Shay Mitchell on “lesbian research” and her “Pretty Little Liars” character

So let me just confirm this for you: Shay Mitchell is gorgeous, talented and smart.

Now that we have that out of the way, I’ll let her speak for herself. I had the pleasure of talking to Shay at last night’s ABC mixer, and she unabashedly professed her love for playing the lesbian teen, Emily, on Pretty Little Liars. First, we talked about how different she looks from the original book character.

“She had freckles, she had red hair, and she was a lot fairer in skin than I was,” Shay said, but she thinks it’s a sign of progress. “Not only is sexuality — different sexualities — a lot more accepted, ethnicity is, too. Religions are. I’m playing ‘the girl next door.’ Ten years ago, I would be an Islander. Let’s be real here, you know?

And Shay is nothing but real. She said that her team who brings her scripts to consider would know better than to say anything negative about a lesbian character possibility, and that even Pantene, who she just scored a deal with to become the new face/head of hair of the brand, made no mention of the gay association she might bring to the table.

“I don’t even think it got brought up once. I think if I was a lesbian, I’d still be like ‘Hey Pantene!’ It wasn’t even in my mind,” Shay said. “I’d assume they’d support everything!”

I told her that this could also be a sign of progress. Even though Shay, herself, isn’t a lesbian, she does play one on TV and that has certainly affected some straight actresses in the past. (Laura Dern, for one, has spoke openly about being blacklisted for a long time after she was on Ellen‘s coming out episode.) And in Portia de Rossi‘s memoir last year, she wrote about how paranoid she’d been after being hired as the face of L’Oreal, praying they wouldn’t find out she was gay and drop her from the campaign.

“I did see Portia’s episode on Oprah and was like ‘Oh my gosh!’ The stuff that she went through,” Shay said. “I’m so happy that now, I feel like there is so much more acceptance. And If I was a lesbian and came out to Pantene, I don’t think it’d be an issue.”

Shay is also happy that the young generation of women that watch Pretty Little Liars are happy about Emily embracing her sexuality.

Shay with co-star Lucy Hale

“There was a poll on ABC and it asked ‘Who would you rather see Emily with: Emily and Maya or Emily and Toby?’ And it was like split down the middle,” Shay said. “I read those comments. They were 50/50 which is freaking awesome.”

Another change from the books is that Emily’s character doesn’t get sent away to become an ex-gay. That’s one change Shay is glad creator/executive producer Marlene King made to the show.

“Having Marlene on the show — she talks to me and says ‘Shay you have more girls than any of the other ones on the show!’ I’m like ‘Yeah!'” Shay said, visibly psyched on the idea that she’s the resident player on PLL. “And she has a such a good grasp on what she’s gone through [as a gay woman], and she can really write about it.”

It’s not all romance and sex for Emily this season, though. Coming up, she’ll join the swim team again and start feeling the heat coming from Lindsey Shaw‘s character, who has taken over as captain in Emily’s absence.

“I love Lindsey Shaw. We had the best time shooting ever. She definitely brings out a different side in Emily,” Shay said. “Emily is extremely competitive. Lindsey’s character adds a lot of tension because they’re both on the swim team, and Emily had taken a little bit of a break, being with Maya, dealing with the aftermath of her friend, she’s kind of taken a break from that. So when she gets back on the team, Lindsey’s like ‘No, no, no — I’m top dog now.'”

Lindsey and Shay on set

Even though Shay couldn’t divulge if Lindsey will be one of the girls she’ll be considering this season, she did tell me this: “Let me just say that Emily has a good time this season. She has a fun time. And I’m going to call you at the end of season one and say ‘Now let’s get into it!'”

Obviously I am very willing to take this call. But the season just started up again, so right now, we’re dealing with the aftermath of Emily finally coming out to her father, and her mother subsequently finding out that her daughter is a lesbian. And though she jokes that she called up all her friends to help her out in her lesbian research before she took the role, she does say that she drew from experiences gay friends and family have had.

“I wanted to know what their stories were, how they came out to their parents,” Shay said. “I’ve said this before, but if it was me, and I was coming out to my parents, I’d say ‘I’m a lesbian’ and they’d be like ‘Awesome.’ And we’d go along. So I wanted to play this character and get it right without going overboard.”

And she did — get it right, that is. Shay Mitchell possesses the ability to play a young woman whose self-confidence is building on her own time, and own accord. Maya might have less and less to do with that as Emily finds she needs to stand on her own to find her footing, but Shay is giving her the grace she needs to be believable rather than sullen or overly-dramatic.

“It’s not the stereotype like in movies where there is like wind blowing and two hot girls together,” Shay said. “It’s a beautiful relationship she has. It could be a storyline that any of the girls have heterosexually. It’s very sweet and innocent in a way. Not just to titilate the audience. A sweet and genuine relationship.”