Laura and Vanessa Marano began their careers together, represented by the same agent and guest starring in Without a Trace as sisters. Their latest project brings them back together to not only produce a movie with their mother, but act in the movie as well as playing, you guessed it, sisters. Saving Zoë is a story near and dear to the Marano sisters’ hearts and getting to tell it together was a dream come true. We got the chance to chat with Vanessa and Laura about their experience with Saving Zoë as both actors and producers, finding their way into the spotlight, and how they are using their platforms to raise awareness of the issue of online sexual exploitation in our Summer 2019 issue.
I’d like to start off just by having you guys tell me a little bit about yourselves, your histories, what you’re doing right now.
Vanessa Marano: I’m Vanessa. I enjoy reality television and sleep—those are a few things about myself. Laura and I are sisters, and we started acting when I was eight and Laura was five, so we’ve been doing this for quite a while. Saving Zoë is a book that we optioned with our mother 12 years ago, and it is our first time producing which is very, very, very exciting. It [came out] July 12th and we’re super, super pumped.
You optioned it 12 years ago?
Laura Marano: We did. I was 11 and Vanessa was 14. We got quite a few books that my mom and sister had bought, and I read each one with the idea that we wanted to option a book. I read Saving Zoë, and I thought it was so intensely special. I kind of knew that that would be the right one. It took us years to get it out. Everything is all about timing. You persist and pursue and you have to not give up because you’ll never know with timing.
VM: From the beginning with Saving Zoë, one of the reasons why Alyson trusted us with the rights to this book having never produced anything before was because she and her husband were fans of Gilmore Girls and were actually watching my season of Gilmore Girls while she was writing the book Saving Zoë. That was kind of a weird kismet moment, and so we bought the rights from her and held onto the rights for quite a long time. It’s very unusual for an author to be that trusting, but Alison completely believed in us.
Then, after ten years of Laura and I kind of aging into the roles and also us finding a production company to partner with in order to make it, we had a few options of places that we could make the movie, but none of them really felt right to the story that we wanted to tell.
After 13 Reasons Why came out and was incredibly successful, there was all of a sudden this market for a darker YA story that had something to say, and we were able to get the film produced. It was still on a very, very low budget. We shot it in 15 days, which was crazy. We edited it, mixed it, and then sold it off to a distribution company. That whole process of getting a distributor took about two years, and now it’s finally coming out!
That is so cool. I can’t wait to see it. I love the dark stuff like that and I think most teenage girls are underestimated.
VM: Absolutely. We are very much of the opinion that we know young women pretty well, and it was kind of a hilarious journey of explaining our experiences and explaining what we craved for it and then explaining that that’s something that other young women crave as well. And I think it’s about things that affect our lives, and it affects us all the same way; it doesn’t matter what your status in the world is, what your age is, and your gender, to a degree. There’s a tremendous amount of dealing with the Internet in a modern way in which we don’t really talk about any dangers that are involved in that.
You’re also working alongside the United Nations, right?
VM: Yeah, so we are partnered with Equality Now, and they work very closely with the UN. They work very closely with global leaders about issues pertaining to women’s rights, and so, through Equality Now, we’ll be screening the film for members of the UN , which is very exciting. We can hopefully, past the point of this film coming out and being distributed globally, start a conversation.
The movie focuses a lot on the prevalence of sex trafficking online and has a big focus on online sexual exploitation. Was it hard to dive into that world and live in that universe while you were doing the movie?
VM: I think everything was hard because we were also producing as well. We were just buried in everything from acting and the emotional rawness that you have to have as a performer to being able to go back and forth to the producer brain and making sure that everything was going right on set. It was a crazy, crazy, crazy experience.
LM: It’s something that was a learning process. Being able to be educated on the faculties and the close proximity of this world within our own world and people you know are getting affected—young women and men who are getting affected by this on a regular basis—that was to me actually harder emotionally and psychologically than just immersing myself in the world.
