As an actor, to land any role is an accomplishment. But for Peyton Elizabeth Lee, landing the lead role of Disney Channel’s latest TV show, “Andi Mack,” was a huge feat.
At the time of her audition, Lee was only 11 years old, and not only did she blow away Disney executives and the casting department but also impressed creator Terri Minsky and executive producer Michelle Manning. And no one knows the voices of youth better than Minsky, who created “Lizzie McGuire,” and Manning, who worked on movies like “Clueless,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “The Breakfast Club.”
“I guess if you have been watching a lot of people speak words that you wrote, there are various reactions. Sometimes, it’s oh my god that’s horrible I have to rewrite it, sometimes it’s like, that’s an interesting way to do it,” explained Minsky. “When Peyton came in—I forgot I wrote it. The way she delivered the lines, I forgot they were lines. It sounds so corny but I was like, what are you going to say next? I didn’t know, even though I wrote it. She fascinated me. That’s really what you want… You get inspired by what actors can do with your words… I remember we kept bringing her back because she was 11. So young. This is scary because she is in every scene of the pilot, and the whole show is going to be on her little shoulders.”
But Lee pulled through. The producers gave her the chance to do a cold read of an emotional, pivotal scene in the series. She stood up in front of a row of adults holding headshots of the other young contenders for the role, mustered up her courage, and dazzled the room. From that point on, Minsky said, there was no second choice.
Lee was the perfect fit as Andi Mack, the intelligent, quirky barely-thirteen protagonist of the new Disney Channel series. Now, the search was on to find Andi’s family: first and foremost, her older, free-spirited sister Bex.
Manning recalled the moment when actress Lilan Bowden walked into the room and knew immediately that Bowden would be perfect as Bex.
“You’re sitting there with your fingers crossed—please be able to act, please be able to act,” added Minsky.
She did, hitting the perfect note for the nuances of her character, and landed the role.
“And from the point they met on, Lilan and Peyton would text each other or call each other every day,” said Manning.
The casting of Bowden was not only a needle-in-a-haystack find for her acting skills and believability as Bex, but also in regards to the diversity of the show. Unlike “Fresh Off The Boat,” where the Taiwanese family of characters is played by a cast that is not exclusively Taiwanese, “Andi Mack” stars Chinese characters played by Chinese actors, including Lee, Bowden, and Lauren Tom (“Friends,” “Joy Luck Club”) who plays Andi’s mother, Celia.
The script was never specified for an Asian-American cast. Even after Lee was cast as Andi, Minsky didn’t change any of the dialogue to reflect the fact that the characters were Asian American, deciding to put story and characters first. One decision she did make, however, was not to do a generic holiday episode.
“I didn’t want to do a holiday episode because I just felt I didn’t know what holiday is important to this family. I didn’t want to do your generic Christmas thing,” explained Minsky. “I’d want to know, what is the big holiday for you? There’s sort of a conscious decision not to address certain things but I think going forward I would love there to be some more specificity about being Asian American. It does really seem to speak to people. The last thing you want to do is have this opportunity and blow it.”
Minsky recalled a moment in the filming of the pilot where Celia, Andi’s mother, was drinking tea when Bowden stepped up and said the teapot would never be directly on the table. It was the smallest things that made a difference.
“Lauren and Lilan were instrumental,” said Manning. “There’s a scene where a meal was prepared and Lauren was with the prop guys literally putting the peas on the plate the way it was presented when her mother cooked it. A lot of her character is based on her mother.”
Ultimately, “Andi Mack” was never intended to be an “Asian-American” show, or something used to check the diversity box off a list. Instead, the show rings true to these characters first and foremost, representing a sliver of the Asian-American experience and connecting with its young viewers on topics of identity, adolescence, and authenticity.
“Just write from your heart. Be true,” was Manning’s advice for young storytellers. “I was fortunate enough to work with John Hughes [and experienced] the same thing when I read the pilot that Terri wrote—I knew that these are authentic voices. These are real kids. Teens don’t want to be talked down to, they want to feel like, [this show] knows me, that’s me on-screen, that’s my friend. For writers, don’t try to be somebody else. Be yourself. Be true and have a unique voice and people will want to listen.”
You can watch the first episode of “Andi Mack” on Disney Channel’s YouTube channel!
The second episode airs Friday, Apr. 7, on Disney Channel.