Let’s cut to the chase: Maddie Ziegler is the epitome of starbound It girl material. Largely by virtue of her ability to attract any camera with near magnetic force, the 19-year-old Pittsburgh native is dominating worldwide screens one pivotal role at a time. As if it was ever a question that one of the most pronounced dancers of the 2010s would find herself working within the big leagues, she continues to affirm her rightful place as one of Gen-Z’s in-demand rising scene stealers.
A decade ago, Ziegler was dancing her way into our hearts across television screens on Lifetime’s hit series Dance Moms; nowadays, she’s hardly the doe-eyed 8-year-old we were introduced to in years past. In a transition from the competition stage to movie marquees, she traded in her rhinestoned costumes for scripts and studios on some of the most coveted Hollywood lots. Today, the name “Maddie Ziegler” stuns through the credits for monumental titles from Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story to HBO Max’s The Fallout.
On an evident artistic roll, Ziegler is constantly outdoing herself — every new project added to her résumé is somehow even better than the last. To that, she credits her innate determination and early drive for success discovered at the dance studio. “Dancing helped me so much going into acting,” she says, “It’s partly the reason I even had interest. I realized that I was playing a lot of different roles in all of the dance pieces.”
What’s clear to anyone familiar with Ziegler’s dance background is that she makes it look a little too easy. From endless fouetté turns to soaring leaps, it became obvious that commanding the stage is second nature, but despite every pointed toe, the true star of the show was always her ability to convey a response from the crowd. If a dance is sad, Ziegler makes us cry. If we need to laugh, rest assured she delivers. “Dancing really helped me realize there’s intention behind a specific emotion,” she shares. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, I’m sad here.” It’s ‘let’s build why you’re sad.’ If you can internalize it, then you can portray that when you’re dancing.”
The shift from the stage to movie set felt almost too perfect for Ziegler. Her years of refining her craft placed her in the ideal position to mature from local, small-town celebrity to global household name. “I am really just an emotional person in general, and I think I’m able to express that through movement and I’m able to express that through dialogue — that made the transition [to acting] easier because I am able to ‘go there’ with my emotions,” she says.
And where do dancing and acting seamlessly intersect? Broadway, of course. While Ziegler’s LA lifestyle doesn’t exactly permit her to hit New York City playbills (at least for now!), we’re living in an era of remakes and reboots sweeping media charts. Enter Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, a reboot of the classic 1961 film and notably one of Broadway’s most iconic titles. After a chance audition, Ziegler earned herself a slot on the call sheet. World, meet Spielberg’s newest Velma.
“Oh my gosh, it was a dream role!” she shares. “I think any dancer, in general, would be so over the moon excited to be a part of West Side Story. I definitely had seen the movie 1,000 times growing up, and now, being able to be in the re-imagination of it, it was insane. Also to be 16 years old while doing it was pretty life-changing for me. I’m happy to play even a small role in the movie, just to be a part of it and witness all of the incredible talent. There was Steven Spielberg to witness and Justin Peck, our choreographer — all of that was a lot to soak in, and I’m still processing the fact that I was a part of that. It was really amazing.”
The words “passion project” come to mind as she dives into the surreal experience, namely for Spielberg himself. “I can’t even believe how nice he is. He’s such a leader but so collaborative. Really, really, really genuine and was just as excited as we were to be on set,” she beams. “He literally is one of the best directors of all time. Every day he came into work so excited. He came to watch all of the rehearsals, he was on ladders, on the floor, making sure he knew all the angles. He was so, so, so into it. It’s his baby now. He really put everything into it, but it was so cool to see that the excitement was so mutual between the two worlds.”
West Side Story is a true amalgamation of Ziegler’s signature skills; it stands at an intersection between dance and theater where she now posits herself at a new professional benchmark. “It’s been so nice having dance as a part of a lot of my characters, but I also want to show that I can act without having a dance background — and you’ll see that with incoming roles for me,” she says with a smile.
