It’s been 20 years since Rider Strong first put on Shawn Hunter’s oversize leather jacket and ran his fingers through his thick brown hair on Boy Meets World. Soon after the TGIF staple premiered in 1993, Strong was plastered on many a preteen wall, courtesy of the centerfolds in the now-defunct Teen Beat, Bop, and 16 magazines. After all, with a name like that, he was destined for teen super heartthrobdom…and Twitter mockery.
The 33-year-old actor, director, and self-proclaimed “sometimes writer,” who recently got married, has made a hobby of responding to all the ridiculous Strong-centric jokes hurled at him on Twitter. “When I first joined Twitter, I started doing a self-Twitter search and the amount of people making fun of my name, it was ridiculous! I just started compiling a bunch of them and then at some point, I decided to make fun of somebody making fun of my name or to comment or respond, and it just exploded. Everybody was like, ‘That’s hysterical,’” Strong told BuzzFeed in a phone interview. He started gathering and responding to tweets every few weeks. “What’s weird to me is that actually, people are pretty nice. I mean, obviously, they make fun of my name, but, I mean, it’s a ridiculous name. It deserves to be made fun of … It’s hard because I never want to be too snarky, you know? I just don’t want to fall into that internet meme thing that starts happening. And I’ve been lucky that the balance has worked out. I can tease people for making fun of my name, because they kind of started it first. I’m just very aware of how stupid my name is,” he said with a laugh. “But I don’t get many mean tweets though. People are so nice to me online so I’m hoping that that continues.”
The online noise surrounding Boy Meets World has recently reached heights that would surpass the volume of Eric (Will Friedle) screeching for Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) — and that’s largely thanks to the upcoming Disney Channel spin-off Girl Meets World, created by the man behind the original series, Michael Jacobs. The series, which will debut in 2014, will center on the now-grown-up Cory (Ben Savage) and Topanga (Danielle Fishel), and Riley (Rowan Blanchard), their 12-year-old daughter who’s just slightly older than Cory, Topanga, and Shawn were when Boy Meets World started in 1994.
“Will and I had no idea that that was happening,” Strong said of the spin-off. “And even Ben and Danielle, it got released to the press before they had made the deal. So they weren’t even sure that it was definitely happening and then it got released and then, of course, the internet just exploded with the news. And that sort of brought us all together because we all started instantly calling each other, being like, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘What do you know?’ So that was when the four of us started having dinners — Ben, Danielle, Will, and I — and we decided to all keep in touch. It was really the Girl Meets World thing that brought us back together.”
Strong and his new wife Alexandra Barreto got engaged within months of his former co-star Fishel and her new husband Tim Belusko and both couples got married the same weekend, which Strong admits was totally his fault. “I completely screwed that up,” he said, noting he forgot Fishel had told him her wedding date. He and his now-wife settled on a summer camp in Oregon that only had one weekend left in October. “We were like, ‘All right, well, let’s book it. That’s it. Let’s just do it,’” Strong said. “And then, literally two days after we sent in the deposit, Alex turned to me and goes, ‘That’s the same weekend Danielle’s getting married, isn’t it?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, fuck!’” Strong called Fishel immediately to apologize. “It just sucked because I would’ve loved to have been at her wedding and I know she and Tim would’ve loved to have been at ours … She spread the net among the Boy Meets World people a lot wider. I mean, obviously, she’s working with a lot of them now … I knew I was going to lose Ben. He had to go to her wedding. There was no way. And Will came to mine. I knew that he would come to mine; we see each other like every other week.”
Though he’s thankful for the friendships Girl Meets World reinvigorated and the “epic” dinner parties he, Savage, Fishel, and Freidle have had, Strong said the spin-off makes him “more nervous than anything, just because it’s a legacy in some ways,” he said with a chuckle, almost embarrassed to say it. “Not to make it too highfalutin, but there’s this sense that we did something kind of magical and that feels obviously very personal and precious. I’m confident now, after having had many conversations with Michael and the writing staff and Ben and Danielle.”
Strong and Friedle stopped by the Girl Meets World set when the pilot was shooting, but the actor said he still hasn’t seen the episode, or even a script. “What I saw when I visited the set made me feel like the respect for the original show was going to be maintained and that the tone was going to be very similar. If anything, what’s weird to me is that it’s going to be on Disney Channel because we were an ABC primetime show … They’ve turned it into the Hannah Montana sort of machine, which is very different tonally … It’s more for teens and kids alone, not with their parents … I think it’s a big step forward for Disney, personally. But really, I’m excited more than anything. I’m as excited as probably most fans of the original show. I just want to see what happens.”
After all, Shawn Hunter is a character near and dear to Strong’s heart, even if the look he sported isn’t. “I never watch it,” Strong said, despite the seemingly unavoidable reruns. “It’s like looking at your high school yearbook times 100. It’s so awkward. All I see is my clothing and my hair and my acne and just the awkwardness of being a teenager. I just don’t need to relive it. I’m fine,” he said with a laugh. “I ultimately feel very positive about Boy Meets World, but I don’t need to constantly be looking at it.”
