Former Pitt student lights up the small screen

Spencer Carlin is a high schooler struggling not only with her sexuality but also with her family's move from suburban Ohio to Los Angeles. Gabrielle Christian is a former Pitt student struggling not only with her budding acting career, but also with her move from suburban Maryland to Los Angeles.

What's the connection? Well, while Carlin only comes to life for half an hour a week as the lead character on "South of Nowhere," a teen drama airing at 8:30 p.m. Fridays on the cable network The N, Christian is the real 21-year-old who plays her.

The tagline for the network is "The N is not just for you, it is you." While such a statement surely packs a punch, the station attempts to justify it with programming centered around teen life.

Along with "Degrassi: The Next Generation," which usually airs as a tag team with "South of Nowhere," Christian's show deals with two topics often sensationalized in teen TV - sexuality and race - in a realistic way.

"Basically, my character's experience as a lesbian, along with my brother's experience of being adopted - he is black in an all-white family," Christian said, "shows how we're all exploring ourselves and identity. We're young and trying to find that out."

Christian believes that the high-school situations in the show can have just as strong an impact on college kids, and "South of Nowhere" is not without Pitt fans.

"It hits on hot topics that other shows are afraid to discuss," said Leighann Smith, current Pitt junior and one of Christian's best friends since childhood.

Sexual identity, high school drama and southern California - sound a bit like another popular teen drama? Not quite.

"'The O.C.' is obviously very entertainment based. It's a soap opera," Christian said. "Mischa Barton (Marissa on 'The O.C.') had a lesbian thing, but these chicks would just be making out onscreen. It was more the hotness of lesbians. Our show is the emotional journey, we're dealing with being gay and being different, but we're not making out all over the screen, doing naughty things. I think a lot of these shows just want to turn people on."

But creating a show to tell teens that it's all right to be different is harder than just showing up. The cast of "South of Nowhere," all up-and-coming young actors, often worked 12 to 15 hour days in the two months that it took to film the first season's 11 episodes.

"Sometimes we'd shoot six days a week. We could be called in at six at night and work until the following six in the morning. We usually go through scenes the day we're shooting them. In between scenes, if you're not filming, you're in your trailer rehearsing or getting ready. There's no other job in the world that is like this," Christian said.

From her first role in a musical, "The Wiz," when she was only nine, Christian knew she wanted to be an actress. Before she could even drive herself to auditions, she became very involved in the dramatic arts: She had done public service announcements and commercials, as well as landed her first role in a television show, The WB's "Young Americans," by the time she was 15.

Christian grew up in a house with four sisters, but never suffered from a lack of parental support. "My mom was that mom that would drive me to every audition. She would drop everything so she could be there for me."

The collective determination of Christian and her parents quickly began to pay off. By the time she had entered high school, this future Pitt student was already a recognizable face - at least to her teen-age peers.

"I did a few public service announcements for the dangers of driving while distracted, where we get in this car accident," Christian said. "There was this extreme close up of my face and I'm just screaming. That year in high school, people would come up to me in the hallway and just start shouting!"

After her high-school graduation and a year and a half spent here at Pitt, Christian was living in Hollywood shooting the first season of her realistic high school drama, "South of Nowhere." But the progression wasn't quite as quick as it sounds; almost a year went by between Christian first becoming interested in the project and The N actually deciding to air the show.

Christian, already well accustomed to the audition process, was confident from the show's very first round. "If you know you can do something, you're a bit more confident, but in acting there are so many rejections," she said. "You can audition for everything, but there is always the bigger chance of not getting in."

But Christian did get in, and by July 2005, the first season of "South of Nowhere" was being filmed in Los Angeles.

There once was a day, though, when Gabrielle Christian was just a normal Pitt student - in fact, there were many days. Entering as a freshman in 2002, Christian attended Pitt until the spring semester of 2004.

Though some students may not be able to relate to Christian's character Spencer, most of us can relate to her Pitt experience. "I took basic classes. It's hard wanting to be an artist and being forced to take general classes - you have to take math, English, anthropology. It's frustrating, but I had the time of my life," she said.

Christian fondly remembers partying on Dithridge and Atwood streets, as well as sneaking into the occasional bar: "I'd always get caught and kicked out," she joked. "We were all 18, but we looked 15."

Her favorite pizza place? "Antoon's!" Christian said with a burst of enthusiasm. "And Fuel & Fuddle half-price. We went every Wednesday - it was like a religion."

Though her Pitt days may be behind her, it's looking like Christian will have a bright future. The N recently renewed "South of Nowhere" for a second season, and as if that wasn't enough, Christian just finished an independent film, "South of Pico," in which her boy-crazy character "goes around making out with boys in the locker room."

While there are no guarantees in the entertainment industry, it's safe to say Gabrielle Christian isn't going nowhere.

© Copyright 2006 Pitt News

Staff Writer