"One of the things that frustrated me, in trying to explain my eating disorder, is that I couldn't make the people around me understand why I would do that to myself. I couldn't make them understand that it wasn't simply about eating or weight or the fact that I was putting my body in danger or, frankly, marching fully toward death," says Troian Bellisario when I ask her what inspired Feed, the new drama that she wrote, starred, and produced, out on digital platforms today.
Coming on the heels of the series finale of Pretty Little Liars, in which Bellisario played the overachieving perfectionist Spencer Hastings, Feed tells the story of 18 year-old Olivia (Bellisario), whose life changes tragically when her twin brother, Matt (Harry Potter's Tom Felton), dies in a car crash. Consumed by intense grief, Olivia starts to restrict herself from eating in order to gain control of her life, but also to save food for Matt, who begins to appear to her demanding sustenance, an eerie personification of an eating disorder.
What struck me the most about Feed was how unselfconscious it was. Bellisario's portrayal of a woman suffering from a disease that consumes her from within out contains a gut-wrenching rawness. There are no scenes where she takes in her fragile physical appearance, no shying away from her character's desperation to see her brother again, and no scenes where she doesn't feel guilty and torn about the fact that she survived when he didn't.
When I got a chance to talk to Bellisario on the phone, these choices all made perfect sense; she was startlingly open about her past struggles with an eating disorder, and she demonstrated a rare lack of vanity about depicting mental illness onscreen. It's an honesty that's almost unheard of in press interviews, and all the more appreciated when it happens.
Ahead, read what Bellisario has to say about how her past informed Feed, why she's attracted to such intense characters (though she'll next appear in the adaptation of Maria Semple's hilarious novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette?), and why a neat happy ending wasn't an option when it came to this film.
I know the project is very personal for you. Can you talk more about what inspired the film?
What inspired the film was going through the experience that I have had with my eating disorder and with my process of recovery. I found that I wanted to try to communicate, through a narrative, some of the experiences that I had [to the people around me]. I couldn't get them to understand why I would do that to myself. The only way I thought I could explain it was by putting the audience—and, at first, when I wrote the script, it was just for my family and friends—in my shoes and in the shoes of somebody who is also struggling with that disease. The whole concept about personifying the voice of your illness really came out of the fact that when I tried to describe [an eating disorder] to people, I was like, “Well, sometimes people talk about hearing a voice in their head,” and they kind of looked at me funny. I was like, "Okay, well, what if that voice, that was telling you to do these things, actually was somebody that you really loved and really missed and wanted dearly to keep in your life, and so you had a reason to keep them around; you had a reason to obey everything they said. Then, would it be more difficult to see why saying goodbye to them would be a challenge?"
I think you did a beautiful job of portraying the disorder through the lens of grief, because, like you said, a lot of people tend to assume that eating disorders stem solely from an obsession to be thin, when there are so many other factors.
I really just wanted to salute the idea out there that there could be many different triggers for this disease. I know that my examination of this character and this disease is purely from one point of view, but this mental illness affects every race, every gender, every socioeconomic background, and it certainly is not just about a preoccupation with being thin. That's where I think there is a very dangerous misconception about it, which is that it's purely about your weight. That's why the prism of grief was really important for me to explore, so that people could see, oh, maybe this is more complicated and complex than I thought.
I also really liked how the ending wasn't simplified to just a happy ending, because I think it's important to show that an eating disorder is something that you live with your entire life, even if you do "get better." Was that the intention?
Absolutely. That was really important to me and something that I had a lot of difficult conversations about, because there were a lot of people who were invested in the film and really wanted me to not have Matt in the last scene and to show [Olivia as being] quote, unquote all better. That was one thing I knew I wanted to put my foot down on. Even though I'm somebody who is working on their first script and first film and I feel very new to this whole means of artistic expression, I knew I needed to say to them, “My illness is with me every single meal that I eat three times a day, and it's just about whether or not I engage with it that determines my level of health and recovery.” It was really important for me to convey in the end of the film that it's not all cut-and-dry or wrapped-up; nobody gets all better. It doesn't mean you don't live a healthy life and you're not happy and you don't have a beautiful existence, but it means that you have to learn to live with this.
Was it difficult for you to revisit your past while writing and filming this project?
I think writing it was really cathartic. I felt grateful for the years of revisions and rewriting because it allowed me to constantly look at that part of my life. Because, I think, a large part that's so difficult about recovering and wanting to remain in recovery is that you feel like you're losing a part of your identity. When so many people sort of treat you as your illness or treat you in danger, then all of a sudden, when you appear to them—the same thing we were talking about with the ending—to be all better, it's almost like it feels like a part of you is gone, and who are you after that? So, for me, to be able to work on this script was a way of constantly engaging in that conversation of my recovery: "Where am I today? How difficult is this? What do I feel? What is my relationship to this disease now, as opposed to then?"
