Shay Mitchell, 24, plays lesbian swim star Emily Fields on ABC Family’s drama “Pretty Little Liars,” based on the book series by Sara Shepard.
“I really connected with the fact that this character, at the beginning, didn’t come out … she was just discovering who she was,” Mitchell says of what drew her to the role.
Laughing at the fact that she was still in bed at 10:30 a.m. in California and how she doesn’t see the resemblance to Naya Rivera that fans do (“She’s a beautiful girl, so that’s a huge compliment”), Mitchell’s cheerful personality comes through even over the phone.
Hailing from Canada, Mitchell began her career as a model then transitioned into acting with a few guest spots before landing the role on “Liars.”
The show follows the lives of four friends, Emily, Aria, Spencer and Hanna a year after their friend Alison disappeared. When the girl’s body is found, the friends start getting menacing text messages from someone named “A.”
“A” knows all the girls’ secrets, secrets that only one other person knew, Alison. Most episodes end with a gloved hand doing something such as deleting all the files on Emily’s laptop.
“The cast has no clue who ‘A’ is,” says Mitchell. “I kind of like it that way. I’m happy with only the writers knowing it.”
Going into her audition for Emily, Mitchell hadn’t read the books, but she was aware the character was not straight.
“I did see in the breakdown that she had some sort of feelings for Maya,” Mitchell says. “They had a scene with Maya in the actual audition.”
According to GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV report for the 2010-2011 season, Emily was one of 14 lesbian characters on cable series and one of 12 LGBT characters of color.
Mitchell’s character came out early in the first season when she started dating Rosewood newcomer Maya St. Germain, played by Bianca Lawson. She was outed to her mother when “A” sent a copy of some photos of her and Maya kissing at a recent party.
“The writing is so amazing … the emotions just sort of go with it,” says Mitchell of the coming out scenes. “After playing Emily, even for that little while … I wanted to scream out and tell her friends … and parents.”
Emily has had a couple other love interests, just as many if not more than her straight counterparts, on the show including Paige, played by Lindsay Shaw, a fellow swimmer whose father is strict.
Emily’s scenes with the closeted Paige gave Mitchell another opportunity to show emotion and explore her character’s sexuality. We get to see Emily in a supportive role, helping her friend who can’t come out because of her parents’ beliefs.
“I could never imagine having to hold back, not being able to tell my parents or my close friends,” she says. “I’m so fortunate … I’m so close to my parents.”
Mitchell does see some similarities to her character, especially concerning their relationships with their friends. They are both loyal and someone who’ll keep a secret or would be there to listen.
“She’s a little bit more quiet when you first meet her and then … everything gets said,” Mitchell says. “It’s takes a little while to get through to me, but at the beginning I might be a little more shy and I kind of feel that way about Emily too.”
Mitchell gets a lot of responses from LGBT fans with feedback on her portrayal, on Twitter and Facebook. She even debuted on the AfterEllen.com Hot 100 list at number seven.
She’s able to read what fans think of the episode right after it airs and they don’t sugarcoat what they think.
Mitchell has received messages from people all over the world, including Indonesia and Dubai, with fans saying her character’s experience coming out to her military family has given them the courage to come out.
“A lot of the girls who have written to me … have said, ‘I was very scared to come out to my group of friends, but watching your show all together made it a lot easier for me to come out,’” Mitchell says. “I was like, ‘That is amazing.’”
Even straight viewers have taken something away from Mitchell’s portrayal of Emily.
“Though I am straight, it has made me stop and think about how difficult it is to have to keep such a big part of yourself hidden from your family,” says Ashley Morse, echoing Mitchell’s thoughts. “It’s really made me feel for people that I know are LGBT and have not come out yet.”
The series handles Emily’s sexual orientation differently than in the books. Her parents’ reaction to her coming out, while not 100 percent positive, was better than their novel counterparts, who sent Emily away to live with relatives on a farm.
“[Mitchell's] character is doing what I think a lot of shows have failed to do, which is make viewers stop and put themselves in Emily’s shoes,” Morse says.
There are nine books in the “Liars” series, the latest one was released Tuesday. While Mitchell hadn’t read them before the show, she, along with her cast mates, read all but the last two.
“I didn’t want to know how it ended. Even though the books are different from the TV show … I wanted to read it when the series ended,” says Mitchell. “I didn’t want it to end. I fell in love with the books.”
Mitchell also appears in a PSA for the new campaign “Delete Digital Drama” with fellow ABC Family stars rallying to end cyber bullying.
Mitchell was one of the national honorary chairs of the GLAAD Media Awards Young Adults Program this year. “Pretty Little Liars” was also nominated for Outstanding Drama Series.
“It’s one thing to entertain a lot people with a good show,” says Mitchell. “But to then have an impact on their lives … helping them a little bit … I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Follow Mitchell on Twitter at twitter.com/shaymitch.
“Pretty Little Liars” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m.