A Sunday Chat With Sherri Saum

Fairmont grad plays lesbian mom in popular ABC Family series

HOW TO WATCH

What: The Fosters, a new weekly network drama starring Fairmont High grad Sherri Saum

When: 9 p.m. on Mondays

Where: ABC Family cable television

Etc.: To watch episodes of The Fosters, see www.ABCFamily.com

In our ongoing series of Sunday Chats, arts writer Meredith Moss gets up-close-and-personal with the creative individuals who are making an impact in the arts — dancers, singers, actors, directors, visual artists and more.

Sherri Saum, a Fairmont High School graduate who grew up in Kettering, is making news as one of the lesbian moms in the highly touted new ABC Family cable television network drama, “The Fosters.”

The series, which revolves around what ABC dubs “a new kind of family,” premiered on June 3 and can be seen on Mondays at 9 p.m. The multi-ethnic family featured in the series includes both biological and foster children. Executive producer of the show is Jennifer Lopez.

Saum, who began her career as a big-city model while she was studying at Ohio State University and New York University, always wanted to be in the entertainment business and says she was “born to act.” Her first major role was in the NBC soap opera “Sunset Beach.”

By phone and e-mail, we had a chance to talk about the popular TV show and her life as an actor.

ON THE FOSTERS

Q. Can you describe the current role you are playing on “The Fosters?”

A. Lena Adams is Stef Foster’s “better half. ” She is a vice principal at a charter school in San Diego and the children she’s raising with Stef are all students there.

Lena is the softy. She loves her kids fiercely and she shares the discipline duties, but she’d also be the one sneaking dessert to the kids’ rooms after Stef had to punish them for something.

Q. Does the script indicate whether Lena and Stef are legally married? How do you personally feel about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage?

A. Lena and Stef aren’t legally married on the show. It’s not yet clear what will happen on that front; they feed us plot info on a need-to-know basis.

I’m excited by the rulings. It’s a kind of contradictory thing in our country: We are the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, this big melting pot where we embrace differences. But it hasn’t always translated that way in our laws. I think people who want to be committed and share their lives should be able to do that as fully as their neighbors. It doesn’t take anything away from anyone else, so I’m not sure where the outrage comes from. I’m more outraged by people who park Hummers in compact car spaces. Let’s all just protest that.

Q. What kind of reactions are you getting to the show?

A. The response to “The Fosters” has been overwhelmingly favorable — it’s been crazy positive and enthusiastic. I wasn’t prepared for the response. It’s truly humbling and really exciting!

ON HER EARLY YEARS

Q. What kind of child were you?

A. I was a painfully shy kid! I lived inside my head and loved imagining and making up stories and playing pretend. I was a good student, but daydreamed a lot. Never did things the way they “should” be done. Always found my own way.

Q. Who were influences in your life growing up?

A. My sister was (and still is) my idol. I looked up to her so much because she was always so fearless and extroverted. She always inspired me — she’s a magnetic, phenomenal person.

Q. What was it like to grow up as a bi-racial child?

A. Growing up bi-racial was a little challenging. My brother and sister and I were pretty much the ethnic population in town. For the most part we came out unscathed, but there was always that one friend whose parents didn’t want their kid to play with me, and I can definitely remember a handful of racist encounters on the playground. It hurt. I hated feeling “different.” But my mom was especially skilled at making us feel incredibly loved and special. And I’d say overall I had a really happy childhood.

Things are so different now — I’ve come home over the past decades and I see so many bi-racial kids. It’s like it’s trendy now.

Q. What did you dream of being when you were a little girl? What triggered your interest in theater, modeling?

A. I think I always wanted to be an actor. I may not have articulated it at a young age, but exploring different lives in my head was always my favorite pastime. I think the fire was really lit after seeing the movie “Annie” back in the early 80’s. I remember writing these geeky fan letters to the actress (Aileen Quinn) who played Annie in the film. I was obsessed.

ON HER CAREER

Q. What would you say was your first “lucky break” and how did that happen?

A. My first lucky break was landing a regular role on a soap opera called “Sunset Beach” in 1997. I was living in NYC and had an agent sending me out on auditions, and I went and met with a producer for “Sunset Beach” and after a few callbacks they hired me and I left New York for Los Angeles. I was barely in my 20s, and I never looked back.

Q. What kind of professional training did you have?

A. I didn’t have formal training when I got that job. I was riding along on instinct and luck. Working on that show was my school of sorts, and then I began taking classes with different studios in LA because I realized I could only get so far on luck.

Q. What advice do you have for young people who want to model or act?

A. My advice for anyone who wants to be in this industry is simple: If you can picture yourself doing anything else, please do it! Success can happen relatively easily sometimes, or it can be a brutal, soul-crushing grind that kills your spirit and breaks your heart.

