How Brenda Song Survived Child Stardom

Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock.
I’m meeting London Tipton! I’m saying hello to London Tipton! These are the thoughts I try to banish when standing across from Brenda Song.
It’s 2019, and Song hasn’t been London Tipton, the ditzy hotel heiress of Disney’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, for seven years. With stars Dylan and Cole Sprouse squashing any hope of a Suite Life reunion in today’s revival-hungry times, she’s never playing London again. 
Maybe that’s a good thing. While Song has continued to work with Disney in the years since Suite Life’s finale, the now-30-year-old is flying farther from the nest this year — and it’s paying off. 
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First came a starring role in Netflix’s psychological thriller Secret Obsession, a sharp tonal departure from Disney Channel. Song will fill out the core girl-group in Dollface, a blisteringly smart and relatable comedy premiering on Hulu in November. 
Song’s casting in Dollface is particularly clever. Her character, Madison, is bitter that her ex-best friend, Jules (Kat Dennings), ditched her for her boyfriend. Years later, after Jules and her boyfriend break up, the two friends slip back into their old cadence. 
They have history — and so does Song with her now-adult fans. Watching Song in Dollface is like reuniting with an old friend from elementary school who grew up to be a better version of herself. 
Gracious and enthusiastic in real life, Song is a child star success story. Refinery29 spoke to her about living your dream since the age of 11 and not letting it ruin you. Yay, you!
Refinery29: You’re branching out from Disney, but still doing Disney projects. How do you balance your career?
Brenda Song: “I’m grateful to Disney because without them I wouldn’t be here. But it’s a double-edged sword. When you’re on a successful show when you’re that age for so long, you build your own stereotype. I did Suite Life from 15 to 23, then everyone was like, ‘Let me give you these crazy adult roles! Let’s play a drug addict!’ I was like, Guys, I saw pot for the first time and thought it was potpourri. I was young, naive, and not ready. I feel fortunate to have been slowly pushed in the right direction. I’ve progressed as a human, but I didn’t feel a rush to grow up. It was organic.” 
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Some former Disney stars have played serial killers, and that was their break-out role. 
“More power to you. You look at Zendaya, what she’s doing — it’s absolutely incredible. Everyone’s journey is their own. You have to honor that. That’s why doing a thriller is different for me. I’m on set, and me and Mike, my Secret Obsession co-star, were laughing until they called take. I’m like, We’re about to shoot! I need to get serious! I hate you! You’re my captor.” 
When we had to do our makeout scene at the very end, he had ‘A Whole New World’ lined up to play as a joke. We start our makeout scene, and I see him reach over. I’m like, What is he doing? I think they used the only good take that they had.” 
Looking at your career now, is this where your younger self thought she would end up?
“When you’re that age, the sky’s the limit. You can still fly. I never looked at the big picture as a kid. I just loved acting so much. I loved the day to day. I loved getting a script. I loved auditioning. It was never about winning an Oscar or being a movie star — I loved acting, working, and playing different characters. I always looked at my career as a staircase. As long as I’m continually progressing to a place where I’m happy, comfortable, and being challenged, but the product of the work I’m doing, it’s all I can ask for.”
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What’s the biggest misconception of being a child actor?
“That I have an aversion to the industry. A lot of the child actors I’ve known didn’t have good experiences. For me, it was the polar opposite. I was fortunate to have two parents who didn’t know what they were doing. My dad’s a second-grade teacher, and my mom never read lines with me. If I was bad, I didn't get to go to auditions. It wasn’t the opposite, getting gifts to go to auditions. I was by the door with my portfolio ready to go, like a crazy person.
“Acting was an after-school activity for me until I was 16. The year I booked Suite Life, my mom got breast cancer for the first time, and I got into college. My dad sat me down and said, ‘If you want to do this, it’s an amazing opportunity. But Mom and Dad can't drive you anymore.’ That’s when acting shifted to become a career. I had a great experience. If my kids ever wanted to be a part of it, I would want them to be at an age where they can make their own decisions. It’s hard for me to tell someone at 10 they don’t know what they want, because I did. It’s all I wanted.”
People underestimate kids a lot. 
“They do. There's something so beautiful about that tenacity when you’re so young. The sky really is the limit. We lose a lot of that. Society loves to tell us no.”
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Is child acting something you and your boyfriend, Macaulay Culkin, talk about? 
“We don’t really talk about our personal life. The thing that’s wonderful about this industry is that it’s so small. I worked with Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi on Dads. They’re both child actors who are still in this industry. It was a learning experience to sit down with them and say, “Wait! You’re still doing this too!’ When you find other actors who've been in the industry for a long time and still love it, you have a bond forever.”
What made you want to be a part of Dollface?
“It felt like I was reading about me and my girlfriends’ misadventures. I've definitely been in Jules’ position before, and done the faux pas of leaving my girlfriends behind, living my boyfriend’s life, and forgetting my own. It felt so relatable.
“At the time, I was in the middle of filming Secret Obsession. I finished a night shoot at 7 a.m. in Malibu, drove, went to a casting meeting at 3 p.m., then went straight back to work. I had an eye twitch. I thought I did terribly. I was so sad. Then, when they asked me to read with Kat [Dennings] I was so excited. She’s such a badass babe. It was the most fun I’d ever had in a test. When I walked out, I was like, If I don't get this, I am going to be so sad, slash have the most FOMO when the show comes out because I want to watch it.”
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So that atmosphere of friendship was true behind the scenes?
“Kat and I look at each other and say, 'Where have you been my entire life?' She’s my knitting buddy. We go yarn shopping together. It’s the first job that I went to every day and just hung out of my girlfriends. If you put Shea, Esther, Cat, and me in a group, we’d be like our characters. We’re so different. But if your morals are the same. That’s what makes a fun, good group.
“We’re playing different versions of ourselves. We’d go and literally have this conversation, they’d call action, and we’d continue it on screen.”
Dollface premieres on Hulu November 15
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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