Acting in it was different because putting my body through that physical transformation, putting myself in those scenes, literally having Tom Felton, who plays Matt and the disease, speaking these words to me that I had experienced really powerfully at one point in my life and still have a relationship with, that was very challenging. It was really challenging at the end of that process to walk away and not have it affect me or re-trigger me. But recovery is a constant process, and I'm really fortunate to have an incredibly supportive group of friends and family and a really wonderful therapist that I speak to pretty regularly about this exact thing.
Have you ever felt a connection to someone as strong as the one Olivia has to Matt?
I think one of the interesting things for me is the story of the twins came from growing up and having two best friends who were twins, a boy and a girl. I always really coveted the relationship they had; if one of them was going through something and the other one was across the country, they would just immediately call each other. There was just that bond that would never be understood except if you shared the womb with somebody and came into the world with them. You have a shared experience in life, and that's a really beautiful and rare relationship.
And then also I think with the relationship between Matt and Olivia, I was exploring a lot of the scenes of separating from youth, of having these ideas of who I wanted to be or my first love or all of these childhood experiences that I was figuring out how to say goodbye to without it destroying me. Like, if Olivia says goodbye to Matt, then is she saying goodbye to a part of herself, and what does that mean?
From Pretty Little Liars to Feed to even Martyrs, you play these really intense characters. Why do these roles attract you?
Gosh, well I really don't have any excuse with Feed because I put myself in that position, but I really don't know. Maybe there's something about me that seems particularly intense. I think I'm a pretty chill person, though. I think I really enjoy a challenge. I love challenging myself physically, and I love challenging myself within my craft. I think a role like I portrayed in Martyrs and Spencer and now with Olivia in Feed, I think there is a journey that I want to go through with these characters, and that's a huge part of my artistic expression, so I think that's why I find myself drawn to them, because I really value those challenges.
You wrote, starred in, and produced Feed; what was that experience like for you?
I was really grateful because one of my best friends and my longtime collaborator, Tommy Bertelsen, directed me in it, and because it was such a personal story to me, he really made me feel safe from the very beginning and said, "I know you, and I believe in your talents, and I believe in your level of commitment to this, and I'm going to push you as far as I can push you, but also know that I love you dearly as a friend, and I'm not going to do anything to endanger you." To understand that I had that freedom and that support going into it, it was really important.
Also, the best thing he did to me was he told me, "You're wearing a lot of hats for this. You wrote this, you produced this, you're acting in it. I'm going to come to you only as one thing." So he would come to me after a day of shooting, and he would say, "I really need my producer right now." So I had to take off my acting hat and take off my writer hat and talk to him purely about how this film was going to be created and brought to life on time and on a budget. And then he would say, "Okay, great, I need my actors back." And there would be moments where I would be like, "Why don't we change this line?" and he would be like, "Hey, respect the writer because you're acting this right now." [Laughs] And he was like, "You wrote this for eight years and if we want to do an alteration, if we want to play around, I'm happy to do that, but I'm also going to honor the writer and I need you to be an actor right now." So I was like, "Okay, got it."
What do you hope viewers will take away from your film?
Well, this was about a woman who was struggling, but I hope that people can see something of themselves in this film—whether they know somebody who is struggling with this, whether they themselves are struggling with this—and see that it is a dangerous illness and it deserves to be treated and it deserves to be examined. And it affects men and women and all races and all socioeconomic backgrounds and different cultures. I think a lot of people believe when they talk about eating disorders that they're only talking about a very small niche group of people, like it's only women, only white women, only privileged white women. I wanted to try to challenge people's expectations of what an eating disorder is and what it looks like so that perhaps they could examine their relationship with it. Really what I hope is that they feel moved by the story, and I hope that it inspires them, if they are suffering, to seek treatment and to speak out because nobody deserves to suffer alone.
You wrote this before you did Pretty Little Liars. How does it make you feel now that Pretty Little Liars has wrapped up and you have Feed coming out almost instantly after?
Really grateful. I was pretty frustrated for a really long time because I did write this right before I got Pretty Little Liars, and every single year that I tried to make it, I either didn't have the right cast attached or I couldn't find the money or it kept falling apart. I kept on wondering, Why is this taking so long and why can't I make this happen? Then, all of a sudden, we got it made, it came together with this wonderful cast. I got to make it with my best friend directing it as his first feature film. And then suddenly, it was coming out right as my show is ending, and so really what it feels like to me is sort of, everything happens for a reason. In saying goodbye to seven years on my show, there was something about getting to put out this other side of my work, my writing, a very personal story; it allowed me to sort of experience saying goodbye to one thing while saying hello to another. So I'm really grateful the timing worked out the way that it did.
Feed can be purchased on iTunes here.