Ashley Benson doesn’t try to hide anything. The 24-year-old actress grew up knowing she couldn’t get away with it anyway. Benson’s grandfather, who was a sheriff in her hometown of Anaheim, Calif., once locked her father in jail for stealing a stick of gum. “My dad tells me that story all the time,” says Benson. “Anytime I get pulled over, I feel like I’m going to jail.” In fact, Ashley grew up so straitlaced, the worst trouble she got into as a teenager was getting caught lying to her mom about her whereabouts on a Friday night. Little did she know that growing up under a microscope would prepare her for the biggest challenge of her life: starring as one of the eponymous fetching fabulists on ABC Family’s teen phenomenon and social media juggernaut Pretty Little Liars.
PLL follows a group of girlfriends under attack from a mysterious cyberbully named “A,” who threatens to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets. The cast has become this generation’s Spice Girls. There’s the brainy one, Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario), the sporty one, Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell), the artsy one, Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale), and last but not least, Benson’s Hanna Marin, the unrepentant shopaholic of the group, who also provides much of the show’s comic relief.
But the show and its fans ain’t no joke. Since debuting in 2010, PLL has become the most tweeted about series in history. Its season-four finale last March brought in a record-setting 1.9 million tweets. “Ashley and the rest of the cast recently went to New York for a press tour,” says I. Marlene King, creator of PLL. “When we got off at the airport, there were paparazzi and fans waiting in the baggage claim. It was like watching the Beatles arrive.”
The attention isn’t entirely new to Benson, who spent her teenage years on the set of Days of Our Lives. But Benson is not a captive of her show’s popularity. She broke from the Disney mold last year, starring alongside Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, and James Franco as hardcore party girl Britt in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. “Ashley made that choice to do something very edgy to really explore that side of herself and kills the screen with her presence,” says King. “Ashley will become a big movie star.”
Despite the fact that she’s got fans with Instagram handles like “My_World_Is_Ash_Benzo,” and fans who leave comments like, “You’re my life!” on a photo of her home office, Benson swears by her normalcy. Then again, “normal” is a relative concept. For Ashley Benson, that means a life of dodging crazed fans, Internet rumors, and possible escaped convicts.
Do strangers ask you “who’s A?” more than anything else?
[Laughs.] I honestly have no clue. I keep telling the writers to make me A because I’m so annoyed that we don’t know who it is. I don’t know when we’ll ever find out. We’re in the middle of the first episode of season five right now, and we do get to find out another person is part of the A team, but it doesn’t solve any problems.
Why are the Liars still friends with Alison if she treats them like shit? Stockholm Syndrome?
Alison has a hold on the girls. The reason they come back to her and accept that she’s alive is because A said that they lost her forever and they were misled for so many years. Although they all kind of despised her, they also each had a special relationship with Alison. Actually, I don’t know if Hanna’s even gonna be able to be Alison’s friend because she was so tortured by her.
What’s the greatest mystery of your life?
Are you serious? Oh my God. I don’t even know. [Laughs.]
Well, what’s the most intense thing that’s ever happened to you?
This is not intense but I was with Vanessa Hudgens at the airport, on the way back to L.A. from wrapping Spring Breakers. We lost track of time getting dinner ’cause we were so tired, so we missed our flight. After spending two months in Florida, we just wanted to go home. We cried our eyes out on the floor and then picked ourselves up and had some drinks.
So you just got drunk?
Yeah, we went to the bar, and then we wandered around the airport ’til like 3 in the morning.
Did you meet any weirdos at 3 in the morning?
There were a few guys there. They kept saying to Vanessa, “Aren’t you famous?” And she was like, “Mmm, no.”
That’s an awful pickup line.
Yeah. That’s more annoying than anything.
Do people use that line a lot?
I don’t get people asking me if I’m famous. But now that Pretty Little Liars has been on for five years, people do notice me more. I like meeting different people, which is not a problem. But it’s super weird. If somebody asks me to take a picture, I want to run and hide. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.
Has a weirdo fan ever made you want to call the cops?
