An interview with Sofia Black-D’Elia

When Sofia Black-D’Elia landed the role of Tea on MTV’s remake of the UK teen drama Skins, she knew she was in for a bumpy ride. The internet was abuzz with angry fans before the the US cast was even announced. Did America really need to remake another beloved British show? Did the remake really need to replace the show’s only gay male character with a lesbian character? By the time that chatter died down, The Parents Television Council was labeling Skins as child pornography. And then Sofia’s lesbian character went and slept with a man.

Throughout the controversies, Sofia conducted herself with uncommon aplomb, defending the Skins creative team with grace and candor. After the finale, she sat down with me to chat about the dissention Skins caused among lesbian viewers, about her favorite episodes and about her love/hate relationship with Tea Marvelli.

AfterEllen: First things first: Are you guys getting a second season of Skins?

Sofia Black-D’Elia: We don’t know. The entire cast is just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. I think we really found our footing in the second half of the season, and these characters have so much left to say. There’s nothing I’d love more than a second season.

AE:  Let’s talk about the first season. Tea turned out to be a really controversial lesbian character, huh? There was a lot of nastiness flying around. I hope not much of it landed on you personally.

SBD: Yeah, we were aware of a lot of the conversations that were happening. But that’s what happens when you have a character like Tea who was built up a lot. She was the only character who was changed from the UK version of the show. Going into it, I knew there was going to be some controversy. When Bryan [Elsley] told me about Tea and Tony’s relationship, my first thought was, “Oh, God. This is going to cause a riot.”

AE: The good news is, after the initial wave of venom, other people started stepping up and saying, “Stop complaining. This is my story.” You know, I heard from lesbians of all ages who related deeply with Tea and what she was going through. And these are lesbians who have never really seen themselves represented on television before.

SBD: The thing for me with Tea is that a lot of the press had attacked Skins in general for being a show that was attempting to represent the entire teenage population. And they were saying, “Not all teenagers act like this.” But in reality, we were never attempting to represent all teenagers. We were saying, “This is a certain group of middle-class teenagers, and this what these particular teenagers do.”

And for me, Tea exemplifies that. Bryan never said, “This is a lesbian character. This is what all lesbians do.” He said, “Tea is very complex; she’s very below-the-surface. Yes, she’s a lesbian character, and this is what some lesbians do.” Tea goes through what a so many people go through — not just lesbians, but people. And it was hard for me to hear some of that criticism because we were never trying to portray the reality of all lesbians.

AE: Right. And one thing I have always loved about Skins‘ queer characters is that their struggles resonate to people of all sexual persuasions. Like maybe Skins isn’t looking for a way to show us how different we are, but how universal the human condition is. And I felt protective of Tea because of that.

SBD: Exactly. And it goes back to the idea that people focus so much on the sex and drugs part of Skins instead of these beautiful coming of age stories. And with Tea it was so easy for people to focus on, “She had sex with a guy, she had sex with a guy, she had sex with a guy” instead of these really relatable family struggles she has going on. She’s struggling with her identity. She’s struggling with the fact that she enjoys the status of being hard and confident, but on the inside she’s not like that at all. And that’s hard to go through, at any age. For me, the most interesting aspects about Tea are the things people were ignoring because she slept with Tony.

AE: I actually think that’s the thing that makes Bryan a bit of a genius, how he writes characters that make us so uncomfortable because they maybe don’t fit with society’s perceptions.

SBD: I remember when people were giving Bryan such a hard time in the beginning, saying that he changed Maxxie to a girl because it’s easier to have a lesbian character than a gay male character on American television. And then he introduces this lesbian character who is nothing like anything on American TV, and people were so angry at him. He took a character and flipped her on her head — like he does with every character on Skins — and made people question everything they thought they knew. And that’s something he does so well. I guess there’s no way people can say Bryan took the easy way out now, obviously. [Laughs]

AE: [Laughs] No, obviously not. You know, from the very beginning, you went to bat for US Skins. First with the British thing, and then with the child porn thing. Is that just your personality? You seem to have a deep conviction about the show.

SBD: [Laughs] I think it’s a lot of things. The way it was presented in the press, every time a controversy rose up, I did an interview responding to it. In reality, we had all been doing interviews for a week straight before anything happened. And a lot of people waited to release my interviews until immediately after the controversy. So it seemed like I was showing up everywhere and defending Skins, but in reality I think I had been defensive from the very beginning. We’re all extremely invested in the show. We wanted to stand up for Bryan and our writers and our teen advisory board and our crew and our cast. Our hearts are in the show whether people like it or not. It was monumental in all of our lives; it’s hard not to be a little defensive.