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January 28, 2016

Challenging Roles

Annika Marks challenges herself and others.

Brooke Carlock Miller

Annika Marks loves a challenge.

Whether it’s urging Californians to care about the drought, lobbying for empowering roles for women on stage and screen, humanizing controversial characters, or creating safe homes for children in her hometown of Los Angeles and as far away as Nairobi, Marks tackles each mission with passion and purpose.

Born in Sweden, but raised mainly in Bellvue, Washington, Marks moved to New York to attend the Circle in the Square Theater School.  She hoped to make a living in theater, “which is sort of funny and sweet, looking back on it.  But that’s what I really wanted… and [theater is] always going to have my heart. It was sort of the nucleus for me.”

Marks expanded her repertoire to include film and television, landing small roles in Columbia’s Mona Lisa Smile, NBC’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Southland, CBS’s NCIS: New Orleans and Battle Creek

More doors opened when she starred in Fox Searchlight’s highly acclaimed film The Sessions, for which she won the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Acting along with her co-stars John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood.  

Now residing in Los Angeles, Marks currently stars as Principal Monte Porter on ABC Family’s The Fosters.  Season two of the show left viewers aghast as Marks’s Monte shared a secret kiss with the married Assistant Principal Lena Foster (played by Sherri Saum). 

Viewers raged at first, hating to see anything come between title characters Lena and Stef (Teri Polo), a lesbian couple raising a group of racially diverse foster children. 

But then a strange thing happened.  Marks’s compelling portrayal of Monte left viewers torn.  They liked her.  Many identified with her confusion and uncertainty as she tiptoed into the world of same-sex relationships for the first time. 

As Marks says, “I’m so grateful to the writers for setting [Monte] up that way, as someone with a well-established career and network, who gets divorced, moves to a new town, changes professions, and then embraces the more authentic sexuality that she was probably always battling at some level.

“It’s so exciting for me to play this woman becoming a more authentic version of herself… We have such a giant LGBT community that supports us, and even the fan base that wanted to hate [Monte] found themselves reflected in her on screen.  That’s what makes her lovable, that even when she’s a little bit sloppy about discovering who she is, she’s being honest about it.” 

Season three of The Fosters resumed January 18th on Freeform (formerly ABC Family) and will continue to explore Monte’s self-discovery. 

Marks seems drawn to the challenge of portraying strong, complicated female characters like Monte Porter.  In the film Anguish, she plays the mother of a girl with a mental illness: “It’s a great, dark, psychological drama with three women at the center of it, which feels timely and important.” 

For the film Grace, she “spent a lot of time in open AA meetings and did a lot of wonderful research” to play an alcoholic struggling with recovery. 

Marks chooses the characters she plays with a purpose in mind:  “I do feel like being a woman in this moment, it’s sort of our responsibility… so many of the jobs that we get we’re sort of put in these very typical female boxes as actresses.  If we want to change that, we change it ourselves, so I feel some sort of responsibility right now as a female artist.”

Interspersing theater work with her roles on television and film, in July 2015 Marks tackled her most controversial and challenging role to date.  Starring in the one-woman play All American Girl, by Wendy Graf, she portrayed Katie-- a young, American, Christian girl from the suburbs of Boston-- who spirals into Islamic jihadism and terrorism.

All-American Girl was something I’d never done before.  I played 17 different characters!  To explore how someone becomes radicalized, what the process is in someone becoming an extremist, and if violence is ever justified… It was really extreme work, and I felt thoroughly exhausted… and well utilized,”  Marks laughs.  

Then she sobers, “That character is so timely…  especially with the San Bernardino shootings.  It’s hard.  It’s fulfilling, and also really difficult to feel like you’re reflecting something so dark and so current.”

Another current topic that is close to Annika Marks’s heart is the California drought.  A self-proclaimed “outdoor girl,” she recently co-wrote, produced, and starred in a series of bawdy and hilarious vignettes urging Californians to use less water. 

The series, called Stay Filthy, Cali, came about when Marks and her friend Cerina Vincent “wanted to do something about the drought, something to bring attention to it.  I find that typically, PSAs preach to the choir, and you don’t get very far because they’re not that entertaining, so we thought that we could make something funny and important.” 

Once Marks and her co-stars, including Sharon Lawrence, Samm Levine, Jordan Ladd, Chad Linberg, and Bruce Campbell, created the California ads, they launched a similar series in New Mexico, where the episodes earned a Social Impact Award from the Albuquerque Film and Music Experience. 

The award is a fitting one for Marks, who can often be found on red carpets for charity events.  “I guess the only real purpose of the celebrity stuff… is you can be an advocate for the things you care about,” she says.  “It’s mostly a reminder to hold myself up to that standard, to use the platform that I’ve been lucky enough to have to talk about things that matter and are close to my heart. 

“My sister is the Executive Director of the Hamomi Children’s Center in Nairobi, Kenya [hamomi.org], and I advocate for that quite a bit.  I also volunteer for a group called A Sense of Home [asenseofhome.org] that creates homes for foster youth who have ‘aged out’ of the system in Los Angeles. 

And there’s a third organization that I care so much about called Save a Child’s Heart [saveachildsheart.com], which provides heart transplants for children all over the world.”

As Marks speaks about her charity work, it’s clear that this particular challenge is one she finds more important than any other:  “You know, it’s fun to promote yourself, and put pictures up [online].  I’m not anti-fun, and I love the silly stuff, but I just think it has to be in balance with the things that matter and can change the world for the better.”

So, what challenges will Marks face next?  The actress will guest star as a character named Brooke on Flaked, a Netflix-original comedy series starring Will Arnett, which is set to premiere in February 2016.  Marks will also try her hand at directing for the first time in The Games We Play

“It’s a short that I wrote, and I’m excited that my fiance Rich [Newey] and I will be co-directing… it will be my first attempt to personally direct something.” 

Marks’s resume-- writer, producer, activist, actress on stage and screen, and soon director--  is, like her characters, a lesson in diversity. 

“It’s always about empowering myself and giving myself a voice that is bigger than just being an actor.  You’re really dependent on other people creating work that you’re passionate about as an actor, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to play some characters that are metamorphosing in such extraordinary ways…

"As long as there’s humanity behind it, I find it fascinating.  I’d [also] like to have my own voice, and so for me, that’s the challenge now, the challenge of wanting to tell stories, not just be part of them.’” 

Annika Marks is ready to tackle whatever comes next.

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