If you’re a Degrassi fan you’re going to love the new teen drama Turnt on Facebook Watch. It’s a racier, more mature coming-of-age soap created by newcomer Rachel Stern that does not shy away from the complex, realistic and painful issues that plague high school students today. In truth, it may be the closest thing to reality of any teen drama yet. Yes, you’ll still find some of the stereotypical roles you’d expect from this genre – dumb jock, awkward nerd, plastic popular, etc. – but the characters are more deeply drawn and the storylines pull no punches. The writers aren’t afraid to push boundaries and make their audience uncomfortable when it matters.
Jayna Sweet plays sweet, studious and insecure Natalie, the invisible girl few see but who desperately wants to be noticed. Enter Kat – sexy, self-assured, fearless. She’s everything Natalie wants to be and more. Soon Natalie interjects herself in Kat’s world, coveting her perfection and modeling herself after her role model. But is it to her benefit or detriment?
Prior to Turnt, she appeared in the TV series Salvaged as well as Disney’s Lemonade Mouth and the dystopian Pink Zone. Here we talk to Jayna about her series-regular role in Turnt, the pursuit of perfection, why representation for differently-abled people matters and the unusual but very cool thing she nerds out about.
Natalie starts the show as a bit of an awkward wallflower who is enthralled by Kat’s beauty and confidence. She looks to her as a role model and soon starts modeling herself after Kat. I think a lot of girls can relate to that, I know I certainly could in high school. Yet the unrealistic pursuit of perfection is something we’re finally starting to analyze more in our society. What would you say to young women who feel the need to strive for beauty at all costs?
First, I’d say I’ve been there. I’ve put myself through lots of really terrible things just trying to look a certain way. I deeply understand the perfection obsession – and how detrimental it is. I hope we as a society continue on the trajectory we’re on towards body positivity and diversity. The more representation young women (and men) can see in the media, the more they’ll learn to accept their own uniqueness. I’d also say that most of the pictures we’re seeing (and then comparing ourselves to) are not actually representative of the person, because there’s so much editing and staging and careful planning. Impossible standards are not worth harming yourself to reach – you’ll never be satisfied. It’s important to hold ourselves to high standards in terms of being kind and working hard, but it gets twisted when we start placing those kinds of expectations on our outward appearances.
There was a reference to Dark Natalie in one of the episodes and she’s certainly showed some of those tendencies. She’s slyly manipulative and I fear, bordering on obsessed with Kat. I know, I know, you can’t give away spoilers but how much do you want her to go totally dark?
Yeah, she certainly toes that obsession line a lot throughout the season. When I took on the role, I was hoping from the very beginning that she’d go as dark as possible. I think so often when we see the awkward character in stories go through a makeover and start looking “better,” it changes everything for them in a good way. They start making the friends they want, dating the people they want, and their problems are essentially solved, all because they’re beautiful now. I think that can feed into the myth that looking a certain way is the key to happiness. So, I was hoping Natalie would take it a little too far, go down the darker side of those things, and her makeover wouldn’t just magically make her life amazing. I wanted things to kind of fall apart for her. You’ll have to watch the rest of the season to see how far she does or doesn’t go, though!
The show covers a great number of realistic issues: pregnancy scares, catfishing, mental health, alcohol and drug use, and discovering your sexuality to name just a few. What topic hasn’t the show covered that you would like to see done? And what issue would you like to see Natalie specifically tackle?
We really do cover so many that it’s hard to pinpoint one that isn’t discussed. It’s not really an issue, per se, but I would love to see more of the kids’ relationships with their parents. We don’t see them interact much, and I personally love seeing family dynamics explored. I’d love to see more of how each character’s parents have influenced the kinds of things they’re going through. As far as Natalie goes, I think she’s certainly walking down a path that could potentially lead to an eating disorder or some more serious obsession, and I’d like to see where that might lead. I’d also love to give the audience a little more insight into Natalie’s background and physical challenges. It’d be cool to go through a surgery with her and show how she handles it.
Natalie has a disability that affects her knee and means she often has to wear a full-leg brace. Why did the creators of the show find it important to represent someone with a disability and what does it mean to you to play a character with that challenge?
We very rarely see differently-abled bodies represented in TV and movies – especially represented as just “normal people.” Yes, Natalie has a congenital knee disorder and has to wear a leg brace, but that isn’t her identity. It’s so normalized on our show that we hardly even talk about it, and that was on purpose. Representing that kind of experience without making it the only thing she ever talks about or deals with on the show was incredibly important to the writers. I loved getting to play someone who has physical challenges but who isn’t defined by that.
The beauty of this show is there’s such a diversity of characters and the issues they face. People can watch the show and find multiple people they relate to in one way or another. Did you and your castmates look at your own high school or life experiences and say, “Oh, your character reminds me of someone I knew,” or, “I remember when something like this happened”?
Totally! We all found something in the characters or storylines that we could relate to. In high school, I dealt with mental health issues, so I related to both Victoria and Natalie in a lot of ways. A lot of the little things were fun and relatable, too, like Rocco’s awkward birds-and-bees talk with his parents and the characters like High Junior.
If you could play any other character on the show who would it be and why? And which character do you consider the closest to Jayna?
I think Victoria would be a fun role to play. I love characters who seem like they have it all but hide a lot of pain underneath a free-spirited exterior. Frankly, I relate most to Natalie. I like to think she’s much unhealthier than I am, but her desire to belong and to make herself perfect is certainly something I struggle with.
Finally, we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all nerd out over something. What is something you nerd out over?
I’m the biggest Enneagram nerd ever. The Enneagram is a personality typing system that has seriously changed my life and perspective on myself and others. My sister-in-law, Criselda, introduced me to it and I’ve just been so enamored by it. I’m always reading and learning as much about it as I can and telling everyone I know to find out what type they are.
If you’ve yet to see Turnt, give it a watch! Not only does it hit every emotional element, but you’ll find yourself addicted to each character’s story while falling in love with them. And be sure to check out Jayna’s Twitter, Instagram, and her website.
(photo credit: Kyle Perren)