To most fans, Debby Ryan appears preternaturally lucky. By age 19, she has an established career in television and film, with ventures in music and fashion in the works. She currently stars on the popular Disney Channel original series “Jessie," which premiered its second season on Oct. 5. Behind the charmed life is a persistent work ethic that keeps Ryan grounded and focused.
The multi-talented star took a break from her nonstop schedule to talk with Backstage about the hard work it takes to make it all look easy.
Do you think your previous Disney Channel show, “The Suite Life on Deck,” as well as Disney Channel movies like “16 Wishes” gave “Jessie” an early advantage?
Debby Ryan: I definitely do. And I’d be lying if I said that [Disney] fans weren’t a huge deciding factor in doing the show. When “The Suite Life” came to a close, people were so heartbroken. I felt this loyalty to them. So I absolutely took that into consideration and I’ve been really blessed. I think that my fans know that I take care of them and they take care of me. I didn’t think that after my first Disney show that I’d be sticking around TV for very long, and now it’s so much of my heart.
What do you think is the effect of having an audience that is almost entirely comprised of teens and kids?
Ryan: I think you become acutely aware of what kids are into. And being a co-producer this season, it’s making TV about kids for kids by kids. I’m making jokes and scenes that I would like to see. We do a live audience show and having that energy and connection to the audience is so key in what we do. Sometimes the audience will laugh at things we didn’t even know were funny.
It’s so cool that you’re going to co-produce. How did you get into that?
Ryan: It started on “The Suite Life." I would sit in the writer’s room and shadow the directors long after the scenes were done. So Disney said, “We like what you’re bringing to your projects both on and off camera.” I believe that you can learn the most by doing.
On “Jessie”, you play a small-town Southern girl who becomes a nanny for a high-profile wealthy family in New York City. What do you think it is about the fish-out-of-water characters that is so appealing to audiences?
Ryan: It’s absolutely relatable. I grew up moving around. I went to seven different schools, so I know what it’s like to be that new girl and have to not only know who you are but also take that into foreign circumstances and know how to respond. Jessie is not the best nanny in the world; we’ll just say it. But she loves the kids so much it overcomes anything. I’d venture to say that success is usually bred out of having no other choice other than failure. It’s refusing to hit the ground, and if you do, refusing to stay there.
And you and Jessie both come from military families.
Ryan: We do. After playing Bailey on “The Suite Life,” I didn’t want to play a country girl again. There are a lot of military bases in Texas. I’ve lived there. So I wanted to show a girl from a military family. I went to school on a military base in Germany. I got a lot of my clothes at the army surplus store.
You're very active on Tumblr and YouTube, with the Debby Ryan Official channel where you answer fan questions. Is there an expectation today for performers to make themselves fully accessible to their fans?
Ryan: I think there’s absolutely that expectation. You’re one person and the more you give, the bigger your fan base. But you can never give them everything they want to know. You feel that you owe them answers and they feel entitled to answers. It’s a really interesting balance and even the balance between celebrities – not being too personal in each other’s lives. I’m introverted by nature, and I need to have some things of my own. I think there’s also something beautiful about mystery.
If an eighteen year-old decides to move to New York or L.A. to pursue acting, what advice would you offer?
Ryan: Don’t do what Jessie did! You can’t show up empty-handed. Be ready for anything. Know who you are intrinsically. Know what your boundaries are and what kind of content you refuse to do. There have been times when I had an opportunity that could have been massive but it would have withered away at my soul.
Many sitcoms today portray diverse families, but not many portray families with adopted children. What do you think the Ross family can say to viewers about adoptive and diverse families?
Ryan: That a family is a family. A big brother will drive you crazy whether or not they’re born from the same parents as you. A little sister – you’ll want to watch her grow up whether or not you have the same skin color. It’s the most beautiful thing to give someone a family.