How Vanessa Marano made a difference by taking her career into her own hands

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You may recognize actress Vanessa Marano from hit shows such as “Switched at Birth” or “Gilmore Girls,” but more recently the young star has taken her career into her own hands and switched to the role of producer. “Saving Zoë” came out last year and was produced by Marano, her sister Laura (“Austin and Aly”) and their mother as a way to tell a story that they felt needed to be heard. They expected to feel gratification from taking the reigns of their own career, but something much deeper came out of “Saving Zoë”. The poignant film follows two sisters and examines grief and human trafficking in a way that isn’t always showcased. After releasing the film, the impact did not stop at just the screen, and made its way all the way to the UN in hopes of making a difference.

Marano also is starring in another interesting project, “This is the Year” directed and produced by “Wizards of Waverly Place” star David Henrie, which comes out this Friday. His maiden voyage into directing mirrored Marano’s journey with “Saving Zoë,” which, according to her, was part of the reason why she wanted to sign on. “This is the Year” will be the first film to debut digitally, and part of the proceeds will also go to different organizations, including the COVID-19 Relief Fund.

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How did you get started with producing and starring in “Saving Zoë”? 

The thing with “Saving Zoë” was, when I was about 14 years old I booked a huge blockbuster action movie in Berlin, Germany and I was going to be one of the leads in it—well, the project completely fell apart. Investors embezzled money, my mom and I were stuck in Berlin without a plane ticket home, it was a mess. At the exact same time, my sister had gotten fired off of two shows. My sister and I had been acting for about six years, and it was the real first hardship that we faced. We both got things that were supposed to change our careers and it completely fell apart in our faces. My parents were like, okay you don’t have to do this anymore, but my sister and I were like we want to keep doing it. So, my mom said well, if we are going to keep doing this, then we’re going to take our careers into our own hands. So, we went to Barnes and Noble and just picked up a bunch of YA books with teenage girls on them, and Laura read a bunch of them and she absolutely fell in love with “Saving Zoë.” It made the most sense because it was a story about sisters, and Allison Noël crafts this amazing, beautiful tale about grief and does it in a way of this underbelly of sexual exploitation that you don’t even really realize. That [all] going on was just absolutely brilliant, and we just connected with the story so much. We approached Allison via her website, sent her an email asking to meet. “Austin and Ally” hadn’t happened yet, “Switched at Birth” hadn’t happened yet, but Allison was a fan of “Gilmore Girls,” and she was actually writing “Saving Zoë” the time my season of “Gilmore Girls” was airing. Because of that she said that she just had a feeling, and she let us have the rights for a very small fee and let us continue on for the rights for about ten years—no one wanted to make that film for ten years. It was very dark subject matter, and no one thought dark YA could work. “13 Reasons Why” came out and all of the sudden people were like, oh, we want dark YA, so we went from having no offers on the table to having multiple offers on the table. We went with a production company called Studio 71 which has a wonderful presence and they totally believed in us, and we made the film in fifteen days on a really tight budget.

What ignited your partnership with Equality Now through “Saving Zoë”? 

Through the editing process, my mom contacted Equality Now which is this amazing organization and asked if they wanted to be involved in some way, because this tells a story of online exploitation and it hasn’t really been told on camera before. When we think about human trafficking, we think about films like “Taken” with a girl traveling abroad. The fact of the matter is, it’s far more insidious than that. Every survivor we’ve spoken to has told us, it can happen that way, but a lot of the time perpetrators are far more insidious in how they target and what they do, you don’t even realize that it’s happening to you and we thought it was really a story to be told. One of the greatest things about “Saving Zoë” was that we got to go to the UN and show the film to members of the UN, and a survivor named Melanie Thompson spoke about her own experience in an effort to try create some legislation and to combat what’s happening online. It was amazing to be a part of that. This project came out of our own hardship, and we got to do something really meaningful with it. But it also puts your own hardship into perspective, because there are people being trafficked for their bodies right now, [and] we need to talk about these things.

What intrigued you about “This is the Year” to want to sign on?

You know, it’s funny because this is the complete opposite of “Saving Zoë,” which is probably why I was drawn to it. Laura and I were really like we both want to do something happy now. [Laura] shot “The Perfect Date” not long after we finished “Saving Zoë” and so it was similar for me. I was definitely looking for more of a happy project to be a part of. What drew me to it was David was directing for the first time, Lorenzo his brother was starring in it, they were producing the film with their dad [and] they all have a production company together. Coming off of “Saving Zoë” and having done the exact same thing, I was really on board with having like a fellow comrade in that world. A child actor who took their career into their own hands, told a story that was important for them, made something happen— that was something that I really wanted to be apart of. Just getting that done, and I knew what an incredible feat it was to get that done, I was like, I want to do this with them.

What do you think about having the film premiere digitally?
I don’t think this is how anyone thought the film would come out, but what drew me to this was this innovative world of we’re going to make things happen. Things aren’t going to go our way, but we’re going to turn it around and get something produced, and get something distributed. We had to do that with “Saving Zoë,” and David definitely had to do that with “This Is The Year” because of the virus situation right now. It was very much, while we were shooting, an independent film, and when you make an independent film you never know how it’s going to be distributed. That’s always the risk of making an Indie is that you don’t know the outcome, but that’s also the exciting thing about making an Indie because you control over the tone and the storytelling far more than you do working with a lot of other people. So, it went through a lot of different stages of where it was going to be and they definitely had something completely different set, and you know, 2020 happened, and things got weird and crazy. Rather than get discouraged everyone at their company put their thinking cap on and came up with this idea of how to premiere it. I think Selena [Gomez] was also a force to be reckoned with, with her believing in this and David’s ability to make this happen. Again, that’s what’s all really exciting—we are on the precipice of doing something really different.

“Saving Zoë” is available to stream on Netflix now and “This is the Year” will premiere digitally August 28th

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