‘School Spirits’ Star Peyton List on Darker Roles After Disney: ‘It’s Just Very Natural’

“I want to be able to play different characters and show more humanity,” List tells TheWrap

Peyton List stars Maddie in "School Spirits" (Courtesy of Ed Araquel/Paramount+)

Peyton List, who first made a name for herself in as a Disney up-and-comer in “Jessie” and “Bunk’d,” is veering into darker territory in Paramount+’s “School Spirits” — a move the actress has been seeking since she first entered the industry.

“I wanted to do Disney so badly, but also … I was auditioning for more movies and shows and all kinds of different projects that were darker as a kid,” List told TheWrap, adding that she wanted to explore more complex themes before being cast in a Disney show. “I want to be able to play different characters and show more humanity.”

Now, as List plays Maddie in the Paramount+ high school drama with a ghoulish twist, List says the nuanced role feels “natural” to her, noting that Maddie feels less like performing a character and more like a “real person.”

“It didn’t feel forced, because it just felt so natural,” List said, adding that her similarities to Maddie prompted her to envision her own reactions to situations. “I would just think, ‘Okay, what would I think in this situation,’ but I also know that we are very different in a lot of ways — she doesn’t really want to be a team player, she wants to do her own thing and I very much want to be a team player and a part of the group.”

List straddles reality and the afterworld as Maddie, a high schooler who dies suddenly and mysteriously, leaving her friends and family to put together the puzzle pieces of her disappearance. While the mystery avoids being labeled as a death without any sign of her body, Maddie appears as a ghost in her high school and witnesses her loved ones searching for her, while being introduced to a slew of students and teachers who also experienced an unfortunate fate at the school.

Though the afterlife support group welcomes Maddie with open arms, her stubbornness makes her resistant to fully integrating herself into the afterlife, causing a rift between her dead peers who List notes have “accepted their fate.” “She’s determined to figure out her death and get the hell out, and she’s not just going to be complacent and sit around,” List explains.

“With it just being so fresh, and the unknown … she can’t let it go,” List said. “There’s so so many people that need her, and she just wants to be there and so just she cannot let go or move on … she thinks that she’s truly dead once she accepts it … [and] she just doesn’t want to accept that.”

As Maddie struggles to piece together the events of a fateful afternoon that ultimately resulted in her death, she is immediately concerned for the wellbeing of her mother, whose alcoholism has kept Maddie on her toes since she could remember. While Maddie worries that her absence might lead to her mother falling deeper into her addiction, she is surprised to see her mother sober as she searches for Maddie alongside her friends.

“Seeing her mom doing OK without her is really oddly heartbreaking for her, because all she wanted was for her to be okay,” List said. “For her be better without her in her life is … the most heartbreaking thing for Maddie to watch … but in a way she’s like, ‘maybe this will help me move on and help me accept that if she will be okay.’”

To pile onto things, Maddie also struggles with conflicted feelings about her boyfriend, Xavier, as she and her friends go back and forth on how they see his involvement in Maddie’s death, and must accept him as her ex in the living world regardless of his involvement. Amid this difficult realization that she will no longer be able to be with Xavier, alongside her ongoing investigation into her own death, Maddie finds a moment of connection with her dead peer, Wally, as the pair they bond over their fractured relationship with their mother.

“It was something that I struggled with,” List said, adding “how much should I loosen up here? How much should I let him in?” “But I think those moments happen — in the worst moments of your life, there can be levity, and there can be humor.”

“School Spirits” is now streaming on Paramount+.