With a penchant for hats and a wry smile, Larisa Oleynik squinted and pointed her way into the hearts of kids growing up in the 90s as the titular character on Nickelodeon's "The Secret World of Alex Mack."
The series, created by Thomas W. Lynch and Ken Lipman, ran from 1994-1998 on Nickelodeon and was a cornerstone of the network's SNICK block of kid programming.
"It's funny because for a period of time it was very uncool to be Alex Mack, and so I'm glad that it's like cool and retro," Oleynik said with a laugh. "It's come back around ... I still get people asking me to turn into a puddle. It's kind of funny and cute ... I think [the powers] were, for me, more of a metaphor for all the weird changes you go through in that time in your life."
Now, 18 years after the show's premiere, Lynch discusses the secret origins of "Alex Mack," Darris Love (who played Alex's best friend Ray) reminisces about life on set, and Oleynik reveals what it was like to be the girl who could turn into a silver puddle ... and why she walked away from a franchise. Plus, Oleynik and Lynch reveal the fate of Alex's many hats and answer the series finale cliffhanger question.
THE SECRET ORIGINS OF ALEX MACK
Lynch said he got the idea for girl who gets powers from a chemical accident from his own childhood. As the son of a nuclear physicist, Lynch's father worked with radioactive material that was kept in his garage. "Today, they would've shut the whole block down," he said. "It cracked me up -- the idea that that stuff was right there. What if I ate it? What would happen to me?"
But GC-161, the chemical that gave Alex powers, was nothing he found amongst his father's chemicals. Lynch said he thinks he came up with the GC part of the name while doing DNA research, and the 161 came from the number eight. "I was 8 years old when my parents got divorced," he said. "That was purposeful."
Selling the show to Nickelodeon was easy, Lynch said. With "Kids Incorporated" and "Night Tracks" on his resume, Lynch said Nickelodeon came to him about doing a series. Lynch was flattered and convinced them to let him develop six scripts. "The only script I wrote was 'The Secret World of Alex Mack,'" he said. "I never wrote those other five."
While developing "The Secret World of Alex Mack," Lynch said the network had only one note: make the title character Alex, who was originally written as a boy, into a girl. "I think the success of it laid in the fact that I didn't write a gender, I wrote a character. Myself and Ken Lipman, who co-wrote the pilot with me, we didn't change it to be a girl, we just had a character."
In order to make the show, Lynch needed an actress he could write for and screened about 600 girls. He was used to looking for triple threats, like Fergie and Jennifer Love Hewitt, who were on his previous show, "Kids Incorporated"; but for "Alex Mack," he needed an actress who could do drama and comedy. Enter Larisa Oleynik.
"Larisa came in and I remember looking around the room and saying, 'That's it. That's the one. I can write for her,'" he said. "[Nickelodeon] said, 'OK, send a tape,' and I said, 'No, no, no. That's the one. She's it.'"
Oleynik doesn't remember much of the casting process, just that "The Secret World of Alex Mack" had a lot of hype around it amongst the community of Oakwood, an apartment community many young actors lived in.
"I don't think I had to go in that many times," she said. "It seemed to happen pretty easily for me, at least compared to what the testing process is now."
One of the best things about the show, which Lynch said he can't take any credit for, is the way Oleynik interpreted the character. "She did more directing of herself than anybody ever did. She knew exactly what she was doing and had such a gift," he said.
"I had such a clear handle on the character because it was me," Oleynik said. "It was me in special circumstances, but that's who I was."
Oleynik said her favorite part about the character was that Alex owned who she was. "For the most part, she was pretty down with her own uniqueness without it being contrived or anything like that. She didn't make any apologies for who she was and that to me is very cool," she said.
Alex Mack still wears those hats. "Um, do you know that I still have so many of those hats? And I wear them," Oleynik said. "I still have so many of those beanies."
While she doesn't have a favorite, one particular hat sticks out in Oleynik's mind. "I believe -- well, we're all of age now -- I believe we called it the condom cap," she said with a laugh. "Because it was just like this weird, brown, I don't know ... totally gross!"
Lynch has the iconic baseball hat the character wore when she was doused with GC-161, but Alex Mack and her hats did not always go hand in hand. While prepping for the pilot, Lynch said Laura Slakey, the show's costume designer, put the hat on Oleynik while testing different looks for the character. "She just threw this hat on and I was like, 'Wow, that's perfect.' The most iconic thing in the show, I had nothing to do with."
WALKING AWAY FROM ALEX MACK
"It's a weird thing to all of a sudden be recognized every where you go," Oleynik said. "I don't remember it hitting that suddenly. I think it was pretty gradual for me, so that by the point it was at its height, I had some sort of coping mechanism in place."
Oleynik grew up on TV, spending her formative years on the show. However, she and co-star Darris Love praised Nickelodeon and said the network really encouraged the young actors to have a childhood. "We were allowed to be kids," she said. "We didn't have so much pressure on us. Darris and I would rollerblade during our lunch breaks together."
Love said his dressing room was always full of incentives. "We'd come into our dressing room and it'll be filled with Gak and toys that come from our brand and our product," Love said. "They knew we were kids and we got first dibs. They were incentives to be kids."
Over the years, Love and Oleynik both said the "Alex Mack" cast and crew became its own family. "I've worked on a lot of sets, I've worked with a lot of people and I just quite never got that home like it was being on 'Alex Mack,'" Love said.
"What I really remember is starting to form our little family," Oleynik echoed. "I was really close with all of the girls in wardrobe and make-up and I think for me, that's what I really remember ... for the first time having that experience on set, that sort of tight-knit family unit."
