'Teen Wolf' Earned Holland Roden Millions of Followers. Will They Stick With Her?
It's mid-May in a dimly lit Atlanta warehouse, and 31-year-old actress Holland Roden is resting -- or she's trying. In a few minutes, a director will call "action!" and transport her to 19th-century Ireland, where UFC fighter Cathal "The Punisher" Pendred will pin her down on a bed and scream in her face at the top of his lungs. As the man towers over her, she'll scream back and another actor will pour runny green guck down her throat.
You'd think, with just months to go before Roden's breakout series Teen Wolf wraps on MTV, the actress might look to dial down the supernatural grisliness. You'd be wrong. She wanted this role on Lore, Amazon's adaptation of the popular Aaron Mahnke podcast. Showrunner Glen Morgan says Roden campaigned to play Bridget Cleary, a young woman whose husband, Michael (Pendred), becomes convinced a fairy has replaced his wife, Body Snatchers-style. "It was an opportunity to show how outstanding an actress she is," he says. Cue Roden's Bridget biting her father's hand and breaking skin, as he wrests open her maw.
"Holland has an amazing capacity to bring you into her emotions with her eyes and expressions," Teen Wolf creator Jeff Davis says. "The audience can immediately connect to her." Pendred echoes the sentiment: "You can see when she goes on set that she really clicks in and becomes the character. You can see the fear in her eyes."
Lore gifts Roden a compelling role, a woman exorcised of her independence, misdiagnosed as something supernatural. But the show doesn't go down easy like Teen Wolf. Roden's one-off struggle against injustice won't ignite Tumblr every week -- she's the lead guest star in one of six episodes. Millions of tweens won't necessarily follow her Twitter or Instagram pages to support Bridget.
"You feel nervous for the next step, but you're also ready," Roden says between takes. "It's like graduating high school, where you don't want to leave the house but you kind of have to. It's bittersweet in that aspect." Her MTV show was a mega-hit, fueled mostly by younger viewers and a mounting social media army. It earned her the most coveted prize in Hollywood: an audience. Can she hold onto it? Does it matter?
Roden's first true big break was a false start in disguise. In the summer of 2007, then a sophomore molecular biology student at UCLA, the actress accomplished what she'd moved west from Texas to do in less than a year: land a gig that she could squeeze between classes. A recurring role on the HBO series 12 Miles of Bad Road put her on screen with Lily Tomlin, who would star as Amelia, a queen of Dallas real estate looking to sell "epic homes for epic lives." Expectations were high; executives at HBO thought the eccentric, Dallas-meets-Christopher Guest comedy would kill in the post-Sopranos era. So the company sank $25 million into the project and produced six episodes.
None aired. Between HBO leadership reshuffling, creative reassessment, and a failed campaign to place the show on a new network, Roden's first big TV role was buried.
Had 12 Miles become a success, Roden might have seen a different trajectory. Her part, Bronwyn, was like a funnier, more soulless version of Lydia Martin, her eventual Teen Wolf character. "It's kind of ironic that I ended up in drama, because comedy is something that is near and dear to me," she says. "I'm sort of a scrappy, spastic person in real life."
The cancelation stung. After toiling eight months on the promising series, the little redheaded girl from Dallas, who used to put on plays for her parents in their living room, started to wonder if she wasn't cut out for this whole acting thing. That's why she stayed at UCLA -- if acting didn't work, she'd pursue med school. But then, at the end of 2009, came Teen Wolf.
Two weeks after graduating from UCLA, Roden was on set for the MTV series, a reboot of the 1985 Michael J. Fox movie of the same name. "Holland was perfect for the part of Lydia because she could easily move from playing the shallow, popular girl to sensitive and perceptive within a word or two," creator Jeff Davis explains.
The pilot script describes Lydia as "a drop-dead gorgeous junior ... who strolls the walkway like it was a fashion show runway in Milan." In her callback, Roden asked to make the character more of a brainiac. "I thought about Tracy Flick, from Election. I wanted to put more of an Alexander Payne slant on things, where she's a bit quirky and a bit too studious for her own good. If you look at her, she's not really surrounded by a lot of friends, per se. She's just sort of in her own world."
