Interview with Jennifer Beals and Troian Bellisario

 
Jennifer Beals

Last Monday April 29th Jennifer-Beals.com took part on a press conference call with Jennifer and Troian to discuss their second season of the WIGS series ‘Lauren’ which premieres on Youtube this Friday May 2nd with 12 new episodes.
If you followed the first season you will know that ‘Lauren’ deals with sexual assault in the military and both Jennifer and Troian want to make sure these stories don’t go unheard and although fictionalised, ‘Lauren’ is a brutally honest portrayal of the endless red tape and cold bureaucracy that many victims of sexual assault experience while serving in the military.

The series is directed by WIGS co-creator  Jon Avnet (“Black Swan,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Risky Business”) and written by Writers Guild of America Award nominee Jay Rodan and Avnet. It also stars Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”), Raymond Cruz (“Major Crimes”), Sean Harmon (“NCIS”), Mykelti Williamson (“Justified,” “24,” “Forrest Gump”) and Justine Ezarik (YouTube channel iJustine), as well as Sarah Jones (“Vegas,” “Alcatraz”), who will be reprising her self-titled role as a military veteran from WIGS series KENDRA.

You can catch up with season one of Lauren here

Season 2 picture gallery 

Here’s the transcript of the interview:
The show gets pretty dark, is it hard to get into that mindset, and is it hard to step away from it?
Troian: I think it’s definitely very difficult, especially because you know you’re spending whole days, and now when we were expanding, doing more episodes, weeks in these situations and going through these really terrible conversations and events kind of over and over and over again as you’re getting coverage of this kind of awful thing. And so I think actually for me it becomes you actually want to dive in to be as truthful and honor the story as much as possible, because you don’t ever want to become desensitized to it I think. You’re on set all day and eventually you have to start joking around, everybody’s working, they’re all tired, and rather than it being difficult to leave that dark place, I think it becomes more important to me to kind of be true to it and to make sure that I’m not just glossing over it, because Lauren’s story isn’t based on one woman in particular, it is based on true events, and it is a very common occurrence. And so I think it is hard, and I definitely smiled every time I got in my car at the end of the day because I knew I was going to get to go home and take a bath and pet my dog.

Jennifer: And I think that’s the difference, I think as an actor you relish those roles where you can play something so complicated and so difficult and you take the time to dive in as deeply as you can, and you kind of hold on to that for the day, even if while you’re joking around there’s still that little string that connects you to that other experience. And the difference with us is that we can walk away from it at the end of the day. There are so many people, they don’t walk away from it at the end of the day, that’s what their life is. And I think one of the things for me working on set, and particularly when I had scenes with Troian, which was so helpful to me, is that even though we never talked about it, it’s like this unspoken thing between us that we both are going through the same thing at the same time … and in a funny kind of way. I recognize that even if she’s telling a joke, I know that underneath in the surface there’s this other thing bubbling that’s just waiting to come up whenever it’s summoned to come up, and you support one another on the set as best you can, even if it’s through silent communication.

Troian in Lauren

Lauren (Troian Bellisario) is assisted by Nurse Kendra Adams (Sarah Jones)

Troian: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. And I think that you’re right, that string that you hold on to throughout the day, for me I think oftentimes it is that knowledge that we can walk away from this, that we’re fortunate, that I was fortunate enough not to have gone through this, but that I have to keep that torch burning for Lauren, like you said.

Troian, seeing that you have a huge fan base with Pretty Little Liars, what was it like switching gears and doing something more serious and dramatic in Lauren, and are you looking to do more of these types of roles in the future?
Troian: Yes, it was wonderful for me. It’s very funny, I was so excited that the fans from Pretty Little Liars were so receptive and so supportive of Lauren, and especially helpful in getting it out there, because there are so many of them. And they really took to it and they really saw what I think, what Jennifer and I both saw in this story, which is that it needs to be told and it needs to be spread around as much as possible. But for me it was kind of funny, because everybody was like, oh, my God this is so different from Pretty Little Liars, is this the kind of role that you want to be doing more? And for me Pretty Little Liars was a really big difference from what I was used to, I kind of only loved doing really, really dramatic, and what people would call “dark” roles, and when I got Pretty Little Liars it was a big change for me, so this kind of feels in an odd way like going home. There’s a kind of truth and a kind of raw honesty to the story of Lauren that I really was so happy to be a part of again, so yes, definitely I think I would love to do more roles like this.

