While most of us were spending our free time begging our mom for more Goldfish and getting lost in the toy aisle of Walmart, Sydney Park was paving a path for her bright future in the world of entertainment. She was only eight years old when she competed as a stand-up comedian on America’s Got Talent. Today, Park stars as Caitlin Park-Lewis on the new hit show Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists. Park discusses her role in the Pretty Little Liars spinoff, being part of a diverse cast, and learning to overcome rejection in our Spring 2019 issue.
Jumping right into things, it seemed like the whole world went crazy over Pretty Little Liars, and now you’re playing a huge role in the spin-off The Perfectionists. Give us a quick rundown of the show and how it ties into the original series.
The Perfectionists is a continuation of the Pretty Little Liars book series. A lot of people have asked me if you need to watch the original series to watch the new series, and honestly, the new series keeps the integrity of the original show. We keep the iconic story and tone, but it’s taken to a whole new level. Beacon Heights University is set in Portland, Oregon. It’s this prestigious university where all of the Perfectionists go. Alison and Mona, from the original series, are advisors there, and fans love seeing how they’ve progressed, or not. We keep the original theme, and there are easter eggs throughout the new series. It’s really fun, and we’ve taken it up a notch.
Can you describe your character, Caitlin?
Caitlin is the daughter of a senator. She has two moms, actually. Her mom is in the running to be governor and hopefully president one day. She’s an African-American senator, which is super interesting. She’s driven, athletic, and the smartest girl in the room, but there’s a lot of pressure on her. She’s super witty as well, but she definitely has her goofy moments. She’s been in the public eye her whole life, and her connection to Nolan Hotchkiss is very complicated. They were once real lovers, but as Nolan got older, she started seeing the more manipulative side of him. So she’s torn between her real-life boyfriend and the fake boyfriend, Nolan Hotchkiss, who eventually gets murdered. It takes a toll on her.
In what way are you most like her? Most different?
We both are headstrong, know what we want in life, and have goals. We are both very disciplined. The wittiness is interesting because I like how the writers took it and included my own personality. Caitlin gets good at lying, which is scary. I’m not a good liar, never have been. It scares me when people do lie. Caitlin will go to any length necessary to keep this perfect image. It’s frightening.
With the original show being such a success, did you feel any pressure when you took on the role?
Quite honestly, it felt amazing. I was a huge fan of the series. I read about eight of the books. It was great knowing how much of a following this show already had. It was surreal being part of the series, and it still is. The fans were already pumped when we shot the pilot a year ago, and now that we’ve been doing promos, it’s becoming more and more real. When I got the show, Sasha and Janel were super welcoming, and I immediately felt like a part of the family.
If you could play one character for a day in the original series, who would it be?
It would definitely be Emily.
Being half Asian and half African-American, you carry a lot of representation for many women. Why do you think it’s so important to have this representation on a big platform such as this show?
I think it’s important to make sure young girls and boys are watching people that look like them. That’s whether you’re Asian, African-American, or whatever. We have so many backgrounds on this show. I represent Korean and African-American, both of which have strong audiences looking up to me. It’s an honor, especially portraying such a strong character. Caitlin is a role model, but obviously, she has her flaws. We all do. It’s great showing girls it’s okay to be brown, and it’s okay to be different. Actually, in the book, Caitlin is of Korean descent. It’s neat that they stuck with the book that way.
You have to remind yourself that no matter who you are or what ethnicity you are, you have a place in this world.
Have you ever had moments of difficulty in your identity being an interracial individual, in terms of identifying with either or both backgrounds? If so, how did you work until you reached a point of acceptance and self-love?
The journey of self-love, for anyone, is something to work on every day. It was awesome seeing my parents pour so much love into me, my career, and my schooling. I remember being in school, and I hung out with all different types of kids. My parents emphasized education and being social, and I think that’s what saved me. In the industry, it’s really hard to place someone like me. I’m either not black enough or not Asian enough. It can be really hard. You have to remind yourself that no matter who you are or what ethnicity you are, you have a place in this world.
On set of The Perfectionists, there are plenty of women from all different backgrounds. Is it important to you to be surrounded by a sort of melting pot of cultures? If so, how could it be beneficial for other people?
I think it’s important no matter what field you’re in, not just Hollywood, to emphasize inclusion and making sure there’s equal opportunity. Sasha is South African. Janel is Chinese and Caucasian. Sophia is Columbian and a mixture of so many other races. It’s empowering. The fact that we are so different but get along is such a beautiful message to send to our fans. Whether we post a picture together, do an event together, or hang out outside of work together, it’s important for people to see different looking people hanging out with each other and conversing.
