Michelle Ang on crappy jobs, donut hats and playing a questioning virgin on “Underemployed’

Meet Sophia. She’s a nice girl with a lot of spunk and wide-eyed optimism but she’s also a little shy on life experience, which makes the news that she’s a virgin a bit less of a surprise. And like the other characters in the new MTV series Underemployed, she’s also a twenty-something trying to figure out her place in life and that includes her sexuality.

Now, meet Michelle Ang, the New Zealand actress who plays Sophia. Ang has some interesting roles in her career prior to the new MTV series. She was in the final episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess opposite Lucy Lawless and she also played a lesbian on the teen drama series South Of Nowhere.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty

Through the wonders of technology, Ang, who was back in her native New Zealand, jumped on the phone with AfterEllen.com to talk about her new role and whether Sophia can be labeled gay, bi or just questioning.

AfterEllen: First tell me how did the show come about? Was it just through an audition process or some other route?
Michelle Ang: It was through pilot season. I had to go through two, three, four different call backs to get this role which is kind of yeah, it seemed a little longer than the usual experience. That was a little nerve-wracking.

AE: Did you have to practice wearing a donut on your head to see if it looked good on you?
MA: [Laughs] No. I didn’t, but you know it’s funny you say that because the wardrobe stylist who created it, it was kind of a last minute idea and it was just literally a rubber donut hot glue-gunned on to my head then and while we were shooting I broke so many of them. They kept falling off my head because they’re heavy and so then the wardrobe stylist had to stand by with a hot glue gun to stick them back together after every take. It was pretty funny.

AE: Sophia has this job in this donut place and we’ve all kind of had jobs when we were young and getting started. What was that job for you that was just something you needed just to make a few extra bucks?
MA: Oh man. I have literally done my fill of crappy jobs. This isn’t really like my best job, job that I remember when I was little and my dad had gray hair and he’d pay me ten cents for every gray hair that I’d find and pull out. That was kind of weird and not crappy, but it was weird. I also had to work as a director’s assistant before in New York and he was like a big time director who was really strange. He wanted me be beside him all the time but he never wanted to see me. So I had to stand right beside him but two steps behind him. All the time. Yeah. And he had very specific diet, too, which included eating only from his own dishes.

AE: Let’s talk about Sophia, who has a really interesting story that starts in the pilot episode.
MA: Basically, Sophia starts off the series being a virgin. She has friends that are pretty wild and out there but she hasn’t really let herself experience life so much yet. She’s not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, and I think you can see that because in the first episode she finds an interesting connection with Laura (Angel M. Wainwright) and accepts a date. So throughout the season, Sophia goes through a moment of questioning her sexuality but it’s more like allowing herself to be. It’s surprising for her but I think it’s quite interesting, the way that we portray her exploration of her sexuality, because it’s through how her friends react and support her and how her family reacts to it as well that we explore that situation.

AE: Would you say that it’s not so much about her basically labeling herself but instead is experimenting and seeing where things go?
MA: Definitely. In fact, because we’re lucky that in modern society people are a lot more open minded about….it’s more like a spectrum: Are you a virgin? Are you straight? Are you somewhere in between? I think for Sophia it’s not really yet about being a label. It’s about just being brave enough to express herself the way she wants to express herself.

AE: In the episodes to come, do we see Sophia dating other people or try some relationships? What will we see her go through?
MA: She hasn’t really had a romantic experience before so you kind of see her go through the first love flush and all that is involved — moving too fast, moving too slow, calling each other girlfriends or not a girlfriend…I don’t want to give too much away, but being that she’s fairly new to this and she has to look for more experiences as well. She’s a modern girl, a modern girl dating in the modern society, if that makes sense.

AE: Is this your first time playing a character that explores sexuality?
MA: I’ve played a lesbian character before on South of Nowhere. My character was a lesbian MTV reporter so it’s kind of interesting that it’s come full circle that I’m now on the MTV network. I was also a character on Xena: Warrior Princess. She has a really large lesbian following and it was always about strong female relationships in that series. My character (Akemi) was in the very last two episodes where it jumps back in time and so my character had a really close and intimate bond with Xena which was kind of ambiguous as to what it was.

AE: I heard you’re busy doing a one woman show there in New Zealand and you’re the force behind it in that you wrote it and directed it. Is that right?
MA: Yeah. Oh gosh, it’s so exciting that people know about it but yeah. I co-wrote with my best friend, a stand-up show that was kind of one of the frustrations of me being pigeon-holed and not be able to go out for roles that were broader than that. So it was kind of like tongue-in-cheek at casting director’s being like “whoa.” I want to be in a play where I play a man or a woman or a Polynesian or a white person or an Asian person or an old person or a young person, so I’m playing a million different characters, guys and girls, who range in ethnicities, range in life experiences. I think you are underemployed pretty much most of your life and I’m not very good sitting around doing nothing. And I just realized that, yeah, I needed to create my own opportunities. Not to say that it’s not absolutely terrifying to put yourself out there, particularly if you created the work, opening yourself to a lot of judgment and criticism. But yeah, I figured I might as well. It’s something I want to experience. I might as well create the work to express that.

Underemployed airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on MTV.