How shooting season two has been different from filming season one for you?
Jennifer: I think it’s different in that you’re filming more episodes in a row, so it feels more like a film for me. I feel like that’s the major difference, and trying to keep everything together. I look at my script from that period, and it’s organized more like a film script than a TV.

Troian: Yes.I don’t know how you felt, but you got some other scenes, most of my scenes during the, I think in fact all of my scenes – oh no, not all of them, but almost all of them during the first … were really across from you, and the biggest difference for me was being away from you for so long.

Jennifer: Yes, I know. That was very odd.

Troian: It was very odd, and it was wonderful to experience this amazing new cast of characters, I feel like it really filled out the experience of Lauren and of Jo Stone, their lives and who they had histories with and who they have futures with. But it was really, I don’t know, I felt so excited when I finally got to come back to working with you for our scenes.

Jennifer: Yes, me too. I know, it was like, “When do I get to work with Troian?” Not that I don’t love Bradley Whitford, because I do, I do. But again it’s this sort of unspoken thing where you know –it’s like sort of I’m the more, Jo Stone is the more ossified version of Lauren, in a way. That’s the way that Lauren can end up if she doesn’t stay on the right path.

LAUREN2_AE-01543

Major Jo Stone (Jennifer Beals) and Lauren (Troian Bellisario)

What kind of advice would you give any girl dealing with something like this, where you’re trying to be true to yourself even though no one really wants to listen to you?
Jennifer: I think there’s always a community that you can find. If you’re in the military you have the Service Women’s Action Network that has help lines, that has hot lines, and they get calls from all over the United States and overseas and from active bases, and I think somebody who’s not in the military there are also help lines, and that it’s really, really, really important to start talking about it and to start processing it so that it’s not ensconced in shame, and to move away from any kind of shame and move toward the action and healing and justice.

Troian: Yes. I think it’s awful if anybody is responding to somebody who’s gone through a traumatic event with apathy or with indifference, but I think that the only mistake that the person can make is taking that to be the only response and not seeking out more help, which I know is an incredibly difficult and brave thing to do. But Jennifer’s right, I think that’s the first step toward healing.

What can you tell us about the evolution of the Lauren/Major Stone dynamic around season two?
Troian: I guess the evolution of the two women is kind of beautiful. It’s not exactly parallel, but you get to see a bit more, I felt, of Jo Stone’s character and therefore got a lot of insight into Lauren and perhaps what might be lying ahead in her future. And then as far as their dynamic, I think with all of that history and that background exposed, it becomes more of an important storyline whether these two were ever going to help each other, or how much they’re going to open up to each other. So I think that struggle of how open they can be with each other and how helpful they can be is the dynamic that we focus on this round.

Jennifer: Yes, I think for Stone the connection to Lauren has kind of opened her own past to her, and I think through working with Lauren she’s revisiting her past and trying to find her way back in a way to address this wrong that’s happened to her as well, in a funny way, through Lauren. But she’s still struggling with what it traditionally means to be commander and how you handle the bureaucracy and what it means to be a woman in what is so clearly a male dynamic. But I do feel like you see the relationship change a little bit, like you see Stone open up to Lauren a little bit, she so wants to be able to help her, she so wants to be able to help her… and is trying to figure out how to do it and doesn’t quite know how.

Troian: I think it’s a very different role because I think what we’ve established in the first three episodes and then what continues on is that what I saw Major Stone’s greatest asset in this world of men, to these men, is her ability to make their problems go away, to kind of take care of everything without being told what to do. And then all of a sudden here comes Lauren, who is somebody that she doesn’t want to treat as a problem that’s just going to go away and she has to decide for herself if this is when she’s going to change and put her foot down, or if she’s going to continue to play their game.

