“‘Woah! What’s that?!'” Hilary Duff is walking me through her mid-century-modern Hollywood home, doing an impression of her husband, Matthew Koma. She takes me past chic velvet curved sofas towards a stylish monochrome tiled kitchen and explains,“I’ve rearranged the house, like, 19 times.
“Matt will come in and the chairs that were in our bedroom are now in the hallway or there’ll be a new piece of art I’ve bought and he’s like, ‘What is going on? Are you OK?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m just bored!’”
With no sign of lockdown easing in Los Angeles when we speak on a video call five months into the pandemic, the 33-year-old actress and former Disney star is almost out of options.
With filming for the seventh series of her TV show Younger on hold, along with other projects, she’s tried walking meditation in the hills around the home she shares with musician Koma and her two children.
When that didn’t work, Duff took up guitar lessons on Zoom, or rather, hiding from her kids in the bathroom twice a week while she practises old-school theme tunes from films like Batman and Mission: Impossible.
And then, of course, there are the “quarantine distanced dinners” with her best mates, as well as looking after her and Koma’s daughter Banks, two, and her son Luca, eight, from her first marriage.
“There are times where I’m like, ‘I need to go and drink too much wine with my girlfriends.’ You know what I mean? My husband’s like, ‘You go, I’ve got the kids.’ He could be in quarantine for years more!
He’s like, ‘We have everything we need, what’s bad about this?’ I’m a homebody too, but I do need to go out with my girlfriends once in a while.”
Hilary Duff in lockdown is basically all of us. This should come as no surprise to anyone who came of age with Duff as the Disney Channel’s teen queen Lizzie McGuire in the early ’00s.
Not as goody-goody or bookish as Rory from Gilmore Girls but more accessible and down-to-earth than Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. As far as role models go, Lizzie McGuire, with her blonde highlights, bootcut jeans and body glitter (and the cartoon alter ego conveying her inner thoughts), was much more relatable.
If it weren’t for COVID-19, Duff would probably be reprising her eponymous role in the highly anticipated reboot of the hit show right about now (more of which later). There were only two original series, but it once commanded 2.3 million viewers an episode and led to some highly eBay-able merch (dolls, board games… you name it, they made it).
“I’m desperate to start working,” she says thoughtfully, settling into a comfy chair on the patio while Banks sleeps upstairs. Luca is spending the day with his father, former ice-hockey player Mike Comrie.
Duff is dressed casually in a grey T-shirt, black jeans and very twinkly earrings. “I’m really missing that part of my life [that] I’ve had since I was 12 years old.”
Lest we forget, Duff has been in the industry for over two decades. She has worked consistently since she started out, starring in a handful of commercials and minor roles before bagging the coveted Disney gig.
And she’s pivoted successfully between TV, film and music. Way before Hannah Montana was even a thing (the role that launched Miley Cyrus’s career), little Miss McGuire catapulted Duff into a bona-fide bubble-gum pop princess (remember So Yesterday?) who racked up five albums before the age of 28.
A hit 2003 movie of the Disney show followed, with further film roles in Cheaper By The Dozen, A Cinderella Story and, later, a recurring role in Gossip Girl.
I wonder whether she is bothered, as a woman in her thirties, to still be so associated with a character who defined not only her own teenage years, but a whole generation’s.
“I’m at such a different place in my life now, being a mother and a wife – it doesn’t weigh on me any more,” she explains. “I don’t feel like people only see me that way, but [even] when they do, I feel appreciative of it because she was very impactful on so many people’s lives.”
But how does she really feel about the reboot? Did she have to come round to the idea? “They asked me for years and years: ‘Let’s do a reboot, let’s do a reboot,’ and I was like, ‘No, no, no.’
“Finally, last year, I was like, ‘I feel ready.’” What changed? “It just doesn’t annoy me any more when people refer to me as Lizzie McGuire or say that was my biggest role, because it paved the way for all the other roads I’ve been able to take.”
She hasn’t always seen it like that. And who can blame her? “I definitely went through big frustrations of being like, ‘Why can I not get a shot at being someone else?’” she explains.
“Not that I want to dog every casting director out there, but there’s a very small handful of people who are character actors and can be hired for roles that are truly different from one another. From age 21 to 25, before I became a mom, there was a lot of frustration.
“I would get to producer callback and they’d be like, ‘She’s so great and she gave us the best reading and blah blah blah, but she’s Hilary Duff…’”
The show’s reboot planned to follow a 30-year-old Lizzie McGuire living in New York, working as an interior decorator and engaged to somebody who is (spoiler alert) not Gordo.
The first two episodes, filmed last year, were set to land on Disney+. But filming was halted in January to “allow time for some creative redevelopment” following the departure of original series creator Terri Minsky.
Duff was forced to address her own concerns on Instagram about “doing a disservice to everyone by limiting the realities of a 30-year-old’s journey to live under the ceiling of a PG rating”.
Duff certainly didn’t hold back in her statement. “It would be a dream if Disney would let us move the show to Hulu, if they were interested,” she continued, “and I could bring this beloved character to life again.”
Then COVID-19 happened. I’m curious about where things are at now. “There’s still no, like, ‘For sure, this is happening,’ but I think they’re pretty confident that we can make the show that I want, and that they want, for Disney+,” she reveals.
