Liana Liberato has a gut feeling when a job really feels like hers. It’s an instinctual, persistent, can’t let it go kind of feeling. She had it when she auditioned for Scream VI, which hit theaters earlier this year, and again when reading for the new Peacock series Based on a True Story. When she knows, she really knows. In both cases, it felt like a must-do situation. The opportunity to join a beloved horror franchise like Scream in a key role was a no-brainer for the 27-year-old. And then there was Craig Rosenberg’s script for Based on a True Story, which was so cleverly written she couldn’t put it down. It’s clear Liberato has a good intuition about these things, hence why she’s hitting the project jackpot lately.
If you, like most of America, love true crime, I suggest you make Based on a True Story your next watch. It’s pure, unabashed fun. Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina are delightful as Ava and Nathan, a down-on-their-luck couple whose chance encounter with a plumber/serial killer sparks an opportunity to capitalize on the latest true-crime phenomenon. How does the joke go? When a realtor, former tennis pro, and plumber walk into a bar… For Liberato, who plays Ava’s younger sister Tory, the series was a chance to flex her comedic muscles and go toe to toe with the likes of Cuoco and Messina, which she does swimmingly, I may add. As a true-crime lover herself, she could fully relate to the material at hand.
A week before the series premiere, I jumped on a call with Liberato to gab about the best true-crime podcasts, getting pranked by Cuoco, and why J.Crew is so, so good right now.
Let’s start with a funny question Claire Holt’s character asks in Based on a True Story: “What’s your favorite murder?”
What is my favorite murder? That’s a really good question. [There’s] irony behind the question, too, because no murder should be anyone’s favorite. I don’t know if I have a favorite murder, but I remember listening to S-Town, and that was really shocking and fascinating. Another one that I find really fascinating is the Black Dahlia. Just the mystery behind it. I remember listening to Root of Evil and was sick about it. That one really leaves you unsettled and still does. I don’t know if favorite murder is the right way to say it, but I would say murders that keep me up at night, those are two of them.
When you read the script for Based on a True Story, what was the first thing that really stood out to you?
What’s funny is I didn’t read the actual pilot until I had signed onto the show, which I think says a lot about Craig [Rosenberg’s] writing. I had gotten a very old version of the script before Kaley [Cuoco] had even signed on. The script was written for a woman probably in her late 40s, and my character was originally her daughter. I remember not being able to put it down because there was such a clear voice in the script. Even though it was different [from what it ended up being], I understood immediately the type of show that Craig wanted to create. So yeah, I would say the way it was written. It almost was written as if the reader was also a future audience member. There were a lot of moments in the script where it would literally say, “You didn’t see that one coming, did you?” … I was like, “Nope, I literally did not.” It felt like your best friend was telling you a story.
How was it reading with Kaley that first time?
I remember leaving town after I taped [my audition], and I was like, “Okay, just push that out of your head because we’re not going to hear anything.” And I didn’t for like a month and a half. Sometimes when you have auditions, you’ll just immediately forget about it after you’ve done it, and this one really just stayed on me, and I thought about it often. I thought maybe I should ask my team if they found anyone, and I was like, “No, if it’s meant to be, then it will come.”
A month and a half later, I got a call saying that they would like to do a callback with me. I was just meeting with producers and Craig. I did that, and an hour later, I found out that they wanted me to read with Kaley, and I was like, “Oh my god, what am I going to do?” She’s so funny, and Big Bang Theory, she was on that show for so long, and every day, her mind was comically moving. The idea of working across from her and having to keep up with whatever she was about to throw my way, I was like, “I don’t know if I’m capable of this. That’s crazy.” But I was down for the challenge. I was excited. So a week later, I read with Kaley, and we did the scene from episode seven where I walk in on her in the shower. I was cackling when I got the sides. I was like, “This is so funny.” … Ironically, all of the stuff that Kaley and I improvised in that scene Craig wrote into the final. So all of the “You’re in my jerk-off zone” and “It’s like a DJ set,” all of that stuff was just Kaley and I riffing off of each other in our chemistry read, and then it ended up in the script, which was really cool and flattering.
