‘The Perfectionists': I Marlene King on Reviving ‘Pretty Little Liars’ With a New Generation of Liars — and Two Returning Favorites

“It’s so much fun to play in this world, so I’m always open to new ideas and new tentacles to explore,” King tells TheWrap

“I’m still here, bitches, and I know everything.”

It’s been nearly a decade since the original “Pretty Little Liars” received the text from their dead best frienemy that kicked off a years-long series of twists, turns and shocking reveals in what would become a runaway hit for Freeform and a singular subject of obsession for its devoted fans. Now, less than two years after that series went off the air, Freeform and series creator I. Marlene King are aiming to show that, like “A” herself, “Pretty Little Liars” still has life, even in death.

“Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists,” the new spinoff premiering Wednesday, is based on an entirely different series of novels by “Pretty Little Liars” author Sara Shepard, but the show cleverly brings its storylines into the world of the original by incorporating two fan-favorite characters as pseudo-mentors to a new generation of beautiful, high-achieving, sometimes manipulative, more often manipulated and frequently victimized young people.

“As [“Pretty Little Liars”] started coming to an end — maybe a year before — I started talking to the cast and floating around the idea of who’s ready to move on and who’s ready to keep exploring their characters and where they go from here,” I. Marlene King said in an interview with TheWrap. “And Sasha [Pieterse] and Janel [Parrish] were both really excited about the opportunity to do that.”

Parrish’s character Mona, in particular, gets the biggest shift, taking a break from serving as a foil to the main cast and getting a turn as the victim of the mystery herself.

“I was excited because I really didn’t think we got to see enough of Mona on the first round of ‘PLL,'” King said. “I know fans wanted to see more and learn more about her. They wanted her to have romance and a full life beyond just being that sort of Crazy Mona on ‘PLL.'”

While plot details are carefully guarded, the focus of the spinoff largely remains on the new characters — the Perfectionists, in show parlance — three students at the fictional Beacon Heights University who are driven by their school, their parents, their own dreams of success to be, well, perfect, even to their own detriment.

Pretty Little Liars Perfectionists

Played by former Disney star Sofia Carson, “The Walking Dead” alum Sydney Park and newcomer Eli Brown, the Perfectionists are tied together by a potentially devastating secret — revealed in signature “Pretty Little Liars” fashion at the end of the first episode — but King promises the show won’t be all lies and intrigue, all the time.

“‘Pretty Little Liars’ was a show about these friends who become like family, and this show has that as well,” she said. “There’s murder, there’s intrigue and there’s all these twists and turns, but at its core, it’s really about that friendship. And I’m having a lot of fun watching these five — the Perfectionists and the two from ‘Pretty Little Liars’ — become friends on and off screen. It’s such a joy to watch.”

And to King, that element of the show — the central friendship, the romance, the emotional core — is as signification to the “Pretty Little Liars” brand as the mystery component.

So keep that in mind, because while this is just the first follow-up, King says that colon in the title “Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists” just might signal more to come. After all, in the world of “Pretty Little Liars,” you never really know what’s coming next.

Read TheWrap’s full interview with King below.

Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists

Freeform/Allyson Riggs

TheWrap: When did you first start talking about doing a spinoff of “Pretty Little Liars”? And I know it’s based on Sara Shepard’s books, but how did you settle on this idea to bring “The Perfectionists” into the “PLL” universe?

King: As the show started coming to an end — maybe a year before — I started talking to the cast and floating around the idea of who’s ready to move on and who’s ready to keep exploring their characters and where they go from here. And Sasha and Janel were both really excited about the opportunity to do that. Warner Bros. had the rights to Sara’s book, and I thought this was such a great place to explore new secrets, new lies, and incorporate a couple of our great O.G. characters.

How did you settle on these two characters as the ones who would anchor the new show?

Well, they were really excited about getting to explore their characters more. And I was excited because I really didn’t think we got to see enough of Mona on the first round of “PLL.” I know fans wanted to see more and learn more about her. They wanted her to have romance and a full life beyond just being that sort of Crazy Mona on “PLL.” So that was a real no-brainer for me.

But she’s still a little bit mysterious on this one. Will we get to see her be maybe a little bit more at the mercy of the mystery this time around?

You’re going to have to wait and see. Mona was never really trustworthy on “Pretty Little Liars” — I mean, she loved Hanna, but she still hit her with a car — but I think you’re going to get to see a side of Mona that you haven’t seen before, and you’re going to be able to trust her a little bit more than you were on the other show.

I know you were pretty meticulous in plotting out how the mystery unfolded on “Pretty Little Liars,” but do you already have a plan about how “The Perfectionists” will go?

We know who our original Big Bad is. It’s still “Pretty Little Liars,” so there’s going to be a Big Bad, and I definitely know who that person is. So for now, at least, we’re just going to have a lot of fun getting to the end of that road.

Do you have a vision for long the series could go? “PLL” had a bunch of interwoven storylines and mysteries that all kind of spun off from this one central storyline. Do you have similar plans for this show?

Yeah, I think we have just a richness of opportunity in this new world. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are so many great characters and such a rich woven story that there’s going to be tentacles from this first story that go one for a long time with plenty of twists and turns. With “Pretty Little Liars,” I thought that we’d be lucky to go for five seasons, so to get to go for seven, honestly, I just give so much credit to the fans and to the actors.

Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists

Freeform/James Clark

I’m not too familiar with the book series, but I know “PLL” diverged quite a bit from the source material. How much will you draw on the books for this one?

