was this element of fear because I’m thinking, “there is a chance that this could go wrong and if that happens then this knife is going through me.” It’s not a rubber knife, it’s not a retractable knife. There’s a real risk there. But I think that that added to the intensity and the magic of the video. You get a different outcome doing it head on like that. That’s how we approach our songwriting, so it made sense that we would approach it with the risk of real injury with the video.

LISA: And we’ve been so meticulous and hands on with the creation of these video clips. We definitely wanted each one to have its own cinematic feel. We wanted the songs to be the soundtrack to their own mini-movies and their own worlds. “You Ruin Me” was wild because we shot that over 3 days. That one was tough for me just because of what the song means to me. It was still so fresh and new, so I wasn’t used to being that vulnerable and in the moment in front of so many people. When we were shooting that, there was actually quite a big crew. So that one was a little bit overwhelming, but I think that just added to the magic of the video. Specifically regarding “Cruel,” we love Tarantino and David Lynch and we wanted the video’s vibes to reflect their kind of darkness and black humor.

ALEX: You recently completed touring in Australia and in the UK. When will you bring the Sanctified Tour to the US?

JESS: We definitely plan on doing that this year. I’m thinking probably after August, so it will be towards the end of this year. But we’re just doing as much promo right now as we can and we’re trying to make sure that we’re doing lots of competitions at all the different stations so that we can meet fans in each city. Even though they’re not full shows, it’s fun to be back and meet them all. We’ve been waiting to for so long. They’re so cool. We definitely want to bring the whole band to do our full rock show production sometime this year though.

ALEX: In addition to being exceptionally talented musicians, you’re both very passionate social activists. Highlights include protesting against Proposition 8 in California and joining the “Wear It For Pride” campaign in Australia, posing nude for PETA, becoming ambassadors for Sea Shepherd, and lending your voices to speak out against the forced closure of aboriginal communities in Australia. How do you balance your music careers with your philanthropic efforts and how do you recommend that more people get involved with these causes?

JESS: I think as far as the balance, it’s just to live the value system every day. So then that comes out through the music.

LISA: Yes, it’s literally integrating it into us as people and then that will come out through the music, through our art, through just being immersed in it every day and being able to talk about it.

JESS: We need to be able to have more and more conversations about our government system and structures and helping our wildlife and helping people in need and all the things that go on as far as social conscious goes. Then it’s going to become more comfortable for people. See the thing is that I think – especially in pop music – people are scared to get political. People are scared to be too outspoken because nobody wants to alienate a possible fan.

LISA: Not even just pop music, it’s even in the acting world too. It’s funny how much people don’t want to step on the wrong toes or offend anyone because it’s deemed too political. It’s like you don’t want to offend the wrong person because then you might ruin an opportunity. But then you’re just living in fear and not standing up for what you believe in. You can’t do that. That’s not who we are.

ALEX: Especially since you have a unique platform to do so.

LISA: Absolutely! That’s even more of a reason to stand up.

JESS: If there’s anything that we try to encourage, it’s to ask questions. We’re not saying people need to think like we think. But especially young people need to be encouraged to challenge and question everything. The difference between us and animals is that we have the ability to question “why?” for everything. Everything we do. We grow up in a school system that teaches us to conform and then by the time we’re old enough, we wake up and look around and go “wow, this hasn’t helped progress our society or our communities or ourselves in any way.” All this does is feed into a very capitalist mindset of prioritizing the wrong things, which are status, monetary value, material things –

LISA: Ego.

JESS: At what point do we say, “No, the important things in life are love, compassion, understanding yourself and understanding those around you”? If you’re fearing something, it’s because you do not understand it. You don’t have to agree with it, just try to understand it and to question the structures of authority that we have put in place. The problem is there’s a disconnection there. People think to themselves, “Well, I didn’t put that person in that place, so I have nothing to do with it.” Yes you do! If you’re a person of this universe, you have a part to play in this. We were born with a voice to speak up, so why not use it? Why sit there and be complacent? Why sit there and not ask why?

LISA: I really liked what you wrote on Twitter the other day. Let me pull it up and read it because I don’t want to paraphrase anything. It’s a Paulo Freire quote that says, “Washing your hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” So many people remain neutral! They say, “It’s got nothing to do with me,” and it just comes down to a very, very simple concept of injustice. If you see injustice, speak out and do something about it.

JESS: Injustice to animals, injustice to your neighbor, or anyone! It can be as little picture or big picture as you choose, but if as humans we just sit around and allow injustice to continue, we’re digging ourselves into a world where no one can possibly survive. We cannot live in it, and that’s why we’re faced with the adversity, conflict, and misunderstanding that we’re faced with today.

LISA: Absolutely.

