Rider Strong should have been an Internet Boyfriend. Were he discovered today, Strong would be amongst your Timothées, your Idrises, your Keanus: a subsect of actors valued just as much for their creative pursuits and non-performative feminism as for their jawlines.
Instead, he was cast on Boy Meets World at age 13 and became a designated Teen Beat Boyfriend. Unlike Internet Boyfriends, Teen Beat Boyfriends of the pre-social media age functioned as pin-up commodities, driven entirely by their dream dates, favorite pizza toppings, and the surprising buoyancy of their center-parted mane.
That was never going to work for Strong.
"I wanted to be a poet and academic writer, and was told no, everyone just wants you to be the guy who loves being on TV and runs his hand through his hair a certain way," Strong tells VICE. "I hated that."
Just shy of his 40th birthday, Strong is about to re-introduce himself, only not in the ways you might expect.
A magical childhood forest
It should come as no surprise that someone blessed with the name Rider Strong, perfect for the stage or X-rated screen, sprouted from a family rife with creativity. His father's honest-to-god birth name is King Arthur Strong, and his back-to-lander parents raised him and his older brother, Shiloh, in an idyllic house they built themselves out of redwood trees in Northern California's Sonoma County.
"It's sort of this magical place," Strong says. "My brother and I ran around the woods all day making our own movies, and there were always big dinners and big discussions where everyone was invited. I think for a lot of my friends, my house was a safe space where ideas could be challenged, and everyone was treated like an adult no matter how old you were."
His woodland performances soon led to stints as a kid magician at local birthday parties, and eventually Strong made his professional acting debut at age 9, playing Gavroche in a San Francisco theater production of Les Miserables. (The Secret World of Alex Mack's Larisa Oleynik co-starred as Young Cosette.) But mom Lin sensed her sons were destined for brighter lights, so she took Rider and Shiloh to Los Angeles, where they both quickly landed a handful of television roles. And then came Boy Meets World.
Boy Meets World
The legend goes that Strong was the first actor to read for the part of Shawn Hunter, and showrunner Michael Jacobs cast him on the spot. What followed were seven seasons of TV-PG sitcom magic, charting the misadventures of Shawn, Cory (Ben Savage), Topanga (Danielle Fishel), Eric (Will Friedle), and Mr. F-e-e-e-eny (William Daniels).
While other comedy series on ABC's TGIF lineup danced around heavy issues via sporadic Very Special Episodes, Boy Meets World ingrained them in its DNA. And during its 1993-2000 run, nearly all of those challenging subplots centered on Shawn.
There was the time Shawn went undercover as a female student to expose sexual harassment at John Adams High. (It’s called “Chick Like Me” and shockingly holds up 22 years later.) Or the time his dad died, or his beloved teacher got into a near-fatal motorcycle accident, or he joined a cult, or dabbled in underage drinking, or reunited with his estranged mom who turned out to not really be his mom. The meaty fare wasn't just a ratings ploy—it was a lifeline to keep Strong interested enough to stay on the show.
"There was definitely a period where I thought I was way cooler than Boy Meets World. I thought I could be doing a lot better, so the writers just threw whatever drama they could at me," he says. "It ended up making the show this crazy schizophrenic vibe. You're watching these goofy Eric Matthews B-plots, and then it cuts to me, and, like, my dad's dying and I'm bawling. It's so intense, but I think that's one of the reasons why the show has endured the way it has."
Shawn and Angela's long-term, albeit ill-fated, relationship also made waves. The Flash star Candice Patton recently told TV Guide how important seeing an African-American love interest like Trina McGee's Angela was to her growing up in the 90s, and Strong says their romance is one of the things he's most proud of on the otherwise whitewashed show.
"I didn't think that relationship was going to be a big deal. And then suddenly my own family members, like, random cousins started talking shit about the show and saying, 'I'm not gonna watch it anymore' because of that," he says. "Also, just Trina entering my life was huge. She was 28 years old when she got the part, and she came on set and was like, 'You guys are complaining a lot considering how good you have it right now. You're on a TV show!' And she was absolutely right. It took me a long time to see that."
Coping with fame
For most of Boy Meets World, Strong was miserable. Not because of the show or anyone involved, but because of the all-encompassing fame that came with playing a brooding-yet-sensitive bad boy on a sitcom in the 90s.
"I did a Sail With the Stars charity cruise when I was 15, and that was the most crystal-clear moment where I had a breakdown because it was just so alienating," he says. "You're stuck on a boat with, like, 600 fans and their families who feel like they have access to you. They want a certain version of you, whether that's Shawn Hunter or this perfect teen idol boyfriend, and suddenly, you have to be that person 24 hours a day. It was just the worst."