Yes, Shawn/Strong’s hair may be one of the most iconic and adored elements of Boy Meets World, but the actor himself is not a fan. “It’s one of those things where you make a decision at 12 [that sticks with you],” he said. “I started wearing that ridiculous hair because I went to a sleepover when I was probably 12, and it was at that age where you could have a sleepover with girls too because we were still young enough. The girls descended on me and parted my hair down the middle and flipped it back and they were like, ‘Yeah! You look like Christian Slater. This is how you have to wear your hair.’ Of course, Christian Slater was a big deal back then. I mean, I had no idea what to do with my looks or my hair, so of course, I trusted the girls and that became the Shawn Hunter look that I wore to my audition for Boy Meets World. Little did I know that I’d be stuck with it for seven years of my life. So it was a disaster. But look, all of my fashion choices at that time was a disaster. I was always wearing these JNCO jeans and these big baggy clothes,” he said with a sigh. “I did not know that I was a size small … I think I was 19 in college when I finally started buying clothes that fit me and I was like, Ooooooh. This is what grown-ups do.”
Strong wanted to cut his hair many, many times throughout Boy Meets World’s seven-season run, but he wasn’t allowed to go under the scissors until the final season. “Michael knew that the show probably not going to get picked up and we all pretty much knew — especially because at that point, Ben had already been accepted to Stanford and had postponed a year; and I had already been accepted to Columbia and was ready to go. So it was like, ‘OK, this show is not coming back, even if the numbers are amazing and ABC wants it,’” Strong remembered. “So it was just like, ‘Let me cut my hair.’ And, at the point, Will had already cut his hair, Matt Lawrence [who played Shawn’s half-brother Jack] had short hair, so Michael was like, ‘Fine, you can also have short hair.’”
But baggy jeans and floppy ‘do aside, the actor has plenty of fond on-set memories. “‘And Then There Was Shawn,’ which we called the Scream episode when we were shooting it, we all had the best times of our lives,” Strong recalled of the now-iconic Season 5 Halloween installment. “I can say that was probably one of the greatest filming experiences I’ve ever had as an actor because we just couldn’t stop laughing. And it was so absurd and there was this freedom in that absurdity. I think the reason why that episode worked was because, of course, it turns out to all be a dream sequence, but the emotional underpinning is still very Boy Meets World — what’s going on is actually kind of dramatic and the fact that my character can’t deal with this breakup. But, on the surface, we were making South Park references; Jennifer Love Hewitt is there for no reason; it makes no sense! And we just had a blast. There was this freedom to be idiots.”
A less favorable nonsensical outing, however, was the Season 4 episode “Cult Fiction,” which, as the title indicates, saw Shawn join a cult called the Centre. It wasn’t until his teacher and caregiver Mr. Turner (Anthony Tyler Quinn) got in a motorcycle accident that Shawn was forced to deal with his issues. The episode ended with Shawn visiting an unconscious Mr. Turner in the hospital and then, he was never seen again. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Jacobs said he hopes to tie up that storyline, 16 years later. “I’m so glad to hear he wants to resolve it because we haven’t talked about that,” Strong said. “Mr. Turner (below, middle) was introduced to the show, as far as I understand it, because Friends had taken off and ABC was like, ‘You need twentysomethings on this show’ … And then, they were like, ‘Oh, let’s give him a black best friend, who’s also in his twenties.’ So we have Eli (below, left), who’s there for five episodes or something and does nothing to the storyline of Boy Meets World … But luckily, I think what Michael ended up doing was recognizing that Mr. Turner and Shawn had a similar rebelliousness going on there. So suddenly, Shawn’s living with him, which is kind of ridiculousness when you think about it. And then that cult episode, unfortunately, ended up being Tony’s last. I don’t think any of us knew whether Tony was coming back … I mean, it’s horrible that the last time we saw Mr. Turner he was in a hospital bed. But I don’t think anybody was consciously aware of that. It was like, ‘He’s not going to come back this week, maybe next week.’ That just turns into, ‘Oh, Tony never made it back’ … We all wanted him to come back and it just didn’t happen; we had so many other storylines to tie up. So, I’m glad that Michael’s aware of that. Now, thanks to the internet, he’s reading these message boards and seeing the comments and aware the fans, in a way that he couldn’t be then. There was no such thing.”
Though he doesn’t know what exactly will come of the Mr. Turner storyline, Strong said he does have an idea about where Shawn is now. “Michael and I have talked about it and the only thing I can say is: nowhere good. Michael’s whole rule with Shawn was always that Shawn has to be miserable and that nothing can be good in Shawn’s life. So, we talked about a couple different versions and I’m not sure which way it’s going to end up happening and none of them are very happy,” Strong said. “But, you know, it’s part of the dynamic of the show that Cory and Topanga are very happy and that they form, especially with their new family, this very healthy cornerstone and Shawn has to be there for the counterpoint of what life would be like if Cory and Topanga didn’t have each other, if they didn’t have their families. And the answer to that question is always, ‘Well, they could end up like Shawn.’ It’s not going to be good, but hopefully, it’ll be a little less tragic than we got at the end of the show. He’ll be more grown-up and hopefully, he’s learned to deal with his emotions a little bit more .. But certainly, he and Angela [Trina McGee-Davis] aren’t going to be married with children. It will not be like that. I think if Angela’s involved, it’s going to be pretty tortured — she’s still out there and he’s still looking for her.”
“There’s nothing official yet,” he said, noting there’s “definitely potential.” Whether or not fans do see Shawn on the Disney Channel spinoff next year, there’s no denying the special place Boy Meets World will always have in Strong’s heart and that’s something he hopes to pass on. “I’m very curious, if and when I have children, how that’s going to play out. Because I feel like it’s going to be confusing: ‘This is my childhood that it isn’t my childhood. It’s a big part of my childhood, but it’s just acting.’ So I don’t know,” he said. “I do want to share it with them because it is a huge part of my life and very personal. A lot of the time, I was really experiencing some of those things on camera. A lot of those emotions, like that finale, those are real tears.”