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BWW Interviews: Hayden Byerly of ABC Family's THE FOSTERS Blazes New Trail

On the trailblazing March 2nd episode of ABC Family's hit critically-acclaimed drama series THE FOSTERS, viewers witnessed a pair of 13-year-old best friends explore one of the most time-honored, sometimes awkward rituals of typical adolescence: declaring their attraction for one another with a kiss.

The only big difference this time around? The two best friends at the center of this blooming romance are both male.

In a scene that may very well have made history for being the youngest-ever dramatized same-sex smooch on a scripted American TV series, sensitive and shy Jude---stirringly portrayed by 14-year-old actor Hayden Byerly---receives a surprise kiss from his best bud Connor (played by 15-year-old Gavin Macintosh).

Check out the history-making scene HERE.

For many of the show's fans---particularly those who have adorably labeled (and, um, "shipped") the budding couple "Jonnor"---the kiss between the two questioning friends was a long time coming and a cause for much elated glee. Ever since the series began in the summer of 2013, the writers of THE FOSTERS have subtly (and quite cautiously) hinted at Jude's above-average introspective curiosity, displaying the tell-tale traits of a quiet, self-effacing young man who has persevered a complicated childhood, and is now trying to figure out his place in the world as well as his possible sexuality---all while still navigating a teenager's life.

This, of course, is just another layer in Jude's already fully-loaded baggage of drama: for years, he and slightly older half-sister Callie (Maia Mitchell) have unfortunately been bounced around in the San Diego foster care system before finally finding a loving, safe home with the beautifully mixed-race Adams-Foster clan, headed up by a (now) married lesbian couple, charter school vice-principal Lena (Sherri Saum) and police officer Stef (Teri Polo).

Before Callie and Jude's arrival, Lena and Stef had already been raising three children in their household: brooding musical prodigy Brandon (David Lambert), Stef's biological son from a previous marriage; and adopted twins Jesus (Jake T. Austin) and Mariana (Cierra Ramirez)---the former a girl-crazy star athlete and the latter a sassy, dance-loving typical teen. While Lena and Stef successfully adopts Jude (at the end of the first season), Callie's formal adoption hits a deliciously soapy, melodramatic snag when her long-lost biological father re-enters the picture.

Gavin Macintosh (left) and Hayden Byerly.
Photo by Tony Rivetti/ABC Family.

For his part, Jude meets kind, self-confident Connor who quickly befriends him, much to his delight. Later, when Jude is ostracized by classmates (and even his own sister) for sporting nail polish on his fingernails, Connor---in a sweet, swoon-worthy gesture of unconditional solidarity---decides to show up at school with painted nails, too. Awww.

Jude and Connor's close friendship, as expected, has had to endure multiple obstacles along the way, most notably Connor's father who initially refuses to let his son hang out with Jude, fearing Jude might be gay (Connor's dad changes his mind later when Jude vehemently denies the allegation). All the while, Jude continues to question himself and his unrequited feelings as Connor's inconsistent behavior and mixed messages continue to utterly confuse him.

That confusion came to a head in an episode a few weeks ago, when the two are shown secretly interlocking pinky-fingers together across a movie theater armrest while on a double-date with their respective female companions. That small but significant event set in motion the now-infamous kiss, further whetting the show's predominantly open-minded viewers' anticipation for what happens next.

Created by Bradley Bredeweg and former Queer As Folk star Peter Paige (and co-executive produced by singer/actress Jennifer Lopez), THE FOSTERS has not only offered a much-needed spotlight on modern, progressive foster parenting but has also shown great sensitivity and realism in its portrait of Jude's journey of self-discovery that's delicately appropriate for the character's age and mindset. Luckily for the series, they found their Jude in Byerly, whose exemplary performance as the youngest (and, dare I say, most keenly aware) member of the Adams-Foster brood since its debut has been quite riveting to watch.

Prior to the airing of the history-making March 2nd episode, BroadwayWorld contributing editor Michael L. Quintos posed a few questions to the young actor about his groundbreaking role, his life on set, and the significance of his character's existence in today's modern television landscape.

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Hi, Hayden! What was it like on the first day on the set of THE FOSTERS?

It was exciting! It was intimidating being with such amazing actors that I had watched on TV, like Jake T. Austin. It was honestly surreal.

What kind of environment is the set like? Are there long shooting hours? Do you set aside time for studies?

The environment on set is very welcoming to me. I love waking up early in the morning, walking onto the stage and seeing the faces of so many people that feel like family. I can only work for 9½ hours so that's usually the longest I'll ever be on set, but within that time I have to get 3 hours of school in. While the labor laws do make sure I have time to study, sometimes I'll do a little extra work on the weekends. I am homeschooled but I have a set teacher who works with me daily. He's awesome.

Cool! Speaking of people on the set feeling like family... it's really heartwarming seeing how the fictional Adams-Foster clan all love and support each other, like real-life families do. What's it like working with the cast that play your extended family?

On set we all feel and act just like a real family. I feel as though David, Maia, Cierra and Jake are my siblings and that Teri and Sherri are my other moms. We all have great chemistry on- and off-screen, which makes the scenes [we shoot for the show] feel even more real. I feel honored to work with so many amazing and talented people, both cast and crew.

