Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series which celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on TV. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.
Today we're speaking to Molly Saunders about that history-making moment in The Next Step.
LGBTQ+ representation matters, but it's not enough to just include queer characters on TV. The type of representation that shows decide to highlight is perhaps even more important. For far too long, networks have been afraid to show queer protagonists in love, choosing instead to neuter LGBTQ+ characters or push them to the sidelines.
Thankfully, that's all starting to change. Many adult shows now explore love in all its forms, and children's TV has begun to normalise same-sex relationships too. Just recently, The Owl House revealed its protagonist to be Disney's first bisexual lead, and that's one of many new cartoons which teach children that love is love, regardless of gender or orientation.
It's not just animation pushing boundaries either. Canadian teen drama series The Next Step recently included its first same-sex kiss after Jude (Molly Saunders) and Cleo (Danielle Verayo) performed the song 'Brave' together. This courageous moment was celebrated by young fans watching from around the world, including CBBC viewers in the UK who finally had a chance to see themselves reflected in the stories they love.
We sat down with actor Molly Saunders to talk about the impact of this kiss and why it's so important for young people to see this kind of representation on TV.
Can you talk me through filming the 'Brave' duet and that kiss on set?
So we rehearsed the dance a couple of weeks before. When we originally learned the dance, we wanted to make it less of a dance, and more about showing their relationship throughout the dance.
In the relationship, there are lots of bumps in the road, but Jude and Cleo always find a way to bring out the best in each other. As you see in the duet, there are lots of moments where we’re kind of teasing each other. That’s what sparked the relationship in the first place. So I think that was really special to see throughout the duet.
And then to have the kiss right after it? I think it was the perfect time for them. And as you see, when the kiss first happens, they were going into it, but then Jude kind of teases Cleo out of it. She kind of dodges her, in a way, and that was another one of those moments where, Cleo got so frustrated or whatever, because they like to tease each other the most. And that’s what really brings them together.
But then you see them actually come together. And the moment after, when they’re staring at each other, and holding each other’s hands – it felt so real for them. And it was that reassurance in the moment, of really finding themselves with each other, and knowing that they really bring out the best in each other.
What was your reaction when you first read the script? How did you feel when you saw the relationship was going in this direction?
I was so honoured to be playing a role like this. I knew it was going to be so important for so many young teens. And I think with this show, scenes like this are so important.
The show is very much about showing everyone’s experiences throughout a teenage life. I think it was really special, because it’s something that the show hasn’t done before.
So to be the first one to really have a moment like this, and share a moment like this, it’s so important. I was very honoured to be the one to do it.
What’s the response been like from fans since the episode aired?
It’s been so amazing. It was kind of nerve-wracking before it came out, because we filmed this about a year ago, around this time. I’ve been waiting so long to see it. So it was really nerve-wracking because, also, the show hadn’t done anything like this before.
I had no idea how the fans were going to respond to it, but it’s been so positive. So many fans felt so heard and represented by the storyline, which was really amazing. And all the messages I’ve gotten have all been positive. It’s been really, really amazing.
That’s lovely. Were there any messages that were particularly touching for you in some way?
I got a lot of messages saying, "Thank you for this" – because they hadn’t really seen anything like this in shows that they watched, so they were really appreciative to see it normalised in a show, you know?
Definitely. Unfortunately, there was also some backlash too. The BBC received a number of complaints about the kiss. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s sad and disappointing that people can still be sad about something like this. But I think that the BBC and [production company] Boat Rocker dealt with this really well. I think they stood by what aired.
I really didn’t receive anything negative. I didn’t receive one negative note from anyone. So I think that was really special.
I know that there were complaints, but not a lot. And I think that we were expecting lots of complaints. But there were definitely not as many as I expected. So that was really amazing to see.
And I like to just look at the positives. Because there were so many positives, it was a lot easier to brush off the negatives. Sometimes, people aren’t going to change their opinions, you know?
I’m really glad to hear you didn’t receive any personal negativity. In your own words, why do you think representation like this matters?
The Next Step has shown a lot of heterosexual kisses. So, why shouldn’t they show a same-sex kiss?
I think that everyone’s experiences should be shown on TV. TV is a way to show different life experiences – especially watching as a kid. I think it’s important that everyone should see their own experiences, or what could be their experiences, shown on TV. Because that’s what they watch.
What have you found most challenging about working on this season?
It was nerve-wracking to know that I wasn’t going to be able to see anything until it started to air. So there were the months from mid-September to January where I just didn’t know anything about it.
You film it, but then that’s kind of it. You don’t see your scenes until the show starts airing. I knew everything that I had filmed, but I wasn’t able to see it, especially the kiss. So I was nervous about how it was going to play out. I was also nervous to see how the fans were going to react to the entire season.
In real life, if you take an Instagram picture or something, you can look at it after and be like, "No, maybe not" or whatever. But with this, you film it, and it’s not like you can say, "I don’t like that. Let me try it again." [laughs]
What are you most proud when it comes to your involvement on the show so far?
I think I was most proud of playing Jude. Jude has dyslexia, and I don't in real life. So I had to research that, and I was very careful with how I was handling it. I had to bring my acting to a whole other level, because I'm not dyslexic in real life, and I really wanted it to come across as something real.
What’s next for Jude and Cleo’s relationship? Is there anything you can tease about their future together?
Season seven just finished airing in the UK. So, right now, everything is all up in the air for every production, because who knows what’s going to happen next? But we’re really hoping for another season. And I would really love to see how Jude and Cleo’s relationship plays out, and all the ups and downs that they’re going to go through.
The kiss was a huge moment for them. So to see the aftermath of that, I think that would be really amazing.
And what's next for Jude in particular?
Jude had a lot of struggles with her dyslexia, and then throughout the season, she started to work through it. So I’d really like to see Jude start to become more confident in herself. She’s always nervous about her dyslexia, and she was nervous about learning dances fast, because she doesn’t learn in the same way as everyone else.
The Next Step airs on CBBC.
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