“I really want to do right by 30-year-olds who grew up with Lizzie and still have that 12-year- old voice inside of them, cheering them on but also making them feel like an idiot at times.
“But, you know, 30-year-olds have sexual experiences and drink alcohol so I think they’re just trying to wrap their heads around what that looks like, on that platform. I don’t want to do it unless I can speak to the people I care about, and [Lizzie] can be there for those people again.”
Talk turns to Duff’s role as hot mess Kelsey Peters in Younger, the US comedy-drama from Darren Star, the creator of Sex And The City. Duff says she was in “full-on mom mode” in 2014 when she got the call offering her a supporting role in the sassy series about a 40-year-old divorcee who fakes her identity as a younger woman.
“My personal life was in transit with my first husband, we were about to get divorced, I was super focused on my son… I definitely was not looking for another role!” she recalls, with a laugh. “I wasn’t auditioning or even in touch with my agents.
“It wasn’t like, ‘I’ve got to have something different from Lizzie,’ it was more that I was living my life as a new mom. I didn’t know Kelsey was going to be such a party girl, I don’t even think they did.”
Duff became a mother at 24. Does she think she missed out on her twenties? “I felt like I was so ready to be a mom. Everyone was like, “Oh. My. God. You’re a baby having a baby.’ But I felt like I had done so much and I was so ready for something more and something that was personally mine. But I will say that was one of the loneliest times in my life.”
With no friends at the same life stage, Duff joined mother and baby classes in an attempt to find a new tribe, all the while trying to preserve her old friendships.
“I remember when Luca was a newborn, my friend came round and was talking about hooking up with a guy at a club and I had a baby on my boob and I’m searching for a breast pad so I don’t leak.
“She looks at me and she’s like, ‘I don’t even know what to talk to you about because anything I’m going to say is not as important as what you’re doing. Like, who are you?!’
“I don’t think she meant it how it sounded but when she left I was like, ‘I’ve lost my friend! She doesn’t relate to me any more and I don’t relate to her.’”
Duff is no stranger to feeling lonely. When I ask for her overriding memory of teenage fame, she replies, without hesitation: “Isolation… and the pressure of being a role model.”
As one of the Disney Channel’s first major TV stars, did Duff feel it was her responsibility to advise the next generation like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez?
“I think people imagine that Disney is just this big studio where everyone hangs out, but it wasn’t like that,” she explains. “When Hannah Montana and Wizards Of Waverly Place came along, I was on tour and desperate not to be Lizzie McGuire any more.
“I was so happy that someone was taking that spot from me. It didn’t really feel right for me to be giving advice. Everyone’s on their own journey and the things they had to deal with were different. They came up when social media was starting to pop off.”
In August, Duff joked in an interview that she would be up for exploring a crossover between Hannah Montana and Lizzie McGuire in the future.
She adds, “Miley is such a powerhouse and has been so brave and so bold throughout her career. She’s just really an inspiration and to know that I had a part in her wanting to entertain is a huge compliment.”
Duff’s road to fame began at six, when she moved from Texas to LA with her mom and older sister Haylie (her dad stayed in Texas). The plan was for the sisters to pursue showbiz.
She says her parents weren’t pushy but they were strict, and Duff was home-schooled from the age of eight.
“There was always a seriousness around my work,” she notes. “My mom didn’t let me get away with shit. She was like,‘You’re not supporting this family, we’re not using your money, so you’re not calling the shots,’ and I was really grateful for that.”
Was she ever tempted to go off the rails? “Oh yeah. It’s not like I didn’t sneak off and party sometimes and get drunk. I definitely did all of those things. But I feel like I’ve always been a well-balanced person, and always had a sense of ‘I don’t want to embarrass myself .’
“I have a lot of self-awareness and I’ve had it for a long time. I don’t think you can pin that on, ‘She had a great mother’ or ‘She had a solid this or that.’ I mean, I did and I’m grateful, but the fame I had can outgrow any strong family you’ve come from. I think it is who you are inside.”
The real downside of Duff’s fame manifested itself in her late teens. “Girls are mean. I experienced normal bullying like everybody else,” she shrugs, citing a “handful of girls”, but naming no names. “That was a really rough time to be in the public eye, and that definitely triggered a bad relationship with food.
“I had really poor body image, I guess.” It’s a topic that has followed her throughout adulthood, with similarly unhelpful press scrutiny over her body.
“It does suck to be photographed all the time,” she tells me. “The headlines are like, ‘Hilary Duff debuts baby body,’ and I’m like, ‘No, no, no! I’m not debuting anything!’”
What was the lowest point? “I’m so lucky to say I haven’t had a low point that’s lasted long enough to recall it being the worst time. I would say my parent’s divorce [when she was 18] was really hard.
“My own divorce [in 2016] was really hard. I’ve had a lot of things to overcome but I feel very lucky to have not had to deal with depression. I wake up happy. I’ve always been like, ‘Today’s the day! What are we doing?!’ Matt’s like, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you! Can you just go over there for a minute longer while my caffeine kicks in?’”
Something tells me that today that inherent positivity stands her in good stead. In or out of lockdown.
Hilary Duff is the Chief Brand Officer of Happy Little Camper and Veeda. Watch Season 3 of Younger on Comedy Central now