Troian Bellisario And Cheryl Nichols Talk Their Work On Doula And More - Exclusive Interview

It's been a few years since "Pretty Little Liars" got canceled, and Troian Bellisario, who portrayed Spencer Hastings on the Freeform series, has proven once again that her acting chops aren't limited to a teenager being harassed by an anonymous assailant under the pseudonym A. Since the show ended, Bellisario has starred in "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," "Ways & Means," and "Clara," among other projects (via IMDb), and now she's back with "Doula." (We'll never forget the time Bellisario starred in an episode of "NCIS," though.)

"Doula" comes from director Cheryl Nichols, who has previously directed films "Cortez" and "The Living Worst." Her latest project follows Bellisario's Deb, a woman whose pregnancy is nearing its end. The film centers on the struggles between her and her partner (portrayed by Arron Shiver) as they navigate having a young male doula following the death of the older doula they'd hired. (Oh, yes, and she died at their home.)

The film is an introspective examination of its cast of characters, a character study full of comedy and charm. We got to sit down with Nichols and Bellisario ahead of the film's premiere, and they discussed with us all things "Doula," including how they brought it to life, how being a mother impacted Bellisario's approach to the film, and what's next for them after this film.

Troian Bellisario and Cheryl Nichols tease Doula

What can you both tease our readers about "Doula"?

Troian Bellisario: My God, so much.

Cheryl Nichols: Okay, tease.

Bellisario: We're really good at teasing. What you have with "Doula" is a very, very unique take on one woman's pregnancy that is actually a lot more universal than I just made it all sound. But it's a wonderful way to depict a very, very important time in a lot of women's and people's lives. I don't think that it's ever been shown this way, so I'm really excited for the world to see it. A lot of women are going to relate to the character of Deb, and overall, it's going to be a really good experience watching the film.

Nichols: Also, pregnant ladies smoking weed.

Bellisario: Yeah. Have you been teased?

I love it. I know you have children, Troian — how has that experience helped you in this role?

Bellisario: It helped me immensely. I was also pregnant while playing a pregnant woman, so it helped that I had a real bun in the oven the whole time I was playing somebody with a bun in the oven. It grounded me and it was a wonderful experience because it allowed me to be myself during this filmmaking, which is that I did not, during both of my pregnancies, feel like a glowing goddess of fertility. I felt much more body, let's say that.

Nichols: Real.

Bellisario: Real. The best thing about having Cheryl — who is not only a fantastic director but a fantastic friend — at the helm of this film was that she was so encouraging of allowing me to be any way that I felt in this film, as long as it was real, truthful, authentic. She said, "Let's not make this glossy and beautiful. Let's show them what it's really like." So that's what we did.

Nichols: It's true. You are always very beautiful though. It was kind of annoying.

Bellisario: Oh, thank you.

Nichols: We had to work around it. I was like, "Can we ... let's get her down."

Bellisario: Take her down.

Nichols: Yeah. No makeup. Then you would come and be ...

Bellisario: Strip her down. That's what we had to do.

Cheryl Nichols on bringing Doula to life

Cheryl, a lot of your work, including this film, deals with the cerebral experience of being human. Is that something you've thought about as a connecting thread through your work?

Nichols: That's such a cool take on my work. Thanks for saying that. I tend to be a cerebral person who resents being in their head all the time, and I'm constantly trying to do things to get out of my head. It was why I went to acting school and all of that. I can't help it, but it's who I am. I think that comes through in what I'm working on. 

I also think that that's how I want to portray women. It's how I see myself. I like characters who are heady but are struggling against that. It's something that ... I don't know. I've never thought about it too much, to be honest, but I totally get what you're saying. It is very cerebral, but it's also a weird, funny little body film. Both things are true.

What is your approach as a director to bringing that human experience to life on the screen?

Nichols: I love actors, and I love watching how actors arrive at little tiny decisions that they've made, little tiny choices. I love watching actors create a character. I let them do that, and then we shape — we do things to get it into the place that it needs to be. But for the most part, I like to have the story, put the actors there, and say, "Let's work this out together." That lends itself to a more real but also interesting and fun scene.

That was such a good answer.

Bellisario: I completely agree.

Nichols: Aw, thanks.

Troian Bellisario on her evolution from Pretty Little Liars to Doula

Troian, I'm starstruck a little bit. I was a huge "Pretty Little Liars" fan for its full run.