Do you think that your fans will react to this project and the story as well as that group of people did?
VM: We hope so. Laura and I are extremely lucky that we’ve had an incredibly loyal fan base who has been so wonderful to us in our careers. We wanted to make sure that the first project that we put out there, that we produced, that we were really solely responsible for in regards to the storytelling—not just from the acting side but from the producing side from beginning to end—we wanted to make something that we were so extremely connected to and proud of and have our first project off the bat be something that is good enough for the people who have followed our careers.
We wanted something interesting enough, that tells a story, that has a point of view, that says something, that is hopefully going to contribute to society in a positive way. We hope that’s what they see and that’s what they connect with. It’s very important to us that we’re making something that the people who have followed our careers will enjoy and believe in.
This question is for Laura: Was it hard to act in a story where your sister, who’s played by your actual sister, is murdered? Especially at the hands of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. Was that hard to imagine or put yourself in?
LM: There are a few scenes where I have to kind of really break down, and we made sure that the energy onset was a little bit more subdued and a little bit more quiet because I had myself in a pretty dark space. I think, to be honest, it was crazy because, as an actor, I had to be in that really dark headspace, but as a producer, you have to kind of put that logical hat back on. There’s a scene that’s quite intense for Vanessa that I was basically the person there, the producer there watching it. That was a little intense because we’re watching this intense emotional experience Vanessa has to go through, and I’m watching as a producer, but I’m also still her sister and I’m taking that image as an actress. That was definitely a very interesting, weird dynamic throughout the filming process. But I think, overall, it gave me one of the best performances that I’ve ever given before.
VM: I think I can speak to having watched Laura, too. Even though the moments that were more emotional scenes, we tried to make sure that the energy on set was more subdued. We’re still shooting something in 15 days, so it was crazy. When both me and Laura were acting in a scene, my mom had to be the one who really tried to make sure that the energy was right and take care of all the production needs so that Laura and I could just act. If it was just Laura, then I would take on a little bit of the load and maybe my mom would just be the one on set watch it. It was such a group effort that had so much juggling that we had to do. It was kind of crazy that our first project was that intense right out the gate. I’m thankful for it, but it was crazy.
It sets the bar high for your next project. So is this the first time that you guys have gotten to work together on a project?
LM: Well, no, we actually worked together on our first job ever almost 19 years ago. I was six and Vanessa was nine and it was our first theatrical project, Without a Trace. Shockingly, we played sisters. After that, we never acted together again. We had our own individual careers blossom, and then we found this book and honestly there was nothing more that we wanted to do than work together again. So it was really cool to be able to now at different stages of our careers and obviously different ages, so we do a much more dramatic role as sisters. It’s funny too because, as much as fans of ours know that we’re related, I still to this day get comments like, “I didn’t know that she was your sister.”
It’s so funny to think that we started our first acting job as sisters and then we started our first producing job as sisters and with our mother. It’s like a whole family affair. It’s just funny to think, as much as we know that we’re sisters and we assume that people all know that we have had such individual careers since then that it still is sometimes shocking to people that we are actually related.
Are you guys close?
LM: I always joke with Vanessa. and I’m half-joking, half-serious. As the younger sibling, I always was like the nuisance, and I think she was an older sibling who didn’t necessarily love having a younger sibling around in the beginning, so we weren’t super close when we were really young, but then when I was 11, I just remember us getting really, really close. She’s my best friend.
VM: I feel the same way. Laura is also my best friend. You would assume that if you’re in the same industry, that would breed a sort of jealousy or contempt for the other one, but I actually thank acting a lot and credit it to us being as close as we are because I feel like we’ve both gone through things in our careers that have been highs and have been real, real lows, and the only thing that was constant was our love and our care for each other. It’s something definitely that was instilled in us from our parents, but it’s definitely this idea of, it doesn’t matter how successful I am or how unsuccessful I am, I will always be there for you, and you will always be there for me, and we build each other up. Our success is the other’s success and our lows are the other’s lows. We have to take care of each other because that’s what you do for the people that you love.
