Scroll To Top
Women

Sherri Saum Plays a Lesbian Mom for 'A New Kind of Family'

Sherri Saum Plays a Lesbian Mom for 'A New Kind of Family'

Long before LGBT-friendly series like Greek, The Secret Life of the American Teen and Pretty Little Liars comprised ABC Family’s prime real estate, the network was founded by Pat Robertson and acted as home to his ultra-conservative, antigay “family”-oriented The 700 Club. As of June 3, ABC Family’s transformation to a leading network for positive LGBT representation will be complete when America meets The Fosters, a mixed race family of biological, adopted and foster kids headed by a loving, affectionate lesbian mom couple. And Sherri Saum, who plays Lena, one of the moms, says the series is the work she’s most proud of in her career.

TracyEGilchrist

Long before LGBT-friendly series like Greek, The Secret Life of the American Teen and Pretty Little Liars comprised ABC Family’s prime real estate, the network was founded by Pat Robertson and acted as home to his ultra-conservative, antigay “family”-oriented The 700 Club. As of June 3, ABC Family’s transformation to a leading network for positive LGBT representation will be complete when America meets The Fosters, a mixed race family of biological, adopted and foster kids headed by a loving, affectionate lesbian mom couple. And Sherri Saum, who plays Lena, one of the moms, says the series  is the work she’s most proud of in her career.

And that’s no small feat considering Saum, 38,  is an acting veteran who cut her teeth on daytime’s frothy potboiler Sunset Beach and on One Life to Live before moving on to meaty roles in critical darlings including Rescue Me and HBO’s In Treatment. The Fosters isn’t Saum’s first turn at teen fare either. The Ohio-native also had a recurring role on the wildly popular Gossip Girl.

With the highly anticipated premiere of The Fosters, executive produced by Jennifer Lopez, Saum stands to make history -- opposite Teri Polo as Stef -- as one half of the first lesbian mom leads on television in a series not specifically targeted for the lesbian community (Bette and Tina on The L Word).  With humor and pathos the series explores family dynamics and teen issues for Lena and Stef’s children (one biological, two adopted and a new foster kid) while Lena (a school administrator) and Stef (a police officer) work to provide for their growing family. The show’s plot often veers into teen territory (this is ABC Family after all) but Stef and Lena, and their tender, authentic relationship remains the series’ heart and soul.

Saum spoke with SheWired about her role as mom and school administrator Lena, the importance of positive LGBT representation on TV, lesbian fans, meeting Lopez and her instant chemistry with Polo. 

SheWired: How excited are you for Monday’s premiere?

Sherri Saum: Oh my gosh. I can't take it in that it's happening so fast. I'm driving around LA and it’s all these billboards. Everywhere you look there's an ad. I'm just trying to take it in but it's really surreal.

I'm sure. Is there a billboard on Sunset?

I think Sunset and La Cienega, someone told me.

That’s really big time. I guess when you have Jennifer Lopez involved…

(Laughs) That certainly does not hurt our situation at all.

How did you become involved with this series? 

Atfirst it was just another audition. I thought, “Well, it’s ABC Family… Let's see how they're going to treat this subject. Is it going to be candy-coated and that kind of thing?” And then I read the script, and was really pleasantly surprised by how grounded and unafraid ABC Family is with this project. It's kind of amazing.

Had you been aware of any of their other projects? They've had gay characters on Greek, and they've had some great coming out stories on Pretty Little Liarsand The Secret Life of the American Teen…

I hadn't, because I hadn't really had much opportunity to watch any ABC Family shows. Just of late I've seen how absolutely their brand is exploding.

But as far as I know this is the most comprehensive kind of “reality”-based portrayal that we're going to see on television right now.

There’s certainly something really wonderful about challenging the notion of traditional family. In fact, I think that's ABC Family’s tagline, "A new kind of family.”

Right.

The network is really expanding perceptions of traditional family, not only by having lesbian moms, but also with a mixed-race family, adopted kids and foster kids. How important is it to you to be part of that benchmark work?

It's really important. Growing up as a TV baby, I never saw myself represented, and was forced to identify with the images I saw, and it was very difficult. And then The Cosby Show would come around, or faces of color would pop up here and there and I would hang on to those things for dear life because they were so few and far between. I know how important it is to see yourself portrayed in TV and portrayed accurately and celebrated.

You have great chemistry on screen, not only with Teri Polo, but with the young actors who play your kids. How did you establish that rapport?

We had an excellent director for our pilot and our second episode -- Timothy Busfield. He’s really an actor’s director.

He’s an actor too right?

