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Marvel's Runaways Star Ariela Barer Opens Up About Activism, Anxiety, And Representation

The actor tells MTV News that she wanted Gert's anxiety to be 'dealt with head on' in Season 2

The good superhero stories aren't actually about people with cool superpowers. While that's certainly part of the winning formula — Marvel's $18 billion at the worldwide box office doesn't lie — it's not the most essential. Because a good superhero story is actually just a good human story; it's someone struggling with a very-real problem, be it inequality, the universal pangs of adolescence, or, in Gertrude Yorkes' case, anxiety.

In Season 2 of Marvel's Runaways, premiering on Hulu on December 21, Gertrude — or Gert, for short — comes face to face with her anxiety. Now that Gert and her rag-tag group of superhero SoCal friends are on the run after being framed for murder by their supervillain parents and their cult-like charity known as The Pride, that leaves little time for the teenage activist to focus on her mental and emotional health. Though fiercely independent, Gert's journey this season will find her opening up more to her friends — and her new maybe-boyfriend Chase (Gregg Sulkin).

Paul Sarkis / Hulu

"Last season was about her learning to open up and be vulnerable, and now, it's also about being independent without pushing people away, learning that healthy in-between," actor Ariela Barer told MTV News.

And it's finding that healthy in-between that's so essential to Gert's story because the best superheroes never stop learning. (Otherwise, we'd be stuck with some very boring and insufferably righteous heroes.) In a conversation with MTV News, Barer opened up about Gert's mental and emotional health journey this season, being a young activist, and putting a label on Gert and Chase's relationship.

MTV News: Now that the Runaways are officially on the run in Season 2, it's a very exciting place to be, storytelling-wise. Did you guys feel that new energy when you were filming those first few episodes? Because it's a different vibe than Season 1.

Ariela Barer: Definitely! I don't think we've ever had so many group scenes. Basically every scene in the first couple episodes, if not most of them, are group scenes, which is definitely a new dynamic. On the positive, I love being with the group that we have, and it's so much fun on set. And then on the downside, those scenes take forever to film, so the days were longer. But I also feel like we bonded next-level this season, way more than we ever got to last season, which was visible in the chemistry.

MTV News: So the group chat got even more insane.

Barer: It was very active.

MTV News: What's your most overused emoji in the group chat?

Barer: I think maybe the upside down smiley face. That one that's like, "I'm fine. I'm not dying." I think Lyrica [Okano] and I were pretty heavy handed on Bitmojis when the group chat first started. But then I got a new phone, and my Bitmojis got deleted, and then that just died.

MTV News: In Season 1, we see Gert's passion for social justice issues. And in Season 2, we find her confronted, quite literally, with issues like poverty, homelessness, and inequality. She's seeing things from the other side now. What was that like?

Barer: It's something that I think every young activist can relate to, particularly those who come from positions of privilege. People use their privilege to speak up and make a change, which is great, and I support that completely, but the reality of the situation is always going to be a lot more intense than what you read about online. I've even confronted this. I work with an organization in L.A. that feeds homeless people once a month in downtown, and going there is always the most intense experience. It's like, I'm online, and I'm active in different activist circles, but then just sitting down for a day and talking to people is always so different, and so, so, so effective in its own way. Gert comes from way more privilege than I come from. So for her, it's an even bigger culture shock to now be on the streets.

MTV News: Gert's struggling a lot too, because she's off her anxiety medication. You see the effects of that, especially in those first few episodes. I know that's an important story line for you.

Barer: That was something I took very seriously, and I knew about this plot line from last year. It was actually going to be a Season 1 plot line. It was established in our pilot, and then they realized it would be much more effective once we went on the run, so I was in the know about this a year before we started shooting it. I remember talking to [series creators] Josh [Schwartz] and Stephanie [Savage] when I first found out about it and asking them if she could be off her medication for a while, and if there could be some resolution and growth within not having her medication. The reality of the situation is that a lot of people don't have access to mental health care, especially homeless youths. A lot of people don't take it as seriously as physical health care. So I wanted that to be dealt with head on.

Paul Sarkis / Hulu

MTV News: And it's handled responsibly.

Barer: They were very responsible and in the know about handling it. I was really happy what this plot line ends up meaning for Gert, and for Gert and Chase. There was a scene in Episode 2 that ended up being cut, that I think speaks volumes about where she is, and where Gert and Chase are, because he says something about like, "Don't worry, I'm gonna be here to protect you." And she says something like, "I don't need to be protected. I just need you to be here with me." It's her own battle that she's coming to terms with, but she also is taking help from the people around her.

MTV News: Sometimes you just need someone to listen.

Barer: And she's not pushing people away, but she's also not completely dependent on the people around her. She's an individual who can also connect with people.

MTV News: Speaking of Gert and Chase, if you had to define their relationship status in Season 2, what would it be?

Barer: It really depends at what point in the season you would ask me that question. It's both of them learning to make an effort and be part of a relationship in a new way, to not always have their best interest in mind, but instead have the other in mind, which is very sweet. And they both learn a lot about each other and themselves, but I couldn't give you a definitive answer about their relationship, at least not yet.

MTV News: What about at the very start of Season 2?

Barer: I would say at the very start there needs to be the "define a relationship" conversation. They both haven't yet learned how to be vulnerable with each other. They've tried it. It went OK last season, at best. So now they're figuring it out for real. They realize they both feel very seriously about one another... It's vague, but it's an answer!

MTV News: Now that you are in Season 2, you know Gert at this point. Do you feel like you can advocate on her behalf with the writers and with the showrunners?

Barer: Absolutely. Luckily, this team of writers that Josh and Stephanie have put together are amazing. It's a very diverse room with equal parts men and women, and people of color, and every character has someone in the writers' room on their side. For me, I have Tracy, who's amazing. We have a lot of conversations, and she's a feminist, and she's a relationship expert, and she's a woman of color. And her story's amazing. I'm a huge Tracy fan. So she's a really great resource on set, and Josh and Stephanie, themselves, they're very informed people. So I never feel like I really have to stand up for Gert, but it is nice to be able to have conversations with them about Gert and her story.

Greg Lewis / Hulu

MTV News: That open dialogue is important.

Barer: There were some writers who came to me privately and spoke to me about their struggles with anxiety. It was cool knowing that I had people like that in the room. It was really nice knowing that we each had people in the writers' room who were fighting for us and for these stories.

MTV News: Overall, would you say Season 2 is darker than Season 1?

Barer: Absolutely. The scenes that we explore are definitely darker. Lyrica some of the darkest work. The poor girl was going a little crazy by the end of the season, but it was so worth it. I hung out with her yesterday, and we were reflecting on it, and just so excited to watch it, because it definitely took a toll with how dark it gets, but also from what I've seen, just little scenes here and there, I am so excited. And she did a great job, and so does Allegra [Acosta], who also gets some pretty intense material to work with. They're both just incredible.

MTV News: Molly is always going through it!

Barer: But she's Molly. She's a tough cookie.

MTV News: I feel like so many young women see themselves in Gert. Do you feel that way, too?

Barer: I love the fan base that's gathered around her. It's really nice that they seem to have not only found Gert and some sense of representation in her, but then they have found a community in each other, and it's very heartwarming to see the online fan base that Gert has, and that I have because of her.

MTV News: I really hope she's inspiring fans to dye their hair purple. I recently dyed my hair pink, and it's liberating.

Barer: Oh my God. That's so cool. I actually ran into someone on the street recently who had purple hair, and I noticed it. I was like, "That's cool." And then she walked up to me, and was like, "I love Gert." And I was like, "Yes, it's real."