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Sherri Saum on how emotional 'The Fosters' storyline hit home

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Andrew Eccles/ABC Family

ABC Family’s The Fosters has never shied away from a sensitive storyline, and Monday night’s episode is no different as a 20-year-old wound reignites tension between Lena (Sherri Saum) and her mother, Dana (Lorraine Toussaint).

When Dana arrives in town for a reunion with her daughter, Lena makes it known she isn’t ready to forgive her half-brother, Nate, for calling his stepmother the N-word — but Dana is ready to leave the past behind. As Lena takes a stand, the divide could put an even deeper rift in their relationship.

EW caught up with Saum to talk about the emotional episode, along with a few details on what fans can expect from the rest of the season. The actress also shared insight into how she thinks Stef and Lena would’ve celebrated the recent news of the legalization of same-sex marriage. Spoiler alert: There would be plenty of wine. 

The Fosters airs Monday, June 29 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC Family. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Could you talk a bit about the reunion between Lena and her mother?

SAUM: Lena’s just having a really hard time moving on from past events; specifically when her half-brother had called her mother the N-word years ago — this was like, 20 years ago. But she hasn’t gotten passed it all these years and even though her mom says she has gotten passed it, Lena can’t let it go. When Nate comes to visit with Lena’s mom, she’s going to confront and she’s going to make a scene or how she’s going to deal with this. It’s been something that’s eaten away at her for decades.

It’s pretty intense, it’s a really intense episode. It was written by Marissa Jo Cerar. It resonated with me from the get-go and I knew it was going to be kind of a touchy subject. But it’s one that is more than relevant, but more relevant than ever now. 

When you first read this topic would be in the script, what was your reaction?

I think I was even crying just at the table-read because, you know, I grew up in an extremely white, let’s just say it, neighborhood. My mom is white; the only family I ever knew — they’re all white. I was always the ethnic person in my class and in my town. There was always that kid on the playground or on the softball team — there was always someone who would call hurtful names to me, my brother, and my sister as we were growing up.

And it’s true, even back then before I knew the origins or all the stuff about the word, I knew that it was ugly. It felt ugly, and I felt shameful and awful. So, it really hit home with me when I read the script and I knew it was going to be a heavy day shooting when we had to do it. 

Obviously, with these experiences you’ve had in your own life, it’ll help bring some truth to your performance – especially in these scenes.   

Sometimes we curse our beloved creators and writers — they do draw these storylines from their own experiences. They are very relatable specifically to myself and Teri Polo [who plays Stef Foster] as moms, there’s a lot of stuff we have to deal with on the show. [Executive producer] Joanna Johnson pulled me aside when I told her I was pregnant and she said was like, “Just wait, your acting is going to take a turn because you just feel things more deeply.” And I kinda do. I knew intellectually like, yeah, I bet it would affect how I felt about things. But it’s unbelievable the change I see in myself since having kids. Everything is just more raw. The situations these kids get into I feel it 100 times more now that I have kids. 

How does the tension escalate between Lena and her mom? How does it impact their relationship?

Lena has stood up to her mom in the past about certain issues but I think this is the deepest issue between them. This is the one time that I think Lena — for lack of a better word — wins, with her mom. Her mom doesn’t have her on her head, she doesn’t just tell her to get over it. I think she takes notice of her daughter’s feelings and validates them to a degree. 

From your personal experience, what advice would you give to Lena when she’s handling the situation with her mom?

It’s difficult because it’s one of those things that’s so deeply personal and visceral. I wouldn’t advise her to hold it in because obviously it’s holding her back. I definitely would advise her to speak her mind but just don’t have expectations of how it’s received. You can’t change other people as much as you’d like to. You can only speak your truth and move on if you have to.

Shifting gears a bit, how will A.J. (Tom Williamson) start to fit into the family dynamic in the next few episodes especially given that Brandon (David Lambert) doesn’t exactly trust him at this point? 

I think it’s the same every time we open our house open to a new child. There’s an adjustment period, you know — to say the least. But, we don’t give up easily just because a kid has issues or causes waves in the family. That’s how deep our love goes for kids, kids who are lost and in need of a family. Even though it’ll cause a disruption in our family, we have room, we have space, we have patience and we’re going to do the best we can.  

Looking forward to the remainder of the season — is there a particular scene or episode that you’re excited for fans to see?

There’s a moment with Brandon in Episode 9 of this season where he really comes into his own in a way. Again, as a mom, I felt this scene so much more deeply than I would have without having kids. Just the moment that Brandon comes into his own is a good way of saying it. The pride we feel as a family for him is just overwhelming. I really enjoyed that scene and I hope everyone else does too.

How do you think Lena and Stef would celebrate the news of marriage equality? Will this be a point that we talk about on the show?

I’m sure they’ll drop it in somehow or another because it is what’s happening. We’ve shown ourselves to be very relevant on our show and very topical. I think [Lena and Stef] would pop open that wine — it seems to be what we do best. We don’t really have the money or the time for a getaway, obviously so no Catalina. But we can celebrate in our kitchen with the Catalina-shaped hole in the ceiling. [Laughs]

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