Monday, August 4, 2014

LeakyCon Special Interview: The Cast of "Emma Approved"

(The cast and crew of Emma Approved. From left to right: Brent Bailey, Joanna Sotomura, writer/transmedia producer Alexandra Edwards, Dayeanne Hutton, and James Brent Isaacs)

I had the opportunity to take some time out of my Saturday afternoon at LeakyCon in order to sit down with the stars and one of the writers (and transmedia producer) of the webseries Emma Approved. The change of pace was actually quite refreshing for all of us, I think, as they (and I, as well) had been bustling back and forth to panels throughout the weekend. Sitting down in a quiet and more intimate setting allowed for everyone to have some deeper discussions about the characters on the series. My roundtable included Joanna Sotomura (Emma), Brent Bailey (Knightley), Dayeanne Hutton (Harriet), Alex Edwards (writer/transmedia producer), and James Brent Isaacs (Bobby Martin).

We discussed characters, storytelling, adapting literary canon for the web, and how females are portrayed on the series. If you’re ready, click below the cut for some awesome discussions!

It’s so cool to see adaptations of literary canon [like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved] that have been around for so long. So I just wanted to know, what were your thoughts getting into this adaptation and how have you separated this series and made it your own apart from just being another adaptation of Emma?

Joanna Sotomura: When I first got the part I re-read Emma. I had read it in either high school or junior high. I didn’t watch any adaptations of it and didn’t read too many reviews of it because I wanted to just be fresh with it and stick true to what the writers gave me and Bernie [Su]’s vision. So I didn’t do a crazy amount of research; I just sort of played with the text and played with these guys [the other actors and writers] and these characters. And it was fun growing the character as the series went on, learning more about her and being able to adapt her to this format. So that was awesome.

Dayeanne Hutton: I read it [Emma] for the first time during the audition process. I’m an Austen fan but hadn’t read Emma yet, so I was excited because I was like: ‘Good! An excuse for me to not be lazy and read more Jane Austen!’ So that was fun in itself. I also didn’t watch any adaptations because I didn’t want to make any choices based off of that. But as far as how we have adapted it, I think that’s much more of the writers than us. We just took what we were given and created the characters around it with the foundation of the characters from the original novel. So most of the adapting, I would have to credit to them [the writers].

Alexandra Edwards: I was actually shocked when I heard that Emma was going to be our next project. I was in L.A. for the first time meeting everyone in person from LBD [The Lizzie Bennet Diaries] because I had been hired remotely. I was super excited and Bernie took me to lunch and he said that we were going to talk about the future and what’s going on. And this was in February of last year, so before LBD had even wrapped. And he was like: ‘We’re gonna do Emma next.’ And I was like: ‘That was the ONE, the one I thought you weren’t going to do because Clueless is so iconic.’ I’m from the Clueless generation, so I know every line and so he was like ‘Nope, that’s it. We’re gonna do it.’

So when we went into it […] I also didn’t watch the adaptations because I also didn’t want to be swayed by other peoples’ interpretations of the characters. I wanted to come into it fresh. And the only thing I did [recently while writing an episode] is re-watch an iconic scene from Clueless because I wanted to make sure that we did not copy what Clueless had done, and that’s all I’m gonna say. But that was the hardest moment because it [that scene from Clueless] was so ingrained in my brain.

I’m the same way with Clueless. It’s one of those movies that you just go to and re-watch, kind of like Mean Girls in that it has those iconic lines. So I would imagine it’s even more difficult coming from that place, knowing how the story goes and trying not to frame the narrative or the characters around Cher, etc.

Switching gears, I loved that [in an earlier panel] you [Joanna] talked about Emma being an unlikable character. And that was something I think a lot of people experienced watching her. What I love is what you had said – that it’s okay for her to be unlikable. Maybe you can talk about how you’ve learned to play an unlikable character.

