With Her Disney Days Behind Her, Laura Marano Is Determined to Prove Herself in the Music Industry
Laura Marano has grown up in the spotlight. She began acting at just five years old, landing her first major TV gig as a recurring character on Without a Trace at the ripe old age of eight. Now 23, she's been steadily working in Hollywood ever since, appearing in everything from Dexter and Superbad to Lady Bird. But she’s best known for starring as the lead in Disney Channel’s hit comedy Austin & Ally, a role that earned her a huge and hugely dedicated fan base (to the tune of 8.1 million Instagram followers).
While many former child stars shy away from the industry and grow more guarded with age, Marano is moving full speed ahead. She has a handful of film projects in the works, as well as a blossoming music career. She says she’s more comfortable in her own skin than ever before, and in terms of candidness, well, hers is quite simply off the charts.
When it comes to discussing the ups and downs and fame, Marano is an open book. “It’s been a rollercoaster of a few years,” she tells InStyle, launching into a recap of her career highs and lows since the 2016 finale of Austin & Ally. She set her sights on a singing career, signing with Big Machine Records — the label that launched Taylor Swift’s career. The video for her 2016 single, “Boombox,” has received over 59 million views on YouTube to date. But despite her success, things were off to a bumpy start.
“We kind of tried this thing out with me in the pop world, and long story short, we weren't really able to do everything we both wanted to do,” says Marano, who ultimately parted ways with the label. “It ended very amicably, which was very cool. It's how I wish all breakups could be, because as we all know, that's not usually how it goes.” As she continued auditioning for acting gigs, Marano simultaneously plotted her next music move. “I’ve always wanted to pursue a career as an artist, and I’ve been writing songs for a long time,” she says. “It’s a very different business, and deals take forever to negotiate in the music industry.”
On the acting side, she booked a movie, The War with Grandpa, starring alongside Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, and Christopher Walken (initially set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, the comedy’s release has since been put on hold). She also got the chance to produce and star in her longtime passion project, Saving Zoe — a film adaptation of Alyson Noel’s best-selling Y.A. novel — which she had been working on with her mom and sister, Vanessa, for 10 years (the teen thriller is set to come out in 2019). At the same time, she got signed to Warner Bros. Records.
“It's hard, trying to balance the acting and music worlds,” she says. “Wanting to release music and be seen as an artist is so, so insanely important to me, but completely turning off my acting side — which I've been doing since I’m five — also doesn't make sense. I tried my best to balance both, but a ton of changes happened at the record label while I was filming, and it ended up not working out.”
Instead of letting the split bring her down, Marano kept her chin up. “I’m definitely an optimist, and I really choose to be as positive and bring as much positivity as possible; it's how I survive and deal with things,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason. I got some really personal music out of that time, especially because while all this chaos was happening in my professional life, my personal life was also experiencing a lot of changes. I fell in love for the first time and went through my first breakup. I found myself being really vulnerable and emotional, and trying not to show it to people. I was left in a pretty weird emotional state, but got songs out of it that were much more personal to me than what I had been doing in 2015. I was much more connected with this music, and that was a good thing.”
Instead of looking to sign with another record label, Marano took a leap of faith. “I made one of the scariest decisions of my life and decided to go independent,” she says. “I [knew] this music was probably not going to ever see the light of day if I shopped it to a label, because they’d want to work on new music with me. And I really wanted it to see the light of day.”
She founded her own label, Flip Phone Records (the star has famously refused to give up her beloved flip phone for something more high-tech). “I don't have to deal with the label politics that come with people who sign me and how they see my career,” she says. “I can own it and control it the way I want to, which is amazing. It'd be nice to have the resources a major label has, but it's been awesome to control what I want to put out there and when and how I want to put it out. I'm on this journey where I'm a little bit out of my league, but I'm releasing music — it’s exciting. I'm so scared and so happy.”
She’s putting all of those feelings on display with a just-released single, “Let Me Cry.” “This is such a new side of me that no one has really seen — including my fans and, to be honest, a lot of people in my life,” she says of the song. “For so long I was trying to still keep this positive outer shell, which I still do have, but I finally realized that there is so much power in vulnerability. There's positivity in wallowing and being negative and being honest with yourself about what you're feeling. And I think people can relate to the idea that, yes, there is hope, and yes, there will be a day where I will stand up again ... but for right now, I just want to cry. I just want to feel all these emotions and not put out the energy that it takes to be positive.”
Expressing her true emotions on social media is trickier. “I’ll be talking with fans and they ask me how I am, and I'm actually doing really terribly, but being the type of person that I am, I’m not going to say I'm doing terribly,” she says. "I can’t be completely raw and honest, which I think is a bit of a survival mechanism [for someone] in the public eye. But there’s definitely a balance where you can be strong and genuine in your vulnerability without giving away all of your secrets and inner thoughts. I’m striving to find that balance.”
She says she's getting there, little by little, but part of her personality makes it challenging to really let go. "I have this sort of dysfunctional need to do everything perfectly, which is an impossible feat to achieve, because no one can," Marano says. “The past few years have been a learning curve of dealing with imperfections. People in the industry put all this pressure on each other and on ourselves, and we just can't live up to it. I'm going to make mistakes — professionally and personally,” she says. Ever the optimist, she sees it all as an opportunity to grow.
While many child stars before her have publicly struggled with the pressures of young Hollywood, Marano has managed to avoid its notorious pitfalls. She credits those around her — as well as her education — with keeping her grounded. “I'm lucky to have a really great family, but I also attribute it to school,” she says. “I’ve been going to college part-time; I’m not going to graduate until I'm like 37 to 40 at this rate, but when you’ve been in the industry for such a long time and live in L.A., it’s so easy to think the whole world is this bubble. Going to school has enabled me to see that there’s more out there. I think that’s a positive aspect of social media, as well: it shows you so much more to the world than what’s inside your own bubble.”
Having spent her teen years in the Disney bubble, Marano is still trying to shake the stereotypes that come along with starring on the network — namely the squeaky clean image that can be hard to shake when navigating the music world. “When you’re on a really notable big show that’s attached to a notable big company like Disney Channel, so many awesome things come of it,” she says. “I was so lucky that Austin & Ally was a music show, because it opened so many doors for me musically. But there are so many misconceptions or just perceptions of who I am on the music side, and it's been tough to prove to people that I'm more than just what they’ve already seen.” She’s also found it challenging to be taken seriously at times given her Disney background, which she says can be "insanely frustrating."
"I’m like, ‘Guys, I've literally been acting since I was five," she says.
Through it all, Marano has consistently been herself. “My personality is truly happy-go-lucky — it'd be so easy to kind of put it on Disney and say, ‘Yeah, they tried to hide who I really was and I'm actually super edgy,’” she says, laughing. “I think that might be true for some people, but for me, it wasn't that at all. I have this weird psyche that comes with being a child actress, where I know that in my professional life, I have to have a brave face and deal with rejection; that’s just how it goes. And in terms of my personal life, I don’t think it’s a coincidence or mistake that it took 18 years for me to be in a relationship. Being in the public eye, it's hard for me to get my walls down and trust someone.”
With the release of “Let Me Cry,” Marano is finally ready to let the world in a bit more. She puts it best, saying, “No matter how scary it is and how frightening it is to be vulnerable, I'm excited for people to see this side of me.”