One of the most entertaining moments in Season 2 of Netflix zombie comedy Santa Clarita Diet doesn’t feature the undead at all.
Abby Hammond, daughter of zombie real-estate agent Sheila (Drew Barrymore), takes a day off from dealing with crazy zombie stuff and goes to school. There, she learns that a schoolmate has been bullying his former girlfriend by posting her texts on Facebook.
“Someone should do something!” Abby declares. When her tablemates suggest unfriending him on social media, Abby feels more drastic measures are required. She stands up, grabs a tray, says, “Hey Christian,” then whacks him across the face so hard he falls off his chair.
There’s something innately gratifying about real-world retribution (within reason) for cyberbullying, but what makes the scene work really is how Liv Hewson, the actor playing Abby, radiates joy after swatting Christian. “Part of why I fell so in love with Abby as a character is that she’s brave, and she’s independent, and she has a really strong sense of right and wrong,” said Hewson.
The same description could apply to the actor, too. Hewson is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, and they’ve begun taking the difficult step of coming out in the entertainment industry.
Hewson always knew that they didn’t fit the gender role they’d been assigned. As a child in Australia, they experienced gender dysphoria—when someone feels anxious or depressed because they don’t identify as their assigned gender. By high school, Hewson understood they weren’t straight, but that still left a lot of ambiguity. Then, Hewson came across the term non-binary online, and “it was like someone punched me in the face. There was just this massive sensation of ‘Oh! Oh, okay. That’s what’s been happening. It was a massive, massive relief.”
Hewson came out to friends about six years ago at age 16. “For a long time, though,” Hewson says, “I had no idea how I was going to be open about it professionally. For ages it seemed like a possibility so out of reach, it never really crossed my mind, because I felt like it was impossible.”
Part of the problem in coming out as non-binary, Hewson says, is that you have to explain yourself to every person you meet, many of whom are skeptical or confused. “It makes you very vulnerable very quickly,” Hewson explains. “And it never stops. You’re doing it all day. So essentially every time you have to meet a person, you’re having to have the conversation about whether or not you exist, and it’s exhausting. It’s just exhausting. Sometimes I would rather just go about my day without needing to fight with strangers.”
At the same time, Hewson feels strongly about not lying or pretending to be someone else. So they have compromised. The actor uses they/them pronouns in their Twitter bio, and they’ve slowly become more open about their gender identity in other venues. “I got to decide at my own pace how loud I wanted to be about it. As more time passes I am more and more comfortable talking about it more explicitly.”
As an actor, Hewson says, being non-binary offers a unique perspective on the characters they play. Hewson started out in Australian theater, playing both male and female roles. In Hollywood, so far, they’ve been playing women like Abby. But, Hewson say, “I kind of approach everyone as a bit of a blank slate. Even if I were playing a character who is super femme and a cheerleader, I wouldn’t be approaching her with a bunch of rules and expectations about how her femininity should inform her personality.” Being non-binary makes Hewson aware of how individual each person’s gender expression can be, how it affects and attaches to different people in distinct ways.
“I had no idea how I was going to be open about it professionally. For ages it seemed like a possibility so out of reach, it never really crossed my mind.”
While Hewson has portrayed both men and women, they’ve never gotten to play a non-binary character. So, Hewson, who is also a playwright, is writing one themself. “It’s still in its kind of baby stages,” Hewson says. “But it’s something I’ve been thinking about and working towards. I would love to play a non-binary person, that would just be a joy to me.”
In the meantime, Hewson hopes to continue as Abby on Santa Clarita. Season 2 was just released, and talks are underway with Netflix about a potential third season. As Hewson acknowledges, the show can easily be read as a metaphor for queer experience. After Sheila unexpectedly vomits up her insides and turns into a zombie, she and her bemused husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) have to hide her new flesh-eating proclivities from friends and neighbors. “Anytime you’re telling a story about monsterhood, you’re playing around with ideas about otherness and alienation,” Hewson says.
For Hewson, though, the center of the story is family. “Santa Clarita Diet is a show about love,” Hewson says. “It’s a show about people who really love each other and really want to keep each other safe at all costs, for any reason. And also, there are zombies in it.”
Early in the second season, the family decides to keep Sheila in the basement, because they’re afraid that she’ll break loose and eat someone. But Joel can’t bear being alone, so comes downstairs to sleep with her. Then Abby joins them, too, because she’s feeling clingy and lonely. Sheila may be a zombie, but she’s still Mom, and that’s more important. (Spoiler alert: Sheila does end up eating more people, but they’re Nazis, so it’s okay.)
“The story of Sheila is one of somebody who can be very frightened of herself and what she can do, but isn’t going to let that stop her from being the best person she’s capable of. And that’s a powerful thing,” Hewson says. In most zombie narratives, difference is terrifying and will eat you. But in Santa Clarita Diet, it’s a source of strength. That’s a good place for Hewson to be at the start of their Hollywood career.
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