The former "House of Anubis" star on Nickelodeon talks switching tacks and getting unglamorous for her harrowing turn as Shae Reese
Spoiler alert: This interview contains plot details for the first four episodes of Season 3 of “American Crime.”
Before playing exploited underage sex worker Shae Reese on Season 3 of “American Crime,” actress Ana Mulvoy-Ten was the comic relief in the youth series “House of Anubis,” a mystery soap with British, Belgian, and American roots. It’s quite a jump to go from a Nickelodeon recurring role to an Emmy-worthy performance under Oscar-winning showrunner John Ridley, but Mulvoy-Ten makes it look easy; her introduction in the Season 3 premiere is a tense, beautiful scene, and as the season goes on, her character is foundational to how emotionally powerful the story is. After her pimp is arrested in the first episode, the prosecution presses her to testify against him. This means living as a ward of the state, which becomes much more complicated when she reveals that she is pregnant; in Sunday night’s episode, she begins the process of seeking an abortion. As a minor in the conservative state of North Carolina, this is much easier said than done.
“American Crime” has sought, in its third season, to depict the interplay between flawed institutions and the marginalized. With Shae, the institutions that purport to protect her either aren’t flexible enough to accommodate her or want to burden her under punitive regulations. In her group home, she’s not allowed to have any electronic devices; sitting in front of a judge, she’s told she has to seek permission from her abusive parents for an abortion.
Mulvoy-Ten tells Variety that she had no idea how strict abortion laws could be in the United States; the bilingual performer was raised both in Spain and Britain. Much of the drama around Shae’s already harrowing character looks to be heading towards a longer season-long arc about what it means to be able to make choices, as a young, compromised, and nearly voiceless woman. The actress spoke also about why she wanted to change directions after “House of Anubis,” as well as what she had to do to prepare for the role of Shae — watching interviews with prostitutes, journaling, and hacking off her long blonde hair.
You were on a teen soap set in a boarding school before this role in “American Crime.” How did you come to this role?
I just got sent the script — actually, I didn’t get sent the script, because John Ridley doesn’t send out the script, I just got the sides [i.e., the lines for the audition] for Shae. I had wanted to do a role like this for a really long time. This is more the kind of thing I am drawn to than anything else I’ve done. It took a second to find it, because I think people aren’t really writing those kind of roles for younger actresses.
When you say “a role like this,” what do you mean?
She’s just a complex character. So raw — there is no glamour to this role at all. It’s completely stripped down, and there’s just so much to her. There’s this innocence, but there’s resilience and strength that she has, too, that I just found fascinating, even just in reading the sides for my audition. Usually there’s a lot of judgment on characters — I mean, she’s technically a victim of sex trafficking, but people can just say, oh, she’s just a teen prostitute. I feel like there was so much that, I guess, is not really something people talk about. And so that’s why I thought that she was such a great role to play. Those characters aren’t really given a voice. I haven’t seen any role, any character that has gone into that much detail about what it is like to be in that life.
Did it surprise you to learn more about the life of a girl like Shae?
What’s funny is that I thought that it would be so different from me. But I really tried to find the humanity in her. And John didn’t want her to just be this angry girl. I wanted her to be someone. Even though [her life is] completely un-relatable to me — a runaway abused sexually and physically as a child, and then going to North Carolina and living with my pimp. That being a better situation than the one that I was in as a child — that was so overwhelming to me at first because I didn’t know how I was gonna get my head around that. But I found that she’s just a girl. And she likes the same things that I do. She loves art, and she does see the beauty in the world, she loves filming things.
I think what I’m trying to say is that it was hard, but I found the humanity in her, and how she’s just actually a regular girl and not that different from any other girl that you might meet. She just had a more difficult situation that she was born into.
Was there anything in particular you wanted to do to prepare for playing her?
I process a lot through writing. So I write every day, but instead of writing as myself, I would write as her. So I actually have a whole book full of just Shae’s thoughts, and that was the thing that helped me the most, because I think as just writing as her, so many things came to light that I otherwise had no idea about. It really helped me get into her skin.
I also watched a lot of videos of girls who are prostitutes, and I was so blown away by just that sheer candidness. And how there’s no self-pity. I thought that if anyone, you can have self-pity — like this sucks, this is a horrible life. But the girls were so honest and so to the point, and they were so strong. There was one that I watched in particular that was this girl who was 19 called Honey, and she was a prostitute. She didn’t really have a choice. It wasn’t what she wanted to do, but she needed to live, and that was the easiest thing and the only thing she could do at this moment. And I couldn’t believe it. I just thought, I could go to coffee with this girl. I think she’s really smart and really cool. I think it got rid of the separateness. It wasn’t like you and me, it was just, this is a girl and I’m a girl. I happened to have really nice parents, and she happened to have people who just didn’t take care of her, and this is where she is right now because of that.
That must have been an interesting challenge, to balance the fact that while she has been victimized, she’s also making choices.
Yeah, that was one of the trickiest things for me — because she thinks that she has made the decision to be with Billy, and to do what she’s doing. If you asked her, “Are you a victim?” She would say no. She does not think she’s a victim. She’s very sure of that. From the research that I did, these guys, they prey on very vulnerable girls who have had such a bad lot in life that this is actually okay. That was really hard.
