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Fans of Netflix’s On My Block may remember four teenagers peeking over the fence at a celebration in the finale, a nostalgic reference to the pilot. These characters are the new stars of Freeridge, the spin-off to the beloved series. Ciara Riley Wilson plays Demi, a 15-year-old spiritual empath with a penchant for tarot cards and crystals. The show follows the new Freeridge “core four” as they unleash a curse that brings misfortune into their lives. I sat down with Wilson to discuss her time on set, feeling represented on screen, and the things she’s learned so far.
Hayley Palmer: Can you tell me a little about your background?
Ciara Riley Wilson: Yeah, I was born in Portland and grew up doing competition dance. I was a very creative and outgoing kid. When I was 11, I took an acting camp in Los Angeles over the summer and realized it’s something I wanted to do professionally. And that’s kind of how it all started.
HP: What was your experience like growing up mixed-Asian and queer, both in the film industry as a child and also in Portland?
CRW: I didn’t have a lot of friends who were people of color growing up. I really identified as white. It was weird to me that people would think I was otherwise, but when I came to L.A. I was surrounded by so many people of color I started to realize, “You know, this is my identity, and this is part of who I am.” When I first started acting, I was really pushed to be this, like, ambiguous person, not identifying with my Filipino heritage. I could be anything. I was even going out for Hispanic roles. Then at a point in time I was like, “I don’t want to be denied of my culture.”
Now I’m on this journey of really loving who I am and being proud of what makes me, me. In terms of queer representation, I recently came out, a little over a year ago. It has been a really big weight lifted off my shoulders, being authentic online and being able to talk publicly about these things that make me who I am.
HP: I was going to ask, when we’ve interviewed other mixed actors they say it can be difficult navigating casting calls when character descriptions never really match their identity.
CRW: It’s funny being a teenager and really hyper aware of the way I was perceived, because I had to look at these character descriptions and be like, “Am I ambiguous? Do I look half? Do I look full?” Up until the last two years, I had never gotten an audition that called for a Filipino person. So when I started getting those roles, I was like, “This is what everyone else has felt like for so long.” And for Freeridge, it was lovely. It called specifically for Asian Americans, not just ambiguous or whatever. It felt like something that was made for me, which was really special.
HP: Can you remember the first time that you felt represented on screen, in a book, or on stage?
CRW: I don’t think I ever felt fully represented until I saw the Netflix movie The Half of It with Leah Lewis. It’s one of my favorite movies ever. I think she’s a phenomenal actress, and not only is she Asian American, I feel like I really see my facial features in her as well.
HP: So, moving on to Freeridge, what drew you to it and On My Block? Were you familiar with the show before you auditioned?
CRW: Yeah, I was a huge fan. I remember watching it right when it came out. I’d never seen a teen comedy with like a literal all-brown cast, and I was like, “Wow, that’s so cool.” It was so hilarious and brash and funny, but also so real and vulnerable and true. When Freeridge came along and I read the scripts and realized it was that same tone, I was really, really excited to be a part of the series.
HP: What are you hoping audiences will learn from Demi or Freeridge at large?
CRW: I think Demi specifically goes through a really important character arc in terms of something that she said in the past that was harmful to Cam, who is the bisexual character. She goes through this really big journey of growth and hard conversations, learning compassion and accountability and forgiveness. I really think viewers, whether they’re part of the queer community or not, are really going to resonate with that storyline. I hope that they can learn a lot about their own experiences and feel seen.
HP: How do you think you and Demi are similar, and how do you think you differ?
CRW: I think of Demi as a younger version of myself. At the core we’re very similar, but she hasn't learned a lot of growing up yet. Sometimes her emotions move faster than her brain can handle, and she says things without thinking. So I feel like I have a little bit more of a grasp on that, as I’m a bit older.
HP: It’s awesome that you kind of get to play a version of yourself that has a lot to learn. Is there anything you learned from your time on Freeridge that you'll take with you into the future?
CRW: I think on set, I learned how to kind of heal my perfectionism. A lot of my career was really rooted in that. Going into this project, I knew it was gonna be really fast paced and it’s my first series regular, so it was a lot to take on. I learned to just let it be what it is, because maybe we didn’t have time for another take, and trust in my performance and move on without always being in control of my perfectionism.
HP: So you’re not only an actress, but also a dancer and a fashion designer. How have those different aspects of yourself kind of affected each other?
CRW: I mean, dance was like my first love. It’s what I did mostly when I first came out to L.A., and it will always be a big part of me. Through seasons of life, I find myself coming back to dance and using it as sort of a therapy. Fashion design is something that has come more recently in my life, and I absolutely love it. I love how much it can weave into my life as an actor. You know, getting to make my outfit for Freeridge press and for the Freeridge premiere and getting to promote my work alongside my acting is really, really fun.
HP: I was gonna say, I saw that you designed a few outfits for press events recently. And I saw that really amazing top you made from patches that was inspired by Demi. Could you tell me a bit about that as well as your journey with fashion design?
CRW: I started sewing in quarantine because I was bored, like the rest of the people in the world. I started out just hemming my pants because I’m pretty short. Then I started upcycling and doing a lot of stuff with thrifted clothes I had laying around, and I fell in love with the process of creating a garment into something new. When Freeridge was happening, I was like, “This is the perfect opportunity to come out the gates and make outfits for press.” The patch shirt was a bunch of different patches I got from the fashion district in downtown L.A., and they’re all little Easter eggs.
HP: I’ll be zooming in on your Instagram photo to try to find the Easter eggs after I watch [laughs]. Did you get to have any input on Demi’s clothing design on set, or did you learn anything from the wardrobe team?
CRW: Yeah, the wardrobe team was amazing! They basically had tons of racks of clothing on our first fitting and were like, “What, to you, feels like Demi? Just pull your favorite things.” That’s such a rare experience. We created this whole vibe for Demi where—just like me in real life—she’s very DIY with her clothes. They wanted a lot of the alterations to look like Demi did it herself in her bedroom. So a lot of things were done with safety pins and ragged scissors, and I thought that was such a fun, little detail.
HP: What are you looking forward to in the future? Any future projects or life events that you want to let the world know about?
CRW: Well, I’m very excited for the launch of Freeridge and to see what people think. I’m also looking forward to developing the fashion design side of my career a little bit more. I hope to come out with a brand this year and see where that takes me.
Published on February 13, 2023
Words by Hayley Palmer
Hayley Palmer is a student living on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She spends her free time sitting around with friends, re-reading the same books, and playing ice hockey. Hayley makes all sorts of art, from digital illustration to photography to collages. You can find her work on Instagram @twohalftruths.