As someone who has been working in the entertainment industry since they were six, with dozens of films and television properties to their name, it’s always The Princess Diaries that people want Heather Matarazzo to talk about. More specifically, her role of outspoken and occasionally obnoxious best friend Lilly Moscovitz. It’s not surprising really, given the Meg Cabot novel series it’s based on – which is still ongoing – is a global best-seller and the film itself went on to be an unexpected hit for Disney in 2001. The story and the characters and the pop culture zeitgeist of it all have endured in a way that means the coming-of-age romantic comedy is still on the tip of people's tongues even 20 years later. “I’m always surprised and honoured when a piece of work that I do gets to be embraced generation after generation,” Matarazzo told ACMI. “I rarely ever go into any project thinking ‘this is gonna stand the test of time’. I’m just hoping it breaks even at the proverbial box office.”
Matarazzo says The Princess Diaries ongoing fandom is “testament” to a few key factors, namely the “brilliant work” of the late filmmaker Gary Marshall. Considered one of the godfathers of the modern rom-com, Marshall entered into the film world off the back of a hugely successful television career as the creator of seminal sitcoms like Happy Days (1974–84), Mork & Mindy (1978–82) and Laverne & Shirley (1976–83) (to name a few). Renowned for his ability to spot talent, he had back-to-back hits with Overboard (1987), Beaches (1988) and Pretty Woman (1990) which made Julia Roberts a star. That unique gift was just as potent later in his career as well, with The Princess Diaries being the first film roles for both Anne Hathaway and Mandy Moore. “Gary was somebody that really brought out the best in people and acted as almost like a human Valium,” says Matarazzo. “He was really, truly a remarkable artist and even more of a remarkable being.” As an actor, writer, and producer, Marshall had an intimate understanding of how important all of the moving pieces on a film set were, including the supporting cast which featured Sandra Oh, Hector Elizondo, Caroline Goodall, and the legendary Dame Julie Andrews.
Unlike Hathaway and Moore, Matarazzo had already been consistently working in the industry for a decade with roles in The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Scream 3 (2000). Yet she was considered somewhat of an indie darling thanks to her breakthrough performance in Sundance hit Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), which was also a coming-of-age romantic comedy with an awkward teen at the centre not unlike The Princess Diaries. A self-described “punk”, the Disney live-action feature was a whole other league for Matarazzo who was only 16 during production. “Youth is wasted on the young and I was completely unprepared to fully receive the magnanimous experience that I was getting to have,” she says. “I was coming off a slew of independent films and this was really my first starring role in a studio film. I didn’t really know what to expect … But Gary Marshall was very exacting without ego. I can only speak for myself, but he enabled me to feel safe enough to really just fly and let Lilly come to life, which is a great testament to him and his intuitive knowledge of actors and letting actors do what they do best – which is act!”
In hindsight, it’s easy to think of The Princess Diaries as a sure thing given both it and the sequel – The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement (2004) – made over $300 million worldwide and launched multiple careers, including that of Chris Pine. Yet in early 2000, the project was a risk. With the film rights purchased off Meg Cabot’s then unpublished manuscript for the first novel in the series, Disney’s live-action properties were considered somewhat of a flailing branch of the media company’s film wing. Much in the same way their animated features were considered DOA before The Little Mermaid reinvigorated the medium in 1989, The Princess Diaries success ushered in a new era partially thanks to the involvement of music icon Whitney Houston. Her production company Brownhouse – which she founded with the aim of highlighting African American stories – had already worked with Disney on a live-action Cinderella (1997). Groundbreaking at the time, pop superstar Brandy became the first black Disney princess with Prince Charming being played by Asian American actor Paolo Montalban.
Casting was just as vital on The Princess Diaries, with the longlist of actresses who were offered teen royal Mia Thermopolis reading like a who’s who of Hollywood before Hathaway eventually won the role (in part because Marshall’s granddaughters were enamoured with her “princess hair” in the audition tapes). With the main arc of the film being Mia’s path to accepting her duty and responsibility, the romance is secondary to that journey and even less important than one of the key relationships of the story: that of Mia and her best friend Lilly. Perfectly capturing the intensity and sometimes hostility of those defining teen girl friendships, Marshall didn’t arrange a chemistry read for Hathaway’s love interest like one usually would for a film in this genre: instead, he orchestrated one between Matarazzo and Hathaway, as their spark was more important. “Truth be told, I barely remember the chemistry read,” Matarazzo laughs. “In part because I’m always flummoxed and full of nerves when I have to do things such as that. I’m somewhat of a shy individual on first meeting so I remember that we had to some kind of tap dance or something. I remembered Annie from meeting her at different audition rooms in New York and I mean, she was as just as charming as can be. She would put the coldest person at ease and melt them like butter.” Still close friends to this day, Hathaway and Matarazzo’s relationship felt authentic because it was. That authenticity – dorky teens with big crushes and even bigger ambitions – even amongst all of the saccharine Disney trimmings is in part what makes The Princess Diaries stand the test of time.
Maria Lewis is a best-selling author, screenwriter and journalist. Her seventh book The Rose Daughter is out now along with the limited podcast series Josie & The Podcats which explores the 2001 cult film.