Sherri Saum likes to think of acting as “professional empathy.” The Emmy-nominated actress currently stars as charter school principal Lena Adams Foster on the hour-long ABC Family drama series, The Fosters.
Saum’s character is a lesbian raising five multi-ethnic adopted teenagers along with her domestic partner, Stef (Teri Polo). The actress believes The Fosters defines a significant yet familiar moment in television.
“It’s not like we’re playing these people for laughs or stereotypes,” says Saum. “We’re just showing a real family. No matter how bad things are or how alone people may feel, there’s someone out there that can relate. It’s positive to see that you can go to hell and back.”
When Saum first heard about the GLAAD award-winning series prior to its 2013 debut, the cheery, curly-haired Dayton, OH native had reservations about The Fosters’ gripping subject matter. She was concerned about ABC Family’s willingness to take a chance on airing the series.
Once she read the script, Saum immediately fell in love with the premise. “I just wanted to make sure it was gonna fly with the network that was handling it,” says Saum. “It’s important that people see themselves represented with respect and in a grounded, real type of way on television.”
The bubbly Ohio State and NYU alumnae quickly adapted to the set’s fun atmosphere. Saum’s laughter whenever she speaks even resembles what she says typically occurs between her co-stars and she.
“If the cast was like school,” says Saum, “[Teri] and I would not be able to sit together. We’re just like two kids. We’re like that from morning until night. It’s so much fun.”
Once the cameras start rolling, Saum’s formula for acting is really simple. She draws primarily from her own experiences, especially extensive traveling, to inform her characters. “The more you grow,” says Saum, “the more you learn and the more you have to bring to the table.”
Another reason for The Fosters’ success is active endorsement from the show’s executive producer, superstar Jennifer Lopez. One of the entertainer’s deceased aunts was also a lesbian. Saum believes The Fosters is an opportunity for Lopez to try and imagine her relative’s concept of love and family.
The multi-talented entertainer doesn’t make guest appearances on the show nor is she frequently present on-set. Lopez, Saum says, plugs The Fosters in interviews and uses her influence before network executives. “She’s an amazing woman,” says Saum.
“She’s so passionate about our show and genuinely believes that it speaks for itself. Her name, impact and power got us on the air.”
Saum, also multi-ethnic herself, starred on HBO’s In Treatment and had a two-season stint on Rescue Me. She’s appeared on Sunset Beach, One Life To Live, Charmed, the Law & Order and CSI franchises, Charmed, Heroes, Revenge, Gossip Girl, Army Wives, Beggars and Choosers and Girlfriends.
She wholeheartedly empathizes with black as well as LGBT audience members who regularly tune into The Fosters. The actress draws a parallel between those commonly marginalized communities and her inability to see more characters that she could identify with on television while growing up.
Now she’s able to portray characters she wants to see. “It’s important to see yourself and normalize these relationships,” says Saum. “TV is the ultimate playground. I get paid to play pretend. We have a responsibility to push better images of all of us out there.”
Saum adds, “We have to bring these stories to the forefront because they are just as valid with the same issues. We all just want to have someone to love, to raise our kids in a safe environment and success. We all fundamentally want the same things, so why should this be such a hard type of show to get on the air?”
Playing a mother has helped Saum head her own household. The mother of nine-month-old twin sons, her vocal pitch gets higher whenever she mentions her boys. Parenting, Saum believes, is her number one job.
“It has changed my life,” proclaims Saum. “Until you really experience it, it doesn’t really lead to anywhere, but now I know. I understand things on another level.”
Other than The Fosters and raising her kids full-time, Saum doesn’t have any particular projects in the works. The busy actress does hope going forward that her lead character can continue to resonate with audiences and contribute to her personal development.
“As an actor, you have your creative spirit and your imagination,” says Saum. “It’s not too hard to know how it feels to love somebody. We’ve all hopefully experienced love. Hopefully, it continues to inform everything that I do. It’s gonna be an interesting journey.”
The Fosters airs Monday nights on ABC Family at 8:00 p.m.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.
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