In musical theater, characters use song to emote the things they find most difficult to express through words alone. For Gwen Strickland (Amy Forsyth) on NBC’s new high school musical drama Rise, that meant funneling all of her own “pain and betrayal and longing” into one stunning performance of Spring Awakening‘s poignant closing number, “The Song of Purple Summer.”
By digging into her own pain — after some encouragement from drama director Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) — Gwen put her vulnerability in the spotlight. After bristling at her supporting part in Spring Awakening, Stanton High’s resident theater diva has been on the warpath, picking apart Lilette (Auli’i Cravalho) every chance she gets and ignoring Mr. Mazzu’s notes to tone her performance down. But the second episode exposed the real source for Gwen’s angst: her parents’ crumbling marriage.
MTV News talked to Forsyth about her character’s inner turmoil, whether she and Lilette can ever be friends, why the kids of Stanton Drama trust Mr. Mazzu even when he doesn’t know stage left from stage right, and what’s next for Gwen.
MTV News: In the final scene, Gwen sobs her way through “The Song of Purple Summer,” one of the best songs in Spring Awakening in my opinion. Does this mean Mr. Mazzu was finally able to break through to her?
Amy Forsyth: She’s been so stoic all her life, and she’s always tried to appear perfect, in a way. When Lou sits down with her, it’s the first time in her life that anybody has given her permission to hurt and to be human — and to allow other people to see that side of her. That’s what having friends is all about, supporting one another. So when Lou gives her that permission to completely release, that’s a huge moment for her.
MTV News: How does that moment affect her moving forward?
Forsyth: You see a Gwen that’s hurting. Before, she may have tried to hide that from the world, but now it’s clear to everybody that she’s hurting. And people who are hurt go on to hurt other people. It’s not that she’s malicious or has a bad heart — she’s just in pain.
MTV News: So she’s still mad at the world. We’ve seen her take out her frustrations on Lilette. How does their relationship develop throughout the season?
Forsyth: That’s a great question! Ultimately, they’re victims of their circumstances. The frustration that Gwen is feeling toward Lilette obviously stems from her coming in and having this beautiful voice, but at the root of it, the issues are about Gwen’s family and feeling like it’s all falling apart. She feels like everything she knows is being taken away from her, so it’s not really about Lilette — and Gwen knows that. But they’re also not going to become best friends anytime soon.
MTV News: What is it about Mr. Mazzu that makes these kids want to follow him and his vision? Because he’s missing a lot of the basics like not knowing stage left from stage right, and yet he can help Gwen tap into the pain and vulnerability she needs to play a character like Ilse.
Forsyth: I was lucky enough to have teachers like this, actually, but what makes Lou so special to these young people is that he doesn’t see them as kids. He understands that they’re young and going through things, but he treats them as equals and as adults. He trusts them with Spring Awakening. There’s an automatic respect there when you feel that, as a young person, someone your senior is respecting you and trusting you. A lot of walls are taken down, and there’s just room to grow. He has that trust.
MTV News: I think “respect” is the key word. You see it in this episode in the way Gwen’s mom gives her feedback versus how Mr. Mazzu handles Gwen. He’s not afraid to tell her where she needs to improve or when she’s overdoing it.
Forsyth: With her mom, it’s nothing but love. It’s her saying, “I know that you can do this.” And that’s a really beautiful thing, too. But Lou approaches Gwen in such a sensitive and understanding way, and that’s a bit of a change for her.
MTV News: You mentioned that you were lucky enough to have drama teachers like Lou. What was your personal experience coming of age as a drama student?
Forsyth: It changed everything for me. I went to a specialized arts high school, and I was in the drama program. We called the teachers by their first names, and we spoke as equals. I had my teacher’s cell phone number, and I’d bring her coffee after lunch. It was a very respectful relationship. I’m still in touch with her. She treated me not like a student or a child but like a human being, and that got me through high school because I wasn’t a fan of school. Similar to Gwen, I knew that performing was what I wanted to do with my life, and I was going to do whatever I needed to do it. I felt that support from my teacher.
MTV News: Rise is a bit like art imitating life for you.
Forsyth: That’s Jason Katims for you! We had a meeting at the beginning of this season, and he had told me where Gwen’s arc was going, and I joked with him that he must have stolen my diaries from when I was 16 because he always writes exactly what happens in my life! There are certain moments that are so honest and true to my own experience.
MTV News: From what we’ve seen, Gwen is very much a daddy’s girl. Even though she knows her dad has had this affair, she’s still on his side. She wants her parents to work through it. How does that relationship evolve this season, especially as her dad becomes an antagonist for Lou?
Forsyth: It was clear in the pilot that Gwen’s definitely a daddy’s girl, but there’s always that question of what happens when your heroes let you down. That happened. Her dad is human, and that’s something that I think she understands, but when you grow up, there’s suddenly a moment when you realize that your parents don’t know everything. Your parents don’t have an instruction manual for life. They’re going to mess up, too. So I think there’s room for understanding and forgiveness, but it’s almost like finding out that Christmas isn’t real. There’s always a bit of sadness there.
MTV News: That sadness is perfect for Ilse, as we saw in that final performance. What was it like on set during that scene?
Forsyth: For every song that we sing in the show, we record it in the studio and also sing live. So I had a little speaker in my ear with the backing track as I sung “The Song of Purple Summer” on stage. To be honest, I was nervous about that scene, but once I got to set I immediately relaxed because Josh’s performance was so honest and so solid.
I grew up in the theater, so just sitting in an empty theater is already an emotional experience. I also used to work in a theater, and I would go stand on the stage by myself when no one was there and do the exact same thing as Gwen. And the song is so beautiful. It’s almost like I was handed the tools, and instincts taught me how to use them.