Shay Mitchell :: channeling Emily, Pretty Little Liars’ gay teen
As gay teens continue to make news for bullying and suicides, television series are catching up to the times and actively incorporating young gay characters and storylines into their weekly episodes. Gay teens can be found over at Showtime in both its new series Shameless and its hit United States of Tara. Over at ABC Family, the college series Greek has had a gay character as one of the leads during it's entire run and while the network's Pretty Little Liars is in the midst of its freshman season, the mystery/drama has already made a statement by having one of the four main characters come out as a lesbian.
The series, based on the popular Sara Shepard novels, centers around four girls - Aria (Lucy Hale), Spencer (Troian Bellisario), Hanna (Ashley Benson) and just-coming-out Emily (Shay Mitchell) - whose best friend disappears in the pilot episode and later turns up dead. They're now taunted by the mysterious "A" via text messages and secret visits while also juggling romances and complicated relationships with their parents and classmates. (Comparisons as a teen Desperate Housewives are not entirely off-base.)
The gay storyline featuring Emily is taken directly from the Shepard books and has resonated with teens and adults alike as recent episodes saw the teen come out to her parents who are having their own level of surprise and difficulty in accepting their daughter's sexuality.
The cast of the series, including Shay Mitchell, the young actress who plays Emily, and Executive Producer/series creator I. Marlene King, were present at a Pretty Little Liars panel at the Television Critics Association Winter Session last week to talk about the LGBT issues in the show, what they're hearing from fans as well as Mitchell's experience in the edgy, often-thrilling series.
Why the word ’gay’?
EDGE: Can you talk about the LGBT issues in the show and what you are hearing from young viewers who are watching?
Shay Mitchell: I am getting the most amazing response from girls and guys all over the world, thanks to Twitter, and it’s been unbelievable. I mean, just the response from our last episode when Emily comes out to her father...some of the comments were like, "It’s given me courage. Your father looks so tough on the show, from the military, and if Emily could do it then that’s great!"
And then a lot of them have told me that they have found an easier time coming out to their parents, just seeing that it’s not so bad, and I think that it’s amazing. And the storyline with Emily and Maya (Bianca Lawson) is so sweet. In the beginning, when you didn’t know yet if Emily was gay or straight or bi, a lot of girls were finding it very relatable because they were like, ’I don’t know. I have feelings for this girl, and I see this character on TV going through the same thing.’ So I’ve been getting a lot of very, very positive feedback from it.
EDGE: [Why did] you chose to use the word "gay" when she came out, for Emily. Why was it gay versus lesbian or bisexual?
I. Marlene King: It just seemed, the way that Emily - the character - would naturally express herself. It wasn’t something that we spent an enormous amount of time on, actually. It just felt in the writing just natural for her to use the word "gay."
Coming out to her tv dad
EDGE: Is Emily going to be upset or worried about what people at school think about her being gay? Is she going to be openly gay at school or is it just going to be with her parents?
I. Marlene King: In the books the character of Emily was embraced at school once she came out. And we haven’t addressed it so much. Just with her friends, she felt unconditional love, and that was really important for us to say that and we’ll probably continue with that. There is some conflict coming up for her with someone at school, but it doesn’t become a driving, driving force for her character.
EDGE: Since [the series] is based on the very popular books, did you read the books ahead of time to know where your character was headed or did you avoid the books?
Shay Mitchell: When I first auditioned for the part, I hadn’t read any of the books. I read the breakdown for my character. So I had an idea, obviously, of who I was going to be playing, and then after we got [our parts] all of us girls got the book series and we couldn’t put them down. I haven’t read the seventh or the eighth of the series just because I didn’t want to find out or get too ahead of it when we are filming.
EDGE: The scenes with your on-screen father (played by Eric Steinberg) were really heavy and emotional. Can you talk about how you prepared to play the emotions that Emily was experiencing in coming out?
Shay Mitchell: Some of my closest friends and a lot of my family members are gay and I’ve grown up with it and it’s never been an issue. That’s why I think the hardest part was playing a character who had such conservative parents and the whole coming out scene. For me, if I were in that situation, I’d say ’Hey, Dad, I’m gay, pass the orange juice.’ I’m very blessed to have parents like that so for me it’s such a hard thing to wrap my head around how they wouldn’t accept it. I think everything my character is doing is great and I support her 100% in wanting to be herself and trying to live an authentic life. Everybody should.
Finding that ’real’ place
EDGE: Since you haven’t experienced what Emily has, what did you channel for those scenes so honest and real?
Shay Mitchell: I have other things that are difficult so the thought of explaining those to my Dad were the equivalent. I also talked to a lot of my friends who have come out and I wanted to know what their experience was. I had no idea how to play it. With something like this, a lot of actors would be like ’Let’s blow it up!’ but I wanted to do it in a very simple way, emote all the feelings that she was going through and it was a complete roller coaster. She’s happy in the beginning of the scene talking to Maya and she doesn’t plan on talking with her Dad but it just kind of came out. It was a tricky scene but I got a lot of great feedback for it so I was very happy about that.
EDGE: For someone so early in her career, did you get any precautionary warnings from maybe agents or manages about taking a gay role? What did they say?
Shay Mitchell: They said it was a great opportunity and Sarah’s books had been so loved. In fact, I don’t think [the gay thing] even came up, which is really cool. That’s my team! They said ’Do you like the premise of the show?’ and it was not so much about the character.
EDGE: You know there was a time when actors would not take a gay role for fear of being stereotyped or having a negative impact on their career, right?
Shay Mitchell: I got that and I said, ’Really?’ If I play another gay role right after this? Cool, so I play another gay role.
EDGE: So the second half of the first season has just started. How intense are things going to go as the mystery continues?
Shay Mitchell: The stakes only get higher. ’A’ is not messing around and you get to dive deeper into the girls’ relationships with each other and things get really eerie when you do flashbacks and you start to see clues that you didn’t expect. It’s a really interesting show and as much as people want to say ’Oh, it’s an ABC Family show,’ this is pretty edgy stuff if you ask me. We’re dealing with a lot of things. Show me another show that’s dealing with all this stuff. It’s not just teenybopper!
Pretty Little Liars airs Mondays at 8/7c on ABC Family.