In ELLE’s series Teen Queens, we check in with the iconic stars who ruled the stage, screen, and news cycle during their reign.
When Danielle Fishel first auditioned for what would become her career-defining role as the brainy, feminist Topanga Lawrence on the beloved ’90s sitcom Boy Meets World, she didn’t get it. Instead, 12-year-old Fishel was cast as a much smaller part in the show’s first season, only to be given another chance to audition for Topanga after the original actress was abruptly fired. That time, Fishel secured the job—but then almost lost it again after receiving intense critiques from the show’s co-creator Michael Jacobs during her first episode. In the end, her performance cemented her future. “My whole life I had told that story through the lens of, ‘Isn’t this an inspirational story?’” Fishel told ELLE.com. “On the other hand, there’s the other side of it, which was that experience was also pretty traumatizing for 12-year-old little girl Danielle…”
Fishel has been doing this kind of reflecting a lot lately thanks to Pod Meets World, a Boy Meets World rewatch podcast Fishel hosts alongside her former co-stars and real-life friends, Will Friedle and Rider Strong, who played Eric Matthews and Shawn Hunter, respectively. (The crew also acted together in the 2010s Boy Meets World spinoff, Girl Meets World.) While breaking down each episode—they’re currently in the middle of season 2—the three discuss the highs and lows of growing up on a hit television show, including the toxic set Jacobs sometimes created.
Her teenage experience helped Fishel, who’s now 42 and the mother of two young kids, fall in love with another role: director, where she can help create a safe environment for other actors. “My number one thing coming into any set is I want every person I work with, no matter what their role is, to feel valued and respected,” she said. “I want my sets to feel calm. I want them to feel fun…It is a collaborative environment. There is no yelling, no screaming.” She did so most recently on the set of the movie Classmates, which follows two freshman in college who pretend to be each other and find themselves in a dangerous mixup; it even features her former Boy cast mate, Trina McGee (Angela). “For us to be able to work together in this capacity was important to both of us,” Fishel said about the on-set reunion. “I loved seeing the choices she made. We trusted each other.” Below, more on what it’s been like for Fishel to meet her old world again.
How has the experience of what you’re doing on the podcast (i.e. rewatching yourself as a teen) affected your life?
It’s really been a beautiful experience. For one thing, it did help lead me to starting therapy regularly for the first time in my life. There were things that were coming up [where] I was wondering how things that happened to me in my childhood have impacted who I am as an adult. And nothing will also make you take a more honest look at yourself than having children of your own. They’re little sponges, and they’re picking up on things, and I wanted to be the healthiest version of myself to model the healthiest version of a parent that I could. So it’s impacted almost every aspect of my life. It’s also given me the amazing gift of seeing Rider and Will all the time. Even though Will lives up the street, we both have busy lives, so the podcast gives us an opportunity to see each other twice a week. We always thought it was going to be fun, but I don’t think we ever could have predicted how much we were going to enjoy doing it the way we have.
The podcast has given you all an opportunity to have some hard conversations about things that took place on- and off-screen, including workplace dynamics and how the show handled topics like sex and race. Are there similar conversations you’re hoping to have as the podcast goes on?
Absolutely. We haven’t even touched on Topanga choosing Cory over Yale. And I don’t know how I’m going to feel about it. I know the way I felt about it at the time was actually not really giving it a whole lot of thought. It was like, yeah, sure, Cory and Topanga, they’re supposed to be together. I kind of just bought into the idea that that’s what I was told, that was the narrative, that’s what we were selling. Now as an adult, being able to look back and think, hm, I wonder how adult Danielle is going to feel about these choices that these teenagers make. Also, I wonder how adult Danielle is going to feel about the other adults around [Cory and Topanga] and how they either support or detract from what they want to do. But I don’t remember the episodes well enough to make any sort of judgment on it now. I want to see whether or not I think the Cory and Topanga relationship is healthy, whether or not I think they should have gotten married, whether or not she should have gone to Yale, all of those things are still in the future.
Your husband, Jensen Karp, is a producer on the podcast, and he also wrote Classmates. Do you all have a dream project you want to do together next?
Well, our next dream project is definitely the project with [former *NSYNC member] Lance [Bass]: the prom movie we are making with Lauren Lapkus and Mary Holland as our fantastic writers. Jensen is the one who came up with the idea for it. It’s one of those projects that’s timeless, and I think people can learn and benefit from, but it’s also just a fun, feel-good story.
And that’s based on your actual prom experience, right?
Our relationship and our actual prom experience. Yes, I brought Lance Bass to my high school prom, and when he broke up with me, I immediately internalized it and thought, “What did I do wrong? What’s wrong with me? Why am I not good enough for him?” And Lance was having the exact same conversation with himself: “Why can I not make this relationship with Danielle work? What is wrong with me? Why am I not attracted to her or to women in general?” There ended up being nothing wrong with either one of us. [Editor’s note: Lance Bass publicly came out as gay in 2006.] We are still friends to this day and both married and happy and have children and families of our own. And the thing we love about it is that it is a love story. It’s just not romantic love. So I love that idea of the un-rom com.
Over the years, you and Lance have been fairly open about your relationship and friendship. But is there anything new where you guys thought, we need to put this in the movie. People don’t know this about us?
