You could say Debby Ryan is a late bloomer, by Disney Channel standards.
Disney gave Ryan her first starring role in a TV series, “Jessie,” when she was 18, which may not sound old until you consider Miley Cyrus was 12 when she was cast in “Hannah Montana.” Before “Jessie,” Ryan’s Disney Channel experience included a starring role in the film “16 Wishes” and a supporting role on “The Suite Life on Deck.”
“With ‘Suite Life,’ I had three years to sit a little bit on the back burner and learn with less pressure,” said Ryan, situated in the Peninsula Chicag hotel Saturday, her hair and make up done for her Magnificent Mile Lights Festival appearance that evening.
“(But) I think there is an advantage to being younger because you don’t realize what an undertaking it is. You’re too young to realize the pressure of being part of this multimillion dollar company — one of the most influential brands in the world. ‘And I’m now going to be one of the faces?’ ”
The 20-year-old Ryan is a co-producer on “Jessie,” in which she plays a nanny for a wealthy family living in a New York penthouse. The show is in its third season and has included cameos from Adam Sandler (“Grown Ups”) and the Miami Heat’s Chris Bosh.
While some Disney Channel actors rush to make the transition into more adult roles, never to be heard from again, Ryan, who made a Radio Disney-sponsored appearance Sunday at Navy Pier, is enjoying the benefits of remaining with the channel into her 20s. She can be seen playing herself in March in “Muppets Most Wanted,” co-produced by Walt Disney Pictures, and expects to release her first album in the spring. That’s not to say she has stayed away from more adult projects. Ryan played a recovering cocaine addict in 2011 on ABC’s “Private Practice.”
How did her Disney bosses feel about the role?
“That’s a great question,” Ryan said, choosing her words carefully, likely hoping to not upset The Mouse. “If I was younger and just getting started on their channel, I don’t think they would let me do that. ... I came in there and said, ‘I rarely ask you for a favor, but this is something I really want.’ Of course they set boundaries, which I thought were awesome. I have to be fully clothed, I couldn’t be a prostitute. That sort of thing is so heavy, selling bits of your soul like that. At some point I will play a role like that, but I’m going to be careful how I go about it. You have to be able to develop more emotionally and mentally before you go there.”
Ryan — who offered the occasional wink and wave to a young girl waiting patiently to meet the actress throughout our conversation — is well aware of the poor career choices child stars make to get taken seriously as they get older. And while Ryan didn’t name any names, it’s clear that it’s a subject she has given some thought.
“If you go into it like you have something to prove, you’re already doing something wrong. Any mature, responsible adult doesn’t run around stomping their feet and screaming ‘I’m a mature, responsible, adult.’ I think a lot of times, creatively, it’s a bit of a cry for respect. For some people, that’s what they want. And they’re succeeding,” Ryan said, adding that she will be a little more patient with the transition. “For me, I’ve grown up for five years in front of people’s eyes, and I’m going to continue to do that. Now I’m really excited to see what the next step of that entails.”
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