Yeah, he’s an actor. He understands how to talk to us and get the foundations of these relationships started. He took so much time with us in rehearsal, improvving and sitting in our kitchen on the set making sandwiches and asking “how does that feel?,” and “let's have an argument.” He'd give us a topic and then we’d just kind of start arguing about it. It really got us comfortable with each other in a way that I've never had that experience working in TV. He took so much time to nurture these relationships that by the time we’re on episode one it already feels like we’re at episode 10 because these relationships are so comfortable.

There was a brief story in Us magazine this week with both you and Teri discussing the chemistry between you. Did that stem from some of the prep work you did?

That definitely helped a lot, but Teri is one-of-a-kind. You never have to wonder what she's thinking and I think that is marvelous. She's absolutely upfront. She doesn't hold anything back, in her work, in her life, as a mom herself — she's a force of nature. She's like a big sister to me because I'm naturally pretty shy, painfully shy, and she forces me out of my shell. We laugh so much on this show. It's criminal how much fun we have.

She also said that she had more chemistry with you than with any male counterpart thatshe's ever had.  How is that to hear?

Oh, I read that! You know, I'd have to agree with her. We really clicked. We're really yin and yang – we’re really pretty different but we just clicked, and it goes to show you that it doesn't matter, guy or girl, it just matters is there love? Is there chemistry, is there affection? I enjoy that girl. She's amazing and I learn from her every day.

Just this month three states passed marriage equality. Do think that positive portrayals of LGBT characters on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Gleeand now yours, help to change hearts and minds?

Absolutely. Again, I think the media is so incredibly powerful. I think that society is catching up to what's happening and what's been happening for millennia. Now people are seeing it more, and it's becoming less taboo and more accepted, and more like the older generation has children that make friends with someone who maybe 20 years ago they wouldn't have. That opens up that world for the older generation. It’s happening. It can't be stopped.

Regarding the show and the relationship between your character and Teri’s, will we see Stef and Lena step out of the family element and seen them interacting outside of their role as moms?

Definitely. I feel like we want to present this show as real life. It is hard to find time for yourself when you're trying to raise children, you do have to fight for that. But we definitely get that time, because in order to be good parents, you have to be good to each other and you have be good to yourself. So we're definitely going to see Lena and Stef fighting for that one-on-one time and getting it some times, not getting it some other times, but always fighting for it so we can have some good balance in the family.

Lena is a school administrator. Is there room to explore any controversy with her being out at her job?

I'm not sure. I mean, we're a charter school, and we're in California. It's a nice, comfortable environment for Lena to be in. There are definitely going to be issues as far as that her own kids go to the school where she's vice principal and there are all of those conflicts of interest. 

What do you like best about Lena?

I definitely connected to Lena's character from the get-go because she has a really huge heart, and that heart might get her into trouble sometimes. I have a really big heart and I have a lot of compassion and I don't have kids of my own yet but I know that I'm going to be a good mom and I'm getting some practice through Lena. It's just so much fun.

Lesbian fans, which you are sure to amass once the series airs, are some of the most loyal fans out there. Have you experienced any of that love yet on your social networking or in general?

Oh, definitely through Twitter. And we've been invited to a  lot of events and galas over the last couple of months for GLAAD and for An Evening with Women. They've been incredibly supportive.

But they're also not going to give us a free pass; they want to see an actor's portrayal and they don't want to see it sugar-coated or one of us falling into some relationship with a guy, because that's going to make the audience more comfortable. They don't want to see that. And they want to hold us to an accurate standard and so I hope we deliver. I think we deliver. It's going to be up to the audience to decide, ultimately.

Have you had any interaction with Jennifer Lopez?

Yeah, she came on set twice. Teri and I and the rest of the cast met her formally a month ago, and she came and did some promos and she did some pictures with us. She's great. Someone had asked her, “Are you planning to do a cameo? Are you going to be on the show?” and she was really adamant that she didn't feel like the show needs some big boost from a celebrity. It stands on its own. She's really proud of it. I was really humbled to hear her say that; she really believes in the show. It also comes from a personal inspiration because she had an aunt who was gay and she'd always wondered, “Did my aunt want a family? Did she feel like she couldn't have a family?” So it’s kind of an homage to her aunt.

I saw her talking about her aunt. It’s very moving. Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say about the project that we haven’t touched on?

This is probably the project I've been most proud of throughout my whole career. I didn't see this coming but it's evolved into something that is incredibly real, incredibly grounded. Sometimes you see promos for shows and it looks so exciting and they cut it with the music and it looks all slick and lovely, and then you see the show and it disappoints. This is something I’m really proud of because the promos are really hot and exciting, but [this] show is above and beyond that. This show, week after week, gets better and better. We were in table reads tearing up reading this story out loud. It's really something that I'm proud of out there. And it's really nice because not all the work out there is something you're excited to share with the world.

Like SheWired on Facebook. 

Follow SheWired on Twitter. 

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

author avatar

Tracy E. Gilchrist

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.