An accomplished actress and Wilmingtonian, on paper it seems like Briana Venskus fits the bill to a tee for 2019 Azalea Queen. She has starred in numerous film and television roles, most recently in “The Walking Dead,” “Agents of SHIELD,” “Grace and Frankie,” and “Supergirl.” Having attended North Carolina University School of the Arts where she studied theater, her blood bleeds Tar Heel Blue. But it also bleeds for equal rights—and loudly.
The 72nd Azalea Festival has a representative who has been an outspoken supporter of the LGBTQIA community and identifies as bisexual—something we here at encore applaud and welcome with open arms. It’s a step in the right direction for a Southern festival steeped in tradition and often times old ways of behavior not always inclusive to marginalized groups.
Already, Venskus has faced backlash from local comments on Azalea Fest’s Facebook page regarding an Instagram post. She flips off casting directors for turning her down for a role for not being authentically gay enough. encore writer B’ellana Duquesne interviewed the queen last week via phone about her impending coronation on Wednesday.
encore (e): You recently mentioned you were not chosen for a TV role because you were perceived as “not LGBTQ enough.” Yet, you have been a strong voice for the LGBTQ community in film for a while. Does it frustrate you to face these types of perceptions that still exist in the industry?
Briana Venskus (BV): Yes, it is frustrating—and in a way it reflects on the industry images, or should I say “stereotypes,” that producers, casting directors and directors have about LGBT characters. I mean, an actor should be able to bring whatever experiences to a role are needed, not just the stereotype.
e: So how do you feel about LGBTQ actors playing LGBTQ roles? Trans actors, in particular, have criticized casting cis-actors in trans roles.
BV: I understand that point of view. It’s important an actor can understand the perspective of a character, and knowing the life experiences of a trans person in particular, but for any character, it is important. If the actor is to genuinely portray the character, to bring those experiences to the role. It is also important that diversity of roles bring more opportunity to more diverse actors, so I think the trend in casting is a good thing.
e: After living on the West Coast, how does it feel to come back to North Carolina?
BV: I love Wilmington, I love North Carolina and the East Coast. Having grown up here, I can appreciate the difference from L.A.—particularly the pace of life. I still have family and friends here, so being in North Carolina is always a special time for me.
e: You are possibly the first native Wilmingtonian, certainly the first in a while, to be named Azalea Queen. Does the festival have a particular meaning and do you have any particular memories connected to the Azalea Festival?
BV: I never was invited to any of the private or adult-oriented parties and events because I was so young. But I remember the parades and any kid knows how special a parade is and I remember all the excitement that is around the town when the festival was here.
e: Where did you grow up? Tell me about your family life.
BV: I was a pretty normal kid—somewhat rambunctious and outgoing, a typical theatre kid. I loved the outdoors and the beach. I grew up in the Wrightsville Beach area so I spent a typical beach kid’s life exploring the outdoors. I had a very supportive family so I can say my childhood was pretty good.
e: Were you always drawn to performing?
BV: I remember watching Robin Williams on TV and saw how he could freely express himself. I really liked “Mork & Mindy,” and “Hook” was released about that time. I wanted to be the kind of person who could project that kind of energy.
High school was different than most because I went to North Carolina University School of the Arts, so I was allowed, maybe even encouraged to express myself, but that age is pretty difficult for almost everyone. I had to deal with typical high school issues but it was mostly pretty good.
e: When did you know you were different—I mean, how did you identify?
BV: I really didn’t feel the need to self-identify, I mean I knew I was attracted to both men and women, but I didn’t think I had to declare myself. If I had to make a choice I guess I can say I’m bisexual, but at the time I was just a typical kid that age going through all of the discovery of who I am, with all of the physical and emotional changes that go on at that age.
e: You have worked both in front of and behind the camera. Do you have a preference?
BV: I think having worked behind the camera gives me a certain perspective; knowing what goes on gives me something to take to my work as an actor. That helps a lot and I really enjoy my work as a production assistant, but I think being an actor is really what allows me to express my talent and what I enjoy the most.
e: What would you say to the North Carolina legislature as they consider new proposals to reinvigorate film in Wilmington? Do you think being selected Azalea Festival Queen gives you a platform to speak on the subject?
BV: I was pretty young when “Dawson’s Creek” and later “One Tree Hill” were in Wilmington, so I wasn’t ready to work on any of the local productions, but I remember seeing the location shooting and visiting Screen Gems’ lot. It’s part of how I knew that I wanted a career in the industry.
I think they should be aware of the economic impact it has when hundreds of people are working on a production. Take a look at Atlanta and how much the film industry has impacted there. I’m not saying Wilmington should take on the scale of Atlanta, but they should take a look at the economic benefits that happened when film was more present in Wilmington, and see how much it benefited not only Wilmington but the entire area.
I think repealing HB2 was a good first step. I understand there were reasons for both sides of the issue, but anytime you can take steps to remove discrimination and increase diversity it’s a good thing.
e: Where do you see your career headed? What’s in store for the future?
BV: I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve had a chance to work on a number of different shows and have kept pretty busy. I think I’d like to find a role on a show that was more regular. Perhaps a role that was stable for a couple of years that I could grow with.
e: Be careful what you wish for; I hear 100 hour work weeks are not uncommon.
BV: (Laughs!) Maybe you’re right but I think I could handle it.
e: How about your personal life? Love, family, children?
BV: No plans for any of that right now. I’m pretty much focused on my career and my work. I’m in my 30s now, so I suppose I might start thinking about family things, but I really haven’t thought much about anything but my career right now.
e: Is there anything you would like North Carolinians to remember about your time as Azalea Queen?
BV: I think it’s very special to be part of something I have known ever since I was a child and am happy to be honored this way.