Dear Sally, it's been 23 years since Felicity Porter followed Ben Covington to UNY on the hit WB drama Felicity. The love child of then-fledgling creators J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, Felicity forewent flashy twists and action sequences in favor of the quiet, painstaking horrors of unrequited love and all-night cram sessions. Over the course of four seasons, viewers were treated to low-stakes college drama full of cozy sweaters, indie music, and autumnal lighting. And as the titular heroine (Keri Russell) juggled classes and a perpetual love triangle with Ben (Scott Speedman) and Noel (Scott Foley), her brainy best friend Elena was there to provide constant reality checks and quippy comebacks.
What Happened to...? is an investigation into the whereabouts of former icons.
Tangi Miller played Elena throughout the show until (spoiler alert) she was unceremoniously killed in a near-final episode only to be bafflingly resurrected in the series finale. But more on that later.“I literally went from being a student to being in Hollywood,” Miller told VICE via Zoom from her home in Atlanta. “When I got Felicity, it was just like, wow. To be thrown right into the middle of the mix where you're on a really hot show where the girl cuts her hair and everybody's talking about it. It was wonderful. I wouldn't change it.”
The oldest of six kids, Tangi Olivia Miller—her mom loved Motown singer Tammi Terrell and thought “Tangi” was a nice nod to “Tammi”—was born and raised in a religious household in Miami where television was referred to as “hell-evision.”“My family was very, very strict. I wasn’t allowed to watch television. My mother believed that you should be doing stuff that was Jesus-like,” Miller said. “Love Boat was like a sin. It was a little bit cuckoo.”She left home to study business and marketing at Alabama State University, an HBCU in Montgomery. But by her junior year, it was clear acting, which she'd always done as a hobby, was her passion. “It was an escape. That’s all it was at first,” she said, “and then I realized that I loved it.” An apprenticeship with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival followed, and then she headed west to study acting in graduate school at the University of California, Irvine.
Those college experiences weren’t exactly what Felicity and the gang experienced at the fictional University of New York. “There were elements of it, but we didn't have those big beautiful dorms,” Miller said. “[When I got to the Felicity set], I was like this dorm is just too extravagant. She wouldn’t have this big room.”
Armed with an agent out of grad school, Miller secured guest parts on Arli$$ and Michael Hayes before landing an audition for a supporting role on a new 1998 pilot for The WB called Felicity.She wowed the casting room with her brazen confidence as she cracked jokes and chatted with two assistants. It was only later that she learned those two people were not, in fact, assistants but the show creators: Abrams and Reeves. “I did not know who they were. I would have been freaking out,” she said. “They looked really young.” And though she thinks the character of Elena was originally written as Puerto Rican, “they liked me, and I just auditioned and auditioned and auditioned until I won the part.”Once on the show, Miller said, Abrams frequently invited her to have input into shaping her character and her storylines. “J.J. was innovative. He was really searching for authenticity. He wanted to know if you were in a situation, what would you do? And he listened,” she said. “I remember being like, ‘My character wouldn’t say that. She’s supposed to be smart. She can’t just say stupid stuff unless she’s joking.’ He wanted it to be honest.”
Though a quintessentially New York series on screen, Felicity was filmed mostly on a studio lot in LA. They’d only venture to New York for a few days or weeks each season to shoot exterior street shots and the café scenes at Dean and Deluca. On either coast, Miller remembers the cast all getting along and everyone always being “in a happy place.” Delightfully, she refers to co-star Scott Speedman as “Speedy.”“Speedy was so crazy. He had to play basketball before we started shooting every day. He was very athletic. I thought he was nuts. But now in hindsight, I’m like, he was really smart because he was getting his workout in first thing before we filmed 12 or 14 hour days,” Miller said. “Keri was so sweet. She was just a nice person, and she’s kind of shy.”
As the show took off and earned Emmy, Golden Globe, and Teen Choice nominations, as well as an NAACP Image Award nod for Miller, the cast found themselves thrust into a new level of fame. And yes, there were plenty of on-set romances. Foley met his future wife, Jennifer Garner, on the show when she appeared in two episodes as Noel's girlfriend, and Russell and Speedman dated for a time. Beyond that, Miller’s lips are sealed.
“I’m not telling, honey,” she said. “But sometimes I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is gonna crash and burn.’ I did not have any, but there were some cute little romances. That’s all you’re getting out of me.”
Still, as the only Black main cast member, Miller said she had to make an effort to have her voice heard.“I feel like I did have to remind them that, hey, I’m here. And this is what I would be feeling. This is what I would be doing. But it wasn’t horrible,” she said. “It wasn't bad because I felt like J.J. and Matt and the team that we had were conscious, as you can see in how they developed the storylines. I heard horror stories from other [Black] folks [on other shows], you know, ‘I’m working on this show and I'm just there,’ as opposed to really being included. I felt like they worked really hard to include me. They were always checking in to see how I was doing and how I was getting along with everybody. I appreciated that.”During season 1, Gina Prince-Bythewood worked as a consulting producer on the show until she left to direct Love & Basketball. And guest stars included Taraji P. Henson, Tyra Banks, Monica, and, as two of Elena’s love interests, Donald Faison and Kenan Thompson.
