Brenda Song, Former Disney Darling, on Returning to TV with Dollface

The former child actress talks Dollface, choosing the Suite Life over Harvard, and reuniting with her Disney family.

Maggie Shannon

Millennials of a certain age will remember Brenda Song as the daffy star of shows and made-for-TV movies on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon in the late ‘90s and early aughts. Think: 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd, The Ultimate Christmas Present, Get a Clue (a children’s caper in which she co-starred alongside Lindsay Lohan), Stuck in the Suburbs, and Phil of the Future. (The list goes on.)

But her role on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody is the one you’ll likely remember her for the most. From 2005 to 2011, Song played London Tipton, a ditzy hotel heiress (not unlike Paris Hilton) to the Tipton Hotel, the home of hijinks for the titular twins played by Dylan and Cole Sprouse.

She eventually grew up and left her child star days behind, and though you may be tempted to ask, “Where did Brenda song go?” the truth is, the Disney darling never really left.

For years, Song consistently worked in film and TV, landing a role in David Fincher’s The Social Network and securing some guest arcs on New Girl, Scandal, and Superstore. The last time Song made nationwide headlines, it was mainly due to her relationship with fellow former child actor Macaulay Culkin.

But now, she returns to television with a series regular role on Hulu’s Dollface, a sharp comedy about a young woman named Jules (Kat Dennings) who, in the wake of a breakup, must re-learn how to be one of the girls again. Song plays Madison Maxwell, a former close friend of Jules who was left in the dust once her ex-BFF focused all of her attention on her relationship and let her friendships wither on the vine.

“I just found it so relatable,” Song said. “It felt like I was reading about the misadventures of me and my girlfriends.”

Rounding out the cast of the Margot Robbie-produced series are Shay Mitchell as the bohemian Stella Cole and Esther Povitsky as the nervous Izzy. With the help of an actual Cat Lady (a woman with the head of a cat on her body, played by Beth Grant) who appears to Jules in surreal times of need, she learns how to become herself again.

“We are actual friends, and are those characters in our friend group,” Song wants to assure viewers. “Shay is the free spirit, the wild one. Esther is the paranoid ‘Are you sure we should be doing that?’ and ‘It’s okay, I’ve got a schedule’ one. Kat’s the ‘Guys, can we just stay home?’ one. We are those characters in our friend group,” she said.

“Madison is so strait-laced,” said Song. “She’s serious, she’s to the point. She’s kind of harsh. I love that. They were like, ‘You want to play the bitch?’ I was like, ‘Yeah! But like, the bitch who’s been hurt a lot.’ As you see throughout the show, she harbors secrets of her own, so this character was just so much fun for me to delve into. Even though it’s in the comedy realm, it’s this dry, single-camera, offbeat comedy that I’ve always wanted to do.”

Brenda Song photographed by Maggie Shannon for *W* Magazine.

Maggie Shannon

Song’s journey to Hollywood was a bit of an unusual one, but her hunger for acting is typical of most child stars. “I genuinely have not remembered a time where I didn’t want to be an actor,” she admitted. “Yet the way that I got into this industry, it was literally by chance.”

As a toddler, Song spent her days watching Star Search, lining up her stuffed animals and making her grandfather film her while she did a pretend model walk and make-believing that she was in commercials. “I started talking early,” she laughed.

Song’s parents, who emigrated from Thailand to Sacramento, had no idea what they were in for when their eldest child was bitten by the acting bug. Song said that when she was about three years old, the family took a typical weekend trip to the Arden Fair Mall, and Song saw that there was a model search happening. Being too young to participate, she started to emulate what she saw from the sidelines.

“I was watching and doing the runway walk, and someone came up to my mom,” Song said. “We were very, very poor. We had no money. My mom was still in school, my dad was in college to be a schoolteacher. We got all the info and my mom was like, ‘Okay, great…’ but that was all I could talk about forever,” she continued. “About a month later I got really, really sick and I wouldn’t take my Robitussin. My mom was like, okay fine if you take your Robitussin, we’ll take you to this acting school. I took it, and my grandma was like, ‘We have to take her’ but my mom was like, ‘No, we don’t. She’s a child, she’s not going to remember this.’ I wouldn’t stop bugging them. So my grandma took everything out of her savings, which was $523, and took me to this acting school that was not legit at all, but through them I met a real agent and started auditioning.”

“My parents had no idea what this industry was,” she went on. “They were immigrants, refugees, they didn’t understand,” she explained. Mom and Dad let her go to Los Angeles for her sixth birthday, where she booked an advertising job. Her mom continued to drive her down the coast to L.A. so that she could audition for commercials while still living in Sacramento.

“My mom used to always say, when you stop working, we have to move back,” Song said. “A lot of kids, when they were that age, got rewards for going to auditions. I was the opposite—my auditions were my rewards. I’d be waiting by the door with my portfolio. My mom never read lines with me.”

Everything changed for Song when she was 15. Three transformative things happened, at once: “My mom got breast cancer for the first time, I booked Suite Life, and I was accepted into the college I’d always wanted to go to,” Song said. “My dad, who’s a schoolteacher, sat me down and said, ‘Here’s the thing. You have an amazing opportunity, if acting is what you want to do. Education is the most important thing. You go to college to figure out what you want to do, but if this is what you want to do, you have an opportunity to do it.”

