The first time Antonia Gentry walked onto the high school set of “Ginny and Georgia,” she felt it all over again. Despite being a 23-year-old college grad, several years away from her high school days, the nerves kicked in: her mouth went dry and her hands got clammy.
“I was like, ‘what is going on here?’ For a lot of people there’s good and bad in high school, there’s good and bad in growing up, and there are some things that your body remembers that you don’t get right away,” Gentry explains. “And so it was kind of just this residual like, ‘Oh god.’”
Despite the discomfort, Gentry dove head first into reliving her teenage years for her role as 15-year-old Ginny Miller in Netflix’s new series “Ginny and Georgia.” The show follows a young single mom, Georgia Miller, who has moved her daughter Ginny and young son Austin around repeatedly as she tries to escape her past and rebuild her life. Georgia and Ginny’s lives play out simultaneously throughout the series, as Ginny navigates being a biracial teenager used to living on the go in the mostly white, wealthy suburbs of the New England town her mom has relocated them to.
Gentry, over Zoom from her parents’ home in Augusta, Ga., says she was initially drawn to the project because of the Georgia character, who became pregnant with Ginny at the age of 15, and the relationship the two have. But as she got to know Ginny more, she became impressed with the strength she displayed as a young woman finding her place in the world.
“And I just thought to myself, man, if I could have done that when I was that age…I did not have the guts to be that outspoken,” Gentry says. “So I was really inspired by Ginny and to see that [the show] was written by a woman, and Ginny and Georgia seemed like they had a lot more depth than you often would see with female characters; particularly for Ginny, a biracial female role that doesn’t really minimize the role to her identity.”
Growing up, Gentry didn’t move around like Ginny does, but she did find it hard to relate to her peers in school in a way she felt was “authentic.”
“I had mostly white friends [like Ginny],” she says. “So although I got along with them and I did have good times, there were still moments where I would definitely feel ‘othered.’ Sarah Lambert, the creator of the show, pulled me aside multiple times and asked me what it was like, what my experience was like. And she actually took what I said and implemented it in the show. There are microaggressions, there are things that some of Ginny’s peers say to her that are actual real things that people have said to me.”
Before attending Emory College, where she majored in English and creative writing, Gentry was a film-obsessed theater kid who decided at a young age she wanted to pursue acting. It was Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” with Adrien Brody that sealed the deal for her.
“I just was so in awe of his incredible talent and dedication. I was like four or six, I don’t know, but that movie was the one that really piqued my interest in performing and becoming an actor.
“When I was a senior, I had a really wonderful high school drama teacher who basically told me.…because I kind of broke down in tears because I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. I don’t know what I’m thinking trying to become an actor. Like no one looks like me, no one casts me,'” she continues. “And she was saying, ‘No, Toni, listen.’ She said to me, ‘They need people like you. They need more diversity. They need to cast more people that look like the world. And that’s part of what you offer.’ And I remember her saying that to me and that really, I really took it to heart. So that’s what I ended up doing.”
“Ginny and Georgia” is her first real on-screen role, one she auditioned for in the midst of her finals, senior year of college.
“I was pretty busy writing essays and trying to figure out how I’m going to graduate. I was doing finals, I was working part time, and I just was doing so much. But when I got this script for ‘Ginny and Georgia’ in my inbox, the script was just so fresh, and funny, and I wholeheartedly related to the lead character, which is something that doesn’t happen often, that I was like, ‘this is one that I’m not going to pass up.’”
Out the other side and now awaiting audiences to receive the show, Gentry is weighing the options for her next project. But she admits reliving her high school days was ultimately cathartic for her in making sense of her younger days.
“You don’t really know what’s happening when you’re a kid. You don’t know as it’s happening, whether it’s microaggressions, whether you’re exploring your sexuality, whether it’s trying to fit in, drugs, peer pressure, whatever it may be. You don’t understand it as it’s happening. And so it’s not until later on and you can look back and say, ‘Oh, well, this makes sense now,’” Gentry says. “And so being able to play that age again, not too far away from when I was that age, was really unique, and I learned a lot.”