Okay, we’re gonna let you in on a secret: We love Danielle Fishel. Like, a whole lot. From the time we first saw her as Topanga on the hit ABC series Boy Meets World, we’ve not only loved the character of Topanga (a dyed-in-the-wool feminist and independent thinker if ever there was one), but we loved Fishel’s depiction of her from the get-go. So naturally, following Fishel over the years and watching her grow as a television actor and eventually move into the director’s chair has been exciting to watch. It’s been one heck of a career journey and one we’ve always wanted to know more about.
Recently, we had the chance to sit down with Fishel and discuss not only her career, but also her latest directing gig on Disney Channel’s new series, Sydney to the Max. The show follows 7th grader Sydney and her single dad, Max, as Sydney comes of age in the modern world while flashing back to Max’s own coming-of-age story set in the early ’90s. Considering Fishel’s own career, which also began in the early ’90s, we knew there would be tons to talk about.
In our talk, Fishel got candid and in doing so, gave us some wonderful insight into everything from Topanga’s lasting impact to the first big surprise about pregnancy to directing young female actors. Check out what she had to say.
SheKnows: Watching you on Boy Meets World as Topanga was definitely a positive and impactful experience. In the years since you were on the show, have you met other fans who’ve also felt this way? What has that been like?
Danielle Fishel: Certainly over the years, Topanga was a very important character when the show was on in the ‘90s, but it’s amazing to me how relevant her messages were and her character is still today. So many of the scenes and so many of the clips of young Topanga, strong feminist that she was, get brought up today are exactly the same subject matter we’re talking about today. I think she was a very progressive character. She was absolutely somebody to aspire to be. She’s who I aspire to be. I think about her messages a lot and I do hear about that a lot from female fans. It‘s the thing actually that means the most to me. There are a lot of wonderful things about having done Boy Meets World but knowing that she left a legacy that young women and girls are able to learn from in such a positive way, by being a positive role model, is something that’s been very important to me, both in my personal and my professional life. Knowing that even just a character that I played was so impactful in people’s lives is the number one thing that brings me happiness when it comes to this job.
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Happy 25th birthday to the show that changed my life in too many ways to count. Life can feel like a rollercoaster and this experience and these relationships are no different. It would be a lie to say it's been all highs and no lows but we are connected to each other in a way in which very few people on Earth can relate. Thank you to the cast (including those not pictured), the phenomenal writers and producers, and our dedicated crew. To us, cheers.
SK: You mention there are lessons that you’re still learning from Topanga even today. What lessons are you connecting to specifically?
DF: There’s that famous quote she has where she says, “You are you and I am I […] and if, in the end, we end up together, then it’s beautiful.” Like, it’s about really recognizing people as individuals and not as to how they relate to you directly. It’s something I think we all have a hard time with. You know, if your friend or significant other behaves in a certain way and you feel like, “Well, that looks bad on me.” They’re not you. They’re not the same person. Everybody’s entitled to their own beliefs and their own opinions and to live their life the way that they want. I think about that message a lot because she was so much more advanced, certainly more than typical teenagers are, that even as a 37-year-old woman, I sometimes hear her in my head and I think, “Gosh, I still have so much to learn from that 14-year-old girl.”
SK: You’re currently pregnant with your first child. Has there been any learning curves that you and your husband [writer and comedian Jensen Karp] are currently experiencing as you go on this journey together?
DF: I recently discovered that I spent my whole life thinking somewhere in the future, at some point, I would have a child and that therefore, in a perfect world for me, I would then be pregnant. I have never really fully wrapped my head around what it would feel like to have your body kind of taken over and to not have as much control as I normally have. I can honestly say that anytime I’ve ever seen a pregnant woman, I have thought to myself, “Oh my gosh, how beautiful.” Like just hands down, what a miracle, so gorgeous. I’ve never once looked at a pregnant woman and thought, “Oh wow, she looks overweight.”