JS: In the beginning, it took some getting used to especially after following Lizzie Bennet because how could you NOT love her? She’s so relatable. So I was like ‘I want to play someone like that, someone cool!’ But Emma is not incredibly relatable and she’s just very stubborn and set in her ways. But there’s something amazing about playing a character like that because you get to see her grow and you get to see her be this hard woman to love and see her grow into someone you actually feel for when she makes a mistake instead of being like: ‘Well, good! You deserve it and I hope she cries!’ You feel like she’s not the best, but she doesn’t deserve THAT.

So it’s been a lot of fun once I’ve accepted that she’s kind of unlikable and am able to see this woman grow.

I totally agree. And it’s different watching web series versus watching a TV show or movies because you kind of have a different connectivity to people. It’s more instantaneous. Did you guys find that, going into the web series avenue, there was a different reception as compared to the other avenues you’ve been in? And also, maybe a different sort of reception from viewers of Emma Approved because this is [a story] they might have seen before?

AE: One of the things that I think is so interesting about Jo playing this "unlikable" woman – I love Emma, personally – is that if you sit down to watch Clueless, you get Cher’s journey in two hours tops, right? Even though the webseries is a more instantaneous medium, the characters in it are in real-time. So that means it’s almost been taking a year for us to watch Emma grow. There’s a lot more time for people to watch and react.

I think in some ways it’ll be more satisfying for people when they reach the end [of the series], but it can be harder at the beginning, right? Because you’re like ‘Okay… just learn your damn lesson!’ But that’s also what’s beautiful about the webseries world, because we have that space.

Brent Bailey: Yeah, you get that time to actually develop character and have people marinate in those thoughts. You get to see people hate her [Emma] and then slowly watch her break down and change, which I think at the end, is way more rewarding. Because in a two-hour movie, everything goes so fast. You hate her [Cher], then like her, and then they [Cher and Josh] fall in love, and then it’s over. Whereas this [Emma Approved], you have to put in an investment of time – a full year – of growing with these characters. And with all the interactivities, you almost feel like they become your friends. So then you’re watching your friend grow and evolve.

It’s so cool that it [webseries] has this “real-time” aspect: you’re seeing these relationships and these people grow and it’s awesome because people had such a connection to Lizzie Bennet and that story even though Pride and Prejudice is, again, something that everyone knows the story of.  And to see people fall in love with these characters who are extensions of the literary characters but – at the same time – separate human beings and to be on that journey with them is so cool.

So how have you seen your character grow over the last almost-year and what would you like to see them do in the future?

[everyone looks at James Brent Isaacs to start]

James Brent Isaacs: [Bobby Martin] is a person who just has always kind of accepted who he is but is hopeful for the future. And I think that towards the middle [of the series], he’s like: ‘I am who I am and no one’s going to love me and that’s fine too.’ He’s basically every John Cusack in a romantic comedy I’ve always wanted to play. He’s this character who kind of hates himself, but kind of accepts himself for that, too. And I think that’s where he’s at right now in the story.

DH: I feel like Harriet’s growth has been a lot more subconscious and internalized where you can’t see it until now. I think it’s this thing where she didn’t realize she was actually gaining the confidence and actually learning these things and doing all of this stuff until Emma breaks down. Her only choice there is to bail or pick up the slack.

BB: You got Mr. Miyagi’d. [JS and DH laugh] You learned all these lessons but didn’t know that you needed them.

DH: It was awesome in one of the more recent episodes when Emma is done and Harriet’s running the entire business. At first, I thought that it was such a sudden shift that came out of nowhere. But it's this thing where you have a moment where your true colors are tested: how will you handle the situation? And she comes through. It was so amazing and so much fun to play and channel Emma in that blog-reading moment. […] I went back and watched how [Joanna] did the scenes and lines and tried to get her hand moves just right.

JS: I love Harriet’s growth!

