Disney Actress Debby Ryan Is the Anti-Miley (and That's Not a Bad Thing)
Debby wears a top by Equipment, shoes by Kenneth Cole, socks by Thierry Boutemy x Opening Ceremony and bracelet by Michael Kors.
It's a cloudless late July afternoon in Los Angeles and Debby Ryan, the brassy star of the Disney Channel's Jessie, is sporting very un-Jessie white-blonde hair and still riding the adrenaline rush of last night. Ryan's band, The Never Ending, played their first-ever concert out in Pomona, about 90 minutes east of LA, to fans, friends and family.
"I was surrounded by my best friends," Ryan, 21, says, beaming. Making The Never Ending's debut outside of Hollywood's glare was all part of the plan. While Disney's tween stars tend to stir up tabloids as they come into their own (see: Miley Cyrus), it's moves like this that show Ryan isn't interested in biting the white-gloved mouse hand that feeds her. "I don't do anything on my own that's too Disney-adjacent," she says. Instead, Ryan's more interested in creating a separation of church and state -- or, in this case, a separation between the music industry and the Magic Kingdom.
Ryan grew up in a religious, military household in Texas with a stint in Germany, and says she found a platform to perform at church. It wasn't long before she set her sights on acting in films. "I wanted to be Dakota Fanning," Ryan says, adding that she got her start in indie films, rather than the commercial fare she's since become known for. After landing her first role in a small film in Louisiana as a teenager, Ryan's tight-knit family relocated to LA to support her budding career. With her raspy voice and Texas-sized personality, she was eventually cast on Disney's Suite Life on Deck and, later, Jessie.
Debby wears a hat by Melody Ehsani and sunglasses by Guess.
Entering its fourth season, the show follows Ryan's character who, like herself, is a small town Texas girl that moves to the big city to break into showbiz. But in this case the big city is New York and Jessie works as a nanny to a large multi-cultural family of adopted children: a breakdancer from Detroit, a sassy little girl from Africa, a sweetly nerdy Indian, and a Paris Hilton-y daughter. The parents are cartoonishly narcissistic movie stars, the butler is lazy but big-hearted, and one of the main characters is a kimodo dragon named Mr. Kipling who -- spoiler alert -- turns out to be Ms. Kipling after having lots of little Kiplings.
While many Disney shows can be annoyingly rote with their -- cue overwrought TV promo voice -- kids who quip like grown-ups and their grown-ups that act like kids, Jessie's distinguished itself with an episode that addressed adoption from both the parents' and kids' perspectives. And this season will see Ryan's character outgrowing the usual forever-young Peter Pan-ness of Disney stars to get married.
It was the same year Jessie went on the air -- 2011 -- that Ryan began penning her own country-tinged music. Eventually friends and friends of friends connected her to guitarist Kyle Moore and together they went on to form The Never Ending. Though all the band members are ringers with the kind of industry-town writing and playing credits that working in Hollywood affords, the group is more like friends than business partners. Ryan is housemates with TNE's drummer Johnny Franco, but says it's anything but a band house. "We live in a neighborhood that's mostly elderly people. I have my cats and Johnny's like my big brother," she says. "I only really go out to support my friends' bands." (Her boyfriend is also a drummer, Josh Dun of the emo-EDM duo Twenty One Pilots.) "Otherwise it's movie night with s'mores and maybe jumping in the pool after midnight."
Debby wears jeans by J Brand, shoes by Saint Laurent, hat by Stussy, sunglasses by Guess, and jewelry by Melody Ehsani.
Compared to, say, the high-visibility Aaliyah-esque R&B of fellow Disney star Zendaya, or the Nicki Minaj-collab radio hip-hop of Ariana Grande, Ryan and The Never Ending are a breath of fresh if recognizable air with their indie-folk-Americana-roots sound. The band's five-song album, One, released in late June, is as reminiscent of Tom Petty as Taylor Swift, and embraces everything from gospel to folk and even waltz (yes, as in one-two-three, one-two-three). The album's opener, "Mulholland Drive," finds drummer Franco playing brushes on a hushed, haunted track that sounds like Lana Del Rey playing a coffeehouse.
Two jams, "Ruthless" and "Call Me Up" are about rocky relationships, while the remaining two tracks, "When the Dark Falls" and "Before I Go Upstairs," are the aforementioned waltzes -- not exactly summer anthem, or even Radio Disney material. And yet, do a YouTube search of The Never Ending's debut show and "Before I Go Upstairs" comes up as something of a fan favorite highlight. "Doing a song about insomnia in waltz-time seems a little bold just in terms of not being typical, but it felt justified," Ryan explains. "That song is me, up late at night, this is what I'm feeling and this the story I want to tell." And these are their stories. Ryan writes all the music with her band, without help from outside producers or labels. "We're doing this in the way music's supposed to happen: a group of people meeting in the middle," she says.
If it all sounds sort of, for lack of a better word, pure, it kind of is. And when her predecessors include Miley and Selena, Ryan's career path -- aging gracefully into adulthood rather than, er, banging down its doors -- can seem like an anomaly.
Besides launching her music career, Ryan also has her own production company and, with it, a jam-packed calendar. "I have to be really choosy what I do because I only have so much availability," she says, and directors can see the Disney thing as a stigma. So far, she's played a crack addict on an episode of Private Practice and will be appearing in Snow The Jones, the upcoming project from UK filmmaker Alistair Banks Jones ("Two Gates of Sleep") about a teenage "vagabond who joins a door-to-door sales crew."
Of these disparate roles, Ryan says, "Yeah, I have the timing to deliver comedy and find the funny but I can do anything -- just give me the chance." Never ending, indeed.
Get The Never Ending's One HERE.