“Clarissa Explains it All,” the successful Nickelodeon sitcom that gained a cult following in the years after its original run, turns 25 on March 23. The comedy starred Melissa Joan Hart as the titular character, an outspoken young teenager who dealt with everyday teen situations in a fun, quirky way while breaking the fourth wall. “Clarissa” was Hart’s first lead role, which soon led to successful stints on other popular shows, including “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “Melissa and Joey” and “Dancing with the Stars,” in addition to movie roles.
Hart spoke to Variety about that first big break, the success she found because of it and how she balanced work with being a teenager.
“Clarissa” was your first big show. Looking back, how did it influence the way you approach your work now?
It was really a growing experience in so many ways. I was moved to Orlando to shoot the show for part of the year by myself. It was tough on one hand because my family was away from me. It made me grow up really fast and learn responsibility. I had a lot going on because of school work. I was in high school, plus learning all these lines and monologues every week, working 70-hour weeks, working on Sunday. We worked 6-day weeks so it was a lot to handle. I think it set me up to be really responsible and have a great work ethic, which my family always did and they instilled that in me. But I think that working on the show definitely had an impact.
What’s the most important thing about the business that you learned from your experience on “Clarissa”?
Everything! I had a lot of downtime while in between shots and set-ups. I got to really play around with the camera, the booms and the lighting equipment. I was fascinated by the lighting equipment – mainly because I had a crush on the lighting guy. So, I would go hang out at their board but I asked a lot of questions and I learned the different ways to set a light and how to run a lighting board. I worked with the set decorators; they helped me with school projects. For school, I had to build a model of the Globe Theater and the production designer helped me with that. I used to watch the directors and ask them, “what do these notes mean?” or “what do those lines mean?” It was kind of like film school for me.
How different was working on “Clarissa” than “Sabrina the Teenage Witch?”
I feel like I was exhausted after “Clarissa” – four years of travelling, learning lines, schoolwork and SATs – it was a lot. When “Sabrina” came along, I was a legal adult. I moved to LA and lived in Hollywood and on a major show but now I maybe had half the amount of work. There were so many supporting characters so it was a big relief and I enjoyed the process more.
People are always shocked to hear this, but I didn’t necessarily relate to the character of Sabrina very much. I related so much more to the Clarissa character but at the same time I knew that with Sabrina I was having a lot of fun. I was getting to dress-up, to be Rapunzel and Alice in Wonderland, all these great characters week after week. So that kept it interesting because playing that character for seven years straight would have been taxing and tiring if it didn’t have the magical element to the show.
But I also knew I was very blessed — I knew TV shows like that don’t come around. The crew and the actors, we all had so much fun doing that show and all knew that we were so lucky. We were holding on for dear life like, “Don’t let this ride end!” It was similar to the way people are about high school; I feel like most people look back on those four years and don’t want to let those go. That’s how it was with “Sabrina.” We traveled the world, [went to] movies, and parties and just had a blast. That crew – we’re still super tight. It was the same one for seven years!
The quirky style of “Clarissa” is something we still see in kids shows today. Did you have any sense, after finishing up the show, that it would be a precursor for later shows?
I was used to playing to those types of characters. I liked that she was a tough girl. I liked that Mitchell Kriegman, the writer, was all about erasing stereotypes and not putting someone in a box. He actually didn’t want to cast a blonde, thinking on those stereotypes – that a blonde couldn’t play a smart girl.
Kriegman was so brilliant as a writer. There were some great writers on the show like Suzanne Collins who wrote “The Hunger Games” and Paul Lieberstein of “The Office.” Mitchell was brilliant about finding writers and quirky people with amazing minds and I think a lot of people followed suit in the following years with kids’ shows. They made smart television.
But in terms of fashion – the wardrobe wasn’t sexy, on trend at the time but it ended up being a timeless look that people are still using. She would wear big baggy t-shirts with a vest over with leggings and a skirt with a big watch and accessories. Layering is sort of timeless.
You were a teenager when you were doing the show. How were you able to bridge being the star on a kid’s show while also being a teenager and make it work for you?
