Personality Complex is a regular feature of Complex's Pop Culture channel, where you'll be introduced to rising stars of film and television.
A pretty brunette in a black bustier and a quilted black skirt waits coolly before she gets her picture taken. Her smile radiates warmth and you can’t help but gawk at her. In high school, she would’ve been that rare specimen that looks perfect on the much dreaded picture day.
Except Vanessa Marano isn’t in high school. She just plays a high school kid on ABC Family's wildly popular Switched at Birth, the story about how the lives of two teens and their families change when they find out the girls were switched, well, at birth.
And this isn’t picture day. The 21-year-old actress is on set of a photo shoot in the Complex studio with her team by her side, who makes sure there’s not a hair out of place. They become adoring fans themselves when they excitedly snap pics of her with their phones.
Instead of being the out-of-your-league cheerleader or snobby popular girl, Marano becomes your would-be best friend once she gets talking, which she likes to do—a lot.
Interview by Debbie Encalada (@DebbieOE)
Does everyone born in L.A. want to become an actor?
Nobody that’s born in LA wants to be an actor, except me and my sister, for some bizarre reason. Usually the actors are all transplants from different parts of the country. Everyone else was coming out and going back and forth and leaving family behind and they’d be put up in the apartments in Burbank, which was so foreign to me because it didn’t make sense. [Laughs.]
So you’re saying it wasn’t competitive where you lived?
My mother owned a children’s theater and theater is really about togetherness and helping each other out, especially amongst kids who are so young. And my sister was doing it. I think when you go into something with a sibling doing something, for me and my sister at least, it's like, "Oh okay, we’re both auditioning for the same part. That’s not weird. Either you’ll get it, I’ll get it, or that girl will get it." But it can be very competitive. It’s an industry that definitely breeds that especially in women, but I think society just breeds innate competitiveness between women, which sucks.
In community theater, things go really wrong because it's not professional at all. I was that annoying kid who was like, 'I memorized everybody's lines.'
Yeah, like sibling rivalries—
Exactly! Which my sister and I never had. We had different things. My sister is incredibly musical. I’m incredibly not musical. I like to draw, my sister can’t even draw a straight line. We had different things and then we had this one unifying thing that we enjoyed and we got to do together. Rather than that pulling us apart, it brought us together, which was nice.
Speaking of that competitiveness, you've got the film Senior Project coming out. You play a senior in high school and the idea is that you've got to work together with your opposites. So is there any kind of bullying between you and Meaghan Martin’s character?
Absolutely, but it’s dual-sided. That’s something that happens with girls unfortunately. We’re way more prone to not be involved in a sisterhood with somebody. We will go on the attack way before we go on the defense. We’re ready to take down somebody without getting to know them. At the end of the day, if we’re not all supporting each other, we’re only holding each other back.
Cate Blanchett’s Oscar’s speech had a lot to do with that.
Which I think we’re seeing more of now. People like Helen Mirren, people like Meryl Streep, they really set that tone. They were very vocal early on in their careers about the lack of substantial women roles and the lack of substantial older women roles. We’re seeing a lot of change now, which is nice, but the thing about change is people get too comfortable with it. You have to be constantly fighting to keep something afloat. It's much easier to support than to fight something, and fighting it alone is not the way to do it either.
Did your mom really encourage your acting or try to talk you out of it?
She tried to talk all of us out of it. Every day that we had a commercial audition in Santa Monica and we were driving for two hours on the 405, she would turn around and go, "You know, we don’t have to do this guys. We could just turn around right now." We’re like, "Well, we wanna do it mom." She’s like, "No, you don’t. You feel like I’m pressuring you, right? You’re doing it for me?" Just 10 years of that.
What was theater acting like? Were there any horror stories of things going wrong?
In community theater, things go really wrong because it’s not professional at all. I was that annoying kid who was like, "I memorized everybody’s lines." All the kids hated me. [Laughs.]
I remember we did a play one time and we skipped three scenes. We were like 8-year-old and 14-year-old kids. We did this one play that was a play within a play and it was a farce. Every beat of a farce is important because you keep going back to it, but they literally skipped to the end, back to the middle, back to the end, back to the beginning, hit the middle and hit the end, again. It was a long hour for the parents all to keep watching.
What were some of your favorite plays you did?
We did all the typical children’s plays, like Peter Pan and Thumbelina. As my mom continued on with the theater she let me and her assistant start writing plays so we did that. We did weird adaptations of things and comedies. [Laughs.] I had a lot of issues with Romeo and Juliet when I was reading it in high school.
You hated it?
I was like, "She’s 13," first of all. Second of all, they look at each other and they didn’t even talk and they’re in love? That’s weird. Where is Rosaline? She’s in the beginning of the play and then she’s gone. Why do they hate each other? It’s never explained why the Montagues and the Capulets hate each other! [Laughs.] I wrote a modern-day comedic spoof, which was really therapeutic for me to get a lot of aggression out from reading the original play. I was like, "Exactly, guys. It doesn’t make sense. Tell your teachers when you read it in high school."
What's your greatest fear?
I think we all have that fear of losing people. That’s an incredible fear that I think everybody has. Every day is precious. Anything can change at any time. I’m an ambassador with the Christopher and Dina Reeve foundation. Working with them showed me so much about how anything could change, so you should enjoy every single moment of every single day.
What does the Switched at Birth cast do for fun?
Well, Katie Leclerc and I started do "Family Dinner," which is where I bring dessert and go over to her place and we watch reality television—it’s terrible. [Laughs.]
What reality shows do you watch?
Love the Real Housewives.
Every. Single. One. I love Jersey for the crazy. I love New York for the passive aggressiveness. I love Beverly Hills for the fact that they could be so crazy and so normal at the same time and there’s so many trials and tribulations that it’s spun-off into Vanderpump Rules, which is insanity as well.
So that means you’re getting your own talk show?
I don’t know if that’s a good idea.
But you like talking—
I do and I don’t stop. As a talk show host, you need to have that ability to let other people talk and I really don’t. [Laughs.]
Who would you invite on your talk show?
I’d talk to Helen Mirren because I love her so much.
Have you met her?
I met her once and I was pathetic. I almost cried. She’s just so great and the fact that she wasn’t afraid of me in that moment really speaks volumes about that woman because she should’ve been terrified. My face just went crazy and I whispered, "I love you," like an insane person. That picture was on my phone for, like, two years.
What's your favorite kind of movie?
I like the really, really wordy movies.
All the talking. That makes perfect sense.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I’m really excited for the David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin movie about Steve Jobs because I’m obsessed with Aaron Sorkin. The Newsroom is one of my favorite shows on television.
What kind of music do you like listening to?
I’m a musical theater nerd so I have Ragtime on my iPod. That’s what I was listening to on the plane ride. That and the new Lorde song, "Team."
What's the most recent thing you remember yourself googling?
My father and I got into an entire conversation about perception and if that’s proof whether or not that thing exists. We actually ended up googling the definition of perception and comparing how your senses dictate what you perceive. It was a whole conversation that got really weird and went on for hours. I don’t even remember what side of the argument I was on. [Laughs.]