Best known for playing feisty social media guru Lauren Heller on Darren Star’s hit comedy series Younger, which is currently in its seventh and final season on Paramount+, actress Molly Bernard appears in her first starring movie role in the heartwarming indie Milkwater, written and directed by Morgan Ingari, which is released on VOD and digital on Friday May 21st.
One of the first pansexual characters on mainstream television, Lauren was a role which helped Barnard to embrace her own queer identity. In Milkwater she portrays Milo, a 20-something New Yorker searching for meaning in her life who offers to become a surrogate for a 52-year-old single gay man she’s just met, Roger (Patrick Breen), who runs a drag bar where he performs, and has lost hope of ever having a family of his own. As Milo struggles to deal with the boundaries of their agreement and her burgeoning friendship with Patrick, she alienates herself from her queer chosen family and the man she’s begun dating.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Molly Bernard about leaving Younger behind and taking on the very different role of Milo in Milkwater, which she also executive produced, as well as talking queer screen representation, the importance of destigamtizing metal health, and her love of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Transparent, which she also appeared in portraying the young Shelly Pfefferman.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What it was like for you having to saying goodbye to Lauren after all these years and what are you going to miss the most about playing her?
Molly Bernard: “I have loved embodying that size and the scope. She takes up a lot of space. She’s a tiny gal, but she’s a big personality, and that confidence that she has is just fabulous. Actually, last night I was preparing for an audition, and it’s very different than Lauren and I was like, dang, I miss my girl, Lauren! It was a bit sad and it was really the first time that I realized, dang, I will miss playing her and I’m not going to get to do that for a while. Intentionally I want to not do that kind of role for a while, because I do want to try other things. But she’s like candy, she has this bright confidence and this unadulterated self-love and I think that’s one of the reasons she became a fan favorite, because she can say anything, she can do anything, and she doesn’t really doubt herself. I am the opposite, I’m the actual living embodied opposite of that! So I will miss that freebie, I got a free pass when I played Lauren!”
When it comes to the LGBTQ+ characters on Younger, I love how they were never defined by their sexuality or how they identify. It’s just one part of who they are and I think that’s been really beautifully handled by both the writers and the cast. Now you have come to the end of your work on the series, how do you reflect back on that aspect of it?
“I’m very proud of the fact that I played one of the first, if not the first, pansexual characters on television and proud of that particular kind of representation that Younger allowed Lauren. Her sexuality was never tokenized, it was the least interesting part about her, or least there are far more notable things about her.”
“I’m also very proud of Younger—and when I say Younger I mean the writers’ room and creator Darren Star—for the way they showed her family. If you’ve noticed, Lauren is the only character with parents, and she’s a queer millennial, and her parents completely support her and her sexuality. They don’t care what she is, they’re proud of their daughter and they love her, and I think that’s intentional on the writers’ part. I actually think Younger is a bit sneaky in that it’s a teaching show as well as a wonderful, edible 22-minute comedy. I think we were ahead of the times in that way and may this be the new normal of queer representation. I’ve been so proud to play a queer person who is out and proud, and she’s not suffering, those stories obviously are extremely important also, but the fact that she is just herself and does not have consequences to deal with related to her sexuality is amazing. I think stories like that should be told more because Lauren is aspirational. I’ve been really lucky to play an aspirational queer person for seven years.”
How did playing Lauren and some of your conversations with your Younger co-star Nico Tortorella help you to explore and embrace your own identity?
“With the conversations on set between Nico and myself, we were always talking about identity and queerness and language as the oppressor. Nico is extremely smart and extremely emotional; not as in crying all the time, but they have a big heart, they live with a lot of empathy and compassion. Seven years ago, Nico was a different person and in many ways I was too and the journey that Nico has been on, and the generosity, and the space that Nico takes up, the heart space, is just so beautiful. We have had uncomfortable conversations about identity and gender, and we have had very illuminating conversations about those things. They weren’t always easy and we always got through it. Nico has been a teacher of mine in a lot of ways and I think they would say that for me as well in some ways. There’s a deep kinship there and a really deep friendship. Nico is a beautiful person and I will miss us shooting our little 22-minute comedy and talking about heavy shit!”
I know it’s probably hypothetical at this stage, but if the Younger spin-off that’s been talked about, with Hilary Duff’s character Kelsey in LA happens, and her friend Lauren happens to drop in, would you be up for reprising your performance?
“Oh of course! Listen, any chance I get to be that vibrant, I would never say no!”
So let’s talk about Milkwater, which marks your first starring role in a movie. What was your initial reaction when you read Morgan Ingari’s screenplay for the first time and why was it something that you wanted to be involved it?
