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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
Everyone seemed to be going through something. Now that I’m out in LA, it’s kind of the same even now for my age (college level). It’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 I’m still kind of in that Maryland mentality. The writing on the show is fantastic and it’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:
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. She’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 you’ve got quite a few strong girls and women on the show–Spencer, Ashley, Madison. With all of these strong personalities driving it, it looks like a good show for women actors.
And then in contrast you have Ashley (Mandy Musgrave), who says, ‘This is who I am and you can say whatever you want and I don’t care.” She’s strong and that’s what Spencer’s attracted to. Spencer’s kind of like that too, she does care but she doesn’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 doesn’t have a family base but she’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?
And now she’s my best friend in LA. We’re like Spencer and Ashley, we go everywhere together and we do everything together. We have a very good friendship and it’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?
AE: What was the name of the show?
AE: So have you and Mandy done the social experiment to see how you’re regarded?
AE: And this is the first time you’ve played a lesbian or bisexual character on film or television?
AE: Did anyone tell you that it would hurt your career.
AE: I guess it’s not a surprise considering the general political tone in the United States right now.
AE: What’s great about this show is that the sexual orientation issue is contextualized as a family issue. This character is part of the family–her sexuality is not a “side issue.” The show really takes an integrated approach to these topics–sexual orientation, racial violence, parents struggling with their marriage, the mother’s Catholicism.
My mother on the show (Maeve Quinlan) is kind of common. Everybody has that one parent that’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. It’s more than just the sexual part of it, there’s an emotional journey and so much that goes along with it and a lot of people don’t realize that.
AE: Has this role and being involved with this show had any kind of impact on you personally?
When you’re filming, you’re in a whole other world and you’re in someone else’s clothes, you’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 it’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 she’s afraid they don’t accept her for who she is. It’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 he’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?
It wasn’t really until recently that I’ve gotten really involved, but my whole life I’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?
It’s funny, after South of Nowhere wrapped, my agency started sending me on auditions again and I was going for more lesbian parts–sidekick and quirky friend roles. I was like, “What is this? Some kind of typecasting?” (laughs) But unfortunately I didn’t get any of those parts.
But this independent film should be fun. I haven’t done much film work before, so I’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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