When Lilan Bowden was cast in the Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack,” she was thrilled. When she was told the series would be shot in Utah, she was … startled.
“I was very surprised, because Utah is not really a place I think of when I think of places that are big film hubs,” Bowden said. “You think of Vancouver. You think of Atlanta. But I was just ready for a whole new adventure.
“I knew it would be completely different. And I was right. In a good way.”
The California native had never been to Utah before, and she said the biggest surprise was how similar certain Salt Lake City spots were to her hangouts in Los Angeles.
“I love going to vintage clothing shops and I love going to cool coffee shops and fun, eclectic bars,” she said. "And Salt Lake has a lot to offer in that regard, so I really felt at home.”
She has no regrets about becoming an honorary Utahn to work on “Andi Mack,” now airing its second season and in production for its third. But as her first gig as a regular in a weekly TV series, the role was a “big leap” for the 32-year-old — playing the mother of a teenager when "it was just a couple years ago I was playing teenagers,” she said with a laugh.
And the role has a twist, one reason “Andi Mack” was a decided departure for the Disney Channel.
Andi is a bright, funny, thoroughly lovable middle-schooler who — when the show premiered — was excited that her older sister, Bex (Bowden), was coming home for a visit. But Andi and viewers quickly learned that Bex (short for Rebecca) is her biological mother, who gave birth out of wedlock as a teenager. And the woman Andi thought was her mother, Celia (Lauren Tom), is really her grandmother.
Bowden jumped in enthusiastically.
“I loved the idea of this young mom, still trying to figure things out,” she said. “And I thought it was so unique and cool.
“So I didn’t really fret too much about the idea of — oh, no! I’m playing the mother of an almost-grown-up.”
The title character in “Andi Mack” is biracial. So is her mother. Her grandmother is Chinese-American; her grandfather is Caucasian. One of her best friends is African-American; another is gay.
And it all began when creator/executive producer/writer Terri Minsky saw Peyton Elizabeth Lee’s audition and decided she should be Andi.
“They weren’t looking for a specific kind of girl or a specific race,” Bowden said. “And they happened to cast a biracial, Asian-American girl.”
The ethnicity of the characters has never been an issue in “Andi Mack.” With the exception of an episode that featured a Chinese New Year celebration, it’s hardly been mentioned.
“It’s so great how organic this diverse and multiracial family is,” Bowden said. “This actual color-blind casting perspective created the groundwork to explore this family without having to really hammer it being part of the plot.”
Predictably, conservative groups have blasted the show because Andi’s parents never married and because her friend Cyrus (Joshua Rush) came out as gay; others have praised the series for the same developments. But what some may have been missed is that the scripts don’t dwell on either subject.
“What makes the show so special is we’re not actively delivering a direct message to the audience. We’re just living these characters’ lives,” Bowden said. “And through that, I feel like the audience can get these messages of understanding and empathy and open-mindedness.
“That’s why I feel so connected to the show and so proud to be a part of it.”
Mothers and daughters
For the most part, the character Bex and her daughter, Andi, have a good relationship. But the relationship between Bex and her mother, Celia — aka CC — is considerably more fraught.
“I totally identify with that,” Bowden said. “I feel like there’s so many parallels to my relationship with my own mom. My mom is from Taiwan and she is first-generation. And a lot of the things that CC values, my mom also values.”
Bowden’s parents tune in to every episode, which “means so much” to her because they “are not big TV watchers,” she said.
“They really get into the plotlines,” Bowden said. Her dad — who she describes as an engineer who would rather watch a lecture about physics — is “a logical guy but a big softie at heart. So he says that he has to pace himself when he watches it because it makes him too emotional.”
Bowden and her television daughter have developed a close relationship, but it’s not exactly of the mother-daughter variety.
“She’s so smart and mature, and I’m not a mom in real life, so I more feel like a big sister to her than an actual mom,” Bowden said.
She’s close to Lee and the other young cast members — Rush, Sofia Wylie (Buffy) and Asher Angel (Jonah).
“I love watching these awesome kids grow up,” Bowden said, “and there’s a part of me that does feel very protective of them.”
As the show has continued, Bowden is convinced that Bex has become more like her — a little bit goofier and a little bit more self-deprecating. She traces the character’s development to Minsky being on set.
In one episode, Andi teaches Bex how to solve a Rubik’s cube — shortly after Minsky overheard a crew member teaching Bowden how to do it.
“A couple of weeks later I found the exact words in Andi’s dialogue,” she said.
’Live the surprises'
Bowden grew up in Castro Valley, about 30 miles from San Francisco, and began performing as a kid after her parents “at my request, got me involved with auditioning for local commercial agents. And I did book a couple of commercials,” she said.
She participated in high school and college improv clubs and theater departments. She’s a veteran of the improv and sketch comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade but doesn’t feel restricted by working from “Andi Mack” scripts.
“In some ways, scripted material is almost like — Oh, good! I get a break,” she said. “I can just be an actor. I don’t have to be the actor and a writer.”
She still performs improv in California while “Andi Mack” is on hiatus. And while the show is filming in Utah, she’s been known to join the Ogden improv group Sasquatch Cowboy as a guest performer. “I really love performing with them,” she said.
Since “Andi Mack” premiered in March 2017, Bowden has been getting recognized around town, and more frequently if she’s with Lee “because one recognition begets the other one,” she said.
“I think people are really surprised, because a lot of them don’t know that we film in Salt Lake.”
If you’re a viewer of the Disney Channel, you probably aren’t expecting to run into Andi’s mom when she’s in Petco, which happened just the other day. Or when Bowden, Lee and other members of the cast are rollerskating at the Classic Fun Center in Sandy.
To date, their encounters with fans have been “positive and wonderful.”
“And it’s always so much fun to run into a young girl,” Bowden said. “They’re just the best kind of fan, because they’re so open on how the show has affected them. And they can’t wait to tell you.”
She adds: “I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. And every single fan I talk to makes me excited to be a part of the show all over again.”
Fans do tend to ask Bowden one question — will Bex end up with Bowie, her ex-boyfriend who is Andi’s father?
Bowden doesn’t know, and she doesn’t mind.
“I almost feel like [the writers/producers] do that on purpose, “ she said, “because then we can really live the characters’ lives and live the surprises and not prepare for them.”
On TV • Season 2 of “Andi Mack” continues Mondays at 6 p.m. on the Disney Channel. Season 3 is currently in production for telecast in late 2018/early 2019.