For me it was interesting because like I said, in the beginning Emma is this very strong person who will never move or change and then throughout the year, does. But she always had these big pivotal moments where you’re like: ‘Oh, this is it. This is the time when she’ll really learn.’ And then she doesn’t really. And then you think: ‘Okay, now she’s really going to learn.’ And then she doesn’t really and kind of goes back a little bit in her own ways. So I think now it’s great to see her actually reaching that tipping point where it’s all… gone. Everything she thought and valued is gone and the people she cared about, the things she stood by, it’s all sort of crumbling. And now she has to pick up the pieces again and rebuild. It’s been so much fun to finally get to play this side of Emma.

And we said this during the last round of filming that it’s so weird because for the past nine or ten months, I’ve played one woman and now it’s a completely different person. I’ve only been able to watch a few episodes but it’s definitely a different lady who I also very much like playing.

DH: It’s so true though. People don’t change easily.

JS: Yeah.

DH: People go back to their old habits and it’s realistic.

JS: It’s true, because people go: ‘No, this is the time. This is when I actually mean it.’ And then... they don't.

BB: I think for Knightley, he was always level-headed and grounded. He always knew what he wanted and was pretty stubborn and set in his ways, so I don’t feel like he’s had a huge arc of realizing life lessons and changing the way he does things. I think he’s just a little bit more in tune to his feelings for the people around him.

I actually found it more interesting […] for me to see [after re-watching the first eight or ten episodes] the evolution we’ve had as actors getting more comfortable with our characters, the writers understanding our speech patterns and acting styles and writing more for that. And then just the relationships that we’ve developed outside of filming and also just becoming more comfortable with the material because we do shoot so much so fast. I think that our [Knightley and Emma’s] relationship is so much more interesting to watch on screen in the later episodes because we have that history that was built in. I feel like we had chemistry at the beginning but now there’s so much history built into our characters… the banter scenes feel so much more real and there’s more playful things that are unspoken but you can see. And it’s just interesting to see everyone’s dynamic because you can tell that we have been working on this for a long time and can see the evolution of the way we were actually acting. And I think that’s really cool.

I mean, if you go back and re-watch the first episode compared to these last six –

JS: Oh, it’s so weird.

BB:  – it’s like a different show. It’s been really interesting for me to see that progression.

AE: I have to say that as a writer, it’s so fun once we know your speech patterns and things like that because when I write my episodes, I actually do my impressions of everybody.

[everyone vocalizes that they want to see Alex do her impressions]

JS: It’s actually interesting too because of what you [Brent] were saying about being friends almost with these characters now because in the beginning we were really good acquaintances. Like, I was good acquaintances with Emma Woodhouse and now it’s like a really dear friend.

BB: And it’s a part of you.

JS: Exactly.

BB: When you settle into your character, I think it becomes more of you.

JS: And how great that we got a year to play with that? So many actors don’t get that chance. Like, you may play something for a month or two and that is your work. We actually got to flesh out characters like you [Jenn] said, in real-time. Geez, what a great gift.

It’s amazing that you feel attached to that character. Like, it’s not just a person who is an abstract concept, but a real, fleshed-out person who is very close to you and who you feel very protective of.

JS: Oh, absolutely.

I think that is just so cool and like you all have said, that progression of going from playing a character to really feeling that character makes a total difference from both the writing and acting standpoints.

BB: I think Bernie also touched on this a little bit at our panel the other day, but I think some of us already were our characters.

DH: I feel like Harriet’s just another side of me. It’s kind of like… I just shift and turn into Harriet.

BB: And I feel like I pretty much am Knightley. But even you [addressing Joanna], I don’t think there’s as much of a shift as there was at the beginning where you had to get into “Emma mode.” Now it’s just kind of like… it’s comfortable.

JS:  At the beginning […] I didn’t even know where to pull from. I was pulling from strong females in my life and just trying to piece together this woman. And now, I just know her so well.

BB: Yeah, you don’t have to read a line and wonder ‘How would Emma say this?’

JBI: I was basically already B-Mart. His voice is higher and he’s more computer-savvy.

JS: I feel like even our hobbies are so much like our characters’. Like your [Brent’s] Master’s background.