In a massive leap toward maturity, Ziegler befell into the character of high school student Mia Reed in HBO’s latest picture, The Fallout, “a compelling exploration of the inexplicable resiliency of life and the hope that emerges out of loss” as synopsized by the network. It’s an ambitious story, a film navigating the tumultuous aftermath of a school shooting, one of America’s most tragic burdens plaguing the nation. It’s a career-shaping breakout role for Ziegler and she, as anticipated, delivered a beautiful performance.
“I’m so proud to be a part of the movie that accurately represents Gen-Z,” she declares. “It’s very rare to see the accuracy. I feel like nowadays, in terms of movies that are dedicated to our generation, I hope people, my age or from my generation take away that it’s OK to not be alone, and it’s OK to lean on someone for help. If you’re going through something, you don’t have to be silent about it. Healing is a very, very important thing, and processing your emotions is really important — and you don’t have to be older to realize that.”
On the surface, The Fallout offers a significant, necessary story targeted to younger viewers, but part of the film’s genius is its unique way of exposing adult audiences to the genuine anxieties students endure simply walking through campus.
“[The Fallout] gives an insight into the fears that high schoolers have going to school every day — it’ll put a lot of things into perspective for a lot of people,” she says. “Also to see how intelligent our generation can be with their emotions. Growing up, I always was told by my dance teachers, ‘respect your elders’ or ‘don’t talk until you’re being talked to,’ but people our age can set boundaries. We’re allowed to have an opinion and I think that’s something that a lot of people will see from our generation, especially in this movie.”
Communicating a story with such mentally strenuous material is a difficult feat for even the most seasoned actor, but Ziegler is quick to emphasize how writer and director Megan Park fostered an environment prioritizing comfort, care, and communication. “It’s definitely a hard one,” she reiterates. “This has been so heavy, but there were so many light moments that I’m thankful for. Having a really, really supportive director, and the cast has been such a plus. If we didn’t feel comfortable with anything, we didn’t have to do it. Megan really, really, really made it a safe environment for us with no pressure.”
In nothing short of a perfect storm, Ziegler took to the script immediately. “This is a sign, this feels like this could be mine,” she recalls what she felt after reading the story early on. “With The Fallout, that was the easiest ‘yes’ I ever I said ‘yes’ to. I read the script and I was like, ‘oh my gosh.’ I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
In true Ziegler fashion, she knocked her audition out of the park. “When I got the call, [everything] kind of went perfectly, and it’s cool when you have that experience because it’s rare to feel so good throughout the whole process,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just meant to be, you have a gut feeling that it’s going to turn out good.”
‘Good’ puts Ziegler’s performance in The Fallout mildly. She grasped her role with both a tight grip and an open heart. “I tend to internalize everything and I pretend like a lot of things are OK, but on the inside, I’m going through something,” she says, identifying with her character. “After filming this movie, I learned it’s OK to express how I’m feeling even if it’s uncomfortable to share, it’s something that you should do on your own time.”
Ziegler’s Mia Reed plays opposite Vada Cavell, stunningly portrayed by fellow 19-year-old drama veteran Jenna Ortega. “Jenna was just so incredible to be around and I felt really safe working with her — she made it so easy to go to work every day,” she shares. “I honestly am so thankful for [Park and Ortega] and they’re such powerful women. To be a part of something like this with them while doing a lot of heavy scenes, it was really cool to have them in my corner.”
Prior to shooting, Ziegler and Ortega met with Park as casting came to a close. Although enthusiasm was at an all-time high, COVID-19 ultimately put a halt to production. The pair recognized their relationship was requiring a much-needed rekindling. “I went over to [Ortega’s] place and we ended up talking for 11 hours straight, which was crazy!” she gushes. “I checked my phone, it was like 1 a.m., and my mom, my boyfriend, and my sister were like, “are you alive?” because I just wasn’t on my phone! We both realized we were so similar. I felt, ‘this is so exciting that I get to work with someone who I had the best time hanging out with.’ We really became great friends and we’ve hung out so many times now. I’m really proud to have her as a friend because she’s pretty amazing.”