That’s what was tough. I considered myself a really good student and having a lot pressure for me for work and also for school was a lot to handle, but on top of it I was also crazy, trying to find a boyfriend. I actually had a boyfriend for the first two years of the show – my first boyfriend. But, you know, he was in New York and I was in Orlando so it was that long-distance love. I was trying to be as much of a normal teenager as I could but I was surrounded by adults, mostly.
But Clarissa taught me a lot – if she could stand up to a bully or date the bully, break boundaries and stand up for what she believed in and be smart, sassy and likable, then I could be those things too. I was feeling a lot of peer pressure and feeling like I didn’t fit in – you know, all those kid things – but working with adults I found that the adults don’t care if you wear what’s trendy, they only care if you’re nice to them and you’re fun to talk to. So I kind of developed my social skills.
I still had a hard time being around my peers but around adults and in the “work” world I was somebody who was serious about her career at a young age. It definitely helped mold who I was and who I became.
How were you able to handle the amount of recognition that came along with the show, given how young you were?
I was a little embarrassed at first! I didn’t really get recognized right away because cable was not in a lot of homes yet. I don’t think I got recognized the first two years of the show but then people started recognizing me on the streets of Manhattan. When people would come up to me and tell me they watched the show I would be like, “Oh, you do? I’m sorry.” I was a little embarrassed that I was on a channel with “Double Dare” [Nickelodeon’s kids’ gameshow]. As a teenager, when there is something you did as a kid — and I used to watch Nickelodeon as a kid — I was like, “Oh, I’m on a kids’ channel.” It felt a little funny at first. But, of course, I grew up and matured and realized how special that show was and how well people reacted to it.
The show gave you something of a brand that followed you throughout your career. Looking back, how do you feel about the way your career has developed since “Clarissa”?
I’m really proud of the way my career has gone. I’ve been able to do what a lot of actors hope and strive to do, which is being a working actor my whole career. I was able to keep going, to move forward and keep reinventing myself. It’s so nice to just keep moving forward and keep finding new characters.
When I go through the airport and people stop me, they don’t just talk about one show. It’s everything – “Dancing with the Stars” and “Drive Me Crazy.” So I’m really blessed to be able to say that my career has been supporting to me but it’s also gotten some people through some hard times. I feel like I have a lot of best friends around me at all times.
The show was also one of the first, if not the first on Nickelodeon to feature a female lead. How does it feel to know that you were one of the first to find success with the overall audience?
I saw some of the advertising posters I was on and it was a photo of me with boxing gloves punching through paper. And the ad was that we broke boundaries on Nickelodeon. So I was aware of it at the time, which is kind of rare, especially being so young. It was nice to learn that and to find out that we were pioneering a little bit for cable networks and for young girls. I just loved the opportunity to be able to say those lines and to be able to work with those people. Now people come up to me and tell me they got into fashion or technology or coding because of “Clarissa.” There were so many benefits to being part of that show and I couldn’t be more proud of it.
Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?
“God’s Not Dead 2” comes out April 1. We have a kids clothing line on KingofHarts.com with a girls t-shirt line called Queen of Harts. I’m possibly directing a remake of a family-friendly thriller this summer but can’t really talk about it yet – but soon! I may also be doing a reality TV show with my family, opening a new “Sweet Harts” candy store on the East Coast. Hopefully, I’ll return to scripted TV at some point. But it’s one of things where you have to find the right project, the right team. I actually had a meeting with my team a few days ago about development to figure out what the next move is. Definitely looking for something in the next year or two but it has to be the right thing, for me and my family.
Have your kids seen the show?
I showed them one episode of “Clarissa” and “Sabrina” way back when, but they weren’t really that into it. Now that they’re older, it’s a good time to show them again. It’s hard for me to watch it sometimes. TV is not as special for them as it was for us, I think.
What advice do you have for young actors that are in a similar situation as you were at that age?
It’s a numbers game and auditioning is not an easy task. Keep trying and have conviction. It takes one great audition to get your career rolling. You may go on 500 auditions and there will be that one that clicks.
If you could give advice to a younger you, right before you started your first day on “Clarissa,” what would it be?
“Take a deep breath, not everything is the end of the world.” I was always boy-crazy and that took a lot of my focus away and I wish I had focused more on enjoying time and girlfriends and not on lost loves. I would tell myself to enjoy the ride.