“Hey, I’m here”
“I thought [Faison] just adored me. He said I scared him. I’m like, ‘That was the character! It wasn’t me.’” Miller said. “Elena's supposed to be tough.”
And in the hair and makeup room, Miller's experience on Felicity was better than other sets she’d worked on where she'd have to come to set ready to do her own glam because the stylists didn’t know how to do Black hair or makeup.“My makeup artist was amazing, and we actually had a Black hairstylist on our show. So I didn’t have those problems on Felicity. But I have had those problems on other shows, where they didn’t even have my [foundation] color, so they were putting body makeup on my face, and I would break out really bad,” she said. “It's so hard to get a job, the last thing that you’re going to complain about is your hair and your makeup. You want to be easy. You want people to call you back. And that’s why I think it’s taken so long, but thank God there are a lot more shows with diverse folks now.”
Each season of Felicity followed the cast through a different year of college, so ending the show after four years made logical sense. But while the sentimental season 4 episode called “The Graduate” seemed to wrap the series up with a tidy bow as Felicity got her diploma and ended up with Ben, an additional four episodes then aired that were absolutely and completely bonkers.The spoiler-heavy gist of those final episodes: Felicity and Ben move to California for grad school where he immediately cheats on her, and Felicity wishes she'd chosen Noel instead. For reasons unknown, Elena dies in an offscreen car accident. (“I was superstitious about that. Like, dude, does she need to die?” Miller said. “I thought it was nuts, I’m not going to lie.”) Amid this turmoil, Felicity’s witchy former roommate Meghan performs a spell that sends Felicity back in time to have the chance to choose Noel instead of Ben. Somewhere in the past, Noel dies in a fire. When Felicity comes back to the future in the two-hour series finale, Elena is inexplicably alive, and Felicity ends with everyone celebrating the wedding of Noel (who also came back to life) to someone else.
That ridiculous season 4 twist
It’s all wildly different from what the show had been up until that point (though critics didn’t hate it), and the exact reasoning for why it played out the way that it did is murky. At a 2018 reunion panel, Russell said the network had effectively canceled the series and then asked them to film the additional episodes after the intended episode 17 finale. But Miller remembers things differently.“That's not how it happened, and we never got canceled,” Miller said. “There was even talk about doing another year. They just got creative [with the ending]. You know what I think? J.J. started working on Alias and he wasn’t there as much, and so we started to lose a little bit of his presence. The other writers kind of stepped up more, and people just got kind of kooky with it.”As for Elena’s miraculous resurrection in the final episode? Abrams and Reeves’ DVD commentary revealed two crucial scenes were cut that showed Felicity, mid-time travel, urging Elena to choose a different grad school far away from the scene of the car accident and thus saving her life in the future.
“I really can’t tell you. It didn’t make any sense to me,” Miller said. “I just remember we were at our wrap party and we were like, ‘That thing was crazy.’ So, I think we sipped a little bit more champagne and were like, ‘Whatever.’”
When Felicity ultimately ended in May 2002, “it was very bittersweet,” Miller said. “I was really excited to get to do other things. But as I got older, I realized, wow, we were so lucky. We didn't realize how lucky we were until it was over.”And when she began looking at other acting gigs, she admitted, “I was a little bit snooty.” “Once you work on a show like Felicity, everything else is kind of like, ‘Oh, I don't have to do that,’” she said. “And I wanted to create my own opportunities. My representation, they were not happy about that. But I wanted to produce. I wanted to create my own stories.”After starring in films like Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood and Madea's Family Reunion, Miller shifted her focus to producing and launched her own production company to help tell the stories she wants to about love and relationships. She’s produced more than a dozen films, including Diva Diaries and Love and Other Four Letter Words, and she’s also made time to invest in real estate and travel the world. (She’s been to more than 60 countries and was supposed to go to Antarctica before the pandemic forced her to cancel her trip.)Now based in Atlanta, Miller continues to produce and work with her non-profit, E.A.T.: Education, Arts, and Travel, which encourages kids to go to college and follow their creative passions. “A lot of times we lose children at middle school age, and we just need to inspire them, to open the door and let them know that you can do this,” she said. “I was the first [person] in my family to go to college. A lot of kids are smart. They just don't have people behind them.”She’d love to act in another TV drama, and while she doesn’t often stay in touch with her former Felicity castmastes, she’s game for a reboot. “There was talk. I don't know if they were serious or not,” she said. “But that would be too cute. How would you get us together? Maybe Felicity and Elena are both doctors now.”As for her answer to the most common Felicity question of all?“I think Felicity really was in love with Ben,” Miller said. “But I was Team Noel.