Captaining Your Ship 101: A Guide for Actresses

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So, you’re a TV actress who has just found out your character is going to be involved in a same-sex storyline (or already is in/has started one). Congratulations! Be prepared for one of the most rewarding roles of your life, as well as an immediate increase in your fanbase (by orders of magnitude) and a landslide of fan mail about what your role means to viewers around the world. Buckle up, because you’re about to undergo a very unique and powerful fandom experience for a role that has the potential to touch thousands of women and create tangible, positive impact in the world. No pressure. Are you ready for it?

Tainá Müller shows support for her pairing “Clarina” on “Em Familia.”

The LGBT community is warm, welcoming, and gloriously unbridled in its enthusiasm for lesbian storylines. That said, the most popular characters and couples are like flowers in a garden: they flourish best when consciously tended to and watered. Think of it as a mutually beneficial relationship: show your fans love, and they’ll give it back tenfold. In return for engaging with your fans, they’ll up your Twitter follower numbers, increase the audience size of your show, and turn out in droves for fan events. Not to mention they’ll make you feel like the coolest human on the planet. But if you want to enter the Pantheon of the LGBT community’s most beloved lesbian characters, you have to work for it.

Kat Barrell and Dominique Provost-Chalkley show love to the “WayHaught” fans of “Wynonna Earp.” Seriously, how could fans not fall in love with this?

The argument for conscientious engagement with LGBT fans isn’t speculative or based just on emotional fulfillment (which you should get no matter what). Making a concerted effort to reach out to fans has produced tangible, positive career results for some actresses. For example, Naya Rivera was a recurring cast member in season 1 of “Glee,” and her character Santana Lopez was originally conceptualized to be little more than window dressing behind main character Quinn Fabray (Diana Agron).

Then in February 2010, Rivera posted on Twitter a picture of herself and Heather Morris (Brittany Pierce) that seemed to suggest their characters would have a romance on “Glee.” The Internet exploded with rainbows of happiness at the prospect, and, seeing potential in the pairing, The Powers That Be at “Glee” promoted Rivera and Morris to series regulars in season 2 and gave them meaty storylines that included the relationship (“ship”) “Brittana.”

Rivera’s epic “Fate has laid a hand” tweet that launched “Brittana” on “Glee.”

Similarly, Kat Barrell (Nicole Haught) rode the wave of “WayHaught” (Waverly Earp and Haught) popularity to go from being a recurring cast member to a series regular and major part of season 2 of “Wynonna Earp.” Finally, Ashley Jones (Parker Forsythe) has recurred several times on “General Hospital” due to the diehard persistence of “Pristina” fans. Below, AfterEllen suggests 6 steps to “captain” the romantic pairing (“ship”) your character has been given.

Jones is the undisputed captain of her ship and cognizant of the role fans played in her appearance on the show.

  1. Do your research

Any actress who suggests that playing a gay character is no different from playing a heterosexual character hasn’t done her homework. Straight people aren’t kicked out of their homes for being straight. They don’t hide their sexual orientation from coworkers for fear of being ostracized or fired. They don’t have to worry about holding their partner’s hand in public for fear of being physically assaulted. It’s always been legal for them to get married.

Lesbians and bisexual women, for the most part, have a different relationship with sexual orientation and dating than heterosexual women, and this impacts their personal identity at a fundamental level. Even if they don’t plaster rainbow flags on their car bumpers, it’s probably an impactful part of their lives. Get some background on what it would have been like for your character to come to terms with her sexuality in whatever year she would have done so (90s, 2000s, etc.) and what it’s like for your fans now as a foundation to playing your role. As a starting point, check out this article I wrote about how to approach playing gay. It’s literally written for you.

Exhibit A: Camryn Grimes, half of “Teriah” on “Young and the Restless,” knows who Willow and Tara are.

When reading up, please, please, please read sites like AfterEllen.  AE has been around for a decade and a half,  and it is our primary mandate to look at the representation of lesbian and bisexual women in entertainment. Without conceit, we can say that we should be your primary source material, not an article in Teen Vogue that lacks years of specialization in this topic. Teen Vogue is great and brings visibility to huge numbers of readers, but if you were going to be a plumber, would you read a single article on plumbing in “Better Homes and Gardens” or peruse the online repository of all articles from “Plumbers Today”? If you don’t know who Lexa is and what that character represents, you need to research more.

  1. Encourage Your “Shippers”

Sometimes, you have to be your own #1 fan…or at least number #100. Fans gravitate to romantic pairings, so if you’re excited about the romantic pairing your character has been given, your fandom will be excited. Show your fans that you’re just as happy to see your characters on screen as they are and cheerlead your storyline. Work with your fellow actress to give fans an “inside peek” into how you two are enjoying your pairing. “Like” Tweets that mention your ship and weigh in to Twitter conversations about your ship that seem fun and funny.

