Liana Liberato

When I was nine, I asked my mom if I could be on TV. She was like, ‘Well, okay. You can try.’ Lianna LiberatO

In 2011 Liana Liberato broke out playing a teen who is sexually assaulted in David Schwimmer’s dark drama Trust. The scene of the crime itself is barely a minute long—the camera stays focused on her expressionless face—and yet her stoic terror carries the film to its end. But while Liberato is capable of preternatural command and maturity as an actress, she’s barely out on her own in the world. Last August, when she turned 18, her family moved back to Texas from Los Angeles, where she now lives in an apartment with her best friend. “We’re polar opposites,” says Liberato. “She’s a Disney princess, and I’m so much more of a realist.” Nevertheless, Liberato is living the dream, and has performed with the likes of Aaron Eckhart, Greg Kinnear, and Anna Paquin since being discovered as a rambunctious nine-year-old at a California acting camp. Later this year, Liberato will appear in the coming-of-age drama If I Stay, alongside Chloë Grace Moretz, and in the romance The Best of Me, playing Michelle Monaghan’s character as a love-struck teenager.

RACHEL SMALL: Did you always want to act?

LIANA LIBERATO: I tried other things when I was younger, like softball and soccer. I always saw my peers finding some cool passion, but every time I tried one of those things, it never clicked. I would leave school and go to my theater class, and that’s when I’d actually sit down and listen. I wouldn’t pay attention in school, or I’d sing in class and get in trouble—I’d always get in trouble. Theater is the only thing I always came back to. When I was 9, I asked my mom if I could be on TV. She was like, “Well, okay. You can try.”

SMALL: Did she send you to the acting camp in California where you were discovered?

LIBERATO: My dad’s uncle was sick in Los Angeles, so we went to visit him from Texas. When I was a child, I was the Tasmanian Devil, so my mom had to get rid of me for a little while.

SMALL: Let the acting teachers deal with her …

LIBERATO: Lucky for me—but maybe not so much for her—there was an agent auditing the class, and they snatched me up. We never went back.

SMALL: How did the agent approach you?

LIBERATO: We didn’t know that there were agents auditing the class. We were like the Beverly Hillbillies. We had no idea what we were doing. I was like, “What’s an agent?” [laughs] I didn’t get a call, so I thought, “That kind of sucks.” They called me a day later. They asked me to audition for them. So I did some really weird monologue as Alice in Wonderland. I completely screwed it up.

SMALL: What happened?

LIBERATO: I didn’t even know what a monologue was. It was reading a class paper or something. It didn’t make sense to me. [laughs] For some reason, they gave me a chance and decided to sign me.

SMALL: Do you feel comfortable now in Hollywood?

LIBERATO: I like when things are different. One minute I’m in New Orleans and another minute I’m in New York. I like the spontaneity of it all.

SMALL: What do you do in your downtime?

LIBERATO: Typical Los Angeles stuff. I’m actually really lazy. I tell myself, “Okay, you work six months out of the year and you have to get up at 4 a.m. …” I’ll relish the downtime by chilling on the couch and watching my favorite TV shows. I love The Walking Dead, Shameless, and—this is going to sound really dorky—I’m obsessed with Dance Moms. I love Abby Lee Miller. Honestly, if there’s such a thing as past lives, I was definitely a dancer. Maybe if I ever get a big enough name, I can call Abby Lee Miller myself and ask her to be my private coach. [laughs] When I was younger, I took something like five years of tap. I can’t remember any of it but I know I did it. I used to take piano, too. I didn’t keep up with it. Now I wish I did—you can make friends at any party if there’s a piano there.

SMALL: You’ve acted with some incredible people. Do you ever get starstruck?

LIBERATO: When I was younger, I didn’t know who a lot of those people were because I couldn’t watch any of their movies. I actually get way more starstruck now. I think starstruck is the wrong word—I get overly enthusiastic about who I work with. The first person I ever really got starstruck over was Nicole Kidman, because I looked up to her. When I was younger, I wouldn’t get parts because of how tall I was. I had the body of a 15-year-old but the face of a 12-year-old. I always looked at Nicole Kidman and thought, “Oh well, she works.”

SMALL: You’ve done a lot of intense scenes. In Trust, your character is sexually assaulted. In Stuck in Love [2013], you play a cocaine-addicted teenager. How is it to play these characters who are in such damaging situations?

LIBERATO: I do a lot of research. I’d never been in those situations before, so it gave me the opportunity to do a bit of exploring. You meet some interesting people. It’s cool to test yourself and see what you can do and how you can get your head around certain things. And then you’ll come across people in your career who’ll comment on your performance and tell you how accurate it was, because they’ve been through it. That’s gratifying.

SMALL: In general, what do you hope people take away from seeing you on screen?

LIBERATO: I always want the audience to identify with my character in some way. I mean, sometimes you’ll get characters that aren’t very identifiable. Sometimes you can’t relate to your character at all. I think it’s important to keep the audience interested. But the best advice that I’ve gotten is to live in the moment. Sometimes you can get too into your head when you’re in a scene.

SMALL: You’re pretty prolific on Twitter and Instagram. What’s your social media philosophy?

LIBERATO: I go back and forth on it. I like the idea of having a little bit of a mystery about me. Lily Collins said something great: she doesn’t want people to be watching her movies and go, “Oh, I know what she ate for breakfast this morning.” But I do like to stay connected.

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