Pretty Little Liar
At age 6, Parrish realized she wanted to be a performer after seeing Phantom of the Opera at Blaisdell Center. By 7, she had enrolled in voice and piano lessons, and won the grand prize in Kiddieoke, the kid’s version of Hawaii Stars.
Soon after that, Les Miserables visited Hawaii to hold auditions. The role required relocation to New York City, so Mark and Joanne were hesitant. After months of their daughter persuading them, they agreed to at least let her try out – partly, Mark says, because they figured with the stiff competition, what would be the chances of her getting the role? Parrish beat out several hundred girls and spent the next year touring the country as Little Cosette, followed by a stint on Broadway.
When she returned to Hawaii, she continued participating in local theater, landing the leads in many productions, including Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird and Wendy in On Dragonfly Wings.
Parrish began traveling to L.A. for pilot seasons and during summer breaks. But the back-and-forth was tough; some auditions gave less than 24 hours’ notice, and eventually it seemed like the next logical step would be to move there – a move that a young Parrish desperately wanted to make.
“The reality is we wouldn’t have considered the move if Janel didn’t do her part,” Mark explains. “Our criteria for moving there was that her work ethic needed to equal her talent level … We knew talent alone would not be enough on a larger stage.”
So she studied her lines, prepared for auditions and researched potential roles – all while keeping up with schoolwork and chores.
After Parrish completed her freshman year at Moanalua High School, she, Mark and Joanne moved to L.A. (Melissa, who is 8 years older than Parrish, was already pursuing a military career on the Mainland.)
“Ultimately, the decision to move to L.A. as a family was made because we already saw that she was realistically capable of fulfilling the dream she had from childhood, and because we knew she would find her way to Hollywood anyway,” Mark says. “We wanted it to be done as a family so that we could support her in her quest.”
That familial support has remained strong through the years, and through Parrish’s increasing fame. Whatever the cause, Parrish doesn’t seem to have befallen the traps of young Hollywood – which, as Mark elucidates, are plentiful. Parrish spent the night before this lunch meeting listening to Christmas music in her Waikiki hotel room after her parents had stopped by. By all three of their accounts, this low-key night is illustrative of her life in L.A., too. Parrish lives in North Hollywood, a family-friendly district that she prefers to the larger city. She often has movie nights or cooks dinner with her tight-knit group of friends. She and Mark have a father-daughter coffee talk once a week, a ritual that has been going on for years. And every Sunday night the whole family has dinner together at Mark and Joanne’s home.
Sitting next to her parents at Stage, she speaks easily and candidly, even about touchy topics like dating and her tattoos – she has several small ones, including the words “Made In Hawaii” on the arch of her foot.
Moving to L.A. was a time to start over for the whole family. Joanne took an early retirement from her career as an occupational therapist, while Mark relaunched his real estate business in the area.
For Parrish, it was, at first, a scary transition. Entering the Hollywood scene at just 14, Parrish already felt like she had some catching up to do with her peers.
“There are just so many talented people in L.A. who have all been there way longer than you,” Parrish says. “I felt really new, and I felt like there was so much to learn … There are so many girls who look like you and act like you and do all the things that you can do.”
But Parrish kept striving to hone her skills and worked constantly, throwing herself into acting, voice and dance classes. For years, she went to as many as seven auditions in one week.
“I think that one of the hardest things about this business is that there is a lot of rejection, and there is a lot of competition. There are definitely those projects that you go out for that you don’t get, and it’s always a little bit of a letdown,” Parrish says, adding that she had been considered for the role of Alice Cullen in Twilight. She got as far as few callbacks in front of the director before she was told she would not be going any farther. “But you learn from it and go on to the next, and that is just why you keep going – because you love it so much.”
Parrish admits that being a hapa actress has presented its own set of challenges. Those same hapa features that render her a girl next door here in Hawaii make her stand out in Hollywood – and not always in a good way. Casting directors sometimes aren’t sure where to place Parrish; even if they like her for a role, her looks might not match an onscreen family.
“In Hollywood, they have a certain look that they look for when they want the girl next door,” Parrish says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve auditioned for that girl and I have gotten the friend.
“I love who I am and my heritage, but it is sometimes hard to get Hollywood to see you in a different light.”
Despite any setbacks, Parrish landed guest spots on popular shows including The O.C. and Heroes in her first few years in Hollywood.
At 18, she made her feature film debut as one of four leads in the movie Bratz. While many critics came down harshly on the movie, Parrish credits it as being a valuable learning experience. Plus, it gave her a chance to show off her singing and dancing abilities. Also a singer-songwriter (she was signed to Geffen Records in 2007), she composed a song, Rainy Day, for the movie.
More recently, Parrish has put her music career on the back burner to focus on film and television, but she hopes to get more involved in music in the future. At the top of her to-do list is to combine her two passions and appear in a musical movie. Kim in Miss Saigon would be her “absolute dream role” if it ever comes to the big screen: “If I ever got to play her one day, I would die.”
Bratz wasn’t quite Parrish’s big break, but it did lead to smaller roles in both television and film.
In 2009, she returned to the Islands to shoot film festival favorite One Kine Day, in which she plays the troublemaker best friend of a Hawaii high school girl who finds out she is pregnant. (“They always make me the troublemaker! What is up with that?”) For the role, Parrish had to learn to speak pidgin, studying Frank De Lima tapes and spending time with her grandparents in Moanalua.
During filming, she got a call from Mark, who had news from her manager: They wanted her to audition for a television pilot called Pretty Little Liars. But Parrish, who says she has “kind of a one-track mind,” almost didn’t do it.
It was Mark who convinced her otherwise. “He said to me, ‘I know you’re focusing on (the film), but I really think that you should read the script, because it’s a great script and it’s going to be a hit,’” Parrish recalls. “And I read it and just fell in love.