Bellisario: Thank you!

Going from that show where you played a teenager for so many years, what was your experience like in this movie, playing someone in a very different phase of her life?

Bellisario: It was a real pleasure, particularly because once you ... I had the great good fortune of being on a show that was beloved and embodying a character that was very beloved. The world got to experience me in a very specific way, like Spencer, but it was truly my friends — like Cheryl and like Will [Greenberg] and Arron [Shiver] and Chris [Pine] and Ian [Gotler] — all of the people that were the village that made this film happen ... They know who I am, and they got to see me become a mother the first time, and they got to see me be a woman in the world.

The best thing was ... Whereas I didn't really have that opportunity in the industry because people were still viewing me as Spencer, as a high schooler, as this younger [version] of myself, the people within my friends group were only supportive in saying, "Oh, no, you can absolutely do this. This is much closer to who you are. This is much closer to how we experience you." Any fear that I had about taking a different step or embodying a different character was completely thrown out of the window because I had the support of one of my best friends behind the camera every step of the way, saying "You've got this" and lifting me up and supporting me the entire time.

That's amazing. I love hearing how close these relationships are behind the screen as well. That's wonderful.

Nichols: Troian's actually marrying me and my fiancé. She's going to be the spiritual guide.

Bellisario: I'm going to be their spiritual guide. It's not a throuple.

Nichols: No, not marrying each other.

Bellisario: I have to explain that to people because I keep on saying I'm marrying Cheryl and Arron.

Nichols: And they're like, "Congratulations."

Bellisario: I'm like, "It's new," but ...

Nichols: We're doing a thing. We're modern.

Bellisario: Yes, we're very modern. No — they asked me to officiate the wedding, to be a spiritual guide. Look, since making "Doula," I've inserted myself in their love life, so it only feels right.

Nichols: It's true. It's awkward. We have a co-dependence.

Bellisario: It runs deep.

Nichols: It's very deep.

How Chris Pine impacted Doula

Chris Pine both produces this film and is in it, so you both worked with him pretty closely. What was that experience like, and what did he uniquely bring to the film?

Nichols: Well, I was under the impression it was Chris Pratt for a long time.

Bellisario: That was an awkward first day when he showed up.

Nichols: When that hunk showed up, I was like, "Dang" ... No.

Bellisario: No, we got to level up.

Nichols: We've been friends with Chris for a long time — maybe 10, 15 years, or something like that? But separately.

It was cool. Chris is the funniest, most down-to-earth, interesting ... He's a very intelligent, easy-to-be-around person. He was very excited about this movie, and when he came to set, everybody knew that he was excited about this movie, and it was awesome to see everybody light up when he got there. He had supported us through this whole thing — he and his producing partner, Ian Gotler. It was really cool. He's a great person to have around.

Bellisario: It's also really special because we were friends with him first, and he's on so many massive productions and he is such an A-list ... He's a movie star, and when you know him as a person ... I was so excited to get to set to see what it was like to see Chris at work, because, to be honest, I had never seen him on a set. I'd only seen him in his backyard or in my backyard. It was lovely to get to go to work with somebody that you feel such a kinship to and you have so much trust with and you have such a great rapport, and yet you know that they perform on such a magnificent, professional level. That was a really exciting day when he finally got the set, for sure.

Nichols: It was cool. We love him very much.

Bellisario: Yeah, we do.

What's next for Troian Bellisario and Cheryl Nichols?

Nichols: They're doing their first feature about this woman directed by this woman.

Bellisario: So rad.

Nichols: It's pretty rad.

Those relationships show on the screen, so I love that ... What can you each tell us about what's next for you?

Nichols: I'm working on a documentary right now that will premiere sometime on Freeform in the summer called "Dear Pony: Keep This Between Us." It's not funny.

Bellisario: Nope. It's very, very different.

Nichols: It's very serious, very different. But that's what's next for me. What about you, T?

Bellisario: I am working on a podcast with Ian [Gotler] and Chris [Pine], Barry Linen, and our good friend Josh Close. We are creating a narrative podcast to share with the world, which is going to be really fun. It's like going into a radio play of sorts. I'm having a lot of fun writing that, and then we will also be acting in that later.

Nichols: That's so cool. I like that you did it as a podcast.

Bellisario: I'm really excited about it. It's different.

"Doula" will be available June 28 for rental and purchase on demand and on digital. 

This interview was edited for clarity.