The sun is shining brightly through the window as Alyssa Jirrels picks up the other end of the phone for her interview. It’s fitting, seeing that it’s as radiant and dazzling as the actress herself though she answers every question in a cool, relaxed manner while discussing her upcoming film. The ease that finds her as she talks of the film doesn’t eliminate the fondness she still holds in her heart for it.
It’s Friday morning for her, the last of August and just hours before the virtual premiere of This Is The Year that night, more than a year since the film was shot. The film, a coming-of-age story by David Henrie in his directorial debut, was Alyssa’s first major film.
“It was really cool. It was the first time I’d ever done a movie before,” Alyssa says of the experience, which she was cast in about a week before the shooting was scheduled to start. “It all happened really quickly,” she agrees, slight amusement hanging in her voice.
“We were shooting on location, so it was just a really cool bonding experience. You all kind of hunker down in the same hotel and you’re just going through like 12 to 14-hour-day shoots for six weeks and you get to know each other. I was very overwhelmed by how exciting everything was.”
Alyssa recalls the awe and amazement that would suddenly hit her. It would strike her sometimes that wow, she really was filming a movie, according to the actress. “It was an indie movie but it was a really grand scale production,” she remembers.
Another thing on a grand scale was the absolute adoration the cast and crew have for each other. From the behind the scenes photos and videos, like Alyssa singing and dancing with Vanessa Marano in the hair & makeup trailer, or the continual jokes between Alyssa and Jake Short during interviews, it’s clear how strong those bonds had become while filming.
“I love everybody on the set. It was just a really fun experience!” she exclaims. “And David Henrie, the director, made it really comfortable and I always felt like I was really kind of free to make my own choices; but I also had a friend, like somebody who had a really clear vision. I was just really happy to be there. It was really exciting for me,” she says, giggles overtaking her voice at one point as her giddiness resurfaced.
Even if they do that for a short period of time, that sheen will wear off and underneath is a real human being who has wants and needs.
“It was really great,” she says of working with the actor-turned-director David Henrie. “I think he really knew how actors like to be spoken to and what necessarily made sense to our brains. This was his first time ever directing and… he was so patient! Everything was so controlled. You’d think that he’d done it a million times before.”
She continues, “I think he was extremely prepared, which is amazing… [David] really transitioned so seamlessly from being an actor to a director. I think he’s going to do really exciting things.” The fondness is apparent in Alyssa’s voice as she reflects on all the work that David put into the film as a director. “I’m really just so excited for all of us, but really for him as well. This is a huge feat.”
However, the day of the interview is also about all the hard work the entire cast and crew put into the film. “It’s all been really exciting – it’s a cool week,” Alyssa says about the busy week she’s had ahead of the premiere.
The film is about a boy named Josh, played by Lorenzo Henrie, as he makes one last attempt to woo a girl he’s been fixated on for most of high school, according to the actress. “[Josh] pretends he has tickets to a music festival that she really wants to go to and him and all of his best friends sort of embark on a journey to where he figures out that the key to happiness and love is not necessarily what he exactly expected,” she explains. “It’s a really fun, feel-good movie that has a lot of really empowering messages.”
Describing the film as the perfect vibe and what people need at this moment in time, she highlights, “There’s a music festival, it’s a great soundtrack, and it’s a road trip movie!”
In the film, Alyssa plays Zoey, a girl who has been labeled and placed in certain roles, and has been living by those labels for most of her high school career. It is through this adventure, and the friendships that she makes, that she is able to embrace who she is.
“It’s really cool because I think if you look back at a lot of the ‘80s movies, there’s the girl with the personality and the girl who’s pretty. Those are the types of women that we see. And I think for that time, the message was, ‘Go for the girl with the personality!’ which was trying to be an empowering message,” the actress says, and one can only the slight cringe that takes over her voice as she talks about the common tropes in classic ‘80s flicks which served as heavy inspiration for This Is The Year. “But then the other one just kind of gets tossed off to the side and [is] kind of seen as valueless or dumb or skanky or whatever it is.”
This film turns that trope on its head, one of the many throughout the film.
“I think in this one, we really get to see how that label that I think sometimes, especially in high school situations or young people in general, [are put] on people and you project you own ideas of them onto them. And we get to see for Zoey how that’s impacted her and how she sort of ran with that and chosen to live her life sort of being defined by that, and made her choices being defined by that. She’s at a point where that’s really no longer fulfilling for her and she’s sort of seeing that there are parts of herself that really conflict with that label.”