And yes, he's aware that complaining about being famous is "the dumbest thing in the world" and "no one wants to hear about it," but the implications of his stardom infiltrated every aspect of his young life. Early on, at his suggestion, his family worked out a weekly arrangement that saw Rider, Shiloh, and their mom shuffle between their LA rental during the week and the family homestead in Sonoma—an hour's flight and additional two hours' drive away—on weekends.
"My relationship with my mom, especially from 13 to 16, was rough. I was just a typical asshole teenager, but the problem was, I had so much power," he says. "I'm the one with the career. I'm the one whose job is dragging her down to LA away from her husband. I think about it now, and I feel so sorry for my poor mom. I treated her like such a dick."
The lightbulb moment came around the same time as the cruise from hell, when Strong's first girlfriend broke up with him and he found himself "bawling" in his Boy Meets World dressing room before a taping.
"My mom and dad were there, and everybody was waiting for me to get out and do the show. I didn't want to do it. I felt like my life was over, and I couldn't stop crying," he says. “And my dad just said, ‘Okay, let's quit the show. We'll get up. I'll tell them we're leaving, and I don't give a fuck. We'll break the contract; we’ll get sued. I don't care. It's too important to me. You don't have to do this.’"
Strong says that supportive, financially ill-advised declaration from his dad completely changed his life. "It showed me that my parents would love me, even if I failed at this. Every young kid needs to hear that, but especially when you're a child actor in this position, where your career starts to take on a life of its own, and you see that it's helping everybody's lives," he says. "I needed to be told that my parents were going to love me no matter what."
Spoiler alert: Strong didn't quit the show, but he did move into his own Downtown LA apartment at 16, a risky change that somehow salvaged that previously precarious relationship with his mom. He also sought new ways to cope with the fame he'd come to loathe.
"I would always gravitate toward people who had no idea who I was, and when Boy Meets World was on the air that just meant anybody over 18. So, by the time I was 16, I was living and functioning as an adult," he says. "I didn't drink or do drugs, but every woman I dated was over 20, every friend I had was older, and I would literally go in disguise when I didn't want to deal with it."
Wandering down this road that we call life
During its later seasons, Boy Meets World drew double the average audience of its edgier, angstier teen rival, Dawson's Creek. But Strong was already plotting his next move, launching his own production company and exploring a world without Shawn Hunter.
By the time Boy Meets World's final episode aired in May 2000, Strong had completed a year's worth of college credits by taking morning classes at nearby Occidental. As soon as production wrapped, he moved to New York with his then-girlfriend, a former Boy Meets World PA, and enrolled at Columbia the same year as Anna Paquin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Julia Stiles. Their stardom, he’s said, allowed him to "slip under the radar" as a "TV schmuck" amongst movie stars.
While living in the Village, he maintained an impressively boring life. He took a semester off to film Eli Roth's cult horror flick Cabin Fever and another for a touring stage production of The Graduate opposite Jerry Hall, but otherwise he focused on school and went to bed at 9 p.m. every night—a habit that paid off when he graduated magna cum laude in 2004 and went on to earn an MFA in Fiction and Literature from Bennington College.
Post-academia, he reluctantly found his way back to LA, where he continued his veiled pursuits, narrating audio books, doing voiceover work, and writing and directing short films with his brother.
"I ended up being a very private person, and I maintain this line of privacy that is bad for my career,” he says. “Even when I'm not acting, it would still be better for my writing and directing for me to do more interviews and put myself out there more, but I just I find it all pretty awful."
Begrudgingly meets world again
Just as Strong settled into his new reality as a recovering sitcom star, Disney Channel announced it was rebooting Boy Meets World in the form of an even-more-sanitized spinoff called Girl Meets World. Full of nostalgic nods and callbacks, it reteamed Savage and Fishel as the parents of their own tween daughter navigating life with her rebellious best friend. Most of the original cast agreed to appear in recurring roles or cameos at the time of the 2013 series premiere, but Strong initially wanted no part.
Instead, he made a deal: He would reprise Shawn Hunter for seven episodes, if he could also be allowed to direct some with his brother. "I knew that playing Shawn again was going to be the final nail in the coffin of ever doing anything else as an actor," he says. "So I did a trade."
The series was canceled in 2017 after three seasons, but it afforded Strong 18 new directorial credits, and he admits there’s still a chance he could step back into Shawn's shoes in a more meta way.
"There are things in the works, one of which would involve me acting again, and not really playing Shawn Hunter, but also not not playing Shawn Hunter," he says. "But I wouldn't do a sitcom again. I hate to say it, but it was really hard going back and doing Girl Meets World."