That has to feel so amazing.
Can you imagine me not getting the role and then watching it June 8 and they stole all of my lines?
The show plays into America’s true-crime obsession and has a lot of fun weaving in real-life murder cases. Would you consider yourself a true-crime fan? If so, what’s a true-crime podcast, documentary, or story that had you hooked recently?
It’s funny. I was thinking just the other day that we need another good true-crime documentary. I like to watch Unsolved Mysteries every now and then, but it just doesn’t suffice because it’s one episode. I want to play the long game.
It’s not really true crime … that documentary [MH370: The Plane That Disappeared] about the flight that went missing. I thought that was really interesting. Literally, a flight just disappeared, and there was a lot of controversy surrounding it. Two-hundred people or something just gone. That was what really made me gravitate toward the script. I related so much to Kaley’s character. I am definitely the type of person who pops in my headphones and walks around and does chores, and what I’m listening to is like, “Oh shit, that’s crazy that happened.” But probably like most people, the first time I really fell in love with it was through Serial. I feel like that cracked open the true-crime world and blew everybody’s minds. And then I went into To Live and Die in LA, S-Town, Root of Evil—all of those I think are just so interesting. My co-star Priscilla Quintana likes to listen to Crime Junkie and all of those, but I like the long, spread-out stories.
Do you prefer your true crime in podcast format or documentary?
I think it just depends on my mood. I think that I’m able to listen more often when it’s a podcast just because if I’m driving in a car or cleaning or going on a walk or run, it’s just so easy to pop in your headphones and listen. With documentaries, you just have to carve more time out. But I do like it. There is something really interesting to me about listening to a podcast and not doing any research until after the fact when you look at what these people look like and photos from the trial and everything like that. I find that kind of fun. There’s also another one, I Love You, Now Die—that documentary is really good. It’s not really true crime, but it’s based off The Girl From Plainville, that Hulu show with Elle Fanning. It’s not true crime, but an interesting psychological study.
So we learn early on that Matt, played by Tom Bateman, is the West Side Ripper. What do you think it is about Tom that makes him such a good serial killer?
Oh gosh. For this particular show, you needed to find someone who was charming and attractive but also very menacing. So there has to be this likability in the actor and the character. … I don’t know how you felt, but you want him to get away with things. You want Nathan and Ava and Matt to get away with these things. What I found interesting when reading it was you start to really not want Priscilla’s character [Ruby] to win, which is just such a morally complex situation. I think Tom balances that line so perfectly. He’s a beautiful man to look at, and he is so charming and makes really cool choices. He’s such a thoughtful actor too. You can always see his wheels turning on set in how he’s going to tether that line.
Your character Tory is involved in some really funny scenes. What were some of your personal favorite moments?
There were so many. It’s really intimidating signing onto a show because you sign on pretty blind, especially in my case because I literally hadn’t even received a script. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, so I was like, “I hope that everyone likes me, and I hope I like them and that we become a family.” I would have to say that the first few days on set were really really fun for me because it dawned on me that I had hit the jackpot. I don’t know how they filmed the show because Kaley and Chris [Messina] were laughing all the time. And they would pick on you! They would literally pull pranks and do dumb stuff to you, and it was so fun to know that you were going on set to just play and have fun.
It’s a very fast scene, but the moment when the toilet overflows, I was covered in water just sitting in this bathroom waiting for [Kaley and Chris] to walk in, and when it was on my shot, they were messing with me the entire time. They were filming and recording me on their phones, making random things up and trying to get me to break, and I just had to ignore them and try to mop up this water. Also, the dinner scene, the party scene, that was an interesting time because we were filming all of those table scenes over the course of a week. We were getting a little stir-crazy because we were having to repeat the same things. It’s a huge table, and there is a lot of coverage that has to be done. … We all became a big family, and we were just being so goofy and unhinged that entire week. I think it definitely solidified a bond in the crew.
