'The Fosters' EP Previews the New Guy in Callie's Life, Lena and Stef's "Challenges"

"When you have so many children, it’s very stressful on any marriage and it’s hard for them to make their relationship a priority when kids have needs," EP Joanna Johnson tells THR.
ABC Family/Adam Taylor

ABC Family’s The Fosters returns for a third season on Monday after a car crash in the season finale left viewers wondering which characters will be back. However, the cliffhanger is just a small piece of The Fosters' appeal. Initially focused on the flawed foster care system, the drama has expanded into a mature examination of sexuality, rape trauma, and the complex relationships between a large, blended family, led by two strong women. The series was earned praise for challenging stereotypes, and breaking new ground, especially as it continues to explore a burdening romantic relationship between two 13-year-old boys.

Ahead of the season premiere, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with executive producer Joanna Johnson about a renewed transgender storyline, which new character Callie (Maia Mitchell) may be cozying up with, and where the newfound relationship between Jude (Hayden Byerly) and Connor (Gavin MacIntosh) will go.

Last season, your series made news by having two young boys kiss. Did you anticipate the big reaction you received from the media and viewers? Did you mostly receive supportive feedback?

We mostly received very positive feedback and incredible feedback from gay and lesbian kids who are so grateful to see themselves reflected on television. I don’t think we realized that it was the youngest kiss between two boys that has ever been on television. That surprised us. To be honest, I was really excited at how many people really embraced it and loved it, whether they were straight or gay.

Jude and Connor’s relationship is really unique to television because both of them are coming to terms with their sexuality simultaneously. How do you remain true to what they’re going through when you write for these two characters?

We try and keep it grounded. We spent a long time developing that relationship and developing Jude, not really knowing if he’s gay and not wanting to label himself. He’s still going to struggle with that. Not to say that he isn’t gay, but he’s been labeled his whole life as a foster kid, a kid whose father was in prison. He’s had labels put on him, and he doesn’t want to take on another one. He just wants to care for Connor and be a regular kid. When we write them, we try to be sensitive and we write them as fairly chaste. They’re only 13 and we certainly want to keep a certain innocence about them, the same as if Jude were dating a girl. We’re just really exploring it. What are the stories you tell about two thirteen year old boys who are dating? It’s new ground so we try and be as true as we can. For most of the writers, things were so different when we were kids. So it’s been important to talk to young LGBT kids and really hear their experiences because they’ve certainly grown up in a world where there’s still some intolerance, but they’re much freer than we were as kids. If I was telling this story about when I grew up, it would be secret.

The marriage of Lena (Sherri Saum) and Stef (Teri Polo) has so far remained solid, even with its challenges. With Lena potentially involved with her boss Principal Porter (Annika Marks), that makes for some complicated drama. What’s on the horizon for their marriage? Are you going to address the fact that it’s the principal kissing the vice principal which really complicates things at work?

That’s going to be a big part of Lena and Stef’s relationship in this next season. One of the things we want to explore is do you tell your spouse everything that ever happens? Obviously, Lena didn’t kiss Monte. Monte kissed her. I think that Lena struggles. She’s thinking, do I tell my wife what happened and then she’s very uncomfortable because I’m working with this person? Am I going to be uncomfortable working with this person? Certainly, Lena’s not looking to have an affair. When you have so many children, it’s very stressful on any marriage and it’s hard for them to make their relationship a priority when kids have needs. Stef and Lena handle things very differently. There have been issues about Stef being secretive and that bothers Lena. Now Lena’s in the position with a secret as well. But they’re definitely having challenges in their marriage and trying to work through it.

Chris Warren was just cast to play Ty, another foster kid whose life will be intersecting with Callie’s. How would you describe his role? Is he a potential love interest for her?

Let’s just say that he’s a very charming, good-looking actor and character. Callie sees a lot of herself in him. Callie wants to try and help him even though he poses some challenges to her. She’ll have to deal with whether she can trust him. They have an amazing chemistry and he’s a very big part of the show this season.

Your show tackles a number of hot button issues in the cultural landscape of today. What issues are you going to be covering in this season that might either be new to television or feel new because of the perspective of this open minded show?

Well, we’re going to have the actor Tom Phelan back who plays Cole, and the actor is transitioning so we’re going to do a story about transgender teens and transitioning at that age. We’ll be talking about labels. There’s LGBTQ now so there’s a lot of need in the community to have a label for what you are. But also the desire not to be labeled, so we’ll talk about those things.

We’ll be back at Girls United dealing with at-risk girls. We'll be dealing with a character who is bipolar, but different than what Sophia has. We’re going to be talking a little bit about doctors and getting second opinions in the medical field, especially women who have the genes that make them predisposed to ovarian or breast cancer.

Oh, and we’re going to be dealing with racism and the N-word. That affects Lena’s brother, who in the Christmas episode used that derogatory, horrible word towards her mother and how that has made him estranged from the family. We’re going to be talking about the power of words and forgiveness, like does saying a racist word make you a racist?

I enjoy the different levels of tolerance you’re exploring with Connor’s dad expressing the idea, “I don’t care if your son is gay, I just don’t want mine to be.” Is this in between tolerance and acceptance or is it bigoted?

It is bigotry – in some ways of the worst kind. We talk about how being bullied at home is much worse than any kind of bullying that you face out in the world because it’s from the people who are supposed to love you and believe in you and protect you. It’s very hard for Connor because he doesn’t have a safe place at home to be gay really and he doesn’t have the support that Jude has.

What else can viewers really look forward to in season three?

They can look forward to a new, compelling, cute boy who comes into Callie’s life and the family’s lives, and the complications and feelings that could bring up for Brandon. Mike is going to get involved in helping AJ, which will be challenging for Brandon especially if Callie has romantic feelings for this kid. Brandon will be at music school and meet another girl there and some other young prodigies. We’ll be able to look forward to see how Connor and Jude navigate their relationship and whether they decide to be out at school or with their friends, and how that affects them. There will be some fun adventures that will surprise everyone.

The third season of The Fosters premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on ABC Family.

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