What was it like kind of having to manage supporting each other while also focusing on your own work? Did you have to find a balance there or was it just more natural?
VM: I think it was super natural. It’s just such a relief to have someone else to understand that someone is going through the same thing you’re going through. No matter what was happening in our careers, we could just bounce off of each other and always have a place to vent and someone to talk to. I don’t know if this is what it was for Laura, but I get into mama bear mode sometimes. I think it’s because I am the older one, but I’m like, yeah, tell me your happiness and tell me your drama, just tell me things. I have a much easier time clarifying things for her than I probably do for myself, and I think she has probably an easier time clarifying things for me than she does for herself.
Did you guys both start acting together, pursuing at the same time?
VM: Well our mom has been in the industry for 20 years—I will not reveal her age—but let’s just say it’s been a while. She had a children’s theater that Laura and I grew up in. I always wanted to do theater from a very young age.
We went to an agent who my mom had looked into and found out that this particular agency turned down kids all the time and crushed their dreams. That was my mother’s fault because she was like, “Look, when you can drive yourselves, in 4 or 5 years you can start doing this, but for now just be a kid and enjoy and play pretend.”
My mom was shocked. Every day for however many years we were acting, she turned around when we were sitting in traffic on the 405 and was like, “Are you guys sure you want to do this because you don’t have to do this right now. We can go back home. You definitely don’t have to do this.” We never didn’t want to do it. It never stopped being something that we absolutely wanted with our core.
It’s funny to see it kind of come full circle with Saving Zoë because Saving Zoë was one of those times where there was just a plethora of rejection happening. A big film was booked, and then an investor embezzled money so that film fell through, and then there was like recasting and firing and failed auditions, so many bad things that happened in a year in regards to our career. My mom asked the classic question, “Are you guys sure you want to do this?” and we were like, “Yes, we still want to do this.” I don’t know what happened at age 11 and age 14, but my mom was just like okay fine let’s option a book then because we’re not going to just sit around and not take control of our lives. That’s why I think we ended up getting it made. It was the years and years and years of my mom asking, “Are you sure you want to do this?” and then finally her cracking down a being like fine, I guess they do want to do this so now I’m gonna have to get involved and help them option the book.
You finally wore her down.
VM: Exactly that’s what happened in our lives, and honestly my advice for anybody in any career about doing anything is just wear people down.
Because you’re sisters, I feel like it’s very easy to be kind of get lumped together and not necessarily have separate careers. You guys have done a really good job at kind of finding your own career paths and also still getting to work together on projects like Saving Zoë. How did you manage to find that balance?
VM: Honestly I think our careers are mostly separate. I would say that the trick was that we were three years different in age, and we were going for obviously different parts. We had a bunch of different opportunities individually, and I think it was actually harder in a few ways to get the right opportunity to work together because we were very used to working apart. I don’t know that there is such a high demand for sister projects. I mean, if there was a sister project, we auditioned for it.
Once you get to a certain stage as an actor you can definitely be more strategic in the roles that you’re taking, but when you’re starting out, you’re working to make a name for yourself and you’re working to create a career for yourself. By luck, I really got a lot of amazing individual opportunities.
It was also lucky because when we were children, my father was a college professor so he couldn’t be on set with us, so my mom was on set with us a good chunk of the time. My mom worked for HBO as an Emmy Awards consultant, so she could actually work from set all the time.
If Laura was working on something and I was working on something, my mom couldn’t be in two places at once. Luckily when we were younger it always seemed like when I was working, Laura wasn’t working and when Laura was working, I wasn’t working. It timed out really well, and the only time that ever happened that Laura and I were both on TV shows at the exact same time was when I got Switched at Birth and she got Austin and Ally, which ended up being incredibly successful television shows for both of us. It just so happened that it timed out right at a time when I could be on set by myself and my mom could be on set with Laura.
