Lauren Graham and Mae Whitman discuss their on-screen relationship and female appeal

There’s something about Lauren Graham that makes all her TV shows so watchable. From Gilmore Girls to NBC’s Parenthood, in which she replaced Maura Tierney, the actress has maintained a large female fanbase over the last 10 years.

Graham with co-star/boyfriend Peter Krause

Graham speculated about the reasons behind the loyalty of that fanbase when I spoke to her at the NBC Television Critics Association Press Party on Monday. “I’ve played a lot of independent, well-spoken free spirits so maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s just that I wear jeans, because I don’t know what else to wear. This is how I grew up, I was raised by my dad and that was my model.”

As for why lesbians might be so into her, she muses, “Perhaps there’s been a subtext that [we’ve] played into since the beginning!”

On Parenthood, Lauren plays Sarah Braverman, a single mom to two teenagers, including daughter Amber (Mae Whitman). Whitman was also at the NBC TCA Party, with a fierce new asymmetrical blonde ‘do shaved on one side.

“As if my gender specifications weren’t confusing enough!” joked the actress, who is also known for her role as the lesbian ninja, Roxie Richter, in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim. “I did a movie over the summer and I shaved one side of it for the movie and I felt like I’d even it out and give Amber a new start. I think it’s going to be good. I love it, too. It’s so comfortable!”

I reminded her that, in the original Parenthood film, Martha Plimpton (whose character is ostensibly the inspiration for Amber) shaved off all of her hair.

“You just gave me another piece of evidence to convince the networks it was the right move,” Whitman said. “I gotta say, everybody that’s involved with Parenthood is nothing but collaborative and keeping it real and making the changes and being honest. When a teenage girl changes the way she looks, she’s trying to find who she is. I think it’s really important to stay attuned to that. And that’s something I’ve never had to fight them on and I really appreciate that.”

On the third season, debuting this fall, Amber and her mother will be going through a new phase together, as Amber is moving out on her own.

“I think it’s a big moment for any parent,” Graham said. “Amber’s moving out and I have to let her go and redefine what our relationship is without the convenience of proximity. I think anytime there’s a shift, you’re faced with yourself a little bit more. So my character is trying to have a relationship and continue to be creative and feeling a little shy that it’s taking her a while. On our show, things don’t really blow up or anything — it’s just small human moments. We’ll inch along toward some progress.”

Which is one of the reasons the show is so likable. The relationship between Graham and Whitman’s mother and daughter pairing heightens Parenthood‘s intensity. Their fights are emotional, their lessons learned from one another poignant and never cheesy. Compared to Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, it’s a much more realistic portrait of single parenting a teenage girl. And what woman can’t relate to being a mother, a daughter, or even just a woman struggling to figure out who she is and what that might mean for the people around her?

Part of Amber’s figuring out who she is does include her sexuality, Whitman says. Last season, Amber developed a friendship with Zosia Mamet, and Whitman said there was some discussion in the writer’s room as to where the friendship could lead.

“That was definitely brought up,” Whitman said. “‘Where is this friendship going to go?’ Is it gonna hit that weird point of when you’re 15, 16 and you love your girlfriend so much — it’s less about ‘Am I gay?’ and more of ‘I just love this person so much!’ It happens a lot when you’re young. I personally feel that’s very important to portray. Either way, I think it’s obvious Amber is open enough to be down with whatever. That’s something I really respect about her.”

When we last spoke, Whitman told me she was up for a lesbian role in another film. This week she told me that the film is still in the works but, in the meantime, she’s continuing to push for some gay visibility on Parenthood.

“I’m going to go to the producers again and try to convince them to have Amber be a lesbian, too. I mean everybody has confusion,” she said. “I do think it’d be cool for her character.”

And even though Amber is a little bit of a mystery to both viewers and her on-screen mom, there are a few things we can count on, according to Whitman: “The only things we know for sure about her is she knits and she’s a bad ass.” The best of both worlds.