JESS: We need people to stand up and say, “This doesn’t work for me, my community, my family, my loved ones.” Otherwise nothing is going to change and the same things will continue on. We need to just encourage people to question and to educate themselves. We’re in a digital age where we are able to access information that we weren’t able to in the past. So why not use it? And then just love. Love, love, love, love, and be compassionate and understanding.

LISA: It will always bring you back to love.

JESS: That’s the important stuff.

ALEX: I agree! To end on a bit of a silly note – a recent Australian hit stateside has been the TV show, The Real Housewives of Melbourne. Obviously, you’re from Brisbane, but hypothetically, if you were to be on the show, what would each of your introductory taglines be?

LISA: We haven’t seen it yet! That’s so funny.

JESS: I want to watch it now! Isn’t the wife of someone from Silverchair on it?

ALEX: Yes! Jackie, Ben Gillies’ wife, is one of the Housewives and he’s on it all the time as well.

LISA: Amazing. We should do each other’s. Jess’ would be, “I’m into spiritual psychology and I’ll pick you apart.” I don’t even know if that really made sense. That’s just funny for me.

JESS: Yours would be like, “I may be short but I’ll always measure up.”

ALEX: Those are awesome!

JESS: That was a funny question. I just want to sit there and write those sorts of things for those shows now, I’d like that job. I wonder whose job that is, that’d be fun.

LISA: That’s hilarious.

ALEX: Is there anything about the new album or anything else that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to add?

LISA: Your questions were so beautiful and you’re so eloquent.

JESS: Thank you for such a beautiful interview and for letting us rant.

LISA: And for sharing the peanut butter chocolate with us!

ALEX: Thank YOU! This has been so wonderful. And I’m going to buy that chocolate in bulk.

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Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING LIFE, LOVE & BEAUTY WITH PRETTY LITTLE LIARS’ KEEGAN ALLEN

Keegan AllenKeegan Allen wants to share his experiences with you.

Best known for his role as Toby Cavanaugh on ABC Family’s hit television series Pretty Little Liars, the 25-year-old star is proving his versatility with next week’s release oflife.love.beauty, a candid and intimate multi-media journal of his life that collects everything from poetry to prose to music and lyrics, to above all, photographs.

Featuring a range of self-portraits, observations of everyday life, and snapshots of celebrity friends such as Emmy Rossum,James Franco, Jay Leno, Emma Roberts, and the cast of Pretty Little Liars, Allen’s book beautifully announces the arrival of a true and unique visionary artist.

In advance of the February 3rd release of life.love.beauty (via St. Martin’s Press), Allen chatted with me about his creative process and all of the inspirations, fears and goals that went into putting this book together. Plus, he reveals his favorite Pretty Little Liarsfan theory about A’s identity!

NAGORSKI: You started your career exploring photography, writing, music, and cinematography before stepping in front of the camera to be an actor. What made you decide to return to these passions and interests and share them with the world?

ALLEN: Well, before I ever started my formal training as an actor, I was very much entranced with photography and the element and idea of sharing these moments from a really, really young age. When I was 10-years-old, I recognized the concept of taking a photo, waiting a couple of days to get it developed and then sharing it. I just really loved the entire process of it. I think the most rewarding point was sharing it and hearing the experience others had with it – how somebody could take a photo and it’s of something as mundane or uninteresting as a leaf on the ground but paired with certain words or certain lighting and such, it provokes a different feeling. Art is so subjective. So I just really enjoyed being able to share those experiences with others. That’s kind of what the book is for me. It’s half my experiences but it’s also an interactive thing that anybody can open up to any page and either find a retrospect that fits their own lives in that kind of situation or find an inspirational shot or experience for the future.

What type of creative itches do photography and writing scratch for you that acting doesn’t?

They all scratch my back equally in a way. When I’m not acting, I’m always photographing, and if I’m not photographing and acting, I’m playing music or writing, so I’m always dipping my toes into other things. Because Pretty Little Liars has gotten a lot of attention, it’s given me a great platform to share my passion through this book with fans of the show and other readers as well. I guess it gives me the power and the control of using photography as an important means of human communication. It’s also kind of latching onto these ideas of life, love and of beauty because they’re things that we all live through. These are things that really affect us and compose our existence.

There’s also an idea that I play with in the book and that’s that we’re all kind of living basically the same lives but we just have different names and we all are backgrounds to other people’s lives. Then those people are backgrounds to our lives sometimes and we don’t take the time to kind of acknowledge that we’re all living in this life together and experiencing very, very much the same feelings, so that’s the kind of the itch I wanted to scratch. I like that question a lot.

Thank you! The book chronicles your life and observations growing up off of the Sunset Strip. Tell me a little bit about your creative process and how you curated this narrative using the mixed visual and literary mediums featured throughout?