I think everybody should read Sara’s books because if you watch the show, we’re not going to give away the twists from the books. Because if you read the books, it would be almost impossible to pull off on a TV show and sustain that. So we’re really embracing this world of perfectionism and these young people who feel like they have to be perfect in everything. I’d say that more than anything — the characters and the overall mystery of the show — we pull from Sara’s original ideas.

The “PLL” pilot aired almost a decade ago at this point, but I think back to that moment at the end of that episode when they all get the first text from “A,” and how pivotal that was in terms of signaling the role technology would play on the show. How have you had to adapt your thinking on that aspect of the show as times have changed?

I think the technological advances, specifically social media and everything, will play a part in this world in the way that texting did on “Pretty Little Liars.” [In the pilot] is a perfect example showing how we’re sort of taking technology to the next level and how it helps us and hurts us all at the same time.

I want to talk a little bit about casting the “Perfectionists.” What were you looking for in that process and how did you settle on Sofia, Sydney and Eli as your central three?

Well, I have a great casting director, her name is Gayle Pillsbury, and she casts all of my shows, the pilots especially. We’re looking for good people, first of all. Quality human beings who you just feel have that something special. Sofia was doing an arc for us on “Famous in Love” when we were casting this, and I knew she was a big “Pretty Little Liars” fan. I just love and adore her, so she came in and read. I hadn’t had time to write a scene for her character yet, so we gave her a scene from “Pretty Little Liars” and just changed the names, but she knew immediately that it was a Hanna-Mona scene from what season and when. She initially read for Sydney’s character, but she’s such a fashion icon that we thought — even though in real life she’s such a Spencer Hastings — making her this coder-fashion icon was such a perfect fit. Because she is such a workaholic and just such a smart, bright young lady.

How about Sydney and Eli? They’re maybe not as well known, but what was it about them that made them the right fit for the show?

Well, Sydney has been for a while because she was a child comedian, basically. And she’s done significant work on “The Walking Dead.” So she came in and read for Caitlin, and she also just checked all the boxes, basically. A really good human being, really connected with the material, you know, and sit well with the other cast. So we were excited to have her. And you’ll see as the show progresses, she’s surprisingly our comic relief. It’s not surprising if you know her, but once we realized how strong her comedic sensibilities are, we started giving her a lot of our comic relief. Which is really fun on a show that can get this intense.

And Eli, I think we were maybe his first audition for a real paying job. He’s from Oregon and he had recently driven down here and was going to try out for some shows. When he came in, his resume literally just had high school theater on it. But when he read, he had such a presence and confidence that we knew right away he’d be our perfect star.

Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists

Freeform/Allyson Riggs

How does it change your thinking to have one of the central characters be a boy? Is it different at all?

Well, he’s having a lot of fun, I’ll tell you that. I was looking at photos today and here’s this good-looking guy with all these beautiful women. He’s having so much fun. But it’s fun. It’s really fun to have a guy be part of the group. As the show goes on, it starts to become what I’m calling “friend porn.” Their chemistry as friends is just so beautiful. “Pretty Little Liars” was a show about these friends who become like family, and this show has that as well. It’s really what the show’s about. There’s murder, there’s intrigue and there’s all these twists and turns, but at its core, it’s really about that friendship. And I’m having a lot of fun watching these five — the “Perfectionists” and the two from “Pretty Little Liars” — become friends on and off screen. It’s such a joy to watch.

Should viewers expect any other familiar faces to pop up on the show? Have you had conversations with any of the other “Pretty Little Liars” cast about coming on?

Yeah, I think they’re all really excited for us. And because the show is premiering this week, we’re all getting together, there’s lots of different opportunities for the cast to support the show, and they’ve all been really fantastic. There’s quite a few people who’ve expressed interest in coming on. But for the first season, I felt it was really important to launch the show on its own and let it stand on its own two feet, so it’s not really about those appearances. But I think next season we’ll be a lot more open to having some of those OGs and those fun moments. I will say, though, even though we don’t see them, there are moments through Mona and Alison where we find out what’s going on in Rosewood. We will get information from them about what the other characters are doing.

In your mind, what are the core elements of the “Pretty Little Liars” brand? When a viewer turns on a “Pretty Little Liars” show, what are they seeing?

I think you know it when you see it. It’s not always that easy to verbalize, but I do think you know it when you see it. I think it’s a combination of things. It’s a little bit of a heightened world, but we can still find a way to make it plausible that these things could happen. I think the day-to-day problems that the characters have are very relatable to people who aren’t living in a heightened world, and there’s romance. It’s, of course, friendship. There’s scares, thrills, a mystery at the core, and somehow you put all that together in a blender with a great cast, and you come up with what “Pretty Little Liars” looks like.

Do you plan on expanding the franchise even further? Maybe more spinoffs, is this the kind of universe that can sustain multiple shows airing at the same time?

Maybe. I feel like there’s absolutely a world [where that’s possible]. There were all these meetings about “should it be “Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists” of “PLL The Perfectionists” and then someone explained to me that if we want more to come, it should have a colon. So we’re definitely open to expanding the universe. It’s so much fun to play in this world, so I’m always open to new ideas and new tentacles to explore.

In those moments where you let your mind wander, what is your dream “Pretty Little Liars” show?

Hanna and Caleb as detectives is the one idea that comes to mind. I would have so much fun with that show.

Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists

Freeform/Allyson Riggs

“Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists” airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on Freeform.

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