Coffee with Paolo from The Lizzie McGuire Movie

I sat down with Yani Gellman, u jel?

It takes a disarmingly charming person to pull off the heartthrob-turned-villain whiplash maneuver as well as Yani Gellman does in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. The role was iconic.

Every twenty-something girl once dreamed of a Trevi Fountain rendezvous with the suave Paolo Valisari, followed by a zoom around the cobblestoned streets of Rome on the back of his red Vespa. Yani laughs at his Italian accent days – his real-life crooked smile and russet-brown irises a dead giveaway to why he was chosen to make Hilary Duff swoon in the first place.

“Man, I miss those Armani suits.”

Since his defining stint with Disney, Yani, now 30, has created a polymorphous on-screen reputation for himself. So much so, that the easygoing gentleman sipping his iced tea in front of me at the cozy Cafe Stella on Sunset Boulevard is practically indistinguishable. Yani’s chameleon-esque career has given him “an anonymity” that separates him from the faces of his diverse roles: Italian pop-star, Rosewood’s serpentine police officer, tortured graffiti artist-slash-felon, lawyer and The Young and the Restless’ first gay character, to name a handful.

In a grey T-shirt and sandals, meshing befittingly with the red-stucco, Southern Californian decor that hugs us into our corner table, he is externally and internally as grounded as he is laid-back. He talks often and highly about his family in Toronto. He is energetic to thank his close circle of friends in Los Angeles for his stability. Yet, he is keen and humorous.

He dreams of writing comedies one day – something “zany and offbeat” – and he is quicker to make a self-deprecating joke than to talk about his accomplishments. When I reach for the bill, he swiftly grabs it and raises his eyebrows at me in jest, “I’m the big-time actor, I got it today.”

Above all, it is evident he absolutely adores his job.

Have you always wanted to be an actor?

I’ve always been interested in movies. I got into theater at a young age, just because it seemed like the fun thing to do. And then I got into an arts school for high school where there were other people who started pursuing it as a career. So when it came time to graduate (University of Toronto), it was just a natural thing to start getting into.

I never really decided to be an actor for a living. It look a long time of actually auditioning for things and working on a couple different projects before I decided that this was actually the thing I wanted to do as a career. That’s when I moved to Los Angeles.

What is the project you’ve enjoyed working on the most?

All of the projects I’ve worked on have been an adventure in their own way. The ones that stand out for me are usually ones that I’ve had to go on location to shoot. I love to travel. So like, shooting The Lizzie McGuire Movie was a really exciting experience for me because I got to do it in Rome. I also just shot a movie called In The Deep in the Dominican Republic, and that was a lot of fun because I’d never been there. Also stuff that takes me back home to Toronto. It’s a blast to be able to work at home and be with my family.

Speaking of In the Deep – how was working with Mandy Moore?

It was just a charm. She is just literally one of the nicest people I have ever worked with. I had heard good things about her before, and she was so great. So down to earth and so nice. It was super easy to act opposite of her.

What are some of your most memorable moments as an actor?

It’s awesome to experience different things that you don’t get to experience in your everyday life. For In The Deep, scuba-diving was a blast. I did a TV-movie a couple years ago that is going to come out this year called The Saint. I played the getaway car driver. We shot a lot of that stuff in downtown LA, so even something as driving a car super fast through traffic can be really fun. I’m not the best driver in the world.

I’m very cautious, I drive very slowly and make sure to check all my blind spots. I basically drive like a grandma. In the middle of shooting that, it occurred to me that they were trusting me with the lives of all the other actors in the car and I got super nervous for a second. And I was like, “you know what bro, you just gotta own it and go.” It was really fun.

Driving that Vespa around Rome must have pushed you out of your grandma ways 

That was really exhilerating. A lot of those shots were us driving in real traffic. And it’s insane to drive there. No rules and no lanes. And the cops are always so fashionable and dressed in these really nice uniforms not giving speeding tickets. I had never ridden on a Vespa before having done that and the next time I went back to Italy I made sure I rented one.

How was working on The Lizzie McGuire Movie set?

It was amazing. It was one of my first big projects so I didn’t realize while we were doing it how big of a deal it was. It was a really new experience for me – being in a big movie with a big budget and a huge crew. It was a lot to take in because I wasn’t used to that stuff yet. I spent most days on set trying to act cool and was like, “yeah, yeah, I’ve been here before.” But really I was like, “Oh my God, what’s going on right now.”

Which is funny, because the character you played was the big-time star.