Something he finds easier: reuniting with his former co-stars. After years of fighting fans' assumptions that he, Savage, Fishel, and Friedle are all best friends in real life, Strong is finally coming to terms with the fact that they are actually really, really close.
"I spent a lot of my life taking these friendships for granted and these people for granted," he says. "And now that we're all so freaking old, I can look around and be like, wow, these guys are huge influences on my life in so many ways."
In fact, when we speak, he's just finished drinks with Friedle at a hotel bar in Boston where they’re all reuniting for a fan convention.
"There was this leather-bound menu sitting on the table, and Will said, 'Is that yours?' I was like, 'No! What, did you think I had a leather-bound journal just sitting there?'" Strong laughs. "And I realized, this is exactly what he thinks of me. Like, I'm pulling out my leather-bound journal and my quill pen because that is entirely accurate to what I was like when I was a teenager on Boy Meets World. They know me better than anybody."
If you're still reading this article purely in the hopes that Strong could be your soulmate, here’s the part where your dreams get dashed. After meeting actress and filmmaker Alexandra Barreto on the set of their short-lived WB show Pepper Dennis in 2006, he asked her to marry him in 2012 in a manner the poets and Nicholas Sparks would envy: He proposed in the pouring rain under the redwood trees at his parents' house with an engagement ring he designed and made himself.
They married at an Oregon summer camp, unintentionally on the same 2013 weekend as Danielle Fishel's wedding (Savage attended Fishel's; Friedle went to Strong's). And they're now parents to four-year-old son Indigo "Indy" Barreto Strong, who shows what Rider calls a "terrifying" theatrical streak and is already eager to learn how to do spit takes.
"We're kind of screwed. I don't know what to do. I have a very, very big fear of being a stage parent," he says. "Our rule is, we do not put him in acting classes until he tells us he wants to do it. But he tells great jokes, and he's a cute kid, if I may say so."
Podcasts! Plays! Toppling the patriarchy!
Strong is currently working on a slew of highly personal projects that are about as far from his sitcom past as possible. These include the best podcast you’re not listening to: Literary Disco, a passion project Strong co-hosts with two of his former Bennington classmates. Each of its 151 episodes and counting dissects a different work, and Strong's gift is that he can show just as much enthusiasm for a Sweet Valley High deep dive as a debate on The Great Gatsby.
"I've been shut out of multiple book clubs because my wife gets invited and they’re women-only, so Literary Disco is how I maintain my reading life," he says. "I can exist on there as Rider the book guy, not Rider from Boy Meets World, and that's really important to me."
He's published short stories, articles, and poetry of his own, and he has big plans to write a novel in the near future. But first, he's opening a new play he wrote called Never Ever Land, loosely based on the 1993 Jordan Chandler vs. Michael Jackson case. The script ended up being far more personal than Strong anticipated, not least of which because he's the same age as Chandler, and Strong's family lived in a rental home two miles from Jackson's house in Encino when the trial was underway.
"When Michael Jackson died, I had this moment of like, 'Oh, I always thought I was gonna meet him.' And then I was like, why? And I realized, it was because I could have. I actually was one or two degrees away from meeting him a bunch of times," he says quietly. "What would that have been like? And what would my parents have done if I wanted to go spend the night in Neverland. Would they have let me go? Probably."
Still, Jackson's name is never said on stage and Strong explains the focus of the play—set to open at Los Angeles' Studio/Stage theater in September—is the broader theme of what fame can do to families. "It's really about fame as trauma. And the idea that fame and money could be trauma for a family," he says. "Michael Jackson just becomes the pathway for that conversation."
And then there’s film: Rider and Shiloh are in the final stages of getting their first feature off the ground, writing and directing a horror thriller called Men's Rites, which he promises will explore toxic masculinity in a "super fun, super genre-y way" while also having "something to say."
That activism extends beyond the screen. Strong is outspoken in his disdain for Trump and is a frequent figure on the LA protest scene. (Recent appearances include the Women’s March, March for Public Education, and March for Our Lives.) Although he serves as an elected official on his neighborhood council, he likely won't seek higher political office because, as he says, he's an atheist, he's obsessed with authenticity, and, of course, he hates being famous.
The truth we have to accept—no matter how primed he may be to take up the mantle—is that Rider Strong really doesn't want to be an Internet Boyfriend either.
"I want my work and art to get out into the world, and I want to have an effect on the cultural conversation. That's not the same thing as wanting me, my face, my voice, my body, to be out there as a thing that people engage with," he says. "But whatever, here I am complaining about being famous again."