'Pretty Little Liars' Shay Mitchell Talks Playing LGBT, Role Models and Philanthropy - Interview
Since Pretty Little Liars (PLL) premiered in 2010, the show’s resident gay character Emily Fields has been through the ringer, mainly at the gloved hands of the liars’ hoodie-clad, omniscient, tech-savvy tormenter A.
Since Pretty Little Liars (PLL) premiered in 2010, the show’s resident gay character Emily Fields has been through the ringer, mainly at the gloved hands of the liars’ hoodie-clad, omniscient, tech-savvy tormenter A. And while Emily’s tribulations in not-so-sleepy Rosewood have often made for nail-biting TV viewing it’s her thoughtful coming-out story that has ushered Shay Mitchell, the actress who plays her, into the annals of recent LGBT TV history for portraying a happy, well-adjusted teen who just happens to get more than her share of the ladies.
At its surface ABC Family’s PLL is all mystery wrapped in teen angst, but at its heart it’s about substantive coming-of-age issues, including coming out. While Emily’s coming out to her mom (played by Nia Peeples), was bumpy at best, it was a barely a blip with her fellow liars Hanna, Spencer and Aria, a reaction that’s indicative of a generational shift in acceptance of gay characters and speaks to what’s driving the proliferation of LGBTs in teen fare like Degrassi, Greek, and Glee.
Emily is based on the character in Sara Shepard’s wildly addicting Pretty Little Liars series of young adult novels, but Mitchell has made the fashion-forward jock and all-around nice girl her own since she landed the role, portraying Emily like just one of the girls and eschewing the notion that there’s stigma attached to playing gay anymore.
A role model not just for gay teens but also for empowering girls in general, Mitchell is passionate about her work with the Somaly Mam Foundation, which aims to end sex trafficking around the world. She’s traveled to Cambodia to Somaly Mam centers and appeared in PSA’s to create awareness about the heinous practice of enslaving young girls for sex.
If that weren’t enough she’s also built a website that acts as a resource for young women but also serves as platform for her friends in a section titled “Right Hand Gals,” where five of her female friends have a place to showcase their passions and talents.
SheWired interviewed Mitchell in early April for our sister publication, the Advocate’s Reasons for Pride issue. Here is the Q&A version of that interview in which Mitchell discusses PLL’s Season 2 finale, what she thinks about Emily’s lady-killer skills, how she adores Lindsey Shaw (who plays Paige) working with Somaly Mam and more…
Are you excited to get back on the set next week?
I am really excited. I just got back from Ireland late last night, so I’m pretty jetlagged. My hiatus has been kind of busy, but that’s how I like it. For Pretty Little Liars, I’m getting my call sheets all ready. I like having some sort of set schedule, so then after I’m done shooting I can come home and feel like I’ve been productive and then I can enjoy the rest of my day on the couch. [Laughs]
Since you mentioned the rest of your day --what do you do when you’re on the couch?
Yeah I say that, but then it never really happens. I get home and sit down for five minutes, then I’m like, “It’s nice outside. Let’s go for a bike ride.” If I’m not at home just kind of hanging out, then I’m always down at Venice and Santa Monica. I love riding my bike and I love taking advantage of the L.A. sun because it’s not something I’ve grown up with.
Canada is not famous for balmy, sunny days.
Yeah. I’ve grown up with a lot of snow. I love it down here. Obviously we shoot on the lot a majority of the time throughout the season. Whenever I get a chance to be outside, it’s always nice.
What feedback have you gotten following the second season finale that featured the A reveal and Maya’s death?
I wondered what the feedback was going to be after people found out that Maya’s dead. That even feels weird -- me saying that out loud -- because this is the first interview I’ve done after the show. So now that I can actually say these things and stuff, feels kind of different.
I know that there are a lot of Maya fans out there. Most of the feedback that I got was that a lot of people were crying during at the season finale. Unfortunately, they said that I caused them to cry, which is good and bad. I didn’t really mean to make anyone cry, but in that circumstance, that’s what we wanted. It was a really upsetting thing to see Maya go away in that body bag. They couldn’t believe that she was dead and wondered what’s going to happen? Who’s Emily’s girlfriend going to be? Is it going to be Paige? Is one of the other ones going to come back? It was mostly just a lot of, “oh my gosh” - the shock of no more Maya.
But are we certain it was Maya in the body bag? Nobody confirmed it was her.
I don’t know if you can be sure about anything that happens in Rosewood. As far as seeing that last episode I would assume that it was actually Maya in the body bag, but yes, you are right, we have no idea.
I’m sure that some people have their fingers crossed on that one.
I think there are quite a few people.
I’d like to talk about playing an LGBT teen. Emily’s such a great role model in so many ways. What do you think it is about her that makes her a great role model?
First and foremost, Emily is just like the other pretty little liars. The thing that I loved most about how they (PLL’s producers) were going about this and how they spoke to me about character was that they said, “When you look at this poster (PLL promo), when you see a picture of all four of the girls together, not one stands out to be like oh that’s the one, that’s the gay character. That’s the lesbian one.” There was nothing like that. I absolutely loved that about the show.
Emily is Emily and she is a great person. She’s great because she’s loyal to her friends and she’s got a drive to her that shows off. Her swimming -- she has a passion for that. She wants to make people feel better. All of those make her such a great person.
I knew going into the show, especially in the first season, that I would have a lot of questions about how I feel playing a gay character. I always responded to them, “I didn’t really think about it twice.” I’m really blessed to be raised in a family that told me that love is love and treat everybody how you want to be treated. My parents just raised us to be like that. It was never an issue to me. So when I saw that I would be playing a character that was gay, or who likes girls, or may change her mind, or whatever, I was like, “Cool, ok.” That would have been like telling me, “you’re character wears sunglasses.” I didn’t think about it.
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