For much of television’s history, cheerleaders have been pretty background scenery.
A new CW series, “Hellcats,” looks to change that. And at the center of “Hellcats” is a Maine native.
Actress Heather Hemmens, a Waldo native, is enjoying her first starring role on TV. Hemmens, 22, has been trained in martial arts, but has never been a cheerleader. With all the dancing, tumbling and aerials, she said it has been a physically challenging role for her.
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“All of the dancing [seen on TV] is us, but most of the flying is our stunt doubles, with shots of us cut in,” she said in a phone interview from the “Hellcats” set in Vancouver, British Columbia. “We had two weeks on the pilot to get ready for the dancing and stunting, but less time to prepare with [subsequent] episodes. That means working more on your own and getting less sleep. There’s a lot to learn.”
Hemmens, who had been a guest star on shows such as “CSI: Miami” and “Without a Trace,” got the “Hellcats” role this spring, after a long audition process in front of show and network officials.
She plays Alice Verdura, a cheerleader on the Memphis-based Lancer University Hellcats who is sidelined with a wrist injury after a fall.
Early on, Alice comes off as the mean girl on the squad. She feels threatened by her replacement, Marti (played by Aly Michalka), a reluctant cheerleader who joined the squad for the scholarship money so she could continue to pursue a career in law. Alice, who comes from a privileged background, previously had a relationship with team member Lewis (Robbie Jones), and has just started taking illegal prescription drugs to speed her return to the team.
But Hemmens argues that there’s much more to Alice than has been seen so far on “Hellcats.”
“I admire her strength,” she said. “We could all take a lesson about how she stands up for herself. We’re establishing characters in these early episodes. We’ll see more sides of Alice [as the season continues].”
An inner strength also is what has helped Hemmens make the jump from a tiny Waldo County town to big city Los Angeles.
The daughter of Jim and Ravelita Hemmens of Waldo, Heather Hemmens, 22, and her two older brothers and older sister grew up in a house with electricity produced by a generator, wood heat and no running water.
“It was an extreme environment, and it brings out the real characteristics of a person,” she recalled in a phone interview. “It also made me long for the exact opposite lifestyle, which is Hollywood.”
Hemmens, who has been acting since fifth grade, received a scholarship to attend Walnut Hill School for the Arts near Boston for her final two years of high school. Upon graduating in 2006, she took a leap of faith in hopes of getting her career started.
“Since there was very little film opportunities in Maine, I moved west to Los Angeles to pursue it with no backup plan,” she said. “Now I’m finally getting some work.”
It was an often difficult transition, especially in the entertainment industry, Hemmens admitted.
“It was a big change,” she said. “Being young and in a big city, there was a lot of things I had to wade through. But having the foundation of growing up the way I did continues to give me strength.”
Like most new shows, “Hellcats” has a 13-episode commitment, with ratings determining if another nine episodes will be shot, to fill out a full season of 22 episodes. Hemmens said the early ratings are consistent with other shows on The CW, which generally draws lower ratings than the other networks because of a smaller number of stations affiliated with it.
In her spare time, Hemmens has directed and produced a pair of short films.
“It was a chance to step behind the camera,” she said. “I’ve latched onto directing as something I’d like to explore further.”
Hemmens still gets home to Waldo a few times a year, and her parents visit Los Angeles, where she and her older siblings now live.
“It’s still a bit of culture shock for them,” she said.
“Hellcats” airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on The CW.