21-year-old actress Gabrielle Christian plays Spencer, a teenager questioning her sexuality on the ground-breaking new television show South of Nowhere, which airs Fridays at 8:30pm on basic cable channel The N. She recently spoke to AfterEllen.com about Spencer and Ashley’s relationship, landing the role, and hitting it off with Mandy Musgrave.
AfterEllen.com: So how did you get the part of Spencer?
Gabrielle Christian: It’s been a long process. I’ve been auditioning for this role since July 2004. We finally filmed the pilot in October 2004, and we found out in January 2005 that the show was being picked up. But they were recasting some of the characters on the show and making sure that everyone was right for the parts. It wasn’t until May that my contract got picked up, and we started filming in July. So it’s been about a year and a half since we started the whole process.
I was so excited when I got the breakdown and script because it was such a unique role and it was a challenge and something you don’t go for everyday. I just fell I love with her from the first day and said, “Oh my God, I have to play Spencer!”
AE: The show is the first of its kind focused on this subject matter and aimed at this age group. You address teen sexuality, gay and lesbian issues, racial violence. Is there awareness among cast and crew that you are doing something pretty special? : Yes, we have moments where we just take a step back on the set and we’ll be so excited. We talk about how thankful we are and how much of an honor it is to be there. To be on a show that has a good message and will hopefully open a lot of people’s eyes in this world. Just to be a part of that as an actor—to be working as an actor is one thing because it’s so hard to get a job in the first place! (laughs) But to be doing something that actually means a lot and hopefully will change the way people will view things and change the ignorance among people who can be so judgmental—we all acknowledge that every day on set. Everybody is so excited to be there
AE: Have you been aware of any objections or negative publicity about the subject matter of South of Nowhere?
GC: I personally have never had to experience that. I come from a pretty conservative town, from a suburb in Maryland which is kind of similar to Spencer being from Ohio. Small-minded suburbia, with more conservative, traditional people.
At first they were shocked at the idea of the show. It’s a new approach–homosexuality has been approached a lot in film but not usually with females. So for people in my town who know me and have known me my whole life and my Catholic church—it’s kind of a stretch for them. They’re like, “Whoa, what’s this all about?”
AE: How are your family and friends reacting to you taking on this role?
GC: My father is pretty much everything you think would be against this show. He’s Catholic, conservative, traditional. He’s from Europe and his whole life he’s been very stuck in his traditions and how he was raised. At first he was pretty shocked. He saw the pilot and it was a little much for him, especially considering that I’m his daughter. But it’s funny because his family is the same as him — he has five brothers and sisters—and they’re all really excited about the show. They’re sending out these mass emails–I don’t even need a publicist right now because my family is so excited!
I wouldn’t have thought they’d do that, because they would technically be identified as people who would be against this show. But they’re all for it.
AE: It sounds like this show is already breaking ground in your personal circle.
GC: Yes, definitely. And weâ€™re hoping it does that for everyone else too.
AE: Have you talked to people your age or younger who have experienced some of the things the characters on the show are going through?
GC: In high school I had a lot of friends who were going through thingsâ€”and I had my own issues I was dealing with. You know in high school everyone is going through an identity crisis, whether its gender or racial or sexual. I was in the drama and performing arts programs, and you know the artist is more open about all of their feelings. So I came from that. I had friends who were dealing with their sexuality, friends who were from racially mixed families. They were all just trying to fit in. Especially in Washington, D.C.â€”you have people from all over the world in that area.
Everyone seemed to be going through something. Now that Iâ€™m out in LA, itâ€™s kind of the same even now for my age (college level). Itâ€™s just a common thing for someone to try to fit in and be acceptable. I kind of had the same journey as Spencer when I moved from Maryland to Los Angeles. I had the same culture shock of trying to fit in and just be a human being in another environment. It was so easy sometimes to play this part, because Iâ€™m still kind of in that Maryland mentality. The writing on the show is fantastic and itâ€™s so real and true to my own experiences as well.