It’s almost like you all were saying, the series building on and playing to your strengths. And at the beginning, I’m sure that it was like playing dress-up in your mom’s closet, trying to “put on” this character. It’s cool to see this format [allows you] not just [to grow] closer as an audience to the characters, but also you guys being able to grow so close that the character is almost inseparable from you, the actor.

I loved the strong female reference [Joanna made] and that both LBD and this show are so female-centric in terms of relationships and friendships. What I, too, admire is that [LBD was] a show about, obviously, romance but you didn’t see Darcy for half of the series. And I love that the romance in Emma Approved is important but not the central focus, taking away from other elements that you can explore like these female friendships and relationships.

What are y’all’s thoughts about the romance versus the “rest of the story,” as it were in Emma Approved?

BB: I think in our show, the romance is really just something we’re all looking forward to. But the focus is friendships – there’s the friendship between us [Knightley and Emma], the friendship between Alex and B-Mart, the friendship between Harriet and Emma…

DH: Yeah, but our [Harriet and Emma’s] friendship is based off of her finding me a man. I mean, she’s trying to make sure she has a good life and the best partner.

JBI: I will say that the one thing that we haven’t yet seen a lot of is Alex and B-Mart’s interaction and how they’re friends. It’s always texted and tweeted on, but there hasn’t been a lot of on-camera [interaction].

JS: That’s because Emma refuses to leave her office!

BB: Maybe we can talk Bernie into shooting some additional scenes of our interaction.

AE: That’s the Pemberley Digital touch though, actually. I said this in the interactive panel and I don’t know how well-known this fact is but I have written the only scene in which two men interact on camera without a woman in the room.

JS & DH: Oh!

AE: It was in [Welcome to] Sanditon in episode 17 and I was terrified to do it. I was e-mailing Margaret Dunlap who was the EP, like: ‘Margaret, can I have two men talking to each other? Is that okay?’ And she’s like: ‘… Yeah.’ We just hadn’t ever done it before. And I love that this is the Pemberley Digital focus, right? To almost never have a moment where there isn’t a woman on screen.

But even for a book like Emma, I think you guys hit the nail on the head in terms of how it’s really about the friendship. Emma as a text is really about community, right? It’s called Emma, but it’s really about how Emma exists in a constellation of people in a small town. And the final line of the novel is really fascinating because it’s Mrs. Elton complaining about Emma’s wedding dress. Jane Austen has weird endings anyway, but that moment is like ‘Oh, hey, remember how this isn’t just about Emma’s perspective. This is actually about how everybody feels about everybody else.’ So that’s really fun to play with.

JBI: I will say going back to the [topic of] females being prevalent versus the relationship aspect of this stuff, what I think is the strongest part of all the Pemberley series, especially Emma, is that it’s a female-driven show with a mainly female cast that is not always about ‘Oh, this boy!’ There’s that test that was released –

AE: The Bechdel test!

JBI: Yeah, that a great female character – not just a strong female character, but a great, three-dimensional female character – doesn’t spend all this time talking about [men and relationships]. That’s what this show does; it’s the relationships between Alex and Emma. We’re not really getting to their [romantic] relationship until way, way later. It’s all about these peoples’ lives for the most part and it’s really refreshing especially in an Internet medium which has a mostly female audience.

AE: I was about to say, there’s a reason we’re 93% female viewership, right?

JS, DH, JBI: Yeah.

JBI: It’s a refreshing take on female[s].

AE: Women are a grossly underserved demographic in online scripted series. I mean, any scripted series. But there’s such a market to tell stories for young women. I’m so glad Pemberley Digital exists to do that because it’s so rare.

JS: Yeah, I mean even Emma trying to find Harriet a man isn’t about her settling down.

DH: Right.

JS: It’s about making sure she has the best life possible. And even, like, the only kiss that we have in Emma [that we’ve seen so far] is between Elton and Caroline. And that wasn’t a romantic thing at all.


You all have said it perfectly. It’s a show that depicts how [female characters] don’t have to be just focused on love. I think people going into The Lizzie Bennet Diaries assumed that it would be all about Lizzie and Darcy. And what I loved so much about LBD was – okay, great, I love the Lizzie/Darcy thing – the relationship between the sisters. I loved seeing female friendships grow.