I know that sounds dramatic. But if I could only explain how much rejection there is, how many times you see the “other guy” get the part. I remember reading some ghastly statistic — something like 1 percent of all actors in the Screen Actors Guild make enough money to survive. It’s brutal. You never know what your earnings will be. Planning is nerve-wracking. Worry is constant. Competition is unimaginable. You almost have a better shot at getting hit by an asteroid than finding fame.

All that being said, if there is absolutely nothing else in the world you can imagine yourself doing, go for it. Because that's how I feel. There's nowhere else I would rather be, no other career path that is beckoning me. Because those times when you do book that job, that moment your agent calls you with the good news, that experience of walking in front of the camera and sharing your humanity through a character … It's like no other feeling in the world.

ON ACTING

Q. What do you consider some of your favorite jobs over your acting career?

A. Working on “Rescue Me” with Denis Leary and Daniel Sunjata wasn an awesome gig — working with all these amazing guys, in NYC, such great writing on that show. And doing the HBO series “In Treatment” was pretty special. Just getting the chance to work opposite Gabriel Byrne, every day was like a master class.

Q. How did you land the part you are currently playing? Was there anything interesting about the audition that you recall?

A. I auditioned for “The Fosters” last October and I remember all the other actresses in the waiting area who were also there to read for the role of Lena Adams. The role was, obviously a lesbian character, but I found it funny how most of the actresses were dressed in combat boots and sleeveless T-shirts. The character description was that Lena Foster was a vice principal at a middle school. But apparently everyone zeroed in on the lesbian aspect and thought they had to go in looking like a lumberjack. Stereotyping in action!

Q. Do you still study acting?

A. I still study acting. I’m always learning — it never stops — and I’ve recently begun singing lessons as well, to strengthen my voice. It’s a fun way to get the vocal chords working.

Q. What would you like to do professionally that you haven’t yet done?

A. I’d love to do more film. I’ve done mostly TV, and I’d love to branch out more. I want to play a baddie. Scale fences and taser someone.

ON DAY-TO-DAY LIFE

Q. What are the pros and cons of living both in New York and in LA?

A. I live between NYC and LA. But NYC is in my heart. I love to take the subway. I love people who work hard and walk fast because they have somewhere to be. And, of course, I love pizza. But LA is so beautiful and my dog can run in the backyard, and I can hike and go to the beach. It’s really not a bad thing.

Q. What’s a typical day for you?

A. A typical day lately has been up at 6 a.m., head over to Warner Brothers, film for 12 hours, come home, study for the next day, collapse and do it all over again. When I’m not working, I get up, take my dog for a hike, or go to yoga. Meet friends for dinner, maybe take off to Vegas for the weekend.

Q. What about travel?

A. I love to travel. My husband and I go to Spain every year. (Sherri is married to former “One Life to Live” castmate Kamar de los Reyes.) I’ve traveled from Saudi Arabia to Iceland to South Africa to Japan to Brazil to Egypt and I never tire of it. I don’t have fancy cars or expensive clothes. I just love to travel. I’d like to see Korea, and maybe Vietnam.

Q. What kind of volunteering do you do?

A. I volunteer with an organization called Kusewera. My friend Karen Osborn founded it and she travels to Malawi every year to improve the lives of kids in an orphanage there. She brings sports to them and teaches them life skills and respect between genders. It’s incredible work she does, and I help her fund-raise and bring awareness to the cause.

ON DAYTON

Q. What memories do you have of Dayton? Places here?

A. I always remember as a pre-teen catching the RTA bus to go to the Dayton Mall with my friends. We’d hang out and flirt with boys in the arcade. (Oh, those innocent days! ) And we’d go hang out “at the fountains” where the Fraze pavilion is now.

I loved being in drama at Fairmont and going to the tournaments on the weekends and competing with other schools. I loved summers at the Kettering pool. Couldn’t wait until Memorial Day. I was the first kid in line.

Q. When you come back to town, what do you like to do? Favorite restaurants, etc?

A. When I come back home these days you’ll find me roaming the Oregon District, looking through the vintage stores. And you’ll always find me at Health Foods Unlimited and Earth Fare market. I’m so in love with the great markets opening up in the area.

And then when I'm over health food, you'll find me ordering from Donatos pizza in Kettering. I've spent a lot of time in Kettering on breaks and I'm always scouring the Go! Magazine (now Active Dayton) for stuff to do. And there's so much to do!

The Dayton Art Institute has so many great exhibits and events. I took my mom to the Schuster Center for a ballet performance last year … I went to see a great play at the Victoria Theater a few years back. There’s always something.

And I love to go for long walks. Everything is so green and clean and real.