AE: What do you have in common with Spencer (in addition to the relocation anxiety), and what attracted you to the role:
GC: I just fell in love with her for being so young but so strong. She does have her insecurities, but sheâ€™s not afraid to face them. Although sheâ€™s having problems with her family, her friends, the cheerleading squad, her brothersâ€”she deals with it. To be able to play that is such an honor. In film and television and in the entertainment world, there are so many vulnerable women. So to be able to play a strong character, especially at such a young age, has been really wonderful.
Other similarities besides the culture shock? High school and fitting in, having your parents trying to teach you their ways. Like Spencer has her mom trying to keep her Catholic and do the conventional thing, but her father is a social worker and more open-minded. Sheâ€™s constantly facing these battles between what her mom and dad are saying, what her friends are saying, what her brothers are saying. Everyone goes through that in high school.
AE: The characters are drawn in such a complex way. Their lives are not simplified. And youâ€™ve got quite a few strong girls and women on the showâ€”Spencer, Ashley, Madison. With all of these strong personalities driving it, it looks like a good show for women actors.
GC: Yes, and theyâ€™re all so colorful. As the season continues, itâ€™s amazing the turns they take. Even with Madison (Valery M. Ortiz), you think sheâ€™s vicious and evil but as the season continues you see that sheâ€™s got her own issues with being the popular girl, trying to fit in, her own identity and trying to figure out who Madison is. She breaks down on Spencer all the time for choosing a different path than sheâ€™s chosen. But sheâ€™s insecure with herself and itâ€™s the way she deals with her problems.
And then in contrast you have Ashley (Mandy Musgrave), who says, â€˜This is who I am and you can say whatever you want and I donâ€™t care.â€ Sheâ€™s strong and thatâ€™s what Spencerâ€™s attracted to. Spencerâ€™s kind of like that too, she does care but she doesnâ€™t at the same time. And Ashley is a strong figure who knows its okay to be different. Ashley has her own insecurities too, with her father and her mother. She doesnâ€™t have a family base but sheâ€™s still trying to be cool and strong. Everybody has their insecurities and ways of trying to stay cool in high school.
AE: You mentioned Mandy Musgrave. What was your first impression of her?
GC: As an actress? Or her character?
GC: Mandyâ€™s character and my character are so similar to our personalities in real life, that we have a lot chemistry on a personal level. On the first set of callbacks for the show, out of a room of 25 girls I went and sat by Mandy. We talked the whole timeâ€”two hours in the lobby. Tommy Lynch (the producer) kept calling us back in over and over again to read together. It was weird. We were friends but we had just met that day. So the more in-depth we got in the auditioning process, it started to narrow down to Mandy and me.
And now sheâ€™s my best friend in LA. Weâ€™re like Spencer and Ashley, we go everywhere together and we do everything together. We have a very good friendship and itâ€™s helped in developing our characters.
AE: Do you spend a lot of time talking about playing these characters and the nuances of their relationship?
GC: Yes. There was a UPN pilot made revolving around two lesbian women. We saw it and we met the actresses who were in it. They told us about their experience and how they got into their characters. They went out in public one day and acted like they were in a relationship and saw the way people responded. They were giving us advice as to things we should do to get more involved with our characters. It was really helpful. We ended up doing a lot of that stuff.
AE: What was the name of the show?
GC: It was called Nikki & Nora, a UPN pilot. And Nancylee Myattâ€”our executive producerâ€”wrote, created and produced Nikki & Nora. So when that didnâ€™t get picked up she came over to South of Nowhere.
AE: So have you and Mandy done the social experiment to see how youâ€™re regarded?
GC: We went out to a few clubs to see what they were like, and what the vibe and people were like. We went as friends and not as couple, but it was interesting to see a world so different than our own. Itâ€™s important when youâ€™re playing a character to try to step out of your world and into their world.
AE: And this is the first time youâ€™ve played a lesbian or bisexual character on film or television?
AE: Did anyone tell you that it would hurt your career.
GC: No. At first, my agency really wanted me to go for it and I really wanted to go for it because the part is so great. They thought it was new and different and it had a lot of potential. And I felt the same way. Everyone was really supportive. I was surprised when I went for the part because I thought there would be a huge pool of people going for it. Then I found out from my agency that a lot of girls were not going for the part because of the content. It scared them off, which is not what I would have thought at all.
