Jillian Mercado on ‘The L Word: Generation Q,’ Boundary Setting, and Pandemic Life Lessons
Jillian Mercado was determined to give “200%” of herself to her role as immigration attorney Maribel Suarez on the second season of The L Word: Generation Q, she tells me over Zoom. The show is a sequel to The L Word, Showtime’s iconic series that aired from 2004 to 2009 and focused mainly on a close-knit group of lesbian and bisexual women. Some characters have even reprised their roles from the original series in the revival, which follows a new generation of close friends pursuing love and success in L.A.
This role in season two, which premiered Sunday, August 8, on Showtime, is a monumental milestone for Mercado. While growing up, Mercado never saw someone with physical disabilities playing a fully developed character who actually had a career and love life, she explains. The actor, who has muscular dystrophy (the term is used for numerous conditions causing muscle loss), says people with disabilities often aren’t realistically portrayed in movies and TV. Now Mercado hopes that in addition to making for an overall delightful watch, her character helps to reeducate people about what it really means to have a physical disability. Here, Mercado tells SELF about her journey from modeling to acting, how she manages self-doubt, and why personal boundaries are so important to her.
SELF: How did you find this role and get into acting?
Jillian Mercado: I didn’t think that acting would be for me because I just didn’t see any representation of people like me in film or TV. And if there was representation, it was of the saddest, most depressing story around death. So I thought there was no place for someone like myself in the entertainment world.
About two years ago my agents brought up the opportunity of being on The L Word: Generation Q. I used to watch The L Word when I was younger, so it was such a full circle. And it was an opportunity to fill in that gap that I have been yearning to represent. Representation is so beautiful and so helpful to see, especially in your teens when you’re trying to figure out life. If you’re growing up and don’t see yourself reflected back on television, and in magazines and books, it’s really hard to motivate yourself to be whatever you want to be.
Later on I talked to the director about what motivated her to write this character in this TV show. She told me that she had been a math tutor and tutored a young girl. The girl she tutored had a sister with a disability, and their dynamic was so beautiful that she forever kept that memory in her mind. As a director, she wanted to bring that beautiful chemistry to the screen. She was on social media and came across my Instagram. I was like, “Oh, my God! That’s amazing! I’m gonna give 200% of myself to this character.”
What do you like most about your character, Maribel?
She’s an immigration attorney, so she very much cares for her community. Although maybe the world wasn’t designed for someone with visible disabilities, my character still finds a way around it.
How do you hope Maribel’s character will change the way viewers think about people with disabilities?
I think it will give people a reeducation of what a person with a disability looks like. It’s The L Word, so there’s a lot of romance, and there’s a lot of love. Unfortunately a lot of people have this notion that people with disabilities don’t have relationships, that we don’t fall in love, and that we’re not sexually active. I was able to play around with that aspect of the human experience. Sure, I may have a disability, but that does not compute to me not having normal relationships and falling in love, you know? And I think that’s going to be very powerful for my character to show disabilities in a nonmedical, authentic kind of way.
How do you think that will affect viewers?
I can say from my personal experience that when I was younger, in full transparency, I did a Google search of “How to date someone if you have a disability” and “How to do sexual activities with somebody who has a disability.” You’re usually taught about sex and dating, or you see it on television, and that’s how you learn. And I didn’t have that. So I had to learn by trial and error during my whole youth. And that’s scary. I went through a lot of rejection. I feel like if I had that representation on screen, I would have been a little bit more confident and a little bit more sure of myself and that I am capable of finding love.
You get rejected because that’s the human experience, but it’s important to lift yourself back up and say, “That was not my story. And there is another book with another story.” I hope when disabled people see me on this TV show, they have a moment of realization that they don’t have to change themselves to make other people feel comfortable. And I hope that they feel like they belong—because we all do.
How has playing this character changed the way you think about yourself?
Playing this character and being on the show has given me such a confidence boost and validation to keep doing what I’m doing. I am on the right track. All of this is possible. I am here and hopefully being a beacon of light for other people to also do what they want to do.
What made you most nervous about acting? And how do you deal with those fears?
When you enter a territory that you’re not familiar with, it can be very scary. And I was surrounded by the best of the best people: the best actors, the best production team. And you know, I come from, like, 12 years of fashion, and it’s such a different world than television.
I look at my past work and I reflect back on the things that I have accomplished, even if it’s really small, like making my bed in the morning. That reminds me, “You have a great bed, girl. You bought this bed with your own money that you work for.” I’ve worked really hard to be here. And it’s really important to acknowledge the work that comes before, because nobody really sees all the work that you put into something—they only see the results. So it’s up to you to remind yourself of how much work you put into something.
How did you feel about filming during the pandemic?
We started filming in November. Because everything was done very top tier as far as testing, I definitely had a bit of relief. Working on the show kept me sane because I was able to interact with others, and I was able to work with friends.
What are some ways that you relax?
I’ve downloaded and deleted Headspace, and I almost bought the subscription. But for me, I don’t do the “sit for 5 to 10 minutes every single day” because it feels like work to me. Specifically with my disability, if I’m in a stressful environment, or anxious or scared, my muscles tend to really tighten up. And it’s hard for me to do anything.
The thing that helped me is acknowledging when those stressful times happen. And if I’m able to, I take five minutes and go to a space where I’m alone. I think about how I am on this earth. I feel my feet in my shoes. I drink a cup of water. I’m glad I now know to take a break when I need a break. Because I’ve been in a position before where I felt like, “Oh, my God, they’re going to fire me if I take a break.”
I also keep boundaries with people. If my friends call and want to come over, I can say, “Maybe tomorrow.” I’ve learned that sometimes solitude can be very powerful. I love washing the dishes. That’s very meditative for me. I like to water my plants and look at how green they are and see the little baby leaves come out. That’s calming for me.
On Instagram, you said you’ve learned a lot about yourself during the pandemic. What did you learn?
My life before the pandemic was very hectic. I was traveling a lot, like three times every month. I never really took some time for myself. I never got to stop and enjoy the sunrise and the sunset. I had the opportunity to just stop and breathe during the pandemic. I think a lot of people, including myself, plan 5 to 10 years out. But what’s so important is the now and to appreciate the now as much as we think about the future.
You’ve mentioned boundaries. How do you create them in your life?
Boundaries is my word of the year. The fear of rejection and the fear of losing someone once took over and completely destroyed a boundary that I wanted to set from the beginning. If you do love a person and they love you, they should understand that you need boundaries. People would call you and the pandemic was all that they wanted to talk about. I had to remind myself that it’s okay to say no to talking about the pandemic.
What is one of your goals for making the entertainment industry more inclusive?
Ever since I was younger, I would watch these awards shows, like the Golden Globes or Emmy Awards. I would daydream and think, If I ever get an opportunity to be at one of these, where would I sit?
If I ever have the opportunity to be at that kind of awards show, I will make a fuss about having a ramp if there isn’t one. I think the most iconic moment of every actor winning an award is the walk from your seat, hugging everyone, and then to the stage, and just having that moment. And that can be robbed from you because of accessibility. If I saw a ramp when I was younger watching the Emmys that would give me the idea that it would be possible for somebody like myself to win an award and to go up on stage.
What thought do you want to leave our readers with?
Invite different people into your life. Look around. If you see the same type of person in your friend group, in your workplace, and in your community, question that. And then make a change. You don’t have to have millions of followers or be a boss to make a difference. One change can snowball and lead to a bigger movement.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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