But then also, it was an education to me because the [abortion] laws … I didn’t know about some of those. I was just so shocked, especially the scene [in episode four] when I was fighting for that abortion, oh my gosh. I couldn’t believe that that was a girl in a world who had to go through that. They should have the freedom to do what they want to do with their bodies, you should have that choice. She’s seventeen, she has no money, she has no one to help her, but she can’t have an abortion. What is she gonna do? She’s gonna raise it? She’s not going to be able to raise this child. To me, that was and is one of the biggest and most important questions that you’re gonna ask yourself in your life. Am I gonna bring a child into the world right now or am I not? For me, that’s just such a huge thing to deal with.
Your first scene is really striking. How did you interpret the whole exchange with the makeup? Talk about filming that.
To me it was her pimp, Billy. He’s in the shopping mall, and he’s watching her. So it’s funny, because you can’t see — they have the camera on my face, so you can’t see what’s going on — he was hovering and just watching. And from the research, that’s what they do. You are not out of their sight at any point. You have no freedom, in that sense. But I think [Shae] kind of was excited to be made up, because as we see, she doesn’t really get makeup or get to look pretty at all throughout the rest of the season. It’s kind of exciting for her to be getting it done, but I think more than anything she wants Billy to … not pay attention to her in the way that he’s watching her all the time, but that she wants him to think that she is beautiful. ‘Cause there’s that whole dynamic here, where she just wants Billy to love her. And so I think that was the, “Oh, I’m getting this done and I’m lying about where I’m going.” Trying to buy into it. But she can’t even convince herself that she’s going to a dinner with her boyfriend, even though that would be her complete dream.
There were so many things going on in my head at that time. I was trying to get Billy to love me, but he just didn’t care. I just wanted him to say — or someone — because this is a girl who has never once been told you look pretty today, or you look beautiful. Not one kind word has ever been said. I think there’s that, “Maybe today, because I’m getting my makeup done and I look prettier than I usually do, maybe he’ll pay me attention.” But he doesn’t. He just takes me to the hotel. And that’s the end of that.
And then I think with the guy in the hotel, I asked about that. What’s the deal with this? They’re taking off the makeup. Ultimately I think he requested the makeup — requested the makeup so that he could make me take it off. It’s some control — sometimes there’s a bizarre fetish and a control thing. So he gets to control how I look and what I’m doing, and he just wanted to be able to tell me what to do.
Are you wondering how your fans from your previous show are going to interpret this role that you’re in now? It’s certainly a different audience, so maybe that hasn’t come up.
It’s funny. This is the direction I always wanted to go in. That was a role that I got — at the time, that was very life-changing for me. But this, for me, is easier than doing that kind of role, in a bizarre way. I’m more attracted to this; I find it very creatively satisfying. It’s funny because in my mind, this is always the direction I was gonna go in, I just had to get here. [Laughs.] “House of Anubis,” it was five years ago. I feel like enough time has passed, and the fans from that show are so supportive. It’s very different. I went from the very wholesome — elite boarding school, posh English girl — to literally the opposite of what that is. But I think they’ve grown up, too. Had it been a year after, I think, I might do a different story, but I was always hoping that I would do gritty war dramas.
Even when I got that role, and the director told me: “You’re the comedic relief of the show.” And I just thought, oh my goodness, I have to be funny. I am in so much trouble, they don’t know what they’ve gotten into. I went home and told my family, and when I told them that I had to be the funny one — they just burst out laughing. They know I find it much easier to do a drama than I do a comedy. They just thought it was hilarious that I had to be funny.
I actually thought it was going to take me longer to get this kind of role, because it’s so far away from me, but it’s funny how John and Michael McDonald, the executive producer, they just didn’t seem to mind that I was English, or that I didn’t look like the character. They sorted that out on the first day. [Laughs.]
What did they have to do?
I had really long, thick blonde hair. Michael just said, “The hair is too pretty.” And the hair stylist on the show — she got a razor and just hacked at it. It was so funny — I mean, just hacked. So it wasn’t really long, it wasn’t short, just hacked at it, and then there was like this spray that they used to dull out all the color and to get rid of some of the blonde so it’s more of a mousy, lowlife situation. They pulled out photos of prostitutes in North Carolina, and then I got what they were going for.
So I thought that it was really cool that they really did take away any kind of glamour, or any kind of beauty, around it. They didn’t want that — which I think is so great, because I think you can fall into the oh, we should make her cute. What I really wanted was to play someone who was just really raw. And, uh, that definitely happened. [Laughs.]
I think it’s quite healthy as well, because I want to work Judi Dench-style, when I’m in my 80s. And I love it. I just hope that I can keep working. If you’re so concerned about your face and the way that you look and all of that, then I think it becomes dangerous when you start to age. When I’m in my 80s, I’m probably gonna have some wrinkles. It’s gonna happen. I think it’s good to do that now, actually, and it was a good exercise.
But it’s funny. They wouldn’t let me watch anything while we were shooting. And I get it, but I didn’t know that that’s how they worked. It was the scene actually when I was at the hotel with the guy, and he made me take off the makeup. We did that in one shot. The camera does not cut from when I get to the door and I walk around the room and take off the makeup and then go to the other room. We did that in one take. I love cameras, and I love the technical side as well — so I was like, I really want to see this. So I went to the monitor to watch it, and everyone was like, “No! Get away!” And I was like, “What? I’m so sorry.” And they were like, you can’t see it. And I was like, okay, I wasn’t gonna go and look at my face. I just wanted to see how the camera move worked. And they were like, Sure, sure. Sure, sure. You wanted to see the camera move. [Laughs.] So they didn’t let me see anything. And I’m glad that they didn’t. But it was quite strange. I was like, “Please, just let me watch one thing.” And I didn’t get to see anything.