Mallory Bechtel will never forget the day she bought her first Pretty Little Liars book. It was back in the fourth grade—she had just finished performing a song with her friend, Gabby Gillespie, at a local bookstore when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a Barbie-esque doll dressed in a pink shirt on a book cover. Having already watched Coraline and My Teacher Ate My Homework, a 1997 children’s horror film about a doll that comes to life, Bechtel was immediately intrigued.
“It was way too mature for me at the time, but I was discovering the world of boys and drama, and I absolutely loved the creepy element,” Bechtel, now 22, tells W over Zoom with a laugh. “I read that a lot [at night]. I would get scared, and I would have to crawl into bed with my little sister.”
So when Bechtel received her first audition for the upcoming series Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, the Houston native—who was able to parlay a lifelong love for musical theater into becoming the first Broadway replacement for Zoe Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen in 2018—knew she could turn her childhood obsession into an art form.
Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring, the fourth series in the Liars franchise, premiering Thursday on HBO Max, maintains the core female friendships of its predecessors. But this time, the story is set in the eerie, blue-collar town of Millwood, where a new group of disparate teenage girls are tormented by “A”—an unknown assailant hellbent on punishing them for the sins of their mothers, as well as their own.
As a pre-teen, Bechtel was completely absorbed in the world of the five original Liars—Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse), Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario), Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale), Hanna Marin (Ashley Benson) and Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell)—and “wanted to be just like Aria.” But after rewatching the show in early adulthood, she was struck by how the parents were written—and took a special liking to Hanna’s mother, Ashley (Laura Leighton). “I don’t know what she would be doing, but maybe she can become friends with our moms,” Bechtel suggests about her dream cameo on Original Sin. “I would be geeking out if she came and said hello.”
While there are tons of Easter eggs referencing the original, which had a “creepy-crawly feeling” in its own right, Original Sin is “very different in that it’s rooted in horror,” Bechtel adds. “It’s so referential to the ’80s and ’90s slasher films, and that’s how I’ve been selling it to my parents.”
After originally auditioning to play Imogen, the pregnant high schooler whose personal loss drives much of the dangerous quest to unmask “A,” Bechtel landed the roles of Karen Beasley, the school’s “reigning queen of mean,” and her soft-spoken yet sinister sister, Kelly. Playing identical twins in her first outing as a series regular on television was a welcome challenge for the actress, whose past screen credits include Hereditary, Law & Order: SVU, and FBI: Most Wanted. When it came to playing twins, Bechtel wanted to make it feel like she was playing “two distinct, fully realized people.” She had extensive conversations with the creative team, including director Lisa Soper, about adding details that would differentiate the sisters.
“It really helps that Karen was always showing more skin—you just carry yourself a little differently because of that. Karen was always in a heel, and Kelly always wore flat shoes, so she hunched a little more,” Bechtel says. “Karen furrows her brow a little more; Kelly keeps it up. Karen has her mouth open when she’s listening; Kelly keeps her mouth closed. Even my eye makeup is ever so slightly different.”
Although she had the unique responsibility of doing double duty, Bechtel reiterates that she leaned on her “twin double,” the actor Alex O’Shea, who was present to shoot all of the scenes with Karen and Kelly and acted as a sounding board to determine how to bring the power dynamics between the sisters to life. In other words, the actress never felt like she was acting opposite herself. “Internally, my little reminder to myself always was: ‘Karen is motivated to be the best at everything, and everything she does is to impress her father,’” Bechtel says. “Kelly is motivated to help Karen and to keep the peace between her family.”
For Bechtel, Karen and Kelly’s sisterly dynamic is most reminiscent of Spencer and Melissa Hastings (Torrey DeVitto) from the flagship series. “Melissa was the star of the family, and Spencer maybe felt like she had to do awful things to even compare to her. I remember she copied Melissa’s essay to turn in for some school assignment and completely plagiarized her,” she explains. “I think Kelly bites the bullet a little more. At least, when we first meet her, she has accepted that she is living in Karen’s shadow, so that would be the big difference, but [there are] definitely a lot of similarities.”
When it comes to playing the antagonist in high school dramas, young actors might be tempted to play up their characters’ cattiness—to the point where their performances are overly campy. In this case, Bechtel believes the writing lends itself to creating a more grounded take on the conventional “mean girl,” because viewers are given more insight into “why Karen feels like she has to lash out” at others. “I’m so grateful that we get to go home and meet her father, and see what a typical family dinner is like, where everything she says is going to be challenged,” she adds. “She doesn’t have this unconditional love from her parents—the only way she can even [get] a nod of approval is if she is winning.”
Karen’s sense of self-worth “comes from feeling like she is the best at everything, and the Liars present a very real threat to that,” Bechtel previews. “There’s something in them that makes her feel like, ‘They’re dominating in a field that I’m supposed to be dominating in, and I’m going to fight back with everything I have, because I can’t stand the thought of going home and my dad having to hear that I am not the lead [ballerina or] the spirit queen.’”
Kelly’s dynamic with the Liars, on the other hand, is ever-changing. “I love that Kelly does feel like she has to do everything Karen says, but she also has so much love for her too,” Bechtel says, smiling. “They are best friends. And when they hurt Karen really badly, her clever side comes out, and her evil side comes out, and she totally takes over the situation. She’s on a journey of self-discovery and the Liars are very much involved.”
And while an early tragedy befalls the Beasley family and ramps up the stakes to uncover the true identity of “A” before they claim their next victim, Bechtel has an ominous warning for fans who think they will have the story figured out: “Not everything is as it seems. Don’t trust anything on this show, because truly anything could happen.”