Understandably so, building fruitful relationships translated flawlessly on camera. Following initial viewings, The Fallout quickly swept the internet with positive praise after winning all three of its nominations at the South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition Grand Jury Award, Brightcove Illumination Award, Narrative Feature Competition Audience Award).
Behind the scenes, it was largely thanks to an army of empowering women who harnessed the critically strong atmosphere needed to create such an intense film. For Ziegler, there’s nothing better. “Oh my gosh, it was so amazing! I’ve never seen so many females, even in terms of the crew. Between hair and makeup, wardrobe, the camera department, there were so many women leading it. I’m so grateful to be a part of that because I was inspired every single day by so many amazing women.”
Female prowess is a consistent pillar for the starlet’s growth, especially within the professional sector. Not only did she experience her rise to fame alongside sister Kenzie Ziegler and mother Melissa Gisoni, the star publicly found support in Hollywood alumni from the likes of Kate Hudson and Sia. The common takeaway seasoned industry icons can agree upon: “To not put so much pressure on myself,” she affirms. “I think that’s how I’ve learned to find a happy medium of being a perfectionist and also give myself some room to breathe. [Hudson and Sia] are the most hardworking women, but they really taught me to slow down for a second because it’s really important, especially at such a young age. I’m so grateful for that because I was driving myself crazy being so stressed or interested over little things that I thought mattered so much, which really don’t in the bigger picture.”
The idea of perfectionism was an often revisited theme during Ziegler’s childhood years on television. While she managed to win a slew of awards and polish her skillset to arguably the highest possible caliber, reevaluating her priorities quickly became a paramount lesson. Mistakes are inevitable, even for the most masterful artist.
“My 8-year-old self was way more cutthroat. I’m still like this, but used to say, ‘work as hard as you can and be thankful for every moment, push through, and put everything you have into the projects you’re doing.’ Now I’ve learned that it’s OK to not always feel like you have to be the best and to work so hard. There are times where I’m like, ‘it’s OK to take a breath.”
Unsurprisingly an essential element for Ziegler’s grounding and self-progression is maintaining close ties to her family unit. “People watched us grow up over the years. As much as our lives are very public, we do keep a lot to ourselves,” she starts in allusion to her podcast Take 20 with Maddie and Kenzie Ziegler. “We thought our banter was actually pretty funny, and we have some things that we want to touch on as we’re growing up.”
Take 20 reaffirms every principle Ziegler prioritizes for her own mentality. “TBH, sometimes you just want a break from life,” she says. “Everyone needs an escape, a good friend, someone to lean on, chill with, and laugh with. Everyone needs to just ‘Take 20’ sometimes,” reads the podcast description. And in the wake of The Fallout, there’s no better time to reiterate the importance of self-care.
“Now as we’re getting older, we know that so many people can relate to talking about mental health,” she says. “Also being a teenager, social media, dealing with body issues, and comparing yourself, there’s so much that we think people could relate to. We wanted to open up those conversations, just have fun, be honest, and talk about what we’re feeling.”
Perhaps unbeknownst to the passerby podcast listener, but taking on the mic is a family affair. It’s no surprise the Ziegler sisters found footing in the domain as the pair’s mother co-hosts her own show alongside fellow Dance Moms stars on Because Mom Said So.
“She started before we did, so she knows what she’s doing!” Ziegler says with a laugh. “I don’t live with my mom and sister anymore, but I definitely know that she tries to teach Kenzie [Ziegler] how to do things. It’s hilarious though because she was so stoked when she got to be a guest on our podcast. We’re like, ‘Mom, we talk about you in every episode, we need to have you on.’ And she was like, ‘I’ll check my schedule.’ We’re like, ‘mm-hmm,’” she impersonates through a smile. “She’s the cutest. Literally the cutest ever.”
Guided by immeasurable support from friends, family, and a solidified trust in herself, Ziegler is the embodiment of how perseverance and passion lead to success. If her aforementioned “gut feeling” has already carried her this far in her career, she’s certainly holding on to a sixth sense.
Watch The Fallout starring Maddie Ziegler out now on HBO Max and West Side Story in theaters everywhere.