Right now is a tough time for many minorities in the US. However, there are tons of activists taking the stage to make a positive difference. How do you think you’re using your social presence to make a difference?
I have been blessed to be able to say young girls have looked up to me since I was seven and on Disney. Even back then, no one looked like me, and I remember thinking to myself, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” It was incredible being able to influence people and having people look at you for inspiration. I think the beautiful thing about art is that it can bring so many people together, and sometimes it makes people feel sad. But it’s the matter of thinking, “Let’s feel for each other.” I think it’s important to use this foundation for good, and some people go another way with it, but I’ve been lucky to be supported by family.
Who are some other people you look up to?
Of course, my mom. Zoe Saldana, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Whoopi Goldberg, Leonardo DiCaprio. I really admire the humanitarian efforts so many of the people who have been in the industry for so long make because they make such an impact. Taking the money you get from the industry and using it to make a difference is a great thing to do. I also just love funny, talented, unapologetic women. I love Rihanna, and I love Beyoncé. I love women who aren’t afraid to show their bodies. I love women who can be sexy or tomboy-ish or say something that might make someone else uncomfortable. Oh, I love Michelle Obama.
You obviously started at an extremely young age in the entertainment industry. Some people, unfortunately, let fame at a young age sort of drive them off the edge. How have you kept grounded through it all?
I went to real public school most of my life. I transferred to online school my 10th grade year when I got my Nickelodeon show. I went to a performing arts middle school and a college prep high school. I got all sorts of education. I was very disciplined, and I always had the love and support from my parents. They were always there for me, and they always looked out for me. They never let me feel different. They never allowed my head to blow up.
What has been one of the hardest challenges to overcome in your growth?
It’s been battling rejection and understanding when you hear, “no,” it’s not personal. I mean, it is personal in a way. My voice is a tool, and my body is a tool. It’s hard being told that or seeing someone surpass you when you think you should’ve gotten a role. It’ll always be challenging, but I know that whatever is for me will always be with me. It won’t go away.
Have you ever had a moment of questioning other paths in life or career options? Or have you always known this was the right thing for you?
I always knew this was for me. I remember watching a video of myself when I was younger, my mom did mock interviews of me, and I acted like Alicia Keys and told her I wanted to be on TV. I remember moving to Los Angeles, and my parents really did that for me. They also wanted to be in the entertainment industry and are now. I just happened to step into it first. There was a rough period in high school where I wasn’t booking any roles. It was difficult being 13 and not many people out there looked like me. Going to college prep and being around other kids, there was that quick moment of thinking, “Okay, I’m just going to finish school. I don’t really want to do this right now.” But then I booked a show, and it changed my life.
Are there any other avenues within the entertainment industry you’re hoping to pursue?
Yes, I actually am a writer. I had a producing deal with Nickelodeon when I was 17. I actually just pitched an idea to Netflix. It’s something I want to be more involved with, creating my own projects. My mom is a director, so I would love to follow in her footsteps one day. Who knows, maybe I’ll direct a season of The Perfectionists. I also want to pursue singing. I’ve been singing since I was a little girl.
It’s still relatively early in the year so what’s one thing you hope to professionally accomplish by the end of 2019?
I would love to release my own single and fine-tune a piece of work that really speaks to me. I want to put my voice out there, work with a great producer, and release a piece of music.
Do you have any secrets you can tell us about the future?
There’s a special piece of work close to my heart about me being a stand-up comedian and my own personal story. It’s something I’ve been working on, and I have the pilot written. It’s something I’ve been throwing around to different networks. Hopefully, we can get something in development by the end of the year.
As a fun question, let’s say you get one all-inclusive trip of your choice for a few weeks in the upcoming summer? What’s your getaway?
Europe, for sure. I’ve never been out of the country. I really want to explore France, Spain, Italy, and so many other places.
For all the young women out there trying to feel good in their own skin, what’s a mantra you could offer?
I think it’s imperative not to compare yourself. Sometimes I have to take my phone and turn it off. There’s so much overexposure to social media and all these ideas of what men and women should look like. It’s all in your face, and it’s hard not to compare yourself. If you could spend a couple of hours away from your phone each day with yourself or someone you love, do it. Train your mind not to compare itself.
If you had the chance to talk to your eight-year-old self, the age you got started in the industry, what would you tell her?
Everything works out. Keep being you. Keep being your funny, crazy self. This world is ready for you.
STORY ELIZABETH STAFFORD
PHOTOS JERRY MAESTAS
HAIR ERIKA VANESSA
MAKEUP JADYN NGO
STYLIST RYANN LANEL REDMAN