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This Life’s Stephanie Janusauskas on Emma’s “independence and strength”

Stephanie Janusauskas was certain she blew her final audition for the role of Emma Lawson on CBC’s This Life.

“We did the scene from Season 1 where we find out that Natalie has cancer, and I couldn’t conjure up any tears,” recalls the 17-year-old Montreal native. “I was so disappointed with myself, and I came home and was sure I’d messed it up.”

Janusauskas needn’t have worried. She landed the part of Natalie Lawson’s (Torri Higginson) middle child and has spent two seasons portraying the rarest of TV characters: a realistic, complicated teenage girl trying to form her own identity.

“She’s just trying to forge her own way, and she’s afraid that she’s going to lose her mother, so she feels this need to survive on her own almost,” she explains.

Janusauskas—who made her film debut in 2008’s Punisher: War Zone and just filmed Death Wish with Bruce Willis—joins us by phone to tell us more about Emma’s attempts to find herself in Season 2.

What were your first impressions of Emma when you got the part?
Stephanie Janusauskas: I related to her particularly because we’re both teenagers, and you go through the typical trials and tribulations of adolescence, and you end up finding yourself and forging relationships with guys and seeing that that’s not necessarily right for you—or maybe it is. And I think what I wanted to bring to her was a quality that she was a genuine person, and often times in television and films alike, you have this idea that teenagers are kind of empty-headed and their problems are kind of trivial and unimportant, and I didn’t want people to get that impression of Emma because I find that teenagers tend to be overlooked a lot, and there was importance in the difficulties that she overcame.

A lot of importance is put on Romy because she’s more outwardly troubled than Emma might be, and Emma is very independent and sometimes seen as selfish and bitchy, but it’s important to see that she’s just trying to forge her own way, and she’s afraid that she’s going to lose her mother, so she feels this need to survive on her own almost. I think it’s kind of important to realize that—what I was trying to bring to the character at least, I don’t know if I succeeded—was that quality of independence and strength.

Of Natalie’s three kids, Emma has seemed the most, to use your word, selfish in the face of her mom’s diagnosis. How do you think she is really handling it?
Romy is the one that’s often catered to. She’s the youngest, and with her anxiety and her more artistic tendencies, Natalie seems to relate to her a lot more, and Caleb is already so independent and has become our father figure almost. Much like the model of the middle child, Emma has been forgotten a bit. So as much as people say that she’s very outgoing and, like I said before, kind of selfish, I think she does keep to herself what her mother’s diagnosis means to her, mostly in the sense that she’s going to feel lost without her, but she’s trying to find her way in the world so that, when that happens, not everybody crumbles around her. It’s not a testimony to her heartlessness or anything, but rather to the fact that she loves her mom so much that she doesn’t want her spirit to leave behind all these broken shells of people she once knew.

Emma got her first job this season, but, instead of being herself, she invented stories about her background to Miranda. Why do you feel she needed to do that?
I think she just wanted to discover more facets of herself, and she was so used to being defined by a mother with cancer or as a sibling, a sister, a child with only a mother, abandoned by her father, and she’s trying to escape that. She does lie to her friend Miranda, but it’s so that she can escape her own life, and I don’t think it should be seen as an offense to anybody else. I think she suffers from low self-esteem like a lot of people, so she just wants to sculpt herself in a way that allows her more flexibility in who she might want to become. Obviously, we see that it doesn’t quite work out for her, but I think that she needed to experience that kind of degradation of values and morals about what her life was in order to realize that she’s happy with who she is. I think she needed that discovery process.

In this week’s episode, we find out more about Emma’s struggles with identity. What can you preview about that?
I think we’re going to see that her relationship with Miranda is kind of ambiguous, and viewers will read into it however they choose. But I think it’s important to see that all of this kind of speaks to Emma’s learning process to who she wants to become, to who she is becoming. She’s kind of learning about herself through lies, if you will, and I think that brings out her truest self to a certain degree.

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Emma’s dad, David, has said he wants custody of Emma and Romy should anything happen to Natalie. Do you think she has any interest in having a relationship with him?
Unlike Romy, I don’t think she has any interest in having a relationship with him, based on the fact that her mother raised her. Her father had nothing to do with who she is, who she’s become. She doesn’t need him, and I think that Romy does need him because she’s trying to find herself in a way that requires external validation, whereas Emma is comfortable not knowing him. She’s going to remain mad at him and that obviously kind of forces her to put too much emphasis on negative emotions, but at the same time–I mean, I’m kind of on Emma’s side, personally, because I really don’t like the father that David is—but she doesn’t need him and that’s the bottom line. He was absent during the time that she might have needed him most.

Emma and Romy seem to have gotten a bit closer this season. Is Emma trying to become a better big sister in Caleb’s absence?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily because of Caleb’s absence. I think that she’s not going to take on the parental figure that Romy doesn’t have. I think she’s going to be the supportive sister that Romy needs. Emma’s trying to fill that void and at the same time forge a connection that is unbreakable between them. Because, though they are so incredibly different in character, they’re bonded because of their mother’s illness, because obviously they’re sisters, but because they love each other and they love their family more than anything.

The cast of This Life seems pretty close. What’s your relationship like with your TV siblings, Julia Scarlett Dan and James Wotherspoon?
We act as siblings on set as well. We poke fun at each other, and we laugh, and we really do get along the way siblings would, and we’ve definitely connected in amazing ways. And the same can be said for the rest of the older actors as well. It makes acting so much easier and more honest when you’re working with not only such talented people but also with such lovely people.

Do you have a favourite episode or scene in Season 2?
The rest of the season holds some amazing moments, and I think there’s this symmetry between both Season 1 and 2 of kind of everybody diverging from each other and then coming together. Everybody’s going through their own problems, but the end of the season will be a pleasant surprise when we see everybody pull together. I think the final moments are some of my favourite little tidbits.

And what can viewers expect from Emma the rest of the season?
Kind of just this whole transformation that she’s embarked on, and you’re going to see her become more true to herself and to her family. More than that, she’s honest with herself for once, instead of trying to find herself in her boyfriend in the first season, and then the triathlon, and then this job, and Miranda, she’s finally going to come to terms with who she is. So I’m looking forward to the viewers seeing her progression.

This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson has been interviewing actors, writers and musicians for over 20 years. In addition to TV-Eh, her work has appeared in Curve, ROCKRGRL, Sound On Sight and Digital Journal. A native of Detroit, she grew up watching Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant on CBC, which led to a lifelong love of Canadian television. Her perpetual New Year's resolution is to become fluent in French.
A.R. Wilson
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