“I loved Morgan’s script. I found it and I read it and I was like, oh shit, I really identify with this, with what’s going on for her. I mean, she’s flailing, she’s lost, and most of my 20s were messy and highly uncomfortable and I was like, dang, I went through this! I obviously never offered to be someone’s surrogate but I could have. I feel like when we meet Milo she’s lost, she’s looking for a savior and she takes on a big journey. When I first read it I was like, oh, I can do this, it will scare the shit out of me to do it, but I want to bring this character to life and I want us to fall in love with her. I think the script is really good at doing that. Morgan wrote a character that in one moment you’re so annoyed by her and you’re like, what the fuck are you doing?! Then the next moment you realize, out of nowhere that you love her. I realized that in order to play this part I had to love her so that she can grow up a little bit before your eyes, and in the hour and a half that you watch the film she has to go through a big enough journey. You watch her struggle and you cringe, and then you watch her make some good decisions and you’re like, okay, girl! Good girl! You want to root for her.”
I love how the motivation for her being a surrogate and those layers in her character are revealed gradually, but I think they’re also being revealed to her in some ways as the film goes on, they’re not simply being held back from us, she’s discovering a lot about herself as well isn’t she?
“Absolutely, and again it’s to Morgan’s credit. She’s a really great character in that she’s figuring it out as we go. As we watch the film we’re never ahead of her, which is great.”
I love how queer the world of Milkwater is. One of the main locations is just around the corner from me in the East Village in New York, Phoenix bar, then there’s Roger’s drag club that is another one of the main locations, and one of the lead characters is a drag queen. Anyone who is a Drag Race fan will be able to spot a couple of the queens who appear on stage at the club, then Lauren’s two best friends are queer. Can you give us a sense of that queer world that Milo lives in and the fun that you had being part of that?
“That was one of my favorite parts of the film. I feel like Morgan did an excellent job. I know I keep saying ‘Morgan, Morgan, Morgan’ but she’s really great! I feel like she did such a good job with—again to my point earlier, of my pride with Younger too—in normalizing queer stories and queer characters. The majority of the characters in Milkwater are queer. Milo is one of two non-queer people in the film and I love that her chosen family is not tokenized, it’s just presented as these are the people in her life and these are the people she trusts and loves and this is her tribe. I love that in the film it’s never explained why, there’s not a big deal made of it, and I feel like that’s the sign of successfully telling queer stories. Obviously, films like Moonlight are important and I understand the importance of a harrowing queer film, and the difficult ones, the stories that hurt, but so are the stories that are celebratory and more about real life than sexuality, and I hope that we go in that direction in terms of queer storytelling.”
“Oh my God, Robin is a delicious human being! I am obsessed with him. I totally fell in love with him when we were making the movie. I couldn’t get enough of him! It was crazy that we’d just met because I just was smitten. A smitten kitten!”
When he pops his head around the shower curtain, it’s so cute.
“Uh, I know, he’s adorable!”
George and Lauren both talk about the medication that they’re taking, and I wondered how important you think it is that we destigmatize mental health, again, in a similar vein to how we’ve been talking about the queer characters in Younger and Milkwater, it is just one aspect of a full human portrait and not something that should entirely define a character or that we should be ashamed of talking about.
“I think it’s extremely important. I’m a huge advocate for mental health. I myself take Prozac every day. I find that it helps me. Life is hard. I see a therapist, sometimes twice a week. My career and my love of acting is the great love of my life, it’s one of the most important things in my life, but my mental health is the most important thing in my life. It is my number one priority. I am very outspoken about that and I encourage everyone, whether you think you need it or not, to get your butt in therapy. My partner and I have a beautiful, loving, healthy relationship and we’re getting married later this year, but we go to couples’ therapy because we want to make sure that we’re communicating well and starting a really good foundation for what is hopefully a very long and healthy marriage.”
“Mental health is something I care deeply about and I love that Milkwater addresses it. That monologue that Milo has in Roger’s kitchen where she talks about the doses that she’s on, and the tragedy that happened with her parents, and George’s mental health comes up too, it’s one of my favorite things in the script. I feel like that requires such bravery to talk about and it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t be stigmatized. Listen, we’re all on planet Earth together and we’ve just lived through a year and a half of actually the seventh dimension of fucking hell. The past four years—especially if you’re a queer person—were terrifying. If you’re not a white Republican man, the past four years have been awful. You’ve got to take care of yourself and people don’t always get that.”
Final question for you, what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or person, someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“100% RuPaul’s Drag Race! I’ve always been in love with RuPaul’s Drag Race. The lip syncs often move me to tears. The passion, the celebration, the liberation. I love when we get to know some of the queens’ histories and their backgrounds, and what they’ve overcome and who they are. My favorite winners have always been the full fucking freaks! I love that it’s just like, let your freak flag fly, go forth and win girl! That show is the light. I love it. The other show that has greatly impacted me—and I happened to be in it, but I loved it long before I was in it—was Transparent. I think the storytelling in Transparent is exquisite. One of the great gifts of my life was getting to be in that world and be in the family.”
By James Kleinmann
The final season of Younger, along with the previous six seasons, are now streaming on Paramount+.
Milkwater is available to rent and purchase digitally on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, VUDU and WolfeOnDemand from May 21st 2021.