Graceland's Serinda Swan discusses equal pay and sex trafficking

Jul 2, 2015 at 9:33 a.m. ET

Serinda Swan spent Season 2 of Graceland with her character going undercover in a sex trafficking operation. But the story was closer to Swan's heart than you ever may have guessed.

In fact, it was her idea to incorporate the story line into the show based on her philanthropic work helping sex trafficking victims in Cambodia.

"The entire season, Paige's voice was my voice," Swan explained, and she was rallying for the women and children who have experienced what very few of us in the United States even care to think about.

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"The journey of it all was the most phenomenal journey I've had so far as an actor," Swan said of her sex trafficking story line for her character Paige. She championed the idea and said producers and execs at USA Network couldn't have been more on board about including the arc.

Swan said the most rewarding part about the whole experience was the conversations it started on platforms like social media. And "her girls" as she calls them, in Cambodia that have survived the horrors of sex trafficking, felt like they were a part of something bigger.

It is a cause Swan champions that has nothing to do with making herself look good.

Swan looks at it with a big-picture mind. "What is it that society is going to gain from you living out your dream, living out yourself?" the actress told us. "And I feel we all have an idea of who we are or a guttural gift we can give. I always kind of correlate it with a flower. A rose doesn't bloom for itself. It blooms because that's its process. That's what it has to do. It doesn't think about sharing its beauty or its scent. It doesn't think about that."

She continued, "How do I allow what it is I truly love to do and not make it seem something selfish? How do I find validity in that where I'm like, this is something that actually makes a difference. As an actor, it's one of the most aggressively narcissistic industries if you're not careful."

But for Swan, "My legacy without philanthropy is overpriced popcorn and maybe a couple of laughs or a cry."

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But what Swan is doing isn't charity. In fact, she doesn't even like the word.

And the Canadian-born actress' explanation why is spot-on. "Based on the voice that I was given at birth. Based on the education I was given by right. Based on everything that I possibly could be denied if I was born anywhere else. Anything that I was just given as a birthright in Canada. How could I possibly call charity by offering that to another? That's not charity. That's equality. And my problem is that we can be wrapping equality up in a charity word."

As for how others can find the passion and purpose she's discovered, Swan thinks it will come to you in a "the universe provides" kind of way.

Her work with sex trafficking was "something that just smacked me in the face."

For her, it was a documentary about sex trafficking that drew her into the cause and made her realize she had to make a difference.

"We have a war on drugs. But we're failing to see the war on the female body," Swan said.

Drug trafficking is the No. 1 crime, but Swan said sex trafficking is the second.

She put it into perspective perfectly. "If there was a disease that was claiming 1.2 million women and children every year and it was killing them within three years, would cause them to have some of the most dysfunctional lives in the world and not be able to regain socially, we would have marathons and telethons and jogathons. Basically, there would be a lot of 'athons' going on. And you would have these huge campaigns going on for awareness. But because it's a cultural issue, and it's something that's so hidden, it's so uncomfortable to talk about."

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Another cause Swan champions is equal pay, and she told us she's definitely experienced it in her career as an actress.

"I've gone into movies where they're like, 'You're second lead' and they've negotiated six people already and they're all guys, and they're like, 'Sorry, we've negotiated all the men's roles and now start doing the girls.'"

Swan had the good sense to turn down the role rather than put herself in the position as subordinate to the men on the project. But she admitted that it's hard when she's still building her career.

"Now my success is for my girls," she explained. "It's for the causes I haven't discovered yet. It's for the people I don't know yet. It's for the voices that I want to somehow champion. And so it makes things better and worse. It makes it better when I have a success. I'm not just celebrating myself."

But Swan admits it's a double-edged sword because she also feels more pressure not to let the people she's championing for down.

Either way, it's about the progress. "There is inequality within human sex trafficking. The inequality is rape rather than pay. It's a very different spectrum, but that doesn't mean we're taking steps back."