But there came a time when Oleynik was ready to move on. Lynch said he presented Oleynik, her mom and her manager with a package for a fifth season of the show, a feature film and "a ton of money" at a swanky Hollywood dinner and Oleynik turned him down.
"I have absolutely no regrets about that," she said. "It was an incredible thing he was offering me and I knew that at the time, but I was a little burnt out. This has nothing to do with anyone involved, or the show or with Nickelodeon, but I don't think that I will ever work that hard. I don't think that any job will ever feel as hard because I put so much pressure on myself to be so good at everything."
Oleynik said she wanted to finish out her school career and head to college and, at the same time, leave Alex Mack with some innocence.
"For me, she was starting to grow up and that last season, she gets a boyfriend ... I don't know, there was something about it and I just kind of wanted to keep it innocent," she said. "I think that we had four incredible seasons and I'm so proud of them."
DID ALEX TAKE THE CURE?
"The Secret World of Alex Mack" ended its four-year run with a cliffhanger. The finale saw Alex's secret revealed to her parents with Danielle Atron (Louan Gideon) nearly triumphant, but good won over evil in the end and Alex's father presented her with a cure that would rid her of her powers. The final episode ended with Alex holding a vial of the cure, contemplating her future, smiling at the camera.
"I think subconsciously I didn't want it to end," he said. "It was such a unique experience of my life of having success, creative control, a happy environment and one that was recognized as a game-changing show. It was fantastic."
So, did Alex take the cure and lose her powers and live a normal life?
"She never did," Lynch said with a laugh. "I liked the idea that the choice would remain hers, if she took the medicine or not, if she took the cure or not. She was not going to be dictated to. That was my conscious thought in writing it ... I wanted at the end -- I didn't want the world to dictate to her, I wanted her to dictate to herself what she was going to do."
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
In Lynch's mind, the character of Alex Mack got a happy ending. According to Lynch, today Alex Mack is the mom of two teens, still using her powers when need be with a clueless husband a la Darrin Stephens of "Bewitched." Alex is still best friends with Ray, who just so happens to be a very successful entrepreneur and owns hotels and some casinos in Las Vegas. Her sister, Annie (Meredith Bishop), is divorced, bitter, a little overweight and can't understand why Alex is so happy. Meanwhile, George Mack (Michael Blakley) became a billionaire thanks to an invention and its patent, Vince (John Marzilli) is still searching for Alex in a crazed, underground sort of way and Danielle Atron is just getting out of jail and starting up an Internet pharmaceutical company.
Oleynik took issue with Lynch's ideas. "Mom of two teens!?" she asked when told of his thoughts for Alex's future. "Did I have them as soon as the show ended? How do I have two teenagers?" In Oleynik's mind, Alex is now an art teacher.
"Somehow I think she's a teacher, is that weird? I feel like she's a cool teacher, who's still using her powers on the sly every once in a while to help out her favorite students," she said. "I feel like since high school was such a weird place for her, somehow, that's where she finds herself being of use."
In real life, Love is in the running to star in a Tupac biopic and Oleynik has just completed an indie film, "BFFs," and has recurring roles on "Pretty Little Liars" and "Mad Men." But she won't -- and can't -- spill any "Mad Men" spoilers. If she had her wish, she'd get some scenes with her on-screen husband Ken Cosgrove, played by Aaron Staton.
"I literally know nothing about this new season, but if I had my dream, I just want one solid scene with my husband. I want to know more about our relationship. I'm dying to know more about our relationship," she said.
Lynch is working on developing new pilots and just wrapped "Bucket and Skinner's Epic Adventures" for Nickelodeon.
WILL THERE BE A REUNION?
"Oh god ... I would definitely be open to talking about it with Tommy, seeing what kind of crazy concoction he has in his brain," Oleynik said about reprising the role of Alex Mack.
But Lynch has other things in mind besides reuniting the original cast. "I would do a movie as a remake to launch a series. I don't know if I'd do a reunion because I don't know if that would work," he said. "The idea I would definitely do again. I think with all the girl power stuff going on, I see the stuff on The CW. I think the way to do 'Alex Mack' is to do it as a feature that goes into a series, I think there's a way to do it that will still be cool and interesting. I did always want to see what she'd be like in college. Kind of like 'Felicity' meets 'Alex Mack,' I think it'd be kind of cool."
"Right now there's no reason you can't do 'Alex Mack' again," Love said. "I always say this to myself and I always wait for that call, because every day I run into a fan that's like, 'Why'd you guys ever stop it?' I don't know what to tell them ..."
Love said he could see a reunion working well for the franchise. "I was hoping for at least an 'Alex Mack' film, but a reunion would be by far because the thing is, now we're adults and we can go further than we could as children ... it's unlimited. I think it's a vehicle that has to be resurrected and whether it's us involved or how we're involved, it doesn't matter. It's a brand that's still alive. Its heart is still pumping and I think we need to revive it."
While she has hesitant when talking about a reunion, Oleynik was quick to say she'd like to be involved with a possible reboot. "I would be more interested in working with [Lynch] on that and being behind the scenes in sort of like a retelling of it," she said.
"For me, I love the fact that this many years after the fact, I feel a certain kinship with people who still think of the show," Oleynik said. "It's pretty amazing. I'm grateful for that. I kind of can't believe that our little show that we were just so happy to make for four years is still kind of a part of people's lives."
Relive "The Secret World of Alex Mack" below with the very first episode.
The Secret World of Alex Mack: "The Accident"