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Four-letter words, a love for Joni Mitchell and a huge role on one of FX’s hottest shows. Make no mistake about it: Liz Gillies’ Nick past seems like a distant memory. Still, just a few years removed from her well-remembered role on the teen hit Victorious, Gillies’ rise from a humble Jersey life to early successes on stage and screens alike is just the beginning of her story. Paste caught up with the actor to talk about winning over Denis Leary, musical authenticity and being a part of a tight-knit ensemble cast.
Paste Magazine: You grew up in Northern New Jersey. Did living in such proximity to New York City encourage you to pursue a career in entertainment?
Liz Gillies: I think so. I was taken to the city all the time as a kid to see Broadway shows. That got me really excited, and my parents always took me there. Musical theater was what I first fell in love with. Then, of course, there were more opportunities, just because it’s only an hour drive away. My mom would drive me into the city multiple times a week, which seems crazy. So it helped being close, definitely.
Paste: Beyond your early success in acting, you’ve always had a musical side to your career. Which passion came to you first?
Gillies: My love for music definitely came first. Music was definitely my first love, and then the musical theater took it into acting as well. Now, I feel like I have more to prove, acting-wise. Although, I have promised an album for six years now to all of my fans via Twitter, so I feel guilty about that. I should probably do that at some point (laughs).
Paste: You were in the cast of a theater show called 13 when you were 15 years old.
Gillies: Yeah, I know. I’m such a fraud (laughs).
Paste: It was really unique for theater because it was legitimately an all-teen cast. What was that atmosphere like to work in?
Gillies: It was really interesting, because the only adults involved were the creative team—the directors and the choreographers. Other than that, the band and all of us, we were just a bunch of really young kids with really adult jobs. It was extremely challenging, but I think it was tremendously rewarding because of that. Having everybody grow up together, in a sense, really made it special. That’s where I met Ariana Grande, and then she and I went on to do a lot of different jobs together. I have some friendships from that show that have lasted this long. I think it’s because it was such unique format for a show.
Paste: Let’s talk about Victorious. When that show originally aired, it was already kind of at the point where you guys weren’t just kid stars or teen stars. You were big names who were looked at as prime candidates to become even bigger stars, once you graduated from that age group and demographic. Was there a lot of looking ahead, as far as what was going to come next, or were you able to live in the moment and enjoy that time?
Gillies: We were able to live in the moment and enjoy it, but there’s a level of uncertainty with work in this business. You’re always trying to think about what comes next. For me, I never really saw myself being a teen star, or a kid star. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t reach the level of fame or notoriety at that point in my career. That would hurt me going forward. Of course, it’s always hard to transition to an adult show. It took a minute for me, but I was really careful that I didn’t capitalize too much on the teen star-type thing, so that I would be able to start fresh in an adult way. That’s why I was surprised that I was able to do an adult show so soon after I graduated in a way from Nickelodeon. I was happy.
Paste: You’ve definitely taken that next step with Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. How did you become a part of the show?
Gillies: It wasn’t tough, in the way that I didn’t have to do say, an MTV or CW or ABC Family show in the interim. But I did have to wait a while for the Nickelodeon image to clear from people’s minds. I remember, Denis had told me that the reason I was even on his radar for this show is that his producing partner has two young boys who were fans of Victorious. He recommended Denis take a look at my covers on YouTube, and a couple clips. Denis was so adamant that he was like, “I would never have a Nickelodeon girl in this show. It’s not the image I want. It’s the opposite of what I want.” I guess my singing maybe sold him a little bit. Then I sent him a tape. I tried to pick the hardest song I could find off their approved song list—an Aretha Franklin song.
Then I went and I chemistry-tested with him in New York. I think that’s what really sealed the deal. We had really good chemistry together. We bantered well together. I could improv, which is important to him. I felt a good connection when I was in there, so I think that’s what really did it.
Paste: Now that we’re in Season Two, how has that chemistry developed? Has the comfort level gotten to an even better point throughout the time you’ve been working with him?
Gillies: I think so. For the first year, it’s like a relationship. You want to figure everything out about the person and ask all the questions. Find out which ways you’re different and which ways you’re similar. Now that we’ve spent so much time together, we really, really feel like a family. We know pretty much everything there is to know about each other. We’ve heard every story. Now we can just relax.
If you watch this season, there’s a certain effortless cadence that we all have when we speak. There’s a rhythm that we all fall into, now that we’re so much more comfortable with each other.
Denis is wonderful to work with. He’s very easy to be around, which some might find funny. Everyone always asks me, “What’s it like working with him?” It’s like they want a loaded answer, and he’s really just the best guy. I enjoy hanging out with him and everybody in the cast. They’re all cool.
Paste: A big part of the show is a look at the music business from a multigenerational point of view. In your eyes. how important is authenticity and the show’s representation of the way musicians and rock stars really act, and the way things really go down?
Gillies: I know it’s very important to Denis. It was always very important to him. Aside from wanting all of us to really play and really sing live—we sing live a lot on the show. We sang live almost every song, every episode last season. Aside from that, he grew up with a lot of these rock stars, and they’re his friends. A lot of these stories, even his character that he plays, it comes from a very real place. And that history is extremely important to him.
Our music supervisor picks great current songs to fill up our show for score. There’s a lot of different of levels of contemporary music, old music. I think authenticity is huge. But we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which I think is an important thing too.
Paste: So if you were having a party, and you could have anybody in the world perform, who would it be?
Gillies: Oh my God. Shit. Rock music? Anything?
Paste: Anything and anybody.
Gillies: Oh my God. This is gonna kill Dennis. He’s just gonna read this interview, and scoff, and rip it up and throw it out, but right now I would probably say Joni Mitchell or Cat Stevens. That would be my answer. I’m not even kidding you—he would want me to say someone really cool, but that’s my answer. I would be so excited and happy.
My party would also probably only include me, because this is just my specific weird musical request. No one else would be lining up for this. I would want them to be a duo, which makes it even weirder because I don’t even know if their voices go well together.
I’d want them to do one album each. I can’t back down on that answer. I know it’s a long party, and it’s just me in a chair by myself, but that’s my answer.