A recognizable face, or maybe one you know you’ve seen, Vanessa Marano’s acting credits read like an introduction to American television. From being Luke’s nerdy secret daughter on Gilmore Girls, to playing Eden on The Young and the Restless, and co-starring on ABC Family (now Freeform)’s Switched at Birth for 6 years as the stubborn but lovable Bay Kennish, Vanessa grew up on camera.
Now, nearly 2 decades later, Vanessa is set to release her first film that sees her not only in front of the camera, but behind it as a producer, along with her sister Laura and mother Ellen Marano. Born of a desire to take more control over her career, Vanessa and her sister optioned the rights to YA novel, Saving Zoë, written by Alyson Noël. Ten years in the making, the project aims to cater to the market for gritty teen dramas made popular by series like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.
I sat down with Vanessa and asked her about everything from being a child actor, to Saving Zoë, to the podcasts she listens to on plane rides.
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED FOR BREVITY AND CLARITY.
How did you get into acting and when did it become a viable career option for you?
“Well, I got into acting when I was a child. My mother owned a children’s theatre and I had done plays there pretty much throughout my whole life, age 6 through 8. I always wanted to act and I kept asking my mom if I could do it professionally, but she kept saying no. My mom was in the industry, she was an actress herself, she had worked in the writer’s room, had worked with some producers, had gotten a few projects sold that never actually came to fruition, and eventually ended up working for HBO as an awards consultant, and then because she still had a passion for acting, coached actors, managed actors, and had a children’s theatre, so I was surrounded by it constantly. It seemed like a second-nature thing to me because I was in it, and my mom was very much against it because she knew how difficult the career was, how much of a commitment it was, etc. So after about 2 years of begging, she finally took me to an agent with the intention of the agent turning me down, so that she could be like “Hey look! We tried, it didn’t work out, that’s kind of what acting is… when you’re 16 and you can drive yourself, then maybe.” But the agent took me, and took my little sister as well who didn’t even audition, and now 18+ years later, my sister and I are still acting!”
AND AS YOU GREW UP, DID YOU STAY IN IT BECAUSE YOU ENJOYED IT OR BECAUSE YOU WERE ALREADY INVESTED IN IT?
“Well I’ve never stopped liking it, which is great. No matter how difficult or heartbreaking it can be, it was never something that weighed heavily on my shoulders, I always wanted to do it. Particularly when I was 14 and my sister was 11, we had both gone through some pretty shaky career things; I had gotten a film, it was supposed to be a huge film and then the investor embezzled money out of it and I was stuck overseas with my mom trying to get out of Germany. My sister was on two television shows and was let go from both of them. My parents sat us down, and said, “You know, you guys don’t have to do this. You don’t have to keep acting just because you’ve invested so much time into it.” But both my sister and I were like, “No, we still love it. Even though so many doors have gotten slammed in our faces and so many heartbreaks have happened, we still really enjoy this.”
You're currently working on Saving Zoë - tell me more about how that project came about.
“My mom wanted us to take a little bit of control over our careers. She took us to a Barnes and Noble and we went to the YA/Teen Lit section and grabbed a bunch of books with girls on the cover, and my sister read the books and there was this one called Saving Zoë. My mom contacted the author and we optioned the book 10 years ago with the intention of us producing it and my sister and I being in it, and we produced the film two summers ago. It took us 10 years to actually get someone to put money into it, for a production company to take it on, and for us to get a distributor. So, we did it, and that all stemmed from a rock bottom moment, and us trying to take as much control as we feasibly can, trying to do something innovative, and 10 years later, we were able to get the film made and it should be coming out in 2019.”
What's the most career-shaping role you've played and how did it change you?
