Taking the lead
Baltimore native Peyton List is only 27. But she’s already a veteran of almost two decades in show business with a resume that includes Disney movies, guest shots on “Law & Order” and recurring roles on “As the World Turns,” and “Mad Men.”
And this fall, she debuts in her first network starring role as one of the leaders of a group born with paranormal powers in CW‘s “The Tomorrow People,” from veteran producer Greg Berlanti (“Everwood,” “Arrow”). The sci-fi drama premieres at 9 p.m. Oct. 9.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for me,” List says of her role as Cara Coburn, the female leader of the outcast tribe living in an abandoned subway station. “I’ve never done a series where I’ve had this much responsibility in terms of carrying so much. But I’m also enjoying doing it. I can’t say it’s completely foreign, because I have done other shows. But it is definitely a new experience for me in terms of anything I’ve done in my career.”
List’s career is pretty incredible in terms of how long someone her age has been working in the entertainment industry. At an age when some young adults are still looking for their first job or just coming off their parents’ health insurance plans, she has been earning a paycheck on New York and Los Angeles stages, runways and in front of cameras for 19 years with some of the biggest stars and most demanding executives in the business.
Born and raised on Roland Avenue in Roland Park, List and her older sister, Brittany, were launched at ages 8 and 11, respectively, by her mother, Sherri Anderson.
“My mother took my sister and me down to Washington, D.C., and we read for a small childrens’ agency just to try to do commercials or something for fun, and it kind of all started there,” she says.
List says the work was “sporadic” at first, and that she saw it as more of an “extracurricular activity” outside of school, “like taking dance.”
But the modeling turned to acting, and by age 11, the Calvert School student was appearing at Baltimore’s Center Stage.
“I did ‘H.M.S. Pinafore,’ and it was probably one of my best memories,” List says. “We ran for about two or three months, I think. I was 11, and I’m not entirely sure what I was doing there. But it was so much fun and it was such a cool, interesting experience, because it was the first time I really got to know adult actors who do it professionally.
“They were all brought in from New York and put up at apartments across from Center Stage, and you just get completely immersed in that world.”
Looking back, she thinks that’s where she first heard the call that she is still chasing.
“I do remember thinking even at that young age, ‘This could just be incredible if this was your life.’ They were incredible professionals. I had a really, really, really great time doing it, and Calvert was so supportive and willing to let me out for matinees. Yeah, the experience of that play at Center Stage was great, just great.”
A year later, things “really picked up” professionally, List says, when her sister was scouted by a modeling agency and brought to New York.
“Because I was sort of tagging along, I was placed with an agency in New York as well — one for children’s modeling,” she explains.
That would be the legendary Eileen Ford Modeling Agency, and by the time she was 15, List had appeared in magazine and other print ads for Ralph Lauren Polo, Limited Too and Abercrombie & Fitch.
She was on the cover of “Girl’s Life” more than any other model up to that time, according to a 2002 Sun profile.
“The modeling industry is a beast,” she says of those years, which also included a stint at the School of American Ballet.
The Sun profiled List after she landed a recurring role as rebellious 16-year-old Lucy Montgomery in the CBS soap opera “As the World Turns.”
Then a student at Roland Park Country Day School, the precocious teen was splitting each week between Baltimore and New York where the show was filmed. Her father, Douglas List, worked as management consultant in both cities.
List appeared on the CBS soap opera for three years during which she continued to be a cover girl for publications like “Bridal Guide” and “Your PROM” while doing guest shots on series like “Smallville.”
While there have been Disney films and steady TV work on pilots and series since, List is perhaps best known for her work on AMC‘s “Mad Men” from 2008 to 2012 — first as Jane Siegel, Don’s new secretary, and then as Jane Sterling, Roger Sterling’s trophy wife.
“That whole show you are just dealing with beasts of actors,” she says with a note of awe in her voice. “You’re in a scene, and you look around and think, ‘What am I doing here?’ I mean, they are such incredibly intelligent people.”
List more than held her own. Baltimore-born creator Matt Weiner is not the kind of executive producer who keeps actors or writers onboard who can’t keep up.
“One of the most surprising things to me about working on that show is how many people there are attached to the show from Baltimore,” she says.
“I lived in L.A. a long time before I did the show, and I never met anyone from Baltimore,” List says. “There’s not a huge contingent of people from Baltimore in Los Angeles for some reason. And if they are, they’re hiding from me.
“It wasn’t until I joined ‘Mad Men’ that it was like, ‘You’re from Baltimore? You’re from Baltimore? Our creator’s from Baltimore.’ … And I’m going, ‘So, this is where you all are?’ I found my hometown again.”
But as good as it got on “Mad Men,” List says she’s not looking back. She is giving everything she has to her new role on “The Tomorrow People.”
Based on a 1970s British drama and a ’90s remake of it, the CW production showcases List as a character she describes as “strong-willed but caring.”
Her tribe of young adults with special powers is being hunted by a government agency that sees them as a threat, and Cara is one of the warriors fighting for their survival.
The pilot opens with a troubled teenager teleporting in his sleep and hearing voices in his head when he’s awake. The voice he hears is that of Cara, who is calling him to her realm.
It looks like he and Cara are going to be two-thirds of a love triangle.
The formula : Alienation, angst, sci-fi, sex, danger and tribal bonding with peers outside the family unit. For it to work, viewers need a strong lead character they can believe in. That’s Cara Coburn.
You sometimes can read a pilot script and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I love the show, but I hate the character, I want to be a part of it, but I don’t want to play this person.'” List says.
“But this role was like the perfect circumstance,” she continues. “It’s a character you fall in love with and you’re like, ‘I want to play this character, and I don’t care if the story’s bad.’ I got the best of both worlds with this role, and that’s why I just fell in love with it immediately.”
The cast and crew is already working on episode seven in Vancouver, List says in a telephone interview from the set.
“And we’re still as excited about what we’re doing as when we got here,” she adds. “The newness hasn’t worn off, which is something really special.”
After 19 years onstage, List says she’s still excited about the business, too.
“I love it. It’s hard, hard work. It’s not a walk in the park,” she says of the path her mother put her and her sister on as children. “A man I was working with on the soap opera when I was about 15 said something to me that always stuck with me. He said, ‘The greatest thing you’ll learn in this business is to forget.’ He meant it in so many ways.
“You know, learn to forget the thing you did before. Forget the lines you said six hours ago, or you’ll never learn the lines you have to say 30 minutes from now.
But it’s also learn to let the bad experiences go and roll with the punches and don’t hold onto things so long that you can be open to what’s going to come next.
“I think that stuck with me because this business can be rough and it can beat you down and it’s constant rejection. So, to be able to say, ‘OK, that happened, next,’ it helps a lot.”
List remembers sharing her philosophy with her sister at a time of transition in the older sibling’s life.
“My sister was sort of getting out of the modeling world, but they were still sending her on casting calls. And I remember her saying to me, ‘I don’t think I like this. I’m not cut out for this. I don’t like the no’s,’ ” List says.
“And I was like, ‘Just forget they said no. Just forget about it.’ It sounds so silly, I know. But whatever works, right?”
It’s working for Peyton List.