The show clicked with teens in the post-Twilight, second-screen era, and the popularity helped Roden, then a relative unknown, amass roughly 6 million followers across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. MTV had asked its actors to join Instagram to help promote the show. Along with Pretty Little Liars, Teen Wolf became one of the first teen-oriented shows to capitalize on social media fan engagement. "I thought it was kind of pointless, but over time, I've obviously changed my mind on the topic," the actress admits. Roden currently has 3.8 million followers on Instagram -- that's almost 3 million more than Game of Thrones star Lena Headey and Seinfeld legend Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Instagram proved to be a secret weapon, a way for MTV to further plug premiere dates, fan contests, and fun times behind the scenes.
"We got really lucky with Teen Wolf because we didn't have a big marketing campaign -- we weren't a massively publicized CW show," Roden says. "We really succeeded because of our fans. I know every actor says that, but we actually did." And that support, providing an aura of constant attention, began impacting Roden's career. If she wanted to join the cast of an indie horror movie or, say, slip on Grey's Anatomy for a guest spot, she could.
"Because of social media, there's a more personalized aspect where I know I feel closer to [viewers]," Roden says. "Because it's almost like a friend cheering you on versus a fan." The comparison makes sense. Last season around February, for example, Roden featured in an episode in which her character was rescued from a mental hospital she'd been trapped in for six weeks. When the episode aired, Variety reported, an #AskHolland fan Q&A clocked in as Twitter's No. 4 trending topic worldwide. The hashtag was mentioned more than 75,000 times on the service, and Teen Wolf became the No. 1 rated show on social media that night.
"Do I like using [social media] for work? Not necessarily," Roden says. "But at the same time, I try to think of it from the fans' perspective, in that they've been on this ride with us for a very long time and in a very grassroots way. It's a way we can pay them back and connect with them. So when I think of it that way, I'm more than happy to post."
The actress' dedication to fanning the fan flame is part of the reason Teen Wolf kept earning renewals from MTV, says Davis, citing regular spikes on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. But the popularity came with its downsides. "Twitter is often a place of high emotions," Davis notes, saying some actors found it a bit of an ordeal at times. For Roden, the biggest drawback, she says, was followers over-analyzing her every move, post, and word.
There's a "constant and unrelenting negativity," Davis says, noting that Twitter in particular has turned into Yelp. "When fans don't like something they make it known and with no filter, often projecting their anger at the stars themselves," he adds. "I think it can actually be destructive."
Says Roden: "I don't let any one individual ruin it for everyone."
Parts of Roden's story might sound like a fairytale. She missed the opportunity of a lifetime, found redemption and a fan base that catapulted her to fame, and now that her hit is behind her, she's set for life. But that's only partly true.
She's not quite yet at a place where scripts come to her -- she still has to go to them. "I can't tell you how many 'almosts' happened this year, after Teen Wolf, that would've changed my career indefinitely and put me at a level I would have never thought possible, acting with the Jack O'Connells of the world -- and you miss them by a hair," she says, adding that she believes an actor hasn't truly made it until they've become a movie star.
"The X-factor [in Hollywood] now is social media," Vine-star-turned-actor Jake Paul toldGQ recently. "Like -- reverse-engineer Hollywood is how I think of it. All the social-media stars are going in the back door, and everyone's trying to get in the front -- there's a line outside."
There's a competitive element to that social juggling. With viewers of a certain age, Paul is more of a household name. Through Game of Thrones popularity, Maisie Williams has also made it to the front of the line -- but her Instagram following hovers around 7 million. Roden considers herself still in line; while her niche army of followers helped Teen Wolf, she hasn't seen it turn into a surefire way to win other roles. "I don't know from a personal standpoint if [my following] helps or not" in auditions, she says. "I think, if I had to guess, upward of 10 to 15 million would start helping, but at my level I don't think they do. I've never heard of it helping me."