There was one girl when I was in a Korean spa with my friend. I was taking a shower, and there are no doors in the shower. Normally I’m, like, “Whatever, we’re all girls here.” So I’m completely naked, taking this shower, and my friend’s in the one next to me. All of sudden someone taps me on the shoulder. It was this girl who was like, “Hi, sorry to bother you, are you Ashley Benson?” And I was like, “Are you serious right now? I’m naked.” She was like, “Yeah, can I actually take a photo with you?” She was trying to have a full conversation with me in the shower. That’s where you draw the line. Like, what parent encourages her kid to do that?
How old was she?
So it was like that scene in Pitch Perfect?
No, that was funny. Mine was not funny. There was no a cappella singing in mine.
When was the last time you were absolutely scared shitless?
A couple years ago, this guy literally tried to take me out of a car.
Then the airport thing was definitely not the most intense thing to happen to you. Was he just a random crazy person?
—Who wanted to kidnap me.
Were you just sitting in traffic? What was happening?
A couple of my friends and I were in the car outside of an apartment building in L.A. This guy pulled up super close to us and I was like, “That’s weird, we should probably pull forward.” And the guy that was driving was like, “No, we don’t need to move.” So the crazy guy got out of his car and tried to open the door, and grab us in the backseat. Right when he did that, we sped off. I was so mad at the driver. I was like, “I cannot believe you did not move.”
I’m sorry I just made you relive that story.
[Laughs.] Oh, it’s fine. It’s fine.
I’m gonna change the subject then. Would you rather be trapped in a room with possessed dolls or an evil clown? And how would you get out of this situation?
Oh my God. Maybe an evil clown. I’d try to beat the clown up. My dad used to have a bunch of clowns in our house hanging from the ceiling. He thought they were cool at the time. I did, too, but as I got older it was scary at night. They would be moved around.
Yeah, he collected like 200 clowns.
Are they still there?
No, because we’re not in that house anymore. They were there for a couple years. He turned our garage into this huge dance studio and there was a fog machine and all these lights, and he decorated it by hanging a bunch of clowns.
Were your friends like, “Nope, we’re not hanging out at the clown house”?
They actually loved it because it was such a fun house.
So clowns, shower intruders, and psycho kidnappers. What else are you afraid of? Spiders? Hangnails?
I’m afraid of spiders, heights, and throwing up. Throwing up and spiders are my number one though. If I see even a tiny spider, I’ll, like, crash the car.
Wait, you’re afraid of the physical act of throwing up?
If I even hear it, I start to cry. If I even feel like I have to throw up because I’m sick, I will do everything in my power to not throw up.
What happened when you were a kid that’s given you this fear? Did you witness someone violently, horribly vomit?
[Laughs.] No! I hate doctors, so it goes into the realm of being sick and then maybe having to go to the doctor.
So I’m guessing you’ve never been in a beer pong tournament.
[Laughs.] I don’t even like beer. And when I play, I just don’t drink it.
Isn’t Hanna’s secret —
Bulimia? Yeah, but she’s over that now, thank God.
So are you a fan of The OC?
Then this is a really telling question: Are you Team Seth or Team Ryan?
Team Seth, because I like Seth and Summer better than Ryan and Mischa Barton. I forgot who Mischa Barton even played. Seth was more down to earth and nerdy and into comic books. That was really cute. I actually guest-starred on that show. That was my dream job. When I saw Adam Brody riding bikes around the lot with Rachel Bilson, I almost peed myself.
Did you get to hang out with them?
No, but I stalked them when they were at lunch. It was creepy, but it was my favorite show, so I didn’t care.
Was The OC an accurate portrayal of growing up in Orange County?
I didn’t think it was. Neither was Laguna Beach. Newport is really small, so that’s not most people’s life in Orange County. I didn’t go to high school, so I didn’t get to have the experience.
No, I thought dances were so weird. I have to dress up for events now, but I hate getting dressed up. Halloween, proms, or themed parties, they’ve never been my thing.
So there’s no getting dressed to go to clubs?