And now, “strong women” is kind of a term that people just use. But it doesn’t just mean that you have to be like –

JS: Like, kick-butt.

Yeah, you don’t have to be like, the Black Widow. Strong female characters –

DH: It’s knowing who they are.

Exactly! It’s being a layered character and having flaws. And Emma is a flawed character.

AE: I think Harriet is a really strong character.

JS & DH: Yeah.

AE: [She’s] of the mold that we want to see more of.

Yes! I loved seeing that episode and being like ‘Yeah, Harriet! Go Harriet!’ I think that [characters like] Felicity Smoak on Arrow – who, she’s an IT girl and is not someone who goes out and fights crime – are more like Harriet. She’s more of a meek person, but meek doesn’t mean –

JS: Weak. [and DH] Meek doesn’t mean weak.

AE: And with her music club and everything, I actually think that Harriet is a really relatable character. Because even though she presents as shy sometimes, she’s really brave to do that and put herself out on the Internet. And it’s so true – I think we meet people at cons all the time who are that Harriet kind of character: they might be shy in person but also want to express themselves and find an avenue for that.

[JS & DH agree]

And I think that’s awesome because throughout the Pemberley Digital series, there are all types of women. We have the Emma who is very opinionated and more strong-willed and then a Harriet who is not as vocal but still has passions and is still good at things. All of these characters being represented, too, I think is such an encouraging thing for people who, especially, are hearing this story for the first time. And maybe they haven’t read Emma or Pride and Prejudice and are seeing these characters in a different light than other mediums/adaptations.

So, final question: If you could sit across the table from your character right now, what advice would you give them?

BB: For Knightley, I think –


DH: “Chill out!”

JS: “Don’t be mad!”


BB: Where we’re at in the story, I think that he had every right to be upset with Emma. But at the same time, I am a very firm believer that you work things out together, whether it is with your friends or relationships. And you might need that moment to step away for clarity, but at the end of the day you need to come back and talk it out and work through things because you can work through anything if you both want to. So I would just tell him: ‘You’ve taken enough time. Stop being stubborn and come back and say what you’ve gotta say.’

JBI: And apologize for cursing!


JS: I probably would tell Emma: ‘Keep going. Keep going on your apology tour and making the rounds because that’s where you need to be.’ I’d just get her a box of tissues and tell her to keep going. Because I feel like she knows what she needs to do now and she’s making those first steps and mending those relationships. I’d just encourage her. I’d say… ‘get it girl.’

DH: I don’t know what I’d say to Harriet now. I’d probably just say: ‘You got this, girl. Keep going.’ She’s in the right place right now.

AE: I want to… can I give advice to Frank Churchill?

All: Yes!

AE: I was going to say that I love our male characters as much as our female characters. I feel like we’ve presented a lot of well-rounded male characters too. But I’d tell Frank Churchill: ‘Take it down a notch, man. You don’t have to be on 24/7.’

JBI: I’d probably tell B-Mart: ‘It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault.’

JS & DH: Awww.

JBI: ‘You’re a great person just the way you are and don’t give up.’

BB: … As he [James] holds a tiny version of himself.


JS: He’s holding a tiny B-Mart puppet!

JBI: [talking to the puppet] ‘I know you’re hurting right now, but it’s gonna be fine.’

[everyone ‘awww’s’]

BB: He [the B-Mart puppet] doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

[everyone ‘ohhhhh’s’ at the joke]

And that, folks, is how our interview ended.

I had so much fun interviewing the Emma Approved cast at LeakyCon! Thank you again to Brent, Joanna, Dayeanne, Alex, and James for taking the time out of your day to sit down with me and talk about the series. It was definitely one of the highlights of my weekend and hopefully I’ll be able to see you all again back in Orlando for LeakyCon 2015! :)


  1. Great Interview! Thanks! :)

    1. Thanks so much for reading, anon! I had fun talking to them all. :)