Even at only 14 years old, your acting work on THE FOSTERS shows a lot of maturity and smart subtlety. When did you know being an actor was something you wanted to pursue?

I didn't know I wanted to be an actor---it just fell into my lap. I am truly thankful. I was always a bit socially awkward around kids my own age. I have an "old soul." Everyone says I am extremely mature. Acting, The Fosters, me being in L.A. ...it all just makes sense.

So, if you weren't an actor, what do you think would be another career you might be interested in?

If I wasn't acting I would be moving towards law school to become a lawyer. It's something I've been fascinated with for a long time and if I were not acting, I would be focusing on that.

Besides having the same face, do you and your character Jude have anything else in common?

I think that one thing Jude and I have in common is our sense of awareness. Just like Jude, I think I am very observant and aware of everything going on around me.

Right from the start of this groundbreaking series, Jude has---at least partly speaking for myself---been the show's most likable, endearing character... perhaps because as the youngest, the most sensitive, and the most introverted in the blended household, he's often caught in the middle of all the drama around him whether he likes it or not. Is Jude a hard or easy character to play?

I think that Jude is a hard character to play mostly because he is a very young, sensitive kid who's been through a lot. Some of the things Jude has experienced are very difficult for me to connect with because I haven't been through a lot of those struggles personally.

That's probably good, then, that you haven't been through all that Jude has suffered. So, as the person who plays him, do the writers/producers let you know what's in store for your character well in advance? Did you know ahead of time that Jude's specific storyline was to go down this particular path?

When we first started, the writers would talk with me and my mom to make sure we were okay with the content of Jude's storyline. I think everyone wanted to make sure I was secure enough in myself before diving into Jude's undefined sexuality. As time moves forward and everyone gets to know me better, I think they all realize I'm mature and professional enough to handle whatever comes my way. I only learn of plot points a little ahead of everyone else. The writers and producers tell me some of the very important things before the other cast knows, but, for the most part, I learn things about Jude just as everyone else does.

Even since season 1, the show has been pretty great in dropping little "hints" about Jude's continuing discovery---and, maybe, now further exploration---of his true inner feelings about his sexual orientation... How did you and the producers decide to approach the character knowing that these issues will be touched on by the show?

When I auditioned for Jude, it was in the breakdown [for the character] that he was a little different. We shot the pilot, the show was picked up, and it was at that point that my mom started asking a million and one questions. The writers knew they wanted to play with Jude's character, making him unique and completely different from the other kids, and we also knew from the pilot that Jude had dressed up in women's clothing. There were many times my mom would say, "Um, I'm not sure I'm ready for that!" But the writers were great about waiting until we were all ready and comfortable to move Jude's storyline into the direction that it has gone. I love how it's all turning out. It's not rushed. It's just natural.

(from left): Madison Pettis, Gavin Macintosh, Hayden Byerly, Izabela Vidovic.
Photo by Adam Taylor/ABC Family.

I agree. And judging from the Feb. 9th episode, it seems your character has taken another bold step in exploring his feelings with Connor, played by Gavin MacIntosh. What was it like filming that scene in the movie theater?

The scene in the movie theater was a very intense and serious scene. Gavin and I are good friends on and off set, so when we're filming a scene, we try to be very professional but fun, too. The movie theater scene was not very long on camera but filming the scene took multiple set-ups and takes. As soon as the cameras cut, Gavin and I always find a way to have fun. I think because we're good friends, it was never awkward between the two of us.

Okay, so without revealing too much, can you give us a few hints as to what's in store for Jude in upcoming episodes?

In the next few episodes, one thing that we see is Jude starting to become more acquainted with Daria [Madison Pettis] and Taylor [Izabela Vidovic]. In an upcoming episode Jude, Connor and the girls have some fun---but also get into a little mischief. That mischief leads to something totally unexpected that could leave the group dramatically changed forever. We see Jude struggle with the decisions Callie is forced to make, too. There a lot of changes for Jude!

Exciting! Alright... Somewhere in the world, a young kid who's questioning his/her own inner feelings just like Jude is glad to see a show like THE FOSTERS explore what they, too, are going through themselves. Do you have a message that you want to share with that kid and the thousands of other kids just like him/her?

Trust yourself. You are the only one who knows who you are. Don't let anyone tell you who to be or how to act. I would say that no matter what you're going though in life and no matter what anyone else thinks, the most important thing is that you accept and love yourself. It's always easier said than done but learning to love yourself is very important.

Beautifully stated. What do you hope viewers will take away from seeing Jude's journey unfold on the show?

Be accepting of others who are different from you. It's okay to be different. Be understanding to those who are struggling with their own inner battles. I hope that everyone who watches the show and experiences these struggles through Jude will learn to be more comfortable with themselves and others.

And finally, what's your favorite thing about being on THE FOSTERS?
My favorite thing about being on The Fosters is that I'm surrounded by loving people. Everyone from the crew to the executives truly cares about me. I'm thankful for The Fosters for not only educating me on topics such as the foster system and dysfunctional family issues, but also provoking conversations for families watching.

Follow Contributing Editor Michael L. Quintos on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos from THE FOSTERS courtesy ©ABC Family.

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THE FOSTERS airs Monday nights at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC Family.


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