UC Berkeley

Meet Meg Donnelly, the voice of young Hollywood

A conversation with Meg Donnelly is, in complete honesty, refreshing. In the grand scheme of all things Hollywood, it’s easy for a budding star to be swept up in the overwhelming catalyst to fame. Starring in shows like “American Housewife,” and Disney’s “Zombies,” even with success as an actress, ardent followers on Instagram, and a clear path to stardom, Meg Donnelly is undeniably genuine in everything she does, with a distinctive honesty and openness in the way she talks about her latest career ventures. Donnelly is confident, and self-assured, entirely at ease for the fame that is only bound to be elevated. She’s proud of what she’s accomplished, and unwavering in her passion, as though it was built into her DNA. I spoke with her about acting, dying at the sight of Janet Jackson, “finstas,” and defying the bounds of social media in her sound and songwriting.

When you think of young actresses, you think mom-agers vying for their kid to fulfill all their dreams of Disney Channel stardom. Ask Donnelly to choose between L.A. and her native New York, and she will stick with guns, confessing that the city that never sleeps will always have her heart. “The energy is just incredible,” she professes. There wasn’t helicopter parenting forcing her into the industry, no hint of unwillingness or forced stardom. Before entering in LA’s entertainment scene, in New York, there would be “going to school, and afterwards…the theater program,” where she got her start.  

She insists the reason her family chose the theater over a more typical, little league beginning was because her inclination towards anything athletic was nearly nonexistent. “I was put into musical theater because I was terrible at sports. I was terrible. I always wanted to do cartwheels on the field, or be goalie, but I was terrible.”

At an age where people are trying to figure out middle school, much less figure out a career path for the rest of their lives, age 11 was when the actress discovered acting’s potential permanence in her life. “When I was at one of my musical theater shows, there were agents that came to one of the shows. They came up to my parents and said, ‘We want to sign your daughter.’”

Talking with Donnelly about acting is like watching a rom-com where the main character embarks on a soliloquy, intricately reciting the steps to falling in love with their best friend. Musical theater drew her in because “I just knew, when you step out onto that stage, there was nothing like it.”

At 18 years old, you’re worrying about your prom dress, college applications, and where you’re taking your graduation photos. Yet for Donnelly, at 18 years old, a chance of stardom meant sacrificing a typical teenage experience. A day in the life of rising star is just work, she said.

“Pretty much I’m always at work, which I love! But it’s very work oriented,” she said.

Yet, she takes the experiences that could’ve been with a grain of salt. “It’s definitely hard. Especially when I was in middle school and high school, and you always feel like you’re missing out on events. You have an audition and then there’s a school event, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t go.’”

She never blames her career, or feels a sense of regret of choosing acting over high school’s clutches. Yet, she doesn’t keep it a secret, the desire to go to prom, or the various untapped experiences in a typical teenagers’ repertoire. I hear her resolute voice, insistent on looking only at the positive.

“Since I was doing acting, I wanted that high school experience. It doesn’t matter where you are, you’re always thinking, ‘oh, I could’ve been doing that,’” she said.

The grass is always greener, she reminds. Her maturity is unmatched, how focused she is on making a name for herself and the fervor she has for her career, there’s no time to focus on the “what ifs?”

“There were a lot of times where I missed out on things. I never went to prom, because I always had something. It’s definitely challenging, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do. You have to just keep remembering if you put in the hard work, you’ll definitely get there,” she said.

Her aim for her music is to make music you could easily relate to.

“It’s really cool when a lyric can connect with you, and can just say: ‘I totally feel that,’” she emphasized.

Just from listening to her talk about music, or acting, you could tell, she doesn’t do things half heartedly. There’s consistent persistence in all her endeavors. The music she wants to put out, she writes herself, with her audience at the forefront. It’s music meant at propelling a simple message of “I understand you,” to connect with not only fans, but the people her age.

“I’ve been writing about social media and people caring about what their status is, I see that all the time,” she mentioned. “I think sensitive subjects like that, people listen to it and relate to it.”

She wants to create a sound that is uniquely Meg Donnelly. She’s been recording a combination of pop and R&B. Describing her music, there’s a enthusiastic lilt in her voice. “It’s not pure R&B but it’s not pure pop either, it’s really interesting. I don’t really know how to describe it.”

When talking about “American Housewife” or “Zombies,” she talks about how grateful she is for such amicable casts on both projects, ready to do her opportunities again in “negative two seconds.” It’s high praise, with it being not uncommon to hear horror stories about entire casts barely able to stand one another. “I was really nervous when I showed up for the first “American Housewife” episode in the series. I walked in there and they welcomed me in with open arms. They couldn’t have been nicer. For the first season, it was kind of like a home. It doesn’t really feel like work anymore.”

Her character on “American Housewife,” Taylor relatable to any teen girl, sometimes takes inspiration from Donnelly’s own life. “Sometimes my parents watch it, and they’re like ‘are you sure that’s not you they’re writing into the script?’”

The writers of the show make sure to take note from the teen source. “I told them about the whole private Instagram thing!  How people have a public one and a private one.” This makes us laugh, the generational divide of a growing Internet culture only we could understand. “They were like: ‘Why don’t you just combine the two? I told them the whole scenario. They have an episode where I have a private Instagram, and my parents, in the show, find it. I think it’s really relatable, because most girls have that. If your parents find it, then you’re pretty much completely dead.”

It’s endearing, the almost frazzled way she recalls interviewing Janet Jackson.

“It’s Janet Jackson,” she reiterates, excitement evident in her voice. “I was nervous, I kept going over my interview questions. As soon as she walked in, I was like I can’t do this. This is crazy. She was the nicest person, she’s so confident and just Janet Jackson, but in real life she was timid, and so sweet, and just paid attention to everyone, and a normal person. It was so crazy to see. It was really funny, when I asked ‘Who inspires you?’ She responded with, ‘Besides my entire family….’ I was just like, ‘Wow.’ I definitely died a little bit. As soon as she walked in the room, it went silent. She was like ‘Is everyone ok?’”

What’s next for Meg Donnelly? Hopefully a ‘Zombies’ sequel, ‘American Housewife,’ and going home to New York to create more music. Meg Donnelly is undeniably on her way to find even more success.  She melds the two identities of teenagehood and being a star in the modern age with what she brings to her characters, what she brings to her music. Speaking to her, she’s so incredibly grounded, humble in everything she does and what she’s accomplished, it’s easy to forget she isn’t the typical teenager. A fresh, driven, voice in the industry is exactly what Hollywood needs.

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