I think people did not know how instrumental [former *NSYNC member] Justin Timberlake was in bringing Lance and I together. Justin is actually the one who asked me for my phone number for Lance, and then Justin is the one who wrote the script for Lance who left the message on my machine, and Justin was there for our first conversation and yelling into the phone for Lance.
In terms of the podcast, is there anything new that you think your husband has learned about you from that project?
He’ll say to me sometimes, “You undersold that.” Like in our conversations, I’ll bring something up, and I’ll be like, “Well this is what happened and blah, blah, blah,” and he’ll think, oh, that was really no big deal. Then when we talk about it on the podcast, and we have a real dialogue, and we hear about it from other perspectives, he’ll go, “Oh my God, you really undersold that. That was a much bigger thing.” Sometimes things happen to you, and you don’t recognize the impact they have until it comes up years later. One of my favorite aspects of doing the podcast has been, wow, in the story, I only knew my part, and now that I hear your part and your part, I can see it as a whole and see how it was either messy or tumultuous or enjoyable or whatever. I understand it more by knowing all the parts.
One of the biggest lessons from the podcast is the importance of talking to each other and making sure there is open dialogue with the people you work with or live with or are friends with. The amount of misinformation or misunderstandings that go on on a daily basis, because we just go, I didn’t realize it, but I made an assumption, and I operated as if that were true. Whereas had I just spoken to that person, I would’ve been like, oh my gosh, you didn’t mean that at all.
It’s like the saying: “The story I’m telling myself…” versus the real story.
Correct. The story I’ve told myself about things versus the reality of the situation. I think it’s really powerful, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and how even a simple change in that story can change the trajectory of your life and your relationships.
Do you have an example of either something you undersold or something where you’re telling yourself a new story these days?
One of the stories that came up really early on for me that was like that was the story about how I ended up getting the role of Topanga. My whole life I had told that story through the lens of, “Isn’t this an inspirational story?” It’s so inspirational that I didn’t get something, and then I had this opportunity, and then I got it, but then it was almost taken away from me, but then I got it again. If you look at it that way, it’s a real inspiring story, and that doesn’t change.
On the other hand, there’s the other side of it, which was that experience was also pretty traumatizing for 12-year-old little girl Danielle, not professional actor Danielle. It doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have happened, or it’s bad that it happened. It just means it impacted me in more ways than just inspiring. Acknowledging that there are painful aspects of even truly wonderful things is okay, and that actually makes me more human. The part of me that has operated a lot has been the robotic side of me: Get things done, take charge, type A, capable of anything, I can do it all. But there is also a part of me that’s vulnerable and that wants to let go and wants to rest and wants to say, “I’m tired, and I’m emotional.” Being able to recognize both sides is really just being able to recognize my full humanity, and it helps me recognize the full humanity in others as well.
Teen Queens Questionnaire
Name a 2000s fashion trend that should never come back.
The truth is I do not like the butterfly clips. Butterflies are a thing I’m happy to leave behind. They’re beautiful, but I want to see them in the wild. I don’t want to see them in my hair.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
I would’ve said Jonathan Taylor Thomas, because he was a celebrity at the time, but he was my first real-life Danielle crush. I worked next door to him on Home Improvement. But I knew him, so that’s a little different. My first celebrity crush that I did not know was Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. I saw that movie a million times in the theater, and everyone in high school knew I was obsessed with him and used to envision us married. But now obviously I’m like 20 years too old for him.
What is the wildest rumor you’ve ever read about yourself?
There haven’t been any real wild rumors. I’m always super suspicious of people who say that they know my cousin, because the amount of times people have said, “Oh my gosh, I went to high school with your cousin!” and then they say who my cousin is and I go, “I haven’t heard of that person.”
What are some of your fondest memories from your childhood on set?
All of my favorite memories from being on set are some of our behind-the-scenes rituals. Right before we would go out and do a live studio audience, we’d all put our hand in the middle, and we’d scream at the top of our lungs.
Did you keep anything from the Boy Meets World set?
I kept a few clothes. I did not take any actual set items from Boy Meets World, but I did keep the Topanga’s sign from Girl Meets World. When Topanga ended up taking over the coffee shop, they changed the sign to say “Topanga’s.” I have it in my garage. I really wish I would’ve taken one piece of furniture [from Boy Meets World]. At the time, I just was like, god, I want this to be over. I want to start a real life. I don’t want any of this stuff. Now I’m like, that’s dumb. You should have taken something.
Do you have a personal favorite episode?
So far, I really love the episode where Cory and Topanga spend the night together in the editing room. I love the way Ben and I worked together. I remember a lot of the scenes from that week, and I remember getting the notes and working on that kitchen scene. That one really stands out to me as being special. I also love the episode where Topanga has a crush on Eric, and she goes to their house. Then of course “Cory’s Alternative Friends,” my very first episode will always hold so many memories for me. It’s really hard to pick, and I’m wondering how that’s going to change as we get into season 3 and beyond. I wonder if I’m going to have just as many favorite episodes or if I’m going to start to be like, oh, these feel cringey now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madison is a senior writer/editor at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture. When she’s not on the internet, you can most likely find her taking a nap or eating banana bread.