The Filipino in Shay Mitchell
Nathalie Tomada (The Philippine Star) - January 7, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Shay Mitchell enters the hotel room where this exclusive interview takes place with the warmth of a smile perhaps normally reserved for long-lost friends.

In a way, it does feel like Shay is meeting dear, old friends, as she’s visiting for the first time the home country of her mother to reconnect with the Filipino in her. The 25-year-old Fil-Canadian actress (born Shannon Ashley Garcia Mitchell) plays Emily Fields, one of the lead characters in the hit US series Pretty Little Liars, the latest season of which airs on Philippine TV via ETC beginning Saturday, Jan. 12 at 8 p.m.

“I’m half-Filipino. It’s a very big part of who I am,” stresses Shay in a chat with The STAR one Monday afternoon during the holidays at Makati Shangri-La, while her mom Precious, who hails from Pampanga, proudly looks on. 

  Statuesque and dusky, Shay, whose mixed sultry beauty is also courtesy of her Irish/Scottish father, adds, “You can tell right away from looking at me that I’m not completely Caucasian… I’ve always wanted to come here. I’m here to explore my roots and see the culture and life.”

“My mother taught me a lot of things growing up (on being a Filipino). Filipinos, unlike many other races, are very close to their families. There’s a lot of family get-togethers,” continues Shay, who also has a famous Pinoy cousin, Lea Salonga. “That’s one of the special things of the (Filipino) culture — being family-oriented and respectful (of elders) like we have the ate, the tita… It’s something we don’t really have in North America.”

Shay got her professional start as a model. When she was 17, she moved out of the family home in Vancouver, British Columbia to work and live solo in Bangkok and Hong Kong. “Then, I didn’t want to do modeling anymore. It wasn’t satisfying enough. You’re just silent, and I like talking to people and creating something that’s more than just a photo.”

So, she returned home, enrolled in acting classes, had an agent who booked her for national commercials and a Canadian TV series, then got introduced to an L.A.-based agent, who sent her tapes to the creators of Pretty Little Liars, and the next thing Shay knew, she was acting in Hollywood.

There was little doubt on her part, however, that she’ll end up working in front of the cameras. “(My acting talent) is kind of a combination from my parents… or not (laughs). My parents are not artists at all! They’re in finance. My mom can draw amazingly, but as far as the acting bug? I don’t know, but I guess it has a lot to do with the Filipino side. I would always say that, from my mom’s side,” she says.

“(But) it’s something that I’ve always wanted. Even when I was younger, I would always be performing songs and dances… With acting, I love the fact that I can evoke feelings in people watching our show.”

Adapted from a bestselling book series of the same title, Pretty Little Liars follows the lives of four friends who start to receive anonymous messages from someone named A, who mysteriously knows all of their deepest, darkest secrets. Since its debut in 2010, the teen drama, now on the second half of Season 3, has been a consistent ratings winner that a fourth season is already in the offing. No mean feat in an industry known for pulling the plug on non-rating shows as seemingly fast as changing clothes. Pretty Little Liars also stars Lucy Hale as Aria, Roian Bellisario as Spencer and Ashley Benson as Hanna.

How can Shay relate to her character? “(Emily’s) always been very sweet and I think sometimes people can mistake it for being naïve. I do consider myself to be quite a sweet person and a lot more trusting than maybe I should be. I think it’s something that Emily and I kind of share. I do feel that we’ve seen a 180-degree turn with her especially this season. She’s now taking things in her own matter and is more confident. I love playing the new Emily.”

Does the onscreen bond among the four girls extend off-screen? “No, I hate them all!” Shay deadpans, before quickly adding: “Actually, it’s great because we are all different from each other and we get along. It’s just nice to work with girls when there’s no drama. We all have our own dreams of where to go after this, and they’re very different from one another.”

According to Shay, movies and mature roles are among her future plans. “I’d like to play young characters as long as I look it and that’s the good thing about the Filipino gene! But yeah, I want to play older, but I’m not rushing it.”

Does she feel her mixed looks might limit her projects? “The character in the book is considered the girl-next-door, and they chose me to play that character on TV, so I think in this world now, everybody is mixed and it’s a beautiful thing. I don’t think it holds me back at all. It’s only a benefit. It makes me a little bit more unique.”

Citing the likes of Bruno Mars, Vanessa Hudgens, Nicole Scherzinger, Jessica Sanchez, who all have Pinoy blood and are making their mark in the US entertainment biz, she says, “So, there’s a bunch. We’re such a talented people, whether it be singing, dancing or acting. I think it’s great, and now the world is starting to see more of it.”

Nevertheless, Shay doesn’t deny that when she was a lot younger, there was a time when “I never wanted to be who I was.” “I had difficulty explaining my looks. The area I grew up in, they didn’t really know what I was. I was completely different. All my friends had blond hair and blue eyes. And you know, I look at myself back then and I never wanted to be who I was.”

Obviously, that has changed. The naturally morena Shay says: “I’m such a big promoter (now) of embracing what you’re born with. Especially for the Filipinos here, I know that it might be in to change color and everything, but I’m gonna say that you have to embrace it. I don’t want young girls trying to change skin color because why? Because who said it’s more beautiful?

“Back in North America, everybody wants what we have over here, which is that natural, beautiful glow… I know, having lived in Asia, it’s always been the whitening thing in modeling, but I was never a fan of it. Filipino girls are beautiful because of what they’re born with.”

Shay credits her upbringing for teaching her to fully embrace who she is. “I also think that just knowing that you are a good person, and you try to do things to the best of your ability — that’s going to give you confidence.”

Shay’s “homecoming” schedule may have been dotted with meetings for endorsements, meet-and-greet sessions, a sojourn in El Nido, Palawan and maybe, just maybe, a romantic date with an eligible Filipino bachelor — the “happily single” Shay likes someone who is funny (“You can be black, white, polka dot, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s about how you treat me and being funny because I love to laugh”) — but family reunions are most important.

 â€œSpending time with family and friends keeps me grounded… Much as I love L.A., and I’m lucky to be in it, but that’s a bubble in itself,” she shares. “I’ve traveled so much in the past that I really do feel it has given me such an eye-opener for everything that’s going around me. I’m just very grateful! But I’m not going to forget where I came from and what I did to get here.”

 

BANGKOK AND HONG KONG BRITISH COLUMBIA BRUNO MARS BUT I EL NIDO FILIPINO NORTH AMERICA PRETTY LITTLE LIARS SHAY
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