I don’t go out. A typical weekend for me is going to eat with my friends and either having a drink at the restaurant or sitting at home and drinking wine and watching a movie. I don’t like clubs at all. The things you see people doing in there make you think, “Oh God, I don’t want to be around this.”
What’s the craziest thing you saw on the set of Spring Breakers?
The four of us were filming this motel party scene and we had to observe what was going on and be in character. My and Vanessa’s characters loved to party, so we couldn’t do anything to break that persona. But I remember looking over to the floor at these two girls rolling around and making out completely naked. At that moment, I literally closed Selena’s eyes. I felt like I had to mother her.
On Days of Our Lives, what did people do to decompress? Does the crew joke around?
[Laughs.] It was a light set and I was always breaking character, but there was one actress who never said a word to me in all of my four years there.
Was she being method or just a dick?
I don’t know. I never went out of my way to talk to her because I was scared of her. I thought she should’ve made the first move ’cause she’d been there longer. But she never went out of her way to say hi, so it stayed like that.
I know you don’t want to name her, but can you give me a hint?
I’m pretty sure she’s still on there now. She’s been there for a really long time. She’s one of the older actresses.
Is that kind of competitiveness something you run into often?
Of course, but I always think that the more all the other actors and actresses do, the better. Everybody’s gonna have their time and get the job they’re supposed to get. There’s competition in everything, so it’s up to you if you want to engage it.
Do you feel any pressure to be a role model because you’re on an ABC Family show?
The network doesn’t really put pressure on you. I’ll make decisions for myself, but because I have young fans, I do feel a responsibility to them. Teenagers copy everything. I’d never be someone who’s out there drinking and doing drugs all the time. I don’t do it and I would never want them to think they have to do something like that. I’m not perfect at all, so I’m not the person to be looked up to, but I try to set a good example.
Growing up, was there someone you idolized who disappointed you?
When I was younger, I was really into Reese Witherspoon, so I’ve never really been disappointed. My grandma always told me I looked like her when I was younger. It’s just ’cause of the blonde hair. I would watch Man in the Moon every night. She’s been acting for a really long time and she’s still successful, despite setbacks. She never really let Hollywood get to her.
Do you worry about being typecast? I know you’ve been in, like, Bring It On 55.
[Laughs.] That’s why I’ve started to choose things people don’t expect, like Spring Breakers, to show that I can play someone different.
Legally Blonde must’ve been very empowering for you.
[Laughs.] Oh my God, I worship that movie.
Have you ever googled yourself?
Of course, but it stops now. Everybody goes through that phase where they want to know what people are saying about them. But there’s no point.
So you’ve got millions of followers. What kinds of weird things do people tweet at you?
I always get that I’m pregnant. That’s really fun. Also, apparently I’ve dated every single one of my co-stars. That’s not true, haven’t dated one.
Have you ever had a family member ask you about your rumored pregnancy?
No, thank God! That would make me really upset. That was the worst one. I was like, “Oh wow, you guys think that I’m super fat.” [Laughs.]
Was there ever a time you can recall that your sarcasm didn’t translate?
It never does. Ever. I have a super dry sense of humor, so I could easily make someone feel stupid. I’d have to make sure they know I was messing with them. Crew members love it when a new person comes onto the Pretty Little Liars set because they’re like, “Do it!” I’ll make stuff up, like I don’t eat certain fruits, or say something really rude that makes them think they did something wrong. I keep it going for five to ten minutes and then I apologize, like, “Welcome to the show!”
Who’s someone on set that takes your jokes seriously?
Keegan [Allen], all the time. I’ll pretend I’m mad at him, and he’ll think about it all day and ask around, like, “Oh my God, what did I do to make her mad?” Shay and Troian would play along, like, “We don’t know. All we know is that she’s really pissed off.” [Laughs.] He’ll be texting me, like, “Can we just please talk?” He’s so fun to get.
What’s one thing he thought he did?
I can’t remember one thing because I’ve done so many things to him. But it could be as stupid as me saying, “I cannot believe what you did.”
So you could be A!
That’s what I’m saying.