Rising actress Peyton List, best known for Netflix’s Karate Kid Sequel Cobra Kai, is turning heads with a melancholy and assured performance as a high-school senior who wakes up in the afterlife in the Paramount+ original series School Spirits.
The supernatural teen series follows List’s Maddie Nears, a high school senior who must investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death as she remains trapped within the walls of her high school. Created by the brother-sister team Megan and Nate Trinrud, List anchors the freshman series as Maddie works with past deceased students and her living best friend Simon (Kristian Ventura) to uncover the mystery of her disappearance.
List, who starred in Disney Channel’s Bunk’d and Jessie, has been acting since she was a child and leaped at the chance to also serve as a producer on School Spirits. The experience has propelled List to find her voice on set and reimagine the direction of her career as she looks toward her future projects. While School Spirits is yet to receive a second season order, the series has gained a dedicated following on social media, particularly after its revealing season one finale exposed the mystery of what happened to Maddie.
“I relate to what a lot of actresses have been saying about just being a puppet and people not really wanting to hear your thoughts,” explains List. “I had been so conditioned to close my personal thoughts down, so it was a different process [on School Spirits] that I really loved.”
List spoke with Awards Focus about stretching herself creatively as a producer, how the series has positively impacted her outlook on life, navigating scenes with co-stars where she appears invisible, and hints at the possibility of a second season.
Awards Focus: You’ve been acting from a young age, so when you’re looking for roles you want to tackle now, what are you looking for?
Peyton List: Something that excites me with a team who are open, hungry, and passionate. That was exactly what I found with School Spirits, and I didn’t know what I was looking for. I’ve been fortunate that my career has always flowed, and I didn’t have much thought behind it until I took this show. From here on out, I feel like my brain has fully developed because I just turned 25, and now I’m like, I was just a kid having fun. Since meeting creatives behind this series, like Max Winkler, who directed the pilot, and meeting all these mentors, it’s really changed my whole thought process.
AF: Does that make you want to stretch creatively and explore how you can express that process? Are you interested in directing too?
List: I don’t want to get into directing yet. I have so much respect for it, but I see just how rundown they are from beginning to end. It could be in my future, but I really enjoy producing. I also want to be in the writer’s room next season and shadow that aspect.
AF: Did you find that being a producer on set and the lead actor allowed you to voice your opinions when you felt you had something to add?
List: Our writers and creators had the whole thing so planned out. It’s based on a graphic novel by Nate and Megan Trinrud, so everything was mapped out. There were moments I didn’t understand, and I wanted to collaborate on building the character, and they were very open about changing it immediately. I never had that before, and that was what I loved about being a producer on this show because I relate to what many of these actresses have been saying about just being a puppet and people not wanting to hear your thoughts. I had been so conditioned to close my personal thoughts down, so it was a different process that I really loved.
AF: Your performance as Maddie was so touching because even though she is dead, she can’t entirely accepted it without understanding how she died. Were you aware of the entire story when you were preparing for the role, and did it influence how you played Maddie both before she died and as her spirit self?
List: They didn’t tell me the finale or ending.
AF: Wait, really?
List: Yeah. It’s crazy because all the actors were coming up to me, asking me to tell them how it ended. We would be hanging out after work or on the weekends, and I told them I didn’t want to know because Maddie didn’t know either. I just knew that her goal was to get out of there, and that’s her only objective.
AF: The show strongly focuses on grief and the things left unsaid. How has being a part of the series changed your perspective of time and relationships and how you move through life?
List: It was really healing. Even just having these writers and having them on set. When we were blocking the scene with Maddie and her mom in the school’s basement, I looked over, and Megan Trinrud was just bawling, and I started bawling too. We hadn’t even started filming yet, but I know those relationships are so real.
The whole conceit is that to move on from something. You have to look it in the face, face those demons and work through these things. The main message was so important to Megan and Nate because their lives could have gone differently. They’ve had a lot of tragedy in their life and family, so I think it was really important to them. They helped me heal, and I realized I had also been on autopilot.
AF: One of the scenes that I found very affecting was between Simon (Kristian Ventura), Nicole (Kiara Pichardo), and Maddie at lunch in the cafeteria. The conversation revolves around Simon and Maddie believing that Nicole is mimicking Maddie, and it’s very exposing and humiliating moment for their friend. It felt so true to how things we say can hurt someone and shows another side to Maddie. How did that scene come together?
List: I like that scene because I don’t like a perfect lead character. There are bad days, and you are a bad friend, and those moments happen, so I really loved that scene. It was funny because we played around with that scene and wanted it to be careful and tread cautiously because we didn’t want Maddie to be mean. We tried different versions, but ultimately, in a flippant moment, you’re not really thinking that it will impact someone so heavily, and you say hurtful things. I feel like that’s just human. I really liked seeing that side of the main character and rooting for different people in different moments.
AF: I also felt in that scene that Maddie had extra limbs because Simon was taking food out of her hand, and she was reaching onto his plate. It felt like they were one person, and when she died, he was the only one that could see her. How was that relationship explained to you?
List: I think that’s it. He’s the only person who has been there for her and truly loved Maddie. There’s nothing he wants in return for that love. It was reiterated to us throughout that there’s no explanation for it.. it’s just love.
AF: Kristian Ventura is so fantastic in that role, and his love and affection for Maddie feels so genuine that you immediately understand the closeness between them. What was it like during the blocking of those scenes where your characters are talking, but he has to engage with other people in the real world while you’re supposed to be invisible?
List: It’s interesting that you saw that. I do agree. Kristian works so hard, and he comes from a theater background. We come from very different learning experiences as far as acting, but he’s amazing.
I honestly thought everyone did an excellent job ignoring me and pretending I wasn’t there. I thought we would have to do more takes. I got to come in, and the director would ask, “What do you want to do? No one can see you, so you can do whatever you want.” We did have to reshoot a lot of the pilot because the background actors were looking at me, or there were moments where we were getting too close. It was all shot practically because they didn’t want to use effects, so it was an exciting challenge.
AF: Was there a rule on set where there were instructions not to interact with you before a scene where Maddie is in the spirit world?
List: It was funny because no one told anyone to do that, so I felt like I had to be the bad guy. I would just disappear and go into another room because there were two separate worlds. We go into the Green room and became best friends, and everyone is laughing, crying, yelling, singing, making jokes, whatever it is. I just had to remove myself from the room because I was so happy they were having fun, but I’m about to come into a scene and cry and yell, so I needed to go.
AF: The series hasn’t been picked up for a second season yet, but have there been hints of development for another season?
List: There has been talk of it, but I’m not sure what I can say.
AF: After that finale and the reveal of what happened to Maddie, I’m really hoping there’s another season. What has the reaction to the series, and the final twist, been like for you?
List: Oh my gosh, it’s been even better than I could have imagined. You never know what the response will be, and I feel like it’s toxic trying to predict it. My goal was to get people to watch, and if we get to do this again, that would be great. But, the response has been wild. My neighbor didn’t even tell me that she watched the show. She told my mom because we all live in the same neighborhood, and she’s like, “I’m obsessed. Can you get me one of the wrap hoodies?” I love to hear that people have watched and enjoyed the show, but the only reason I know that anyone loves it is because of social media and my mom.