"I really wanted to suggest to people that, just like sobriety or just like dealing with a lot of other physical illnesses or mental illnesses, this is a journey that I know I will be dealing with for the rest of my life," says Troian Bellisario, actress, writer, and producer. We're discussing her film, Feed, in which she plays Olivia, a young woman who has lost her twin brother and copes with the grief by developing an eating disorder. Throughout the film, her twin, played by Tom Felton, appears as the driving force behind why she acts out.
Troian wrote and produced the film, directed by Tommy Bertelsen, based off of her own experience with an eating disorder. The actress, known to her fans as Spencer Hastings for the past seven years, isn't new to dark or serious content. (Pretty Little Liars wasn't exactly a walk in the park.) But now, venturing into film, she's able to connect more with the characters she portrays.
"For me, creating this film and speaking out about my experience publicly was really just to inspire people. I think this is often a mental illness that there's a lot of misunderstanding around," said Troian. "That's not to say that there are not issues with body dysmorphia or with obsessions with weight or anything, but I wanted to create a story that could also convey that there are multiple different reasons that people could be behaving this way and could be struggling with this."
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 30 million people in the United States have an eating disorder at one point in their life — 20 million women and 10 million men — and often it's assumed that the reason behind the disorder is weight loss. For Troian, it was much more than superficial element.
"For me, there was a lot that was about wanting to have control. But also, it's still a process today that I'm learning to move through. That was why I recently made that post on Instagram because I was like, 'Oh wow, I'm experiencing a lot of these same themes coming up where I want to have control over this,' or 'I want to have control over my body and reaction to what's about to happen, about letting go of this story and putting it out into the world with the release tomorrow.' I think the important thing is to have a conversation about it," she said.
Troian wants to be clear: she might not be in the midst of her disorder presently, but it's not something that magically leaves your life. The ending of Feed captures that sentiment. "This is a journey that I know I will be dealing with for the rest of my life. I know many other people are still going to deal with it for the rest of their lives. That doesn't mean that you don't have other wonderful experiences and you don't reach a level of health that's much, much better, but it's always a part of you. I didn't want it to be so cut and dry that it was like, 'Oh, I had an eating disorder,' or 'This character had an eating disorder, and now she's better.'"
In fact, Troian dealt with her disorder while filming Pretty Little Liars, which meant focusing on communication and discussing how she felt. "There were moments that I can look back and remember on the show that I felt like I was really struggling and was not doing well. Then there are other moments where my life sort of took on a momentum of its own and I felt like I got back on a healthy track and I was . . . . The big thing for me was being in constant treatment and constant therapy," said Troian. "It's really important for me, particularly in going back and enacting this role in Feed. It was really important that I be in constant communication with my therapist and be really open with everything that I was going through with my family and friends so that I couldn't hide. I couldn't dissolve back into the character and take on those actions and behaviors and then let my disease take the wheel again."
Watch Troian's interview and learn about her relationship with Tom Felton, how she feels about a Pretty Little Liars movie, and her upcoming role in Where'd You Go, Bernadette? with Cate Blanchett. If you are struggling or want to learn more about eating disorders, NEDA is here to help. Please don't hesitate to reach out for help.