What’s your trick for not breaking?
I wish I had one. I don’t—I just crack. You kind of have to choose your breaks and be strategic about them. There are moments where you are like, “Okay, it’s crunch time. Get your shit together.” But it’s hard, honestly. I’m not super well-versed in the comedic world quite yet, which is why I love it. It feels very new and fresh to me. I’m still trying to get my footing, and watching Kaley and asking how do you not crack in these moments, it definitely feels like a learning lesson.
Earlier this year, you starred in Scream VI, and one of your upcoming projects is a film called Totally Killer. Do you have a thing for serial-killer storylines?
I really started noticing that pattern and was like, “This is weird.” I honestly just receive scripts, and if I like them, I audition for them, and if they like me, I do it. So there really was nothing strategic about that situation, but I do find myself in a big serial-killer world. It’s interesting, though, because I feel like every serial-killer project that I’ve done over the last year or so, they haven’t been very serious. I mean Scream is scary, but it’s also very satirical. And my character is funny for the most part. I love doing things that are very out of my comfort zone, a little bit feral, and wild, and maybe it just lights me up to get to go a little crazy. I feel really proud of all the projects, so I’ll keep doing them.
What was it like joining such an iconic horror franchise like Scream?
It was pretty surreal. I really wanted the job, obviously, and I went through a week of just waiting. Again, I had some type of internal thing where I was like, “I think this is my job, I really feel it.” I had to carry that trust throughout the filming process as well because it is such a beloved franchise, and it’s so precious to so many people, including myself. I didn’t want to disappoint anybody or mess anything up. Also, having been such a big fan of the fifth installment, I really trusted Radio Silence, which is Matt [Bettinelli-Olpin], Tyler [Gillett], and Chad [Villella]. They did such an amazing job on the last movie and honoring Wes but also doing a little bit more of a fresh take on things. Knowing that they trusted me with that role, it was like, “Okay, that’s all you can ask for.” And it really was just such an uplifting set. They were so open to collaboration, which is crazy to me given it’s such a big deal. You think you’d walk on set and they’d be like, “Don’t touch anything. Don’t change anything.” But that wasn’t the case at all. I think that’s why those movies really work because they hire really good people, and they are really great collaborators.
I’d love to pivot to fashion for a moment. I loved the Sandro shorts suit you wore for our photo shoot. How has your style evolved in recent years?
The last time I dipped my toes into the fashion world, I was much younger. I don’t think I really had a grasp of what I wanted in the fashion world. I just nodded my head and wore whatever I needed to wear. It’s been really cool to discover what I personally like. I do in my day-to-day have such a weird spectrum of my fashion. I like a little bit more of an androgynous look. I like comfort. I love wearing men’s clothing, men’s pants, but then I’m also such a sundress girl. I want people to think I live in an English cottage. So it’s been fun to explore that. Compared to when I was younger, there is so much more space for evolution in women’s fashion. People don’t expect women just to wear a dress anymore. You can wear a pantsuit. You can wear loafers. You can wear really tall heels. I just feel like the options are endless now, which is really fun and allows me to expand my mind and lean into my own personal style.
Before I let you go, what are your summer fashion go-tos?
Linen is something I’m really into right now—something really breathable, flattering. I’m very selective with bold colors. I like more neutral tones. But a brand that I’ve always gravitated toward, especially in the summer, is J.Crew. I think that they just have really timeless pieces, and they very much lean into both of the aesthetics that I like. They have really good linen button-ups for women, but also, they have some of my favorite throw-on comfy dresses. So I’ve been a really big fan of them. I also love Sandro. I wore Sandro for two outfits that [junket] day. It was a really cute Jackie O kind of dress and then the shorts [suit]. Honestly, any brand that checks both of those boxes I gravitate toward.
The full season of Based on a True Story is now streaming on Peacock.