In other words, you can be the breakout actress of MTV's hottest property in years and still be a face in a crowded room, fighting to prove yourself. There are times when she'll submit a strong audition tape and get the part days later. And there are times when she'll submit a strong audition tape and hear nothing back. Social media can only get you so far.
"[It] helps create name recognition for the actor," says Jason Ellis, Roden's manager. "If [an actor wants] to get a job in Hollywood, then at least the casting director, executives, or whoever is in charge of the hiring may have already heard of the actor due to their following." But with the proliferation of YouTube vloggers and ex-Vine comedians, Roden is among many young actors and actresses hoping to earn that star power online.
"The upside of [social media] is anybody can go out there, make something, and build a following," YouTube personality and American Vandal star Jimmy Tatro told us recently. "But the problem is also that anyone can make what they want to make and build a following. It's created an oversaturation."
After Lore, Roden will be seen in the third, giallo-inspired season of SyFy's Channel Zero. Showrunner Nick Antosca, who used to write for Teen Wolf, says Teen Wolf's social media attention had nothing to do with the casting choice and everything to do with a glowing endorsement from Davis.
"I didn't realize she had a big social media presence until she posted something about Channel Zero and it got a lot of attention," Antosca says. What interested him more was Roden's unique take on the character. "She has a way of delivering emotion and information so naturally, and at the same time she's a really intense presence," he says. "You believe that she fits into a strange, supernatural story."
Even if social numbers aren't factoring into casting considerations, a show like Teen Wolf, and the impact it has on "celebrity," can still haunt a career years after it's moved beyond the typecasting pale. How does a young actress shake it?
In Atlanta, Roden isn't sure, but she knows what she wants next: more age-appropriate roles in situations closer to what she and her friends are experiencing. "Lore means I get to play older than 17," she says with a laugh. "I get to play someone who's married." Genre-wise, she's interested in indie hybrids like the hit Safety Not Guaranteed, outlandish comedies -- acting alongside David Cross and Michael Cera is on her bucket list -- and period pieces. Ellis stresses that he and Roden want to build on her acting career, not her social accounts. "We want the jobs that make people want to follow her in all demographics due to what she brings to the screen," he says.
What about movie stardom? While Jeff Davis thinks she'd be great as an ass-kicking Marvel or DC hero, Roden feels like she can still be picky and stick to her artistic ambition. Maybe she'd do an action movie if there's a reason for the action, but she's looking for more relationship-heavy material. She agrees with David Lynch's assessment that TV is the new art house, and she sees herself sticking around the small screen. Jessica Lange was a big influence on that decision. "I was really excited when she came to [American Horror Story]," she says. "To me, that was one of the iconic moments that really elevated television in the last eight years. When Jessica Lange is doing television, that's a new era."
Despite her preferences, Roden is quick to underline the fickle realities of Hollywood. "We're working actors, you take what you can get," she says. "Whatever you book, you take it from there." Even during Teen Wolf, amid the crazy fandom, she says she struggled with career confidence. Toward the end of the series, she was thinking, I'll be an assistant the day Teen Wolf ends. I'll have some sort of executive assistant job. "I was just having a meltdown over it," she says. "If all this doesn't work out in two or three years, I'm OK to pack it all up and go for a second career elsewhere," she adds, noting she's also interested in producing docs and scripted series. "I think that's the mentality you have to have."
Roden hopes Teen Wolf fans will support what comes next. Fortunately for her, those are millions of people who might have started watching Teen Wolf in middle school and who are now in college, a fan base that has essentially aged along with her, ready to engage with more mature material next. All the anxiety that was plaguing her during Teen Wolf? Some of it's still there, but Roden's nervous about the future in a more positive way. If there's one thing Teen Wolf has taught her, it's that you have to go to auditions with a certain confidence, the same way she approached her Teen Wolf role. "You have to make the character how you see it," she says. "To any actor who would read this: Either they want you or they don't, but don't try to fit their mold."