Teen Dream: Canadian Shay Mitchell is making waves in L.A. with a TV role that puts sexuality front and centre
By Jason Anderson.
Editor: Rani Sheen.
It was only recently that Shay Mitchell became someone who might get recognized by fans in public, so it’s understandable that she finds it all “a little weird.”
“Sometimes they’ll walk by you the first time and not say anything, but just stare at you,” says the star of Pretty Little Liars, a high school–set mystery series that’s swiftly become essential viewing for teens and a guilty pleasure for TV fans outside the demographic. “For a while I was thinking, ‘Do I have something on my face? Do I have toilet paper hanging off my shoe?’” she says. “It’s very flattering. I like to stop and chit-chat.”
Mitchell grew up in Toronto and Vancouver; she’s half Filipino and a quarter each Irish and Scottish. She travelled the world as a model before landing small parts on Rookie Blue and Degrassi: The Next Generation, but caught her first major break when she scored her lead role on Pretty Little Liars. She describes it as a “fairy-tale story,” but it didn’t happen out of nowhere. “I worked my butt off to get here,” she says. “Everything kind of came at the right time.”
What’s more, Mitchell’s character is a major reason why the show is a breakout hit (after a hiatus, the second season has just returned with new episodes on MuchMusic in Canada and ABC Family in the U.S.). Mitchell plays Emily Fields, an athletic student in a demanding family who realizes over the course of the first season that she’s more attracted to girls than boys. “People are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they show you kissing on ABC Family!’” says Mitchell. “I’m like, ‘Yes, but if it was a heterosexual relationship, would they probably be kissing at this age? Yes. Would they be showing it on tv? Yes. So why shouldn’t my character be doing the exact same thing?’”
Whereas many of the storylines in this teen-centric spin on Desperate Housewives and Twin Peaks deal with dark secrets and schoolroom scandals, the show presents the matter of Emily’s coming out with refreshing candour and sensitivity, and viewers have connected with her story. “I was out for dinner last night and this girl came up to me in the washroom and said, ‘Hey, I just want to tell you you’ve done a lot for the lesbian and gay community, and I think your character is amazing, and [so is] the way they’re handling it,’” says Mitchell. She understands the value of characters like Emily at a time when bullying remains a grave issue in schools, especially for gay teens. “The fact that my character can show that she can come out and her friends supported her and her parents eventually came around, that’s great.”
Regardless of the reasons that Pretty Little Liars is making fans, Mitchell finds it hard to believe that she’s part of a teen sensation. “I will never forget that there are millions of other people who would be dying to be in my position,” she says. “I’m not going to be an actress who doesn’t appreciate what she has.”