Alyssa says of how this plays out on screen, “We get to see that choice, that’s really her dilemma in the movie like ‘Okay, do I go with this person who is nice and who apparently is really into me but he’s not into me. He’s into the idea of me and this sort of image that he has.’ We get to see her grapple with that and ultimately, [take] her own path.”
This dilemma is just a part of the overall theming of the film, which is expectation versus reality, whether that is others expectations placed upon the characters versus who they really are or the expectations they place upon themselves of who they think they should be.
They kind of get to help one another with that and really create their own relationship outside of whatever Josh’s idea of both of them is.
In the case of Alyssa’s character Zoey, she is facing both. She lives a life in which she plays second fiddle to guys who think they know or are interested in Zoey but without actually getting to know her beneath what they believe she’s like. Zoey is also faced with the decision of living her life as she truly and fully is or to continue letting the preconceived notions others have about her rule her life.
“I think she’s at a crossroads,” Alyssa says of her character. “I think Gregg Sulkin’s character Kale is sort of everything she thinks that she wants to be. He’s sort of on the right path, to a degree, in that he really reflects this other artistic part of her, this part of her that’s a little bit more empowered in what she wants to do creatively. At the same time, he treats her in the same way that she’s not really a human, she’s just kind of a sidekick to a degree. He’s really a lot more concerned with himself.”
Reflecting on what her character takes of this, the actress says, “I think that’s really the message, is that she needs to be a little bit more selfish in this story and these boys who she’s kind of looking to for validation, for guidance, are really thinking about themselves and not thinking about her despite what they might say. I think that she really looks to them for validation as opposed to looking inwards, which is, you know, [as a teen] something I think we all do. And it’s very relatable.”
Kale isn’t the only male character that places an idealized version of her in their minds. Josh, the person who kicks off this whole film, is also a perpetrator of this idea.
David Henrie, in anticipation of filming, sent out film recommendations for the cast to watch, one of which happens to be (500) Days of Summer which, at the time of its release, had many audiences sympathizing with Tom and villainizing Summer for [SPOILER] not staying with him. As time has gone on, more and more people are seeing that Summer didn’t actually do anything wrong and that Tom is at fault for expecting her to be someone she’s not.
That film, just like this, also plays into the idea of expectation versus reality. When comparing Zoey and Josh’s relationship to that of Summer and Tom’s, Alyssa states it to be really similar.
“It’s interesting because (500) Days of Summer is that movie that people either hated Summer or were more like, ‘Oh my gosh, this poor [guy] Tom.’ I think that movie changes a lot the more that people mature. I think that really what the audience’s perspective on (500) Days of Summer is the perspective that Josh kind of goes through during the movie,” she describes.
“Summer’s trying to have something with somebody – she’s sort of looking for somebody to see her and Tom is really preoccupied in his own version of love and his own version of what the perfect girl is and what she will do for him, really. That’s the gist of Josh and Zoey as well – is that it’s kind of looking to this girl to complete them in some way and that’s a lot of responsibility for the girl. Even if they do that for a short period of time, that sheen will wear off and underneath is a real human being who has wants and needs, and so I think that both Zoey and Summer were the more mature one in that situation. The two boys were looking for something that they couldn’t really give them.”
On the other hand, the film highlights the growing friendship between Alyssa and Vanessa Marano’s Molly – one who Josh is doing all he can to finally impress, the other his best friend who slowly falls in love with him. The usual formula in ‘80s media, and even still present today, is that these two parts of the love triangle butt heads or do what they can to tear the other down. Instead, the film focuses on what each girl can give to the other and how they build each other up in their own friendship.
“A lot of the times [in a] love triangle, the two girls are scheming against each other or not necessarily in the same boat with one another. And this is all love over here,” Alyssa says, the grin palpable in her voice as she discusses the connection between the two characters. “Zoey and Molly have a lot more in common with one another than they think they do. There’s never any moments of weirdness or anything, and they are able to help each other out with what they need. I think that’s a really beautiful part of female friendships that I’ve experienced. You know, there’s so many different facts of human beings and Molly has explored and mastered certain facets that maybe Zoey hasn’t and vice versa. So they kind of get to help one another with that and really create their own relationship outside of whatever Josh’s idea of both of them is.”
Citing this kind of development shown between women in media as long overdue, Alyssa reflects that some of her favorite parts of filming was shooting scenes with Vanessa (though she does state for the record that everyone is awesome). “She’s a really incredible woman and I really look up to her and adore her a lot.”
Considering the film is inspired by classic ‘80s coming-of-age films, Alyssa’s immediate thought for her favorite is The Breakfast Club. She calls it her number one film and says the movie is brilliant. In terms of a general coming-of-age film, however, she picks Perks of Being a Wallflower, another recommendation by David. “I think the Sam and Charlie relationship is also very similar to Zoey and Josh. Perks of Being a Wallflower was really a special movie to me,” she says. “But ‘80s movies like Sixteen Candles is a classic. Some Kind of Wonderful was another one that I watched for this. But The Breakfast Club takes the cake for me.”
