With "The Fosters," ABC Family makes good on the promise of the network's "A new kind of family" slogan. And that is precisely why the actors who make up this complicated, diverse, loving, and controversial-from-pickup cable clan took the roles in the first place.
"There's nothing like it on television right now, and I love taking on projects that will get people thinking and talking," said Cierra Ramirez ("Mariana"), who is fresh off "The Secret Life of an American Teenager," at a recent on-set press day for the series that debuts June 3. "Even haters are motivators. If people aren't talking, you know you're doing something wrong."
By that logic, "The Fosters" has nothing to worry about because it's been a topic of conversation — and a target of One Million Moms — since the moment the plot became public. The drama centers on a biracial lesbian couple and their children. Stef (Teri Polo) is a cop, and her partner, Lena (Sherri Saum), is the vice principal of the school their three teens attend. Brandon (David Lambert) is Stef's biological son from a previous marriage to Mike (Danny Nucci), who also happens to become her partner at work once again in the pilot. The moms have since fostered and subsequently adopted Latino twins Mariana and Jesus (Jake T. Austin). Their lives are about to get a lot more complicated when a social worker calls in a favor and asks if they can temporarily house a troubled teen being released from juvenile detention. Their "no more kids" deal is tossed aside when Lena's "huge mushy heart" gets one look at the bruised, battered, and emotionally broken Callie (Maia Mitchell) — even though she can't reach Stef to discuss it.
Stef finds out she's working with her ex:
"In that moment, it was Lena under pressure being confronted with this child in need, broken figuratively and literally, and knowing that her alternative was so ugly," Saum explained. "I didn't have a prayer of not coming home with this child. The message of foster care in the show really resonates with me. It's really easy to change the course of a kid's life just by giving them a kind word or a little support."
Callie, however, isn't sure she wants to be saved. She's fairly standoffish, disenfranchised by the system, and desperate to reconnect with an important person from her past at any cost, even if it means breaking Foster house rules or endangering Brandon. "Callie has had a hard time in life and a lot of reasons to be angry. We're introduced to her at her lowest point. Everything has been so temporary, and she is trying to figure out her place within the home and whether to let these people in," Mitchell elaborated, before adding how excited she is to play such a complex character. "It's rare for a young person to play a character that has that much life experience and depth. You can see what she would have been if she'd had a different life and grown up loved."
Stef and Lena discuss Callie:
Unfortunately, the homecoming doesn't go smoothly as the house is too small, Stef is wary of taking in a kid with a record for safety reasons, and Callie's blunt commentary on homosexuality and adopted vs. biological kids hits a nerve with the twins who are struggling with their own identities and whether to let the mother who abandoned them back in. Further complicating things are Brandon's lack of a father figure and clingy girlfriend, Jesus's ADHD, and Mariana's misappropriation of her twin's prescription.
Watch a clip with the twins:
"They are such a wholesome family, but there are a lot of things under the surface. We're definitely not perfect, just like any other family," Lambert said. "We're trying to present topics like same-sex marriage and the foster system that haven't been seen much on TV."
Saum added, "We all have, like, nine different storylines going on in our families, and the show is no different. I'm excited for families of all stripes to see that we are so much alike and to identify with the show even if they think they never could. I think it's going to surprise people."
Of course, it is showing lesbian wives and moms in a relatable they're-just-like-us way that has the conservative groups up in arms, but Polo welcomes the debate and it only makes her more passionate about the project.
"Thank you, One Million Moms. All they're doing is giving us publicity, making people curious, and making my feelings on these issues stronger and more passionate," she says. "It's about love, period. Not size, shape, race, gender. I've learned a great deal at 44 [about] life and the trials and tribulations, horrors and joys [of the foster system, gay marriage, homophobia] from this on-the-job training. I'm hoping just an inkling of what I am learning is put out there and that we get the conversation started."
The show, created by Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige ("Queer as Folk"), has found a huge cheerleader in executive producer Jennifer Lopez. "This project is near and dear to [Jennifer Lopez's] heart. She had an aunt who was gay and always wondered what her experience was and if she wanted a family, but didn't feel like she could have [one]. Those questions drew her to this," Saum said. "She came to the set a few weeks ago. Someone asked if she planned to do a cameo, and she really believes the show doesn't need a big injection of a celebrity cameo to make it fly. She thinks we have a strong series and that we speak for ourselves. I was really touched to hear her say that."
Despite believing the show's messages are extremely important and taking on her first gay role, Polo doesn't think she deserves a pat of the back. "When we were shooting promo shots and we had to kiss, someone said, 'You're so brave.' When I meet some guy for the first time on the set [and we] kiss and act like we've been married for 10 years, is that brave? There's nothing brave about acting. We lie for a living and get paid for it. To kiss someone you love as an actor is not brave. I have had more chemistry with Sherri than I've ever had with a man in 27 years of acting. I still like men, but Sherri's a good kisser."
Saum agrees with her. "Brave is firefighters. I was raised pretty conservatively, and I didn't see it as a big deal. It's a new set of lips. It was no stranger than kissing a guy that I've never met on a TV show."
Mitchell is quick to point out that the show isn't "preachy. It doesn't glorify it. It doesn't push it. The message is that it comes down to love and heart."
Austin also wants to make sure potential viewers know that not every minute of the show is serious. "There is always room for comic relief, and that's where Jesus fits into the show. He [plays] a mediator role and eases some of the tension in the family drama."
The mood is also lightened whenever Lambert, whose character is a piano protégé, tickles the ivories. Mitchell, who will also be seen this summer in the Disney Channel musical "Teen Beach Movie," teased that she will accompany him at some point during the season. Ramirez, who is currently working on a record, hopes it won't be long before she gets to join in the fun. "We could have a Foster musical. We could be the new Partridge family."
[Photos: Check Out Scenes From 'Teen Beach Movie']
It could possibly be the key to getting Lopez to guest star. "A musical episode," Mitchell joked, "Perfect. I love it. Let's pitch it."
"The Fosters" premieres Monday, 6/3 at 9 PM on ABC Family.