Yeah and it was opposite on set, because Hilary was a big star and had done movies like that and for me it was my first time. She really showed me the ropes and worked with me a lot and we rehearsed a lot. I’m super grateful to her for helping me throughout that shoot. She’s a total pro and really alive in her scenes. It never felt like we were acting together. It was also so fun seeing Italy with her and experiencing that time together.

Do y’all keep in touch?

I see Hilary every once in awhile and we catch up and all that. Actually, a couple years ago we were both coincidentally celebrating our birthdays at the same bowling alley on the same night. Which was so much fun.

How was playing the good-cop-bad-cop character Garrett Reynolds in Pretty Little Liars?

That was an interesting experience because one of the things about Pretty Little Liars is that we didn’t necessarily know where the story was going. They would give us some hints at what they were going to do with the characters, but generally speaking, the writers kept the story close to their chest. So we were figuring out the mystery as actors as we went along and it helped with my character because Garrett was very conflicted and torn between these two dark and positive forces.

So I never knew the whole time if I was a good guy or a bad guy. Being kept on edge by the writers and producers really helped me as an actor in the confusion and complexity that my character had. But it was a lot of fun – it was my first time playing a cop and I got to drive around in a cop car. I got to meet and work with all the Pretty Little Liars girls and they’re all awesome. It’s a really great show.

What future projects are you looking forward to right now?

A buddy and I are writing a show together that we’re wanting to make into a pilot. In the Deep is coming out in September. The Saint is coming out as well. The show Transylvania that I worked on didn’t get picked up as a series, but I’m hoping one of those internet channels like Netflix or Hulu might pick it up because it was such a phenomenal experience. I played this young gypsy who has several layers to his character, and it was a fantastic cast and I’m hoping it will find life in some other form.

Have you always wanted to write?

I think definitely creating some of my own show ideas is something I want to move into. I’ve been an actor for a long time and I’ve done a lot of that, and I want to start creating my own things. It’s a really fulfilling thing to do, to be able to write your own voice and create the characters and the stories you want to see. I have lots of great and talented friends who I have the opportunity to collaborate with. I find myself writing more on the comedy end of things, very different than the dramatic roles I’ve done as an actor.

Do you find the film industry to be a tough crowd? For someone who aspires to be an actor one day, how tough of skin do you think is a prerequisite to possess? 

I don’t know if I’d necessarily say I have thick skin. It’s not even that, I just don’t really take personal offense to someone who doesn’t know me critiquing my performance. If someone who is really close to me or an artist I really admire says something negative about me, I would take that to heart. But I’ve never really taken the industry as a whole’s opinions to heart because I don’t really know if they actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to these things. I am pretty selective on whose opinions I’ll let affect me.

Early on, I used to read things online and it would kind of bug me. But then you realize, “Oh shit, everybody is just going to say anything they want, but unless they have worked with you, and have been involved in the experience of creating that project, they don’t really know what’s going on and what you were up against while shooting or what your goals were.” On the flip side, I’ve had people tell me I’ve done a really good job on something and I didn’t feel like I achieved what I wanted to achieve. And other times, someone will criticize something I’ve done and I felt like I had actually done a good job given the circumstances and situation I was in.

Circumstance can really affect a perception of a performance.

Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, the “Best Actor Award” always goes the actor who is working with the best director on the biggest budget film. And, not to take anything away from anyone who has been in that situation, but that actually makes their job to give a great performance much easier. They should be giving the “Best Actor Award” to the person with the shittiest script, the shittiest director, and the smallest budget, and seeing that person give an incredible performance. Now that’s impressive.

Has there been anyone you’ve met that has completely left you starstruck? 

I ran into the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, Zack de la Rocha, and they are one of my favorite bands, and I kind of had a brief fanboy moment. Actually, who I would really just be blown away to meet is Barack and Michelle Obama. They are just incredible people and so under-appreciated. Say what you will about them, but they haven’t had any scandals, they are good people. You might disagree with their politics, but at the end of the day I believe they are working their hardest to help this country and they deserve some respect. Also, Bernie Sanders would be so amazing to meet. He’s number one. Reminds me of my dad, actually. I just want to hug him.

What are some of your favorite TV shows and movies you’ve watched recently?

I love Game of Thrones. It’s like a book club and you get together with your friends and it becomes a social thing. I just watched that series called Love. Also Aziz Ansari’s Master of None I really love. For movies, I just saw The Lobster, which was excellent.

Follow Yani on Instagram and Twitter.