Now that I am pregnant myself, it has been surprisingly harder than I ever could have imagined. To see the numbers on the scale go up, to feel my clothes getting tighter. All of that has been surprisingly hard for me. To be honest, there’s a part of me that feels ashamed about it. Like, how come I’m not just loving every second of this and how come I’m not feeling as beautiful as I think other pregnant women look? I’ve had to deal with that. There’s been a lot of emotional days where I’ve had to remind myself that this is a natural process and it’s okay and that I can’t be in control of this. And I don’t feel like enough women talk about it, so that’s why I bring it up.
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We've known each other since we were 12 – how lucky am I to experience pregnancy right along side you? I don't know what I'd do without your advice, suggestions, and helpful tips and tricks! Can't wait to welcome your little girl to the world (1-2 weeks from now!) and I can't wait to see your son be the best big brother ever. #bff
SK: Have any of your Boy Meets World cast members reached out to you about your pregnancy?
DF: They all have actually in their own ways. Rider [Strong] is a father himself and has been the kind of a person I’ve been able to go to and say, “Tell me about when Alex [Barreto, Strong’s wife] was pregnant at this stage.” And Will [Friedle] lives very close to me and will check in on me. He and his wife check on me about once a week and say, “Is there anything we can do for you? Do you need us to pick anything up for you?”
Then, last week, Ben [Savage] sent Jensen and me the baby’s first gift. It’s this adorable spinning light lantern that has fish all over it because Jensen’s last name is Karp and my last name before I was married was Fishel which, you know, “fish” and “carp” [connect in that way]. So fish make Ben think of the two of us and so he sent us like a nightlight that has spinning fish and it’s so cute.
SK: How did you get involved with Sydney to the Max as a director?
DF: I was lucky enough to be able to start directing on Girl Meets World. Disney is such an amazing company about trying to [give people opportunities] when people show an interest in something. I said, “I really want to keep doing this. I love directing.” They were really good about keeping me in mind.
When this show came about, they agreed with me that this show seems like it would be something that would be right in my wheelhouse and they got me a meeting with the executive producer, Mark Reisman. I went in and I sat down and talked with him and we really connected. Basically, just out of the goodness of his heart, decided that he wanted to give me an opportunity to direct in the first season which is a big deal because [Sydney to the Max] is his baby and he wants it to be the best that it can possibly be and I’m a new director. I was so grateful that he did.
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I've been MIA for a bit because I've been lucky enough to spend the last couple weeks directing at Sydney to the Max. I wish I could put into words how fulfilling it is to work with such a talented cast (@thatruthrighi, @christianjsimon, @avakolker_, @jacksondollinger, @ianreedkesler, @carolinerhea4real), an INCREDIBLE crew, and hilarious writers and producers day in and day out. If you're not already, I hope every single one of you pursues the dream you have to do what you LOVE, even when it takes hard work and a long time to get there. Especially then. Maybe some day you'll get to look like a goober standing behind a podium, like me. ❤️
SK: How did you approach directing the young female leads of the show [Ruth Righi and Ava Kolker] girls and was it different from your approach with other actors?
DF: The good news was I had already had some experience directing young female actors [series leads Rowan Blanchard and Sabrina Carpenter] when I [directed episodes of] Girl Meets World. It’s different directing kids who have a lot on their shoulders and they know that this is their show but they have a lot of pressure because they’re still in school. The great thing about me as a director coming from the experience of being a child actor myself is I know exactly what that feels like. I have spent a lot of time making myself good at knowing how to tell them what I’m looking for out of their performance and how to change things without them feeling like it is a judgment or that they just did something wrong. I wanted all of the kids to realize that this is a safe space, that they’re learning, they’re learning their chops; they’re all young actors kind of just getting started. So, I want them to have the freedom to take risks and to try things. Maybe it’s going to work and maybe it’s not going to work — and either way, it’s totally fine.
Sydney to the Max airs every Friday at 8:30/7:30c on the Disney Channel.