It’s interesting that Alyssa picks that movie in particular as it also showcases an interesting dynamic between Molly Ringwald’s Claire and Ally Sheedy’s Allison, the two who are the unlikeliest of friends but grow closer and more understanding of each other as the film goes on.
Sometimes as an actor, I think you really feel like you’re just a piece of the puzzle. But actually getting a chance to create the puzzle is really exciting and empowering and makes me look at my job in a whole new way.
“It’s really similar! Really quite similar, they’re almost exactly the same,” the actress says when TEENPLICITY brings this up. “There’s a scene that pays homage to that relationship in there, actually. There’s a scene where Molly psychoanalyzes Zoey,” Alyssa begins before revealing a tidbit that helped her with this scene – the fact that she auditioned for Molly before she auditioned for Zoey. “One of the audition scenes was the psychoanalysis of Zoey, and so I got to get the most insider perceptive view of that character from the monologue that Molly has that is just really good to see how perceptive she is, and it’s so not judgmental. It’s such a, ‘Listen, this is what’s going on with you, this is what I see with you. And you are more than what you are currently doing.’”
This moment sticks out to Alyssa the most.
“I think it really is a pivotal moment for Zoey because she really gets a chance to see like, ‘Oh, okay, somebody sees me here.’ That’s not really something [that] happens. I think people don’t necessarily look past whatever her exterior is. So I love that there’s a certain level of perceptiveness that both Molly and Zoey have for one another that is really in the interest of lifting each other up.”
Discussing what her expectations for this year are, TEENPLICITY asked Alyssa to complete the sentence: This is the year…
“I’m ready!” she initially exclaims with a laugh as she’s warned it’s an attempt to make a play on the film’s title, then taking a moment for her thoughts. “This is the year of wearing your mask, staying home, and doing some reflection onto where we’re currently at as a country, and perhaps making change for good.”
She lets out a bit of a relieved laugh, the pressure lifted as the conversation switches over to the quarantine that the nation, and the world, has been taking part of a majority of this year and how that’s affected her and her approach to her craft.
“Honestly, everything,” she says as she lets out a breath that sounds like she had been holding it in when asked how much of her craft she’s reevaluated while home.
“At the beginning of quarantine, my really close friend and I were just kind of like everybody else – we were like, ‘What are we going to do? This is horrible. What are we going to do?’ And we came up with this idea…”
This idea, Alyssa explains, is gathering the best actors they know and a director or teacher, placing everyone in a Zoom call, and seeing what happens. “Everybody that we reached out to was free and the director that we reached out to was a teacher at LaGuardia High School in New York.” It was their chosen director who suggested that the group write something together.
“So basically for the past five months, my creative outlet has been me and like seven other people who are just tremendously, tremendously talented and wonderful, and we’ve all been writing an anthology series together about relationships and [relationships in] this time.” Going into greater detail, she adds, “It all takes place over FaceTime.”
This experience, and writing overall, has completely changed her view of her craft. “I think [writing has] given me a really empowering looking into this world,” she reveals. “Sometimes as an actor, I think you really feel like you’re just a piece of the puzzle. But actually getting a chance to create the puzzle is really exciting and empowering and makes me look at my job in a whole new way. So that’s been a really life-changing thing that’s come out of quarantine.”
While she’s uncertain if writing is something she will pursue more than acting now, it has unlocked a deep passion that she didn’t know she had or was capable of outside of acting.
“I don’t think that I’ve loved something as much as I love acting until I found writing,” she shares. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow. Okay. This could be something that I could actually be really interested in and have a passion for.”
Until fans are able to see the fruits of her writing labor beginning with the anthology series, they are able to see Alyssa’s passion for acting when they watch This Is The Year.
TEENPLICITY: What friends would you bring with you on a road trip to see a music festival or your favorite band?
ALYSSA: “I would definitely bring my best friend – Brett Cooper is her name – and my other friend Lily. I would do a girls trip, honestly, like my three closest female friends: Brett, Lily, and Geo. And then, well, then I have to bring my other friend Adam [laughs]. I’m just going to give you the list of my friend group, which is just like my closest friends. I think it’s important to bring people who you feel really comfortable with and can talk to for hours, but also go for hours and not talk at all. And [who] you all have the same taste in music with and can vibe on the same energy level. – That sounded so L.A. [laughs softly] – But you all have the same energy level.”
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