What message is your show trying to portray to women, and how have you both developed your characters to achieve that?
Jennifer: I don’t know that Jay, that the writer has said, “Okay, I’m going to have a message.” I think he’s trying really to tell the story as truthfully as possible. And there are several different stories that go under the umbrella of the Lauren story. You know, there’s the story of Lauren, who is a truth teller and she’s not going to take a lot of … from anybody. And then there’s the story of Stone, who has had a similar experience but doesn’t know really how to find justice for herself and is willing to just sweep it under the rug for fear of repercussions, and this is something from her own past that I’m referring to. So in a funny way you see a generational difference of how to deal with the same problem.
And hopefully, if there’s any message at all that people take away, men and women, is that you speak up for yourself and you keep advocating for yourself. And that advocating means you keep telling the story over and over and over and over again to whoever will listen. And if they won’t listen you shout it, you write it, you film it, you do whatever you need to do to get the story out, because storytelling is really the thing that changes the world, whether it’s groups of people going to the Hill and telling their stories over and over again, or filmmakers telling their stories and getting those stories out, or writers writing books, it’s how the paradigm shifts is through storytelling.

Troian: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. And I think that Jay, when he wrote this, was very inspired by the documentary The Invisible War, and just kind of this issue coming to light. I don’t know about you, Jennifer, you actually had known about it for a while and had been researching and writing on it as well and trying to get it out there, and it was amazing to read this script for the first time and have known nothing about what was going on, and then kind of have this whole world open up to me. And so I think that that’s really what Jay wanted to do is just get this story out there. All of these women need to be recognized for their bravery and for what they’ve been through.

How do you adjudicate between the temptation of preaching or presenting a documentary, and the other side, which is present something aesthetically powerful, a piece of drama?
Jennifer: I think that one of the things that I wrestled with when I first looked at this season two was that there are all these things that come out about Jo Stone which are not exactly heroic. And I’ve thought, oh, I want to save everybody, I want to make everything okay, and then after you lean into the imperfection, because people are not perfect, and by representing the imperfect you’re telling the fuller story. And I think that what was important to the filmmakers and important to us as well was to try to tell the truth as much as possible within the confines of the fiction that’s created and not try to make some kind of platform piece that you would show to members of Congress.

Jennifer Beals and Bradley Whitford

Jennifer Beals and Bradley Whitford

Troian: Yes, and the thing that I was most surprised I think about season one as well, but also in season two, was I thought that a group of people who are not in the military writing about the military, I thought it was going to be kind of polarizing and taking a stance of this is the military’s problem and they’re doing things incorrectly, and I thought that it would be like what you said, which is preachy and perhaps divisive. And the thing that I’ve always loved about what Jay’s written is Lauren and Stone’s intense love for and their inability to separate from the Army,” the Army is in their bones” is one of Lauren’s lines in the new season, that these women believe in this institution through and through, and that’s why they believe that it can be better. It’s not about demonizing the Army or anything like that, it’s about how can we challenge people to stand up for themselves, to take responsibility, and to make a change that is needed. So that’s why I think you’re right, it absolutely could run, we run the danger of becoming preachy, but I think that they did a very good job of keeping every character incredibly human. There are no archetypes in this season, even the rapists of Lauren, you get to see them, you get to see what they’re going through, you get to see why they might have done these things –

Jennifer: Not that it makes it forgivable, of course.

Troian: No, no – as I was working with Raymond Cruz, seeing the human side of his character and seeing his flaws and seeing how Lauren actually is a friend to him and he’s a friend to her, and how lines become so murky. And that’s why it becomes so important to tell these stories, because it’s not about what is done cannot be undone … then justice needs to be served, so yes.

Do you believe a woman ranked high up in the military should be expected to have more empathy with a female soldier who’s been raped than, say, a male counterpart? And do you think it’s harder for women to be more objective than men in such scenarios?
Jennifer: I think as a human being if someone has the evidence that they’ve been raped or someone comes with a complaint of rape that it demands empathy, whether you’re a man or a woman, because what’s not told in this story of Lauren is how many men are raped in the military. And that’s a real big secret right now, because there’s such shame surrounding that men don’t come forward. But now more and more are because this story has come out, because the statistics have come out. In fact, Ruth Moore was talking recently about how she was traveling and there’s the Ruth Moore Act right now that’s being put forth in Congress, and she talks about how she was traveling and she went through TSA and she had a guy from TSA who had been in the service come up to her and say thank you for testifying, because he had been raped in the military and he now felt empowered to start talking about it, whereas before he felt so ashamed. Yes, so I think it’s not just a female issue. It’s not just an issue with women.