The way that it came about is … I grew up in Hollywood. I would skate around with my camera everywhere. My father had given me a camera at a very young age to borrow, a Leica M6, which is a very nice camera to be just playing around with. But I brought it with me everywhere and I stayed around with my friends and lived like a fly on the wall to our experiences. Whether they were vapid day-to-day moments or they were transcendent epiphanies of growing up, I logged them in my book, similar to how people blog today on Tumblr. I would carry around a composition notebook and when I would get my photos developed, I would take a negative and make a contact sheet and maybe cut out the image that I wanted and so on. I was constantly creating content and that was kind of the idea. I included a lot of my child mind in this book. I didn’t want it to be a didactic autobiography but rather be something that, like I said before, anybody could pick up and experience in their own way. That was done just through constantly sharing the moment.

Since this book is an intimate photo journal of sorts, your fans will undoubtedly get to know you far better than ever before. What’s something about yourself that you think will surprise your readers to learn and did you ever worry about exposing too much?

Yeah, I did. It’s really nerve-wracking. The most challenging part of this book was sharing the personality behind it. Art – and any kind of imagery – is subject to criticism and ideas and those could be right and they could be wrong and they could be neither of the two. It’s a little nerve-wracking to think of the ways that it’ll be perceived but I think readers will get to see a side of me that’s a little more emotional and that my heart is very much stitched into my work. There’s also an element of darkness and light that plays into the book. There’s a feeling to it about how opposites attract and then they attack. But I think the overall element of it will be that people can take away their own experiences from it, which is exciting.

You touched on this before, but one of the primary themes that ties this collection together is the dissection of the idea of Hollywood. What is it about this place that fascinates you so much and is there a specific message or thesis about it that you’re hoping those who read the book take away with them?

Yeah, I mean, everybody reveres Hollywood as being this holy Mecca of the entertainment world. They see the industry as sparkling lights and somewhere that anyone can make it and that there’s no real work involved. You just kind of get in and do it. I love that. There’s so much speculation. A lot of people that come here don’t know that. On the flipside, it’s also a beautiful and kind of tragic place. We so easily judge what we see before we understand it ourselves, and I’ve always been really fascinated with this. There’s this idea that everything’s very transient in Hollywood and that everybody kind of moves around. I grew up there next to everyone that talked big and was crazy, but also small underdogs, and all of these were key characters in my personal life. There are also the places that everyone kind of knows of, whether it’s the Chateau Marmont or Venus Beach. These are iconic places and I wanted to give readers a little bit more of a look at them – from my own perspective and experiences but also ones that anybody can understand themselves. Hopefully this gets people to go there and force an inspirational moment upon themselves.

Do you have a favorite photo, poem and/or piece of writing in the book?

Yeah, I have a few. But everything’s really close to me so the way that I look at the book is so close to my face that I can’t really pull back and get “this is my favorite” from everything. That being said, my first photo that I ever took has a lot of meaning to me. I remember that day really vividly and there were so many elements to the photo that I did want and ended up sharing in the book. It was such a unique experience. I took this photo and my shirt was wet, so I wiped the lens with it so it gave it this really soft effect and there were fireflies flying into the light meter so it was bouncing on and off and silhouetting the image. It has all of these things that otherwise nobody would have known about. So I really love that image a lot. That’s one of my favorites.

You’ve collaborated frequently with James Franco over the past few years, appearing in films like Palo Alto, The Sound and the Fury, and the upcoming Bukowski. As someone who’s published quiet a few books of his own, did he give you any advice when you were preparing for the release of your book?

Yeah, he did. He is extremely supportive and thoughtful. He’s included me in so many things. James is not only someone that I look up to a lot, but he’s a really good friend too. He has this personality of “just do it and see how it makes you feel and see how it affects others but always make sure you base everything in truth,” which is such a cool outlook. When I showed him the concept for the book and shared with him some pictures that I wanted to include, he was just immediately very supportive. Everybody has been. In fact, I think what I’m the most grateful for – being able to have such an amazing group of friends that supports my passions and my craft so much.

Switching gears briefly to Pretty Little Liars, what’s the craziest fan theory you’ve heard about who A is?

I’ve heard a really crazy fan theory that the viewer is actually A. As if there’s a voyeuristic villain that once they break the fourth wall, they realize it’s actually been the audience the whole time. I kind of like that one because it’s just very out there.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the book or any upcoming projects that we didn’t talk about?

Just that I’m really excited about it! I’m going on a book tour and am looking forward to being able to meet everyone that wants to share this experience with me. It’s going to be really, really rewarding. The book itself is only half of this experience. Half of the book is just in what it is right now and the other half will be the interaction with the readers. I’m just really thrilled that everyone has their own experience through life, through love and through beauty and I can’t wait to share that with the world.

Keegan Allen / life.love.beauty

Originally published on PopBytes