'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. 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.
By: Tracy E. Gilchrist
May 18 2012 4:16 PM

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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Among Emily’s attributes is that she gets more action than any of the other girls.

Oh yeah.

[Laughs] Did you know she was going to be such a lady-killer?

I didn’t, and at the beginning, as far as Emily’s personality was concerned, I thought she was going to be the sweet one in the longest relationship. And then to see how it kind of played out, I was like, “Wow,” you know? [Laughs] So funny. I wish it was true in my real life.

Aw. It’s just because you’re so busy I’m sure.

It’s definitely fun to play one. The fact that I get to work with such amazing actors who all play my girlfriend -- it’s great. I love that part too. At the same time she (Emily) came out quite recently and she’s just figuring out what it is she likes. I think that it’s good that she’s having fun. She’s never mean or playing the field, or lying to any of them. She’s doing it in a very honest way. It just happens.

One of my all-time favorite PLL scenes was when Emily and Paige sang P!nk.

Oh my goodness. Ok, I love Lindsey Shaw more than anything. She is one of my favorite people and when we knew that we were going to have to sing, at first, I was really happy that it was with her because I was extremely comfortable with her. We were laughing about it the whole time. We’ve worn swim caps and been in one-piece bathing suits together. We can do anything.

What are your thoughts about why it is that TV geared toward teens is really leading the charge of LGBT inclusivity and visibility.

I think everybody kind of looks to our generation to see what’s up and coming, what’s the new trend. I even look down to my brother and I’m like, “Can you help me out with the computer?”

I feel that more and more, and earlier and earlier, they (teens) are so on top of things. One of the questions that somebody once asked me was, “Do you think it (PLL) should be on ABC Family? You’re kissing girls and there’s a lot of young kids watching it.”

My reaction to that was, “But there are also a lot of kids that are super young and in middle school that are already realizing what it is that they like and don’t like. Actually, a lot of them have already told me that they can relate to my character. So, thank you and yes it should be on ABC Family.”

I think that we’re so much more accepting than even my parent’s generation was and obviously the generations before that. I just think this is all for the better. The further we go along it’s going to get younger and younger.

I interviewed Nia Peeples about a year and a half ago during PLL’s first season. How is it working with such a veteran playing your mom?

She is so amazing. Every time she comes to set I just look at her in awe. She’ll show up and be like, “Oh yeah. I just went surfing and saw a couple dolphins out. Now I’m going to go run a 10k.”

I’m just blown away by her. She has a better body than most 20-year-olds. She has the energy of a young child. She just has such a passion for life. It’s everything I would ever hope to be when I’m at that age and have a family and that sort of thing. I love the energy she brings.

What is it like working so closely with her?

She’s always just been so supportive. I haven’t had the easiest scenes to deal with sometimes and she’s always there with me being like, “Just take your time. Let’s do this again.” She’s really, really supportive. She’s like my mama bear on set. I think my parents were so shocked when they found out she was going to be playing my mom, especially my dad. He said, “I’ve loved her since I saw her on FameHis dream was to come to set and meet her and he has. He’s very happy about that. My mom was a big fan as well.

Going back to the Season 2 finale and reveal what did you think of the episode?

I loved the last episode because of getting to dress up, and when Paige came in and tapped me on the shoulder -- I loved that scene.

I think we all did. That was really hot -- Lindsey in the tux…

Yeah. She was super hot that day. I was like, “Seriously Lindsey?” It was so much fun to shoot that episode.

How has your overall journey on PLL been now that two seasons have wrapped?

I wake up every single day just looking outside and being like, “Oh my gosh. I live in L.A. Oh my gosh. I’m on this great show.” I’m so happy. This is amazing. Like I say in other interviews, it’s not just entertaining, it’s also having an impact on a lot of people’s lives.

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Shifting gears a bit, how did you become involved with the Somaly Mam Foundation?

I was modeling in Thailand when I was 18 and it was very apparent to me that they had an issue. You couldn’t shy away from it; you couldn’t hide from it. You just couldn’t not see it.