Troian: And as far as men being objective, I would hope whenever, like you said, Jennifer, anybody comes up with a problem that they’re responded to on a level of basic humanity. All men, we have mothers, we have sisters, and wives, and daughters, and I don’t think that being a male or a female should separate you from having basic empathy for somebody who’s gone through a traumatic experience. I would hope that it shouldn’t come down to the sex of the person that you’re telling your story to in an ideal world.

You’ve had such tough material to work with and if I think only at the scene at the end of season one when Major Stone tells Lauren that the case is out of her hands, that scene is so emotionally charged, and I was wondering how do you prepare for a scene like that?
Troian: I think for me, how do I prepare for a scene like that, I fell into season one with pretty short notice, I was offered the job two days before we started shooting, which was insane. And I basically showed up and Jennifer was amazing, she just handed me this incredible book and kind of told me all the things that she was looking at and researching with documentaries, and I just went home and I tried to just be a sponge. I just flipped through passages of the book and I tried to put on The Invisible War, and I watched that while I was reading the script, and I guess I just tried to take on as much of the experience that Lauren could be going through and what her days might be like. And then I just walked in and, honestly, I just responded to Jennifer, which is exactly what Lauren’s doing, she has this whole experience, this horrible event, and then she has to have her heart broken because she’s reached out and asked for help. So really I just let Jennifer do her thing and I just tried to respond as open and honestly as I could, because it was an incredible scene and she was an incredible scene partner, so that was my experience.

Jennifer Beals

Jennifer Beals as Jo Stone

Troian, you’re a big role model for a lot of the girls and I was just wondering what the best advice you’ve ever gotten is.
Troian: Oh, wow! That’s a huge question. The best advice I’ve ever gotten. You know, honestly, I could give you the most recent advice that I’ve gotten and it really affected me. I would say that the most recent advice that somebody gave me is, I’m going to paraphrase it completely, but just let go. I think the phrase itself, at times there’s a necessity of letting go of things simply because they are heavy, and I find that in a lot of my life I hold on to things sometimes, mistakes that I’ve made, 4, 5, 6, 20 years ago, and they don’t serve me anymore and I need to be living my life from a moment of present, in the now. So I guess that would be the most affecting advice that I have right now, would be to let go of things that might not be serving me anymore.

Can you talk more about specifically what kind of research you both did before being in the show?
Jennifer: I had started doing research prior to Lauren for a project that I was developing with, and so I had read several books and started watching documentaries, starting finding episodes on different talk shows where female soldiers were talking about their experience. Then I started interviewing female veterans through the Illinois Veterans Affairs Office, and just talking to a lot of people, and reading, and watching as many interviews as I can. And YouTube is also really helpful for that, there’s a lot of information you can get and a lot of interviews you can watch. And SWAN (Service Women’s Action Network) is certainly really helpful, and then somebody put me in contact with SWAN and they were very helpful.

Troian: Jennifer was very kind and when I had to run in last minute she basically filled my arms with material and books, and I just went home and tried to consume as much of it as possible. And exactly, YouTube helps a lot, especially for understanding military jargon or understanding how to salute properly, which was all the stuff that I had to learn in like a day … but doing that and reading from The Lonely Soldier (Helen Benedict) really, and I went back and I re-read it before we did season two and it’s just a mind blowing book.It’s just amazing and it’s not just about stories of women who have gone through sexual assault, although many of them have, but it’s also about what our soldiers are going through, which I didn’t really know anything about it. I didn’t know what it was like to serve, the conditions, the food, the water supply, what kind of tents they’re staying in, the dangers of serving, you can imagine, you can guess, but to hear these women give their firsthand accounts was really eye opening.

Jennifer: And just the size of the gear, the weight of the gear, and the heat and not drinking before certain hours so they don’t have to go to the latrine alone in the middle of the night, and all kinds of details.

