“I would walk around as though I were in a movie,” Mitchell says of her pre-*PLL* days. “I was already a successful actress in my mind.”
“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.
But Pretty Little Liars, and acting in general, is just one of Mitchell’s pursuits. She admires women like Jessica Alba, who’ve built successful businesses bolstered by Hollywood careers, and is part of a passel of savvy millennial celebs for whom the screen is one facet of a broader entrepreneurial brand. “My generation realizes you can be multihyphenated,” says Mitchell. “You don’t have to stay in a box. Just because you started off in one industry doesn’t mean you can’t jump into another one. I wouldn’t say that acting is a stepping-stone, per se. But it’s another step in the direction of where I want to go.” Others have included a coauthored semiautobiographical young-adult novel, Bliss; an athleisure line, Fit to Wander; and that YouTube lifestyle channel, which boasts more than a million viewers. “The message I’m trying to put out there is that you can do whatever you want to do, and if I’m going to say that, I need to do it myself,” she says. “If I want to become a singer and drop a single next month, I’m going to do that.”
“I realized how important it is to have your own time,” says Mitchell. “That’s what I’ve learned more than anything—how to prioritize.”
This might sound easy coming from someone with the built-in platform of a hit TV show, but Mitchell’s confidence and hustle predate her success. Back in 2009, when she was working as a cocktail waitress at a high-end bottle-service bar in Toronto while attending auditions, she frequently fielded undermining comments from coworkers and patrons who advised her to forget her dreams and find a wealthy husband instead. “I would walk around as though I were in a movie,” she says, with a shrug. “I was already a successful actress in my mind.” To keep pointed due north, she relied on her vision board. “It was a corkboard in my kitchen, with pictures of the Hollywood sign and Gossip Girl because I wanted to be on a show like that,” she says. “I really believe in the power of visualizing—having faith—and then working your ass off.”
But as much as she relishes success, the primary benefit of running Shay Mitchell Inc. is getting to pick projects that are fun. “I have so many different interests and love trying new things, which is how the YouTube channel came about,” she says, laughing as she recalls a cooking video in which she burned everything—and posted anyway. “So I’m not Martha Stewart!” After PLL wraps, Mitchell wants to turn more attention to the channel, which often features casual, occasionally wine-fueled interviews conducted with friends and costars. Meanwhile, her popular travel segments, dubbed Shaycation, allow viewers to vicariously share Mitchell’s appetite for adventure in exotic locales: white-water rafting in Fiji, snake charming in Marrakech, Morocco, and other bucket-list items documented in accessible, if envy-inducing, detail. “Next I’m doing a series on my workout lifestyle,” she says, for which she’ll have a lot to mine. Mitchell picked up self-defense boxing three years ago and works out several times a week, whether in the ring or by circuit training, cross training, playing tennis, or swimming. “I like to switch it up so I don’t get bored. Sometimes I’ll just go to the UCLA track and run up and down the bleachers.” Her fitness goal? “I want to do my own stunts,” she says, pointing to PLL‘s most action-heavy fight scene as her favorite shoot yet. “Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby—I would love to do that.”
Though it’s hardly unusual for celebrities to use social media to connect with audiences, Mitchell is particularly engaged with her fans. The day after her 14 million milestone, Mitchell had already taken to Snapchat to ask fans to tweet to her with celebration ideas to carry out IRL. “On Snapchat, I show what I’m doing for the day, YouTube is the full experience, and Instagram is my highlight reel—don’t think it doesn’t take me 20 minutes to post there!” she says, smiling conspiratorially. “That’s my brand, and I take it very seriously.” She’s quick to throw her support behind other women pursuing their passions, like gold medalist Simone Biles, whom she befriended via Twitter after the gymnast named PLL as one of her favorite shows. And she keeps a folder of “InspoQuotes” on her phone that she posts to spread good vibes. “You don’t understand the ripple effect of saying something positive to somebody—that can change a day,” Mitchell says.
But she is also aware of social media’s double-edged sword. Mitchell, whose mom is Filipina and dad is white, vividly remembers being ostracized by girls in the predominantly Caucasian Vancouver neighborhood where she grew up; Mitchell’s mother would sometimes get mistaken for her daughter’s nanny. “Instead of going to the cafeteria, I’d say, ‘Why deal with this?’ and I’d eat in a bathroom stall,” she says. “At least when I left school for the day, it stopped,” she adds. “It doesn’t now. You have your phone on you, and the bullying continues. I can’t imagine having all these inescapable outlets when I was that age.”
Mitchell continues to speak out against bullying and has embraced the role of Emily, one of a growing number of proud gay characters on television, as an opportunity to advocate on behalf of the LGBT community. “I got to be the vehicle for a conversation about sexuality,” says Mitchell, who has refused to label her own sexuality on several occasions. “A lot of the feedback was ‘Thank you for playing this character.'” Recently she partnered with Represent Clothing to promote tees that celebrate Emison, her character’s nickname with fellow Liar and occasional love interest Alison (Sasha Pieterse). Half of the proceeds went to GLAAD.
Mitchell has also been a vocal ally to philanthropies that provide support for underprivileged children across the globe. She works with WE Charity, which helps disadvantaged communities develop sustainable education resources, and has traveled to Cambodia to help raise awareness of child sex trafficking, a cause that hits particularly close to home for Mitchell. “I modeled in Thailand for several months after high school, and I would see girls on the street with numbered signs pinned to their clothes. I thought, What is this?” she says. “Then I went to Cambodia to volunteer. It was heartbreaking.”
As we head outside into the stifling midday Los Angeles heat, Mitchell goes quiet for a moment, considering the much-anticipated Pretty Little Liars finale (for the record, she can’t even fathom a guess as to the identity of Uber A, the show’s mysterious criminal mastermind). PLL has spanned almost a decade. Surely, Mitchell must feel a little weird about it coming to an end?
“The message I’m trying to put out there is that you can do whatever you want to do,” Mitchell says. “And if I’m going to say that, I need to do it myself.”
“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.”
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