The results of the 2016 election revived the debate over whether art and artists have the right to be political, as if the alternative were ever an option. It's clear on which side of that argument When We Rise actor Emily Skeggs falls. In the eight-hour ABC miniseries that premiered this Monday night and attempts to distill the ongoing battle for equality for LGBT individuals, the 26-year-old performer plays Roma Guy, a real civil rights and social justice activist still hard at work saving the world in San Francisco. "We’re in a time where a lot of young people, including myself, have been really, really lucky to grow up in a time of personal freedom," Skeggs tells Bustle.
"We don’t necessarily know the fight it took to get where we are today. And now that a lot of our rights are being threatened, I’m seeing a lot in my community that people are not quite sure how to fight." She hopes that by sharing the stories of Guy and her fellow organizers, When We Rise will offer a "blueprint for how young people today can start to get to work."
When We Rise covers decades of LGBT history and follows fact-based lead characters like Guy, her long-time love Diane, Cleve Jones, and Ken Jones through several stages of their lives. Skeggs shares the role of Guy with Mary-Louise Parker, a "magical" artist who she's always admired. The younger actor embodies Guy beginning in the '70s, when her intersectional feminist awakening parallels a very personal realization. "I had a sense of responsibility not only because she’s a living, breathing human being and I want her to feel well-represented, but she is someone who people don’t know and people should know," Skeggs says.
Though she says she kept Parker's style "in mind" as she worked on the role, Skeggs and Parker were both encouraged by series creator Dustin Lance Black to use Guy herself as their primary touchstone."I was able to call Roma and say, ‘Hey, this situation: can you explain to me a little bit what you were thinking and how it affected you emotionally?" she explains. "It was an incredible resource to have around."
Some of the most powerful scenes in the early installments of When We Rise have to do with Guy's acceptance of self and the realization that establishment feminism was excluding gay women from its revolution. Then the story bounces over to Ken Jones' experience as a closeted gay man in the military, fearing retaliation if his secret ever gets out; and then to Cleve Jones, leaving home so his psychiatrist father can't "cure" him like he's threatening to. It's a tall order for one miniseries to capture a movement, but a massive cast of characters does a great job of representing many sides of it.
"That’s the 'we' in When We Rise," Skeggs says. "We’re in a time and a social climate where individualism is valued, which I think is great, but...[Dustin Lance Black] keeps saying 'divided we’re conquered, and it’s true. One person cannot stand alone. So I think seeing the importance of intersectionality and coming together at the end of the day despite differences is really the most important thing about this project."
Through getting to know Guy, Skeggs didn't just learn how to portray her. She also learned how activism has changed over the years and how today's freedom fighters can look backwards to be inspired. While Skeggs thinks that social media can be a great tool for connection and dissemination, she also worries that it promotes a culture of "if I don’t prove that I was there, it doesn’t count."
Skeggs praises her character's inspiration for her selflessness. "She’s been working towards the greater good her entire life, whether it be women’s rights, gay rights, healthcare, incarceration issues... and she’s been doing it quietly," the actor says. "When I first got the role, I Googled her. I tried to find her on the internet, and there really was nothing about her. It’s never been about ego. It’s never been about her own platform. And yet the work she’s done, I’m sure we’ve all felt it. It’s reverberated across the country."
Skeggs comes to When We Rise after telling another powerful LGBT story night after night in the Broadway musical Fun Home, based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel about her coming out and her relationship with her closeted father. "We always used to say that Fun Home was a one-act musical and that the second act was when it was over and we came out and would talk to people after the show, because no matter who they were, everyone felt a deep connection to something in the show," the actor says.
Skeggs feels a similar call to action with this project and calls her work "half-done." Affected friends and viewers are already reaching out to the actor with their personal responses. "I sort of feel like this is When We Rise 2," Skeggs says. "And now we have to get together and fight in our real lives."