‘Pretty Little Liars’ Star Troian Bellisario on How Writing, Producing ‘Feed’ Helped Her Overcome an Eating Disorder

Troian Bellisario Variety feature Article Pretty Little Liars
Dan Doperalski/Variety

Troian Bellisario is best known for starring on “Pretty Little Liars” for seven years, but little do her legions of fans know, she was hard at work on another project before “PLL” even began.

“Feed” — a film written, produced, and starring Bellisario — is inspired by the multi-hyphenate’s own experiences with an eating disorder. The movie, in which she stars opposite “Harry Potter” alum Tom Felton, debuts July 18 on VOD and all digital platforms.

“It had been living in my head for about eight years and had gone through so many different iterations,” Bellisario, 31, tells Variety of the writing process for “Feed” that began when she was 23 years old, roughly four years after her hospitalization for anorexia.

“I had enough distance to begin to write about this experience, and not write about it like a diary entry, but to create a world and characters that are different than my own experience, and speak about what I thought it was like to engage with this illness and try to get out from under it,” says Bellisario, explaining that “Feed,” is not biographical, but rather inspired by her own illness.

And so, working on “Feed” became a source of healing for Bellisario.

“There was one doctor who told me that when a lot of people go in for treatment, they won’t feel like they’ve come out from under their eating disorder until about 10 years of therapy. I didn’t understand that,” Bellisario admits. “I was so new to my therapist and everything that we were doing and I was like, ‘No, I should just be able to stop.’ I didn’t see that a lot of my thought patterns wouldn’t be normalized or made healthy again until after that 10 years, so what I thought I could do in that meantime was write about my experience and channel this story. And what if it can inspire other people to close the chapter in their life? I didn’t want to be struggling with this mental illness in my 30s. I didn’t want to be struggling with this mental illness in my 40s. I didn’t want to, god forbid, have a child and still be thinking in these patterns and talk to my daughter about it.”

She adds, “Over the eight years of slipping back into some unhealthy places and then getting back to it and speaking to therapists, it was amazing to have ‘Feed’ to go back to and think, ‘This is what it felt like when it was happening, but now I’m five years out, now I’m six years out, now I’m eight years out, and now, how do I feel about this, as an artist talking about this as a story — and not as my own story?’ I felt like I really needed that distance to be able to see it clearly.”

Bellisario admits that the process of creating the film was both “therapeutic,” but at the same time, also “inflammatory,” partly because she decided to star in the project. Those around her tried to convince her not to act in “Feed” because they feared it would be too traumatic.

“So many people in my life read the script and said, ‘Wow, I totally understand why you wrote this,’ but then when I said I am also going to act in it, so many people were like, ‘Why?’ because engaging in this disorder and engaging with this role and taking on this experience again would involve weight loss, it would involve some of the conversations that I had with a therapist and re-hashing those feelings. So everybody around me was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?'”

To ensure that she remained healthy through the hands-on process, Bellisario says not only did she have a great support group around her, but she also stayed in close contact with her therapist, who treated her when she was battling anorexia.

“I wasn’t prepared for coming off of that set and going into her and how much of it was going to be aggravated. And it was amazing because she was right there to catch me,” Bellisario explains of working with her therapist. “It was incredibly challenging, but it was also wonderful because I was in a healthy enough mind space.”

Troian Bellisario photographed exclusively for Variety
Dan Doperalski for Variety

While “Feed” proved to be an instrumental tool in Bellisario overcoming her illness, the film also helped the actress evolve into, well, much more than an actress. The project marks Bellisario’s film debut as a writer and producer, piquing her interest in a wide variety of career possibilities, following “Pretty Little Liars.”

Starring as Spencer Hastings for seven seasons of “Liars” catapulted Bellisario to stardom, as the series become a pop culture phenomenon, and introduced her to millions of loyal followers. The show also provided her the opportunity to make her directorial debut on the final season of the Freeform hit — which, spoiler alert!, revealed her to be the ultimate “A” villain after seven years of whodunnit fake-outs.

“It was mostly a total blast because for seven years, so many members of the crew were suggesting I try my hand at that,” Bellisario recalls of directing her first episode, laughing that she was always asking a lot of questions on set and had “a lot” of opinions throughout the show’s run. To prepare for her directorial debut, Bellisario enrolled in the Warner Bros. director’s program, which consisted of seven weeks of intensive all-day Saturday prep work, which she was able to do on the “PLL” set. She jokes, “I was already living on the Warner Bros. lot Monday through Friday, so why not make it six days per week?”

Though she wore many different hats on “Feed” between acting, writing, and producing, Bellisario’s close friend Tommy Bertelsen directed the film. “It was truly a collaborative team effort between the two of us,” she said. “He was really wonderful in that he helped me define my role in that three-pronged approach.”

While she chose not to direct “Feed,” Bellisario has caught the directing bug and is excited about Hollywood championing more and more female directors today — something that appears to have been cemented this summer by the success of “Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins.

“I was at the premiere,” Bellisario recalls, with a smile, “And I could cry about it right now because I saw all of these young girls dressed up as Wonder Woman and they were so excited, and I remember when I was younger and ‘Kill Bill’ came out and I went to the theater with a plastic samurai sword because I was so excited there was a female action movie. This is on a totally different level because it’s directed by a woman and it’s about a female superhero.”

Bellisario is optimistic about the industry finally recognizing women as storytellers, even though there’s much more work to be done in the industry’s fight toward gender equality.

“When a guy directs a romantic comedy, we’re not like, ‘Wow! How amazing! He really got out of the box with that rom-com!’ But when we’re talking about a woman who’s directing an action movie, it’s like, ‘Wow! Isn’t it so amazing?’ And no, she’s a director — she’s just a director. We need to stop seeing women as exceptions to the rule.”

Troian Bellisario photographed exclusively for Variety
Dan Doperalski for Variety

Bellisario grew up in an industry household — her father is “NCIS” and “Magnum, P.I.” creator Donald P. Bellisario, and her mother is writer-producer Deborah Pratt — so she was always encouraged to pursue her entertainment career, despite barriers for women. “In my family, it never felt like we were on the outside,” she says. “It never felt like my dad was the only director in the family. My mom was a director. But that’s in my bubble.”

“What I’m so excited about and optimistic about is that it feels like the work is being done,” she continues. “It feels like people are excited to get a woman behind the camera. I think that we should continue the good fight, but I do think that there’s been a lot of incredible progress being made, and I’m just excited to be in Hollywood in a time where that’s happening.”

As for what’s next?

“So many people say, ‘What’s next?'” Bellisario says. “Being on a show for seven years and getting to play Spencer and go down in that rabbit hole was so wonderful, but it was also so all-consuming. I think right now, I feel that what I’m most excited to do is be a bit untethered and have my choice of options.”

As an actor, Bellisario recently signed onto Richard Linklater’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” opposite Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, and Billy Crudup, and says she’d like to explore film, in addition to getting back to her theater roots. (She graduated from USC’s School of Dramatic Arts in 2009.) She says if she were to sign onto another television series, the project would likely be a shorter episode-run, as opposed to the 20-plus episodes-per-season, like “Liars,” which had her working five days a week for nine months of the year.

“I’ve been so inspired by a lot of television series that are taking the time to write everything ahead of time and then do 10 episodes, which is really like doing a very intensive film,” Bellisario explains. “I’m very, very excited to find that next world and that next set of characters that would make me want to do more television, but it’s a decision that I wouldn’t take lightly and it would have to be something that I was absolutely in love with.”

But right now, her focus is on the release of “Feed.”

“I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given,” she says, “And particularly with this film, I feel like I get to share a part of myself with the world.”