Can the military change? it’s a system that’s very disciplinarian where you kind of have to shelve empathy so you can kill people, right? And this issue came up in general when the issue of women serving in combat came up a few years ago and it’s coming up again with sexual assault, do you think this system can change enough to acknowledge empathy?
Jennifer: There are a couple of things. I think it’s a really, really interesting ethical point in terms of how a culture works and the ethos of an organization. But I think in this case what you’re trying to do is to ensure the cohesion of a unit in order to perform whatever duties you need to perform, however violent they might be. And so to that end, you need to change the culture so that everybody feels safe within the unit, so that the unit can function in a cohesive way. So to that end, in order to change culture we all know how difficult it is to change culture, how culture can change so slowly, so I think to that end the first line to change that culture is to start to change the legislation so that these complaints need to be taken out of the chain of command. And you can’t have it, like in the situation at Aviano where there was a convicted rapist and then the commander came in and revoked the jury’s decision and just said, “No. Okay, you’re free to go back to work, you’re free to go back into your unit,” after the jury had convicted this person. That’s not okay. That doesn’t ensure anybody’s safety. It doesn’t ensure anybody’s safe or any kind of cohesion of the unit, because you don’t feel safe because you’ve just undone the law. I think as soon as there are more prosecutions that stick and that don’t get overturned in this draconian kind of way, that there will be more faith and more cohesion in the unit to perform whatever duty that they need to perform, and then hopefully the culture will start to change because there will be repercussions if it doesn’t change.

Troian: It makes sense and I also think that it was an amazing … when we were shooting Lauren and I got in my car at the end of the day and I heard on NPR that the Combat Exclusion Policy had been lifted, which meant that women who had been serving in combat alongside men, but they weren’t technically supposed to be there, were now going to be allowed front line jobs and they were going to be recognized as serving in combat areas. And that’s a huge part, I think, of changing culture, because if right now women are allowed to serve in the military but they’re not allowed to do certain jobs maybe because there’s deemed to be too dangerous or they’re not up to it, the men naturally see women as lesser, whether they see them as weaker or whether they see them as not as important, and now if a woman is going to be fighting side by side next to you, you have to trust her with your life, and therefore, the culture begins to change because you begin to view, as your fellow soldier you want to protect them, you don’t want to harm them. It becomes an important value to you to keep them safe. So I think that that is a big step, even though it was one of, like Jennifer said, one of many legislative acts that need to be changed. I think it was a big step for us this year.

Jennifer: It’s really fascinating. And it tells you in order to be in the military how you compartmentalize things and how you have to compartmentalize things to survive. And of course everybody’s wish is the day when nobody needs a military. And up until that time you have to have a group of people who are defending you and you hope that they are not misused to defend interests that are not your own.

How the show has changed you?
Jennifer: My goodness. I’ve learned so many more things. I just have learned so many more things about, certainly the military and at least how it feels to be this particular person in the military, like to be someone like Jo Stone in the military, how complicated that is. My experience in Washington with the Service Women’s Action Network I will never, ever forget for the rest of my life. To be with all of these service men and women who are so unbelievably, inexplicably brave and truly courageous to be able to go tell their story over and over and over again on the Hill to get something to change, was really life altering, I think. And I remember a friend of mine said to me that, “To be courageous is to be able to tell your life story with your whole heart.” And I feel like that’s what these men and women were doing on those two days, and doing it certainly out of their own pain, but also out of the love and regard for the people who would come after them so that they wouldn’t have to experience the same sort thing. And to me that’s the height of humanity, when you can take your pain and like the finest alchemist turn it into something beneficial for others, and the key ingredient in that I think is love.

Troian: I couldn’t agree more. I think what is such an honor and what I love the most about being a storyteller is the ability to step into somebody else’s shoes. When all goes well and you get a wonderful project like Lauren and you get these amazing characters like with Lauren and with Jo Stone, your whole vision of the world expands. And for me, my father served in the military, but I really knew nothing. I wasn’t born while he was serving, so I knew nothing of that lifestyle. And to get to step into that world and to get to understand and do research and hear stories and watch film about people’s experience and lives serving their country, which is something so completely different from what I do every day, but to stand in their shoes and fight for what they believe in, you just get a richer experience of life because you understand one more thing from somebody else’s point of view.
And I know that I keep on … but the great honor that it is to assume this role and to stand for these women and tell a story which is one of hundreds of thousands of stories of these women, to get it out there so that maybe more people will listen the next time and then a change can be made and then a huge change can be made, and then we’re not talking about this as an issue anymore hopefully, but it’s something that we all kind of came together and made a difference in. So, yes that for me was how it changed me. It was just a huge honor and it just kind of opened my eyes a bit more to the world.

Clip from Season Two:  Major Jo Stone has a flashback to when she was sexually assaulted in the military.

Interview and article by Dragspel and BM for Jennifer-Beals.com

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