Both of those opportunities happened at the exact same time, which made it, I think, a lot easier for us to continue to have very individual careers because we were on separate television shows.
Those were two very successful shows. Then Laura, you also you recently released an EP. Is Austin and Ally sort of what drove you to want to pursue music?
LM: That’s a good question. Honestly, I always loved music. If anything I feel, to be honest, music was kind of my first love before acting. Acting was something that I kind of just fell into, but music was something that I always wanted to do and always loved. I just didn’t really have the same opportunities in the music industry. My mom was in the entertainment industry on the acting side and the filming and television side and knew how to navigate what to do and how to be in the business. But from the music side, no one in my family does music. I’m not really sure where it came from, it’s just something that I’ve loved since I was a really young girl. I did piano lessons at nine, I did vocal lessons, and I had these kind of amateur songwriting sessions at twelve.
Then I got Austin and Ally at fifteen, and it opened so many doors for me on the music side. That’s how I got my music managers, it’s how I got my first record deal, and it just opened so many doors, which was awesome. But it definitely has always been a very intense passion and love of mine. The past year, being able to have this journey on the independent route and release music independently has been extremely challenging and extremely rewarding and something that I am really proud of and something that I can’t help but love because of the creative control that it gives you. So I feel like I’m in a really kind of funny place in my career, where I am trying to take control and own my destiny as much as I possibly can from the acting and producing side and also on the music side of releasing independently and going down the independent route.
That worked out so nicely, too, that you’ve kind of got all those doors open for you. Do you have plans to release another EP or even a full album?
LM: Totally. I think I’m gearing towards the EPs right now. Obviously, the goal is to release an album, but I’m kind of loving this idea of having these shorter chapters of music and this kind of cohesive story and sound and having it through an EP and then getting the EPs together to show the different journeys. An album is the ultimate goal, but I’ve kind of recently fallen in love with EPs. I like the idea of them.
Do you guys have anything else you’d like to share before we part ways?
VM: I mean, I would just love to thank our fans for sticking with us and being on this journey. We’ve talked about Saving Zoë for at least four years, and I feel like some fans probably didn’t totally believe we actually were going to have a movie come out because we’ve just been talking about it for as long as I’ve been able to talk about it. I just want to thank them for being on this journey. This is something that is so special to us, and we can’t wait to hear what they think about it. We are nervous, excited, all the emotions about the project; it’s just been definitely a roller coaster and a really overall rewarding experience. I think that’s been something that’s been kind of interesting. We’ve been talking about it for so long with the platforms that are available now to talk directly to fans. It’s been many years of us talking about this project. I think that’s also kind of nice for people to see that not everything just happens overnight. It takes time, especially in the entertainment industry, especially in the music industry. A lot of the time, it takes so long and you just have to stick with it and you just have to not get discouraged. Years ago, before my sister and I had any amount of tremendous success, before my mom being in the industry for so long and having never actually gotten a production off the ground, we were able to get the rights to this book and we were able to get it made.
We stuck with it, and if we can do that, our fans can do whatever they want to do. We hope that this is sort of an inspiration for anybody who sees the film to not only be inspired to talk about the issues that the film is about but to actually just be inspired that the film got made and know you can do anything, as long as you just wear people down.
STORY GINA DECICCO
PHOTOS ALLEGRA MESSINA
VANESSA’S HAIR GUI SCHOEDLER for EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS using ORIBE HAIRCARE
LAURA’S HAIR EMILY ZEMPEL for EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS using ORIBE HAIRCARE
VANESSA’S MAKEUP BETHANY GARITA for EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS using URBAN DECAY
LAURA’S MAKEUP KATELIN GAN for STARWORKS ARTISTS
STYLISTS RYANN LANEL REDMAN and LISA CAMERON
CREATIVE DIRECTION ANNA ZHANG