Laura Hollis, a nave girl from the provinces, arrives at Silas University and soon discovers that behind the keg parties and social clubs lurks a dark secret. When her roommate disappears and a mysterious goth beauty named Carmilla takes her place, Laura goes out on a mission to solve the mystery. And she does it the way a young woman in the 2010s would do it: She makes a video blog.
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Whatever the method, Canadian web series “Carmilla” has become an Internet sensation almost overnight with 8 million views and a huge social-media following. Loosely based on the 19th-century vampire novella of the same name by Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, “Carmilla” joins a growing segment of free web TV series. Some boast high-profile production companies and people like Warner Bros., Neil Patrick Harris and “X-Men” director Bryan Singer.
“Carmilla,” written by Jordan Hall and Ellen Simpson, has just been renewed for a second season by its executive producer and sole sponsor, U by Kotex. Its star, Natasha Negovanlis, plays Carmilla, the 334-year-old vampire.
Negovanlis, 25, a theater actress from Toronto, trained in opera and classical music — on YouTube she can be seen singing in “The Mikado” at age 17. “Carmilla” is her breakthrough internationally.
Elise Bauman, who plays Laura, was cast after a rigorous set of auditions because, as Negovanlis puts it in an interview with Haaretz, “I had the best chemistry with her.” Negovanlis, for her part, looks a bit like her cinematic idol Audrey Hepburn; just add biker boots.
The series featured 36 episodes, each two to seven minutes long. It was shot in one room from a single angle. Negovanlis says the restrictive format gave the writers a chance to be very creative.
“My character was almost always in the room, but in certain episodes I very rarely had lines. Spencer [Maybee], the director, was generous in giving me the opportunity to be creative with the things I did in the background. The room was a character in itself,” Negovanlis says.
“It was very work-intensive. We shot everything, all 36 episodes, in four days. Other productions shoot about six pages of script every day, and we shot about 40 pages of script per day.”
Sarcastic and snarky
The short episodes are perfect for binge-watching. They’re fast but lighthearted. Carmilla is fierce but also funny.
“Carmilla is indeed serious most of the time, so I added some elements from me and my background in comedy,” Negovanlis says. “She was written as sarcastic and snarky, so it’s hard to play that role without making her mean. I was lucky they liked my sense of humor.”
The heavy use of texts by characters that appear off-series on Twitter and Tumblr have helped make “Carmilla” go viral. There’s also extra video material, like “How to tell if your roommate is a vampire.”
“Initially I was a bit overwhelmed by the fans,” Negovanlis says. “I went from having about 500 Twitter followers to 30,000 followers in four months. It was hard to get used to, for sure. Luckily for me, 99 percent of what I get in social media is positive.”
She says some fans have a hard time telling the difference between her and her character, but that’s a compliment. Her family and friends say she's so different on the show.
“We do have some similarities — I think I was appropriately cast; by no means would I ever be cast as a character like Laura,” she says. “I think I have an unusual amount of experience for someone my age, and I was definitely typecast as a more edgy character.”
That life experience included touring North America with a professional children’s choir, studying classical music in college and writing her own music. Negovanlis notes that despite her near cult status as Carmilla, she’s not yet a full-time actor. She works three jobs as a bartender, waitress and worker in a farmers’ market. And she does volunteer work for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
“Carmilla” joins a host of Canadian series featuring queer women in a matter-of-fact way such as “Lost Girl,” “Orphan Black” and “Strange Empire.”
Moving on from Buffy
The unapologetic approach to Laura’s romantic feelings for Carmilla and Danny her teaching assistant, and those between Laura’s geeky friends Perry and LaFontaine, sits well with the message of powerful women. Negovanlis doesn’t label her sexuality, though she has referred to herself as bisexual.
“What’s nice about the show is that it encourages people not to be afraid to be themselves, to know that there are people who love and support you no matter what your sexuality is,” she says. “I think we’ve become role models for many queer young people, and for me that’s wonderful and very rewarding.”
In 1999, when Buffy’s best friend Willow came out in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” her friends were a bit uncomfortable. In “Carmilla” and other current shows, no one has to come out; queerness is treated as part of the furniture.
So has Negovanlis’ generation made the leap into treating queerness as mainstream?
“We’re not there yet. There are more queer characters on TV, and that’s exciting, but there are still coming-out stories,” she says.
“It’s important, but what’s refreshing about Carmilla is that there is no coming-out story — neither the relationship nor the sexuality is the main story. The story is about young women solving a mystery, friends helping each other, and that’s great.”
Negovanlis notes that people who don’t identify as queer enjoy the show. Straight men watch it. Viewers accept queer characters and strong women.
“I hope the world has changed, but unfortunately that’s not the case for all the queer people I know. I’m lucky to be living in Toronto, which is an open-minded place; I’m lucky I went to a high school for the performing arts and I have a family that’s very accepting,” she says.
“So my sexual identity and who I choose as friends were never an issue. But a two-hour drive from Toronto homophobia is alive and well, and so is misogyny.”
Negovanlis says she has been criticized by both women and queer people. “Prejudice doesn’t come just from straight people. I believe in feminism, but that doesn’t mean I hate men,” she says.
“On a positive note, the biggest thing for me is to have a sense of humor and humility. I was at an international TV conference the other day rocking the red carpet, getting the star treatment. And the next day I was working and someone made a mess on the toilet seat — excuse me if I’m gross — and I had to clean it. I just laughed about it.”