It really, really affected me. When I'd gotten to L.A. I was talking to my makeup artist on the show and I was explaining it to her. We got into this conversation and she asked, “Have you read Somaly Mam’s biography?” I said “No, who’s Somaly Mam?”

And now you’re working with the foundation and visited the centers right? 

As soon as my hiatus rolled around last year in January I took my two best friends from Vancouver and we went down there. I set up to meet Somaly in three of her centers – to meet all the girls. We brought a film team down with us so I could shoot PSAs because I also needed to bring something back home with me so people could see it.

When you say down there, where did you go?

We went to Cambodia. And I went to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Somaly has, basically, three different centers -- it’s three different, kind of, ages of girls. It was just something. I was like, “How come it’s not discussed more?” This is even happening in the states, it’s not just happening in a far out country somewhere else. It’s happening here.

It was something I knew I was meant to do. If I get an extra light shined on me from, you know, having an acting career and people knowing me that way, and then I can directly shine it back to what Somaly is doing and working to fight against, then that’s amazing. That is really why I wake up every morning thinking this is what I’m supposed to do.

Tell me about your website ShayMitchell.com. You just launched some new sections right? 

Oh yes. I have a website and basically what it is, is different sections like fashion, beauty/health and things my mom taught me… And recently, what I’ve been working on the most is the travel section of it. So when I went to Ireland.

Right. I saw photos of you in Ireland on the site.

That was my kind of experiment of how well it could work. I went down with Tourism Ireland and I basically spent six days there. A friend of mine, who is one of my right hand gals, which I’ll explain after, we went down there and took photos and blogged every day about the different things we were doing.

I saw the photos of you covered in mud. Those were wild.

Oh yes. That was called bogging. I never would have thought I would do that, but I had to when I was there. It was so much fun and I’m happy that I pushed myself to do that. There was just so many things you could do down there. But yes the website is basically an extension of who I am aside from being an actress. There are other hobbies of mine and interests I have so I just kind of put it on there.

With all these things you’re doing – the website, your work with Somaly Mam and playing an LGBT teen, you really have become a role model for young women. How do you feel about carrying that mantle? You don’t have a rep for being a Hollywood wild child, and if you are, it’s well under wraps.

Well, they call me the grandma on set, mainly because I don’t go out. I definitely got all of that out of my system when I was younger. So yeah, I don’t have any interest.

As far as being, I don’t even know if I call it a role model, I love to give girls inspiration to go out there and do things. That’s always been something that I love to do. I love speaking with young girls. I eventually would love to go to schools and do little groups because I think the reason why I am who I am is because I had such amazing parents who really instilled great morals and manners.

I really just want to empower women to learn as much as they can and really not depend on having to find a boyfriend or be in a relationship and just enjoy your life. Do everything you want to do whether you’re alone or with somebody else and don’t be scared to try anything. That’s why the travel section, to me, was important. Everybody thinks, and I am a girly-girl, but nobody would have expected that I would have just jumped into the mud, and I did. That’s what I want to share with people.

The character that I play is also a great platform for me to be able to reach a lot of other people as well. If I can inspire somebody to maybe try something that they wouldn’t have, then I’ve done my job. That’s kind of cool.

Tell me about your Right Hand Gals on the website.

It’s about five of my friends that are each doing their own thing. They’re all independent strong women and I want to showcase their talents as well. It’s just about working together and being a team -- not competing with other girls and just kind of going through this together and making it fun.

I think that’s so important. It’s inspiring to see women supporting each other, especially since so much competition is often encouraged between women.

Exactly. We already have enough to deal with. I mean, come on. I realize this, especially for me in this industry, just how important it is having an awesome support group. And like I said, I’m single, happily single. I have amazing girlfriends and I’m having a really fun time. I know how hard it can be in high school, especially in high school, for these girls. I want them to know that they can do it on their own.

Read more about the Somaly Mam Foundation here. 

Check out Shay Mitchell's website. 

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