So, she turned down an acceptance to Harvard University to star as London Tipton on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.

To this day, she refers to the Suite Life cast as “the family” and makes a point of catching up with her former co-stars when they’re in town. “I actually see Dylan and Cole more than anyone because they live in New York. Any time I’m in New York or they’re in L.A., we go out of our way to see each other,” she admitted. “Ashley [Tisdale] lives like 10 minutes from me, and I see her maybe once a year. Same with Phill [Lewis], his daughter who just graduated high school sent me a photo and was like, ‘Brenda, I don’t remember life before you.’ That made me feel so old, but it’s amazing.”

While many former Disney stars may struggle to release themselves from the family friendly brand’s stronghold, Song remains grateful for the time she spent as part of the network. “I feel like I’ve been very lucky and can look back and say I haven’t done a project that I haven’t been proud of one way or another,” Song admitted. “I’m proud of them for different reasons. All of the stuff at Disney, I am so grateful that they truly were colorblind casting at that time and giving this little Asian American girl a chance in Hollywood. They were giving me my own TV movies when people weren’t doing that,” she said, referring to Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, a Disney Channel Original Movie in which she plays a homecoming queen reincarnated as a Yin Warrior.

When it came to casting her on Suite Life, it was Ashley Tisdale who originally tested for the role of London Tipton. “They were going full, true Paris Hilton parody,” Song said. “And when we read for the roles they were like, ‘No, actually, you guys switch parts.’ Hollywood wasn’t doing that then.”

“People thought I was crazy because I said I loved to audition, but I said I loved to audition because every audition was like a job to me,” she continued. “I didn’t get a lot of auditions. It wasn’t until I got into the Disney family that they were so very open. So I feel really proud of that because for me, growing up I didn’t see a lot of girls who looked like me on TV and it was a little disheartening because I was like, ‘I’m not Jackie Chan. I’m not Jet Li. How am I going to do this?’”

Brenda Song photographed by Maggie Shannon for *W* Magazine.

Maggie Shannon

In 2010, while finishing up the final season of Suite Life, Song was presented with a chance to shed her squeaky clean image in favor of a more adult project. The role? An appearance in The Social Network.

“Disney originally didn’t let me do it because of the bathroom scene,” she said, referring to a short situation in which she and Andrew Garfield (playing Eduardo Saverin) hook up in a stall. It’s a fairly tame picture, but that didn’t matter to the executives at Disney.

It was the dawn of a new decade, and some Disney stars were openly resistant to being tamed by the wholesome brand. “At the time—and no shade or anything—there was a lot of controversy with other younger Disney stars. To each his own, but I was like, it’s unfair that they were getting bonuses and getting more jobs because of it, from their network,” Song said. “It was one of those things where I just said, ‘This is an opportunity that I don’t think will ever come around again.’”

Ultimately, her plea to the network executives worked, and they let her take the part.

The Social Network was not only career-changing, but life changing,” Song added. “I learned so much on that project. I could talk about David Fincher all day because he changed my life.”

Song is one of the rare former child stars who grew into her own, and got out unscathed by the demands placed on her by such a virtuous brand. The actress admitted that she even resisted social media for so long because of the amount of value she places on her privacy, but once she capitulated, she garnered 1.5 million followers on Instagram.

“I couldn’t imagine if social media was as big ten years ago. That day and age with Disney did not need social media,” she laughed. “We were already getting into enough trouble without it, could you imagine now?”

Now that she is 31 years old, Song is at a point where she feels content with the kinds of roles she’s getting, especially with her newest series. “I will say Dollface is my dream job,” Song admitted. “With this cast, shooting in L.A., and with this character, I’ve never had a character that felt more me.”

She also teased an episode of Dollface in which a guest star particularly known for their relationship to the Christmas holiday is perfectly cast as Song’s antagonist. “We have one other guest star that no one knows about, that I think people are going to like…it’ll be fun!,” the actress exclaimed. “We had never done a scene together. We did a movie together a couple years ago, but never actually worked together,” Song revealed, and when viewers see the episode, they will instantly recognize why the actress wanted to keep the cameo a secret.

She wasn’t the biggest enthusiast on set, though. That title would go to one of her costars was overwhelmed with holiday cheer while filming the episode. “It was Shay, who was sitting there and was like, ‘I saw the Christmas tree behind him and I looked around and felt like I was living my childhood dreams,’” Song explained. “I was like, ‘Shay you’re killing me!’ Shay was actually the biggest fangirl, which is really funny.”

At the end of the day, Song survived a Disney upbringing, has worked consistently for years, and somehow still remains true to herself. “Having been in this industry for so long, I’m in a place where I feel like I know what my strengths are,” Song said. “I hope that my comedy continues to evolve and stays modern and relevant. With every job, you learn a little bit more about yourself, you push yourself a little bit more. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds,” she went on. “I’m so open to so many things, but I’m really hoping there’s a season two of Dollface in that future.”

Related: Cole Sprouse Never Planned to Return to Acting—Then Came Riverdale