'Most of you are wondering who the heck I am!" It's Sunday night in Toronto at the Canadian Screen Awards and Natasha Negovanlis has just won the Fan Choice Award for her role as a lesbian vampire on the Web series Carmilla. She's not wrong.
Negovanlis is mostly an unknown name in the traditional world of film and TV, but online she is beloved by a global fan base of gay and queer millennials that watch her in three-to-seven-minute increments, adoringly. Those fans – who gave Carmilla more than 55 million views on YouTube – had spoken, and in so doing thrust their star into the spotlight of an audience of Canadian media institutions and gatekeepers, from Telefilm to the National Film Board, who were already wondering where the future of homegrown content and production is going. In the moment, the quick and dirty answer seemed to be: right where Negovanlis stood.
The 26-year-old performer dedicated her win to her online fans and offered a rallying call for more diverse depictions of queer sexuality. "It has been an honour and a privilege to provide for more positive on-screen representation for the queer community – for my community," she said. "This is for my fans who feel like they don't belong, or who feel like an outsider – I'm still very much the little girl who used to get shoved into lockers – so this one is for all of you."
In an interview the day after the CSAs, Negovanlis replayed those adrenalin-spiked moments, and about her choice to call out the lack of gay representation in much of film and TV. "It definitely became even more political in the moment than I expected it to be, but it was important to me to be as honest as possible about who I am and who my fans are. After all, it is a fan's choice award," she says. "What's special about our Web series is that it's given a voice to queer youth who need that voice and need the representation."
The night was also special for the company it put her in: "Although Tatiana Maslany is not queer, she's such an excellent ally, and she plays a number of queer characters on Orphan Black," Negovanlis adds.
Growing up in Toronto, Negovanlis, who identifies as queer or pansexual, didn't have many gay screen icons to choose from. She discovered The L Word and held fast to it. Now she wonders if she's filling the gap for her own growing fan base, a group of 96-per-cent female-identifying viewers who refer to themselves as "creampuffs." Carmilla's creampuffs are an echo of "marshmallows," the collective moniker that stalwart fans of the cult-TV series Veronica Mars lovingly adopted because of their soft spot for the show.
The Web series is very loosely based on the novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu from 1872, which cautions against same-sex love and moralizes lesbian lust. The revamped Carmilla – which just wrapped its third and final season and also stars Elise Bauman – flips the script to celebrate its characters' sexuality. "Two things that were on my acting bucket list were to play a vampire and to play a lesbian," Negovanlis says, "and I got to kill two birds with one stone."
Carmilla is hosted on the YouTube channel KindaTV, and Negovanlis appreciates the nimbleness that working in a digital format allows. "There's certainly a freedom when working in digital, because it's a very small production," she says. "We had a lot more freedom to be queer and to be proud of that." That freedom, though, comes in part from partnering with sponsor Kotex, but Negovanlis doesn't have any qualms with producing branded content. "I think when the brand message aligns with the message of the show, there's really nothing wrong with it. Branded content is an excellent way of getting shows made," she says matter-of-factly.
Like many shows that start out as bite-sized Web series – think of Broad City, Insecure or High Maintenance – the goal is the migration to a larger screen. It was announced at last year's New York Comic Con that Carmilla is being made into a feature-length film set to debut this fall, and will be set five years in the future.
Negovanlis herself is hoping to make the transition to a traditional series one day, though her next project is another Web series, Clairevoyant, in its early stages of funding and development. With an appearance on the first season of the series Slasher, and a recent spot on an episode of Murdoch Mysteries, Negovanlis is open to any opportunity – digital or not – that comes her way.
"I'll continue to keep auditioning," she says, "and I hope to book more roles that continue to make my community proud."