 

According to half of Twitter, no one is a better ship’s captain than Chyler Leigh (with the help of “Sanvers” partner Floriana Lima) of “Supergirl.” And how cute is this picture?

 

Shay Mitchell of “Pretty Little Liars” shipped both “Paily” AND “Emison.”

  1. Find ways to thank your fans

I know, I know, you’ll do it anyway.

 

 

Alycia Debnam-Carey and Eliza Taylor still remember their “Clexa” fans from “The 100.”

  

According to the other half of Twitter, Natasha Negovanlis and Elise Bauman of “Carmilla”’s “Hollstein” are the best ship captains.

  1. Share Some of Your Life as a Way to Connect

 Kat Barrell has a dog named Bernie Barretti who she adores. Ashley Jones has a blog with lifestyle tips and insight into her family life. Chyler Leigh is a dedicated straight ally with an ebullient, optimistic streak. You don’t necessarily have to let fans into your innermost private life, but the people who love your character are interested in you as a person as well.

You’re more than your character, so who are you? Are you a philosopher with a sarcastic streak? A goofball with zany prognostications? Being really active on social media while still being authentic to yourself (ugh, why is everyone else so much funnier?) takes effort and learning, but Negovanlis has just shy of 100,000 Twitter followers and isn’t even on a broadcast TV show, proving that your popularity isn’t just tied into how big a network you’re on.

Cait Fairbanks, the other half of “Teriah,” loves her dog Millie, FYI, so probably she’d approve of Millie getting some publicity here.

Sara Ramirez, half of “Calzona” on “Grey’s Anatomy,” is a total social justice (particularly LGBT rights) BEAST.

  1. Find Out Who Your Fans Are and Set Up Ways to Engage With Them

At a most basic and primal level, humans these days have the desire to be seen and recognized by others. You might dream of being seen and recognized by Meryl Streep, but to your fans, you are Meryl. The smallest of gestures towards individual fans can have huge effects in those fans’ lives. I, personally, have had three actresses tweet me back in my life, and if I could make it look artistically fashionable in some way, I’d frame the tweets and put them on my wall. What these tweets represent to me is that for a fraction of a second, I existed in the consciousness of these actresses. I transcended anonymity to get the equivalent of a contact high with someone I respect but can never meet. That has immeasurable value.

Lexi Ainsworth of “Pristina” gave her fans a video and individual shout-outs after they raised $1,200 for her birthday to donate for Equality California. Jones did the same when fans raised $1,200 for StepUp Women’s Network for her birthday.

To the extent you feel comfortable, reach out to fans and show interest in them as individuals. Set up video chats, Reddit “Ask me Anythings” or Twitter Q&As. If you’ll be traveling and have some free time in a city, ask your fans if anyone wants to do lunch. Why wouldn’t you want a free lunch with people who think you’re the next coming of Meryl? At a Xena fan convention, I once met a nice lesbian couple who had been invited to tea at the home of Claire Stansfield, who played Alti on “Xena: Warrior Princess,” so I know it can be done.

Provost-Chalkley participates in a live chat with 117 fans.

 

Lucy Scherer and Kasia Borek, “Jemma” on “Hand aufs Herz,” experience technical difficulties precluding a fan chat event.

Seek out fan events and go to them even if you’re not a panelist. At last year’s ClexaCon, a fan convention dedicated to the representation of queer women in entertainment, Ramirez showed up as a regular attendee. Put on a “best fan art” or “best fanfic” or “best fan vid” competition and either be the judge or anoint a “shipper first mate” from the fandom to be the judge. Get creative!

Sarah Shahi, from the “Shoot” pairing on “Person of Interest,” wore an Equality shirt during her ClexaCon 2017 panel, too, because straight allies are awesome.

  1. Find a Role Model, then Become a Role Model

There’s no judgment here. Everyone captains her ship differently. So if you don’t know what kind of captain you want to be, find someone whose captaincy you like and follow that pattern. Personally, I’m a fan of the Kat Barrell model: for the first year of “Wynonna Earp,” Barrell basically liked and retweeted everything “WayHaught” and responded to every fan letter. But that the sheer volume of fan love so overwhelming she ended up with this on her website:

So maybe being so awesome that you can’t answer your mail anymore is a little too much, but Barrell is just a perpetual fount of love towards her fans. Perhaps a more sustainable model is Ashley Jones, who seems better able to balance personal, individual engagement with fans on Twitter and her blog with still having time on her own.

Gold star, however, and pride of place goes to Crystal Chapell. No one ships like Chapell. After her ship “Otalia” finished on “Guiding Light,” she created not one, not two, but three vessels for herself and her ship partner, Jessica Leccia, in order to give the Otalia fans what they wanted: the web soap opera “Venice: The Series,” mini-movie “The Grove,” and the movie “A Million Happy Nows.” She went to last year’s ClexaCon, and she’s going this year. That’s commitment level: Master.

So now that you’ve seen what other actresses have done, the choice is up to you: will you captain your ship, or will you let it drift without you?

 

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