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How ‘Riverdale’ Star Marisol Nichols Saves ‘Children That Didn’t Even Know They Needed to be Saved’

Marisol Nichols has been a fixture in film and television since the late-1990s, most well-known for her portrayal of Audrey Griswold in “Vegas Vacation,” as well as her turn as a CTU agent on “24,” the Desert Wolf on “Teen Wolf” and now as Hermione Lodge on the CW’s “Riverdale.” Acting is only one of her passions, though; she also created the Foundation for a Slave Free World to end sex trafficking.

What inspired you to not only want to raise awareness about sex trafficking but also start a foundation to fight for the victims?

Essentially, I couldn’t sleep anymore. It was just that simple. Once you dive down the rabbit hole — and I dove down the rabbit hole — you look at the world differently. Once I knew what was going on in it and to little girls, I wanted to focus primarily on the child sex trade, which is a horrific sentence just in itself to ever have to say, let alone have to start a foundation to stop it. It’s insane to me. So I couldn’t sleep and I got tired of not doing enough. The only way I felt I could sleep was if I started doing stuff about it. Everyone wants to raise awareness, and it’s great and extremely needed, but I wanted to do more than that — raise awareness and be able to actually do something proactive within the field.

How did you go about working in the field?

I was very lucky and very fortunate to be trained up by experts in law enforcement. I’ve been able to go undercover and use my skills for that. I’m doing it again in April, after we wrap. And there’s nothing better than being able to take a pedophile off the streets — nothing!

What goes into making sure you’re not recognized?

We work with a professional makeup artist who goes full-on in changing my look, but mainly a lot of it is using my voice, which I’ve been very fortunate to be able to change the age-range of my voice, and I am able to pretend to be a 12-year-old little girl on the phone with these guys, and that does it. As soon as they talk to the girl, they’re like, “I’m there. I’m in.” And law enforcement is on the other end waiting for them. It’s fantastic. You end up saving children that didn’t even know they need to be saved because these guys are taken off the street. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been able to do, hands-down.

How did the idea of going undercover even come up?

I was working with some experts in the field of recovery and rescue worldwide in the child trafficking scene, and they pretty much trained me and went through it with me. I went through it all. I’ve seen things I wish I never saw; I’ve heard things I wish I never heard. But at the same time, if kids have to deal with this, then I better. And raising awareness within Hollywood is sort of how it started out because I didn’t feel like enough people knew, but I felt like if enough people knew, they’d be demanding an end to this. And so I started this five or six years ago — events — and I’d highlight organizations that had been fighting this for a long time and different angles of it. It wasn’t something that was new — it had been going on for a very long time — but my biggest thing was that people just didn’t know.

What is the biggest change in reactions or people’s level of knowledge in the years since you started?

A lot. When we started, we were screaming about backpage.com before people had even heard of [it]. There weren’t a lot of celebs talking about it, aside from Ashton Kutcher, who I applaud for all of the work that he’s done. It wasn’t on people’s minds. People would think, “It’s over there. That’s not a problem that affects me. That’s not in the United States.” So one of the biggest things when I would produce events…I would always start out on a global basis and then go to a national basis of what it looks like in the United States — and then go to “Here’s what it looks like in your own backyard.” And by the end of that, that was sort of the catalyst to get other people on board.

Are you planning to further shed light on this issue through any film or television projects?

I already have a certain project that I’m dying to get made and it’s footage of multiple, multiple, multiple undercover ops both in the United States and abroad.  … One of my main goals is to make sure that this issue is portrayed correctly. One of the organizations that we’ve highlighted, called Rights for Girls, partnered with the McCain Institute [and] they got the language changed through the foreign press so that they would not refer to the kids anymore as “child prostitutes.” And they made this change so people could understand that this is the victim and this is a child and no 12-year-old wants to be out on the street having sex with a 50-year-old man. We have a long way to go, but I am hoping that carries over into storylines so on shows like “SVU” or “Criminal Minds,” they’re not saying things like, “Well the child prostitute…” And I have personal goals I want to see: I want to see laws changed and I want to see people’s viewpoints changed. If a man is paying for sex with an underage girl, that’s rape, and it doesn’t matter if you paid for it or not. Right now they’re charged with solicitation. Why are you not charged with statutory rape? Because I know once we start doing that, that husband, father or whoever may think twice. Right now the penalty is a little slap on the wrist and it doesn’t matter that she’s underage, which makes no sense whatsoever. It’s statutory rape, whether you paid for it or not.

Your day job, so to speak, on “Riverdale” does dive into some dark topics but often in broad ways. How concentrated an effort is it for you to look for work that is escapist at this stage in your career?

You have to have an escape! I would be a puddle if this is all I had to deal with day-in and day-out every single day. I need to balance my life with other things. And the good news about “Riverdale” is it just opens more doors to be able to talk about this and do other things about this. One will always feed the other.

When you were first approached with the character of Hermione, what were the goals you set for what you wanted her to become?

I really, really wanted to portray a woman who was starting over. I really liked this idea that she had turned a blind eye to her husband’s dealings and now she was given this opportunity to kind of be the woman she wanted to be, and the kind of mom she wanted to be, and unfortunately her past caught up with her and she can’t escape it. At the core of it, I wanted a mom that loved her kid and would do anything for her — like most moms — without sacrificing who she is and who she was. I liked her vulnerability, I liked her humbleness in coming back to Riverdale and trying to start over, and then the realization that you can’t escape your past.

What have you found most interesting about her evolution over the first three seasons so far?

The whole first season I thought she was one way, and at the end of the first season when I found out she had been manipulating Fred, when I found out that she and her husband owned this company, when I found out she was going to forge her daughter’s signature and this and this and this, I was like, “Wait, what?” And then in the second season she was throwing Veronica under the rug big time, so I was like, “How do I reconcile what’s been put in place with what’s being put in place now?” That’s probably the biggest challenge for me. … She’s been forced to make decisions that she doesn’t necessarily want to make to keep her kid safe, even if that means there are some massive tough love things, like what’s coming up. At the end of it, she’s going to protect her daughter, no matter what.

The power dynamic between Hermione and her daughter Veronica (Camila Mendes) has also evolved greatly as Veronica gets more involved in the family business and makes big moves of her own.

Veronica’s definitely challenging her mother, as any teenage daughter would, and she has massive points. But at the same time, it’s like, “Little girl, you fought, kicked and screamed. You wanted to be a part of the business. Here you go.”

How in-control do you want Hermione to be?

I think it’s more fun to see her struggle. And she’s constantly — constantly — struggling, I think, because everything always has multiple sides: protect Veronica, get some power for yourself, support Hiram because you have to because he will kill you if you don’t, do something questionable that’s against your beliefs because in the long run it will help you get ahead. Those are the kind of moral dilemmas that she’s constantly faced with, and she does put some things in place — I wish she’d put more things in place — but she’s starting to grab things and surprise even herself with the lengths she’s starting to go to.

A big part of “Riverdale” is the mystery around the identity of each season’s big bad. How do you approach the unknown of the Gargoyle King in Season 3?

I like to be informed; I like to be educated; I like to know where my character’s going and what her motivation is, always. I just think it makes for a better performance so I can justify the choices I’m making. If I had it my way, I would know. Because everything is story and character and where are they going? So when you don’t know that and it changes abruptly, it is a bit challenging. I just have to trust that my instincts will work out in the end and it will track. … I’ve heard all of the theories online that I’m the Gargoyle King or I’m paying the Gargoyle King — I don’t know why she would, I think she has enough going on with everything, but you never know. And I’m just glad we have an audience that’s so invested with what we’re doing.

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