“When I was 11, I got cast in Christopher Reeve’s last project. He directed an A&E original movie that was based on a true story about a woman named Brooke Ellison who became quadriplegic at age 11, and she was the first quadriplegic to graduate from Harvard University. Chris directed the project and he cast me to play young Brooke. I spent a lot of time with him in New Orleans with my whole family, with his whole family, and he taught me how to use a wheelchair, he showed me what it feels like to not be able to breathe when your ventilator pops off, he took me to rehab centres to show me what the rehab experience was like after an injury like that, we went to a hospital and did an ambulance run. It was such a wonderful and rich and rewarding experience that I got to have with my whole family, and he unfortunately passed away shortly after we finished that film. That film changed my life and my family’s life. It was the first time someone ever took a chance on me to be the lead of a project, so that fills you with a lot of confidence. But also, it was my first experience with loss, of a mentor and a friend. It was also my first experience working with people who are not necessarily abled in the same way I am abled, and being shown that life can still go on. I got very involved with his foundation after that, and it was magical that Switched At Birth ended up being a show that I was on where we focused on the deaf community and had actors like RJ Mitte who has Cerebral Palsy, because I feel very very connected to people who the world sees as disabled because maybe they can’t walk or can’t hear, but still continue to live their lives and are abled in their own way and make things happen for themselves.”
Do you ever have trouble disconnecting yourself from the characters you've played in terms of media reception and the notoriety that comes with it?
“Because I’ve been doing this since I was a little girl, I learned very quickly to separate. To me, that is my biggest recommendation to anybody. It’s so easy to get caught up in the role, the character, the emotions. Then there’s also the press, what people want you to wear, the reaction from audience members who will not always like you, casting directors who are refusing to see you, there are so many things that you have to figure out how to separate and know that this is a job, not my life. It’s very hard because in order to be successful in acting, in directing, in writing, and really any creative industry, and especially in this new millennium that we live in, I think in a lot of industries in general, you have to give so much of yourself, and it’s hard to give so much of yourself and sacrifice so much, but then also not [allow it to take over your life]. It’s not that you just detach and don’t feel anything, but you have to move on and keep going. I credit a lot of that to my parents.”
What tools do you use to stay organized with all of your projects?
“It’s difficult, you’re a little bit all over the place. Even as I’m talking to you right now, I went to an audition this morning, and then I have 2 tomorrow, so I have to figure out what outfits [to wear], because they’re very different characters, very different ages, and I’m planning around the lines, and the wardrobe changes, and the things that we’re planning for the marketing of Saving Zoë, etc. You want to be organized, you strive to be organized, but it doesn’t always work out. I’m a big believer in making lists, I like to write down the things that need to be done, the things that need to be done ASAP, the things that I can procrastinate on a little bit. I find that just writing something down and visualizing it and seeing it makes my life a lot easier because it just piles on. Especially in the entertainment industry, there are so many last minute things that just pop up.”
Where do you consume media and do you have any favourite publications or podcasts you read and listen to?
“I’m a big fan of reality TV. I don’t care what anybody says, I know it’s trash and I love every single second of it. That’s how I calm down, I soak up the Real Housewives and America’s Next Top Model and I feel better. As far as actual news, it’s CNN, Huffington Post, BBC News… I like to read both MSNBC and Fox News back to back, because that’s a really interesting experience to see how differently news is reported when [the outlet] is skewing a certain way, and I like to read them together, it’s interesting to read the same thing being covered by two networks. Because I’m in media, I consume a lot of it. I will say that I have someone else running my social media for me professionally and I think that -for me, it doesn’t work for everybody- was something really important that I needed in my life because it would be all-consuming, and I need to see that as a professional endeavour. Podcasts… I love How Did This Get Made, The Guilty Feminist, and Hardcore History.”
What big projects do you have planned for 2019?
“We’re developing more projects on the producing level, and pounding the pavement to go pitch. So from a producing side, there’s about 3 projects we’re developing, which is awesome, and hopefully they come to fruition, but part of producing is understanding that it’s a long road. From an acting perspective, I just finished a film in Wisconsin that was an indie called How To Deter A Robber, it was a very small crew of people who all knew each other and just wanted to make a project that was fun, cool, and interesting. Before that, I was in Alabama, I did another teenage feel-good indie film called This Is The Year, and that was actually David Henrie’s directorial debut, which is so awesome. It’s really cool right now, in the space where I’m at, to know so many people who are creating their own projects, and taking the initiative to take their careers into their own hands. It feels like we’re all part of being storytellers together and going on this journey to make things and listen to each other, mentor each other, work with each other, and build connections and friendships and experiences to continue to help each other create more projects later on. It really feels like now is the time to be a part of something. To see people who I was acting with as a kid, going on to create and produce their own things is a really awesome feeling, and we’re adults, and we’re all still in this and surviving and thriving at the same time.”