AE: I guess itâ€™s not a surprise considering the general political tone in the United States right now.
GC: Yes. Mischa Barton (on the television show The O.C.) just had her big â€œlesbian experienceâ€ but it was so about the raunchy, perverse â€œentertainment valueâ€ of it. That processâ€”the emotional journey that girls at that age are already going through besides dealing with their sexual orientation– is so far beyond that. I donâ€™t know of any show for this age that has every approached it this way. Thereâ€™s always the sidekick gay friendâ€”and itâ€™s usually a boy. Or thereâ€™s the girl who has a crush on you but thereâ€™s no real story thatâ€™s being told.
AE: Whatâ€™s great about this show is that the sexual orientation issue is contextualized as a family issue. This character is part of the familyâ€”her sexuality is not a â€œside issue.â€ The show really takes an integrated approach to these topicsâ€”sexual orientation, racial violence, parents struggling with their marriage, the motherâ€™s Catholicism.
GC: It is a family drama and I hope that parents can watch it and get some understanding to help their kids. The main target is to help kids be more accepting and open their eyes, but itâ€™s important for parents to see that.
My mother on the show (Maeve Quinlan) is kind of common. Everybody has that one parent thatâ€™s strict and is a little more conservative and traditional. I hope that parents can watch this with their kids and get an idea of what their kids can be going through. Itâ€™s more than just the sexual part of it, thereâ€™s an emotional journey and so much that goes along with it and a lot of people donâ€™t realize that.
AE: Has this role and being involved with this show had any kind of impact on you personally?
GC: Being a different person and trying to connect with that emotional journey and with the character in general, has been very eye-opening. Even for me there was stuff that I expected was going to happen within the first, like being in the position when my mom is screaming at me and by the end of the season Iâ€™m screaming at her and she just canâ€™t accept me for who I am. In that moment, I just wanted to cry because itâ€™s so unjust and there are so many kids who probably feel that way.
When youâ€™re filming, youâ€™re in a whole other world and youâ€™re in someone elseâ€™s clothes, youâ€™re having a whole relationship that someone else has created for you. On the show, my brother tries to set me up on a date with a guy because he has no way of accepting that his sister could be gay. He thinks itâ€™s just a phase.
Being in that moment really opened my eyes. Things you can say to people or the way that you treat them really can hurt them. Like that in that first episode, Spencer has nightmares about the cheerleaders because sheâ€™s afraid they donâ€™t accept her for who she is. Itâ€™s really sad.
And I sat in and watched the monitor for a lot of stuff they were filming with Clay (Danso Gordon) and his journey and what he gets from the African American kids for his upbringing and how heâ€™s different and from a white family.
AE: Were you into politics before you joined this show? Did it make you want to get involved?
GC: The show did make me want to get more involved. I wanted to open my eyes to more, I started reading more. I know a great article just came out in Time about gays in high school. My mom sends me clips from The Washington Times and The Washington Post and magazines that are dealing with the issue of homosexuality in high school. Iâ€™ve grown to want to know more, and I like to be able to speak and be educated about what Iâ€™m trying to show to the world.
It wasnâ€™t really until recently that Iâ€™ve gotten really involved, but my whole life Iâ€™ve had a lot of friends with sexual and racial identity crises. The show has helped me to want to learn more.
AE: What other roles do you have lined up for the future?
GC: Iâ€™m going to play a supporting character in an independent film called South of Pico. I play another high school girl, sheâ€™s 15 and her name is Astrid. And she is the straightest girl you will ever see in your entire life! Sheâ€™s boy crazy, so itâ€™s a completely different type of role.
Itâ€™s funny, after South of Nowhere wrapped, my agency started sending me on auditions again and I was going for more lesbian partsâ€”sidekick and quirky friend roles. I was like, â€œWhat is this? Some kind of typecasting?â€ (laughs) But unfortunately I didnâ€™t get any of those parts.
But this independent film should be fun. I havenâ€™t done much film work before, so Iâ€™m excited about it. I keep telling everyone we should do South of Nowhere: The Movie. You know, Spencer and Ashley Go to Europe!
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