Pretty Little Liars star Shay Mitchell is featured in the November 2016 issue of SELF Magazine.
Six years ago, Pretty Little Liars made Shay Mitchell a star overnight. Now she’s saying good-bye to her breakout role—and getting ready for an even bolder second act.
“Shay’s in the cage,” says the receptionist at Unbreakable Performance Center, West Hollywood’s elite, down-to-business gym. She points to an elevated boxing ring framed by a chain-link fence where Mitchell is sparring. The 29-year-old Pretty Little Liars actress delivers a one-two punch, followed by a swift kick of each leg, her trainer’s murmured approvals drowned out by the satisfying slap of limbs against target pads. She wipes her forehead, catches her breath, and greets me with an energetic smile. This, it turns out, is actually the most calming part of her day: “Don’t get me wrong; my body is tired! But mentally I’m not,” says the Toronto native, panting in a squat. “My mind constantly races, but when you’re boxing, you truly have to be in the moment—or you’re going to get hit in the face.”
This can’t-stop-won’t-stop attitude extends to every aspect of Mitchell’s work, whether she’s producing videos for her popular YouTube channel, running her social empire (she hit 14 million followers on Instagram the day before our interview), or playing the sporty, stoic Emily Fields on Pretty Little Liars, which is in the midst of its seventh and final season. When it premiered in 2010, Liars was met with instant success. The twisted, soapy drama, which follows a group of friends drawn into an elaborate game of cat and mouse by a tenacious stalker known as A, was among the first series to embrace the so-called second-screen experience: From the beginning, Mitchell and her costars tweeted with viewers who were watching the episodes live. The reaction was unprecedented; the show became the number-one most social scripted TV series (with more than 214 million engagements across platforms), and Mitchell—then the greenest of the central cast, with a few commercials, guest roles, and modeling gigs under her belt—was launched onto the national stage.
“It was an amazing experience,” she says affectionately. “The crew, the cast—they’re my family.” Mitchell has become particularly close with Ashley Benson, PLL‘s lovable Hanna. The pair even turned their BFF nicknames into a fan-favorite hashtag, #ButtahBenzo (Mitchell is Buttah; Benson is Benzo), which pulls up reels of the friends goofing off on-set, driving around L.A., and vacationing together. “We can always make each other laugh when the days get long,” says Benson. As her costars prepare for their next projects, Mitchell says the mood on-set is encouraging. “When they see a script for action films like Mission: Impossible, they’re like, ‘Shay, are you going out for that?’ Because that’s the direction I want to go in,” she says. “We are all so supportive of each other.”
Mitchell is excited about what comes next. After the finale, she’ll start prepping for a thriller called Cadaver, in which she plays a former cop and recovering addict working at a morgue. “This is a big push for me,” the horror-averse actress says with a nervous giggle. “I’m going to be scared shitless.” Meanwhile, the whiteboard Mitchell keeps in her garage is filling up with more ideas. In no particular order, she wants to produce a television show, return to Cambodia, write another book, and join an action-movie franchise. She smiles, eyes fixed forward. “I’m comfortable. So let’s switch it up a bit.”
Pretty Little Liars returns with new episodes April 2017 on Freeform.
Photo Credit: Carlos Serrao for SELF Magazine