I feel bad, calling to reschedule my interview with Alexandra Billings, the trans activist and actress who plays Davina, wise and warm friend/mentor/Trans Got Talent duet partner to Jeffrey Tambor's Maura in Transparent. The show, whose first season saw Maura coming out as a woman to her three grown children and grappling with the transition, has been a breakout success for Amazon, and here I am putting off one of its stars.
She picks up and I sheepishly trip over my apology, adding how I know she must be very busy. I quickly find out she's just as wise and warm as her character. "I'm not that busy," she says.
"Well, you're a major player on a new hit show!" I squeal, not able to help myself.
"I know," she says, more gracious than I could ever ask her to be. "Isn't it hilarious?"
That's one word for it. Transparent has been renewed for a second season and exalted as "damn near perfect," spurring high-profile conversations on one of the political and cultural issues of this generation. And though its lead is controversially played by a cisgender man, the show nevertheless boasts perhaps the most trans-heavy cast in television history.
It's been a long haul to this point for Billings, a showbiz veteran who grew up backstage and began her own transition as a teen. She's since worked alongside Carol Burnett, played Xena live on stage and was Grand Marshal for Chicago's Pride Parade in 2009. She now lives in LA with her wife Chrisanne and, alongside acting gigs, teaches theatre arts at California State University Long Beach.
In our correspondence, Billings addressed her first email to me "Alexandra" and signed off a few words later with, "Many thanks, Alexandra." She adds at the bottom, "(As if I'm writing to myself. Weird.)"
You come from a theatrical background. It seems like you've spent much of your life doing theatre, TV and other showbiz projects. Do you consider this role on Transparent a breakout one for you?
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be breaking out from. But I do understand what you're saying. I think it's less than a breakout role and more of a significant one, I think for me. Weirdly in my theatrical career, I've only played two transgender characters, and I've been in theatre for 40, god—Jesus, I'm old—42 years! And I've only played two, literally, transgender characters.
It wasn't until I got to Hollywood that I played consistently in transgender roles. But this one in particular I really love. I'm not dying of any disease, I'm not in the hospital, I'm not a prostitute, I'm not getting murdered. I'm really one of the few characters in the show that's not in great peril! Davina is very grounded and very spiritual and kind and compassionate and funny and acerbic. She isn't in any great turmoil, and that's really what excites me.
It definitely seems like she is one of the more stable people on the show. It shows a trans woman just living. This is the what the life of a woman looks like.
I think that's right and I think it's really important that we distinguish between a cisgender experience and a transgender experience, because they reverberate within history very differently. You have a very different experience, feminine experience, than I do. It's important that we write that down in history.
It's so interesting, Allie, that you called me today. The strangest thing happened. I was at a function and I went in to use the ladies' room and there was a woman. I'm 53 years old and I assume she was a little older than me, maybe closer to 60. And I walked in the ladies room, which I've done a hundred million times: I started transitioning when I was 19 years old, so I've been living this way longer than I have ever lived any other way. And in the ladies room, she was washing her hands and she looked up at me through the mirror. I recognized that look. I hadn't seen it in a long, long time, but I recognized it. I'm highly sensitive to fear and ignorance.
She said, "Excuse me, aren't you in the wrong room?" I was so shocked really. And I probably shouldn't be, but again, I'm a bit of a sensitive person, and it's been a very long time since I've run up against that kind of misinformation. For a minute I stood there in the middle of the restroom and I thought, "Am I in the wrong room?" Thinking I'm in a conference room or something and I'm going to go to the bathroom on a sofa. Like I literally, couldn't... And I turned to her and I said, "I don't think so. I'm just going to go the restroom." And luckily, luckily, she smiled, and I smiled, and she left, and I used the restroom and came back out.
But it got me thinking today about information, education and guidance. And I knew I was going to talk to you today. I believe that there are some things that happen for a reason. So I wanted to say this, because you used the word, "breakout." I think if we're going to break out of anything, then it's less about me and it's more about us as a people. And by people, I mean, our humanness. We have got to break out of the container of ignorance. And I don't mean that in a gender-specific way, I mean that in a generalized way. We have got to realize that we are all students of the human experience. And if we do not start learning from each other and really listening and receiving the gift from the person across from us, we are lost.
Absolutely. Doesn't Maura have that same bathroom experience in the show?
Yes! And that's what's even weirder. I told my wife about it when I got home and she sort of looked me like, "I can't believe that that even happened."
I don't mean to publicize or harp on the show or talk about how brilliant it is, but it is! And one of the reasons it is brilliant is because it's true. It's theatricalized truth, but it is grounded in a very specific history, that has very specific reverberations, and is done by people who are living in that history. And that makes a difference. All the transgender roles I've done in the past have been written, directed or created by people who have no idea what it's like to live in my shoes. None.
You felt that difference, as an actor?
Oh absolutely. And you know, god bless them for creating these roles. Thank god for them. I certainly don't mean to talk disparagingly about them. But I do mean to make a point that we have got to start seeing each other, and I really believe it starts with education. That moment in the restroom for me was monumental. I actually searched for her to go and thank her. Because I really wanted to shake her hand and say "Thank you for reminding me that I have to receive other people on the planet with kindness and compassion." Because we had a really great moment, thank god. I didn't get angry, I didn't throw anything, I didn't pontificate. I merely made a little joke and tried to allow her to open her eyes to the fact that I was just there to do one thing, and it really didn't concern her. And I think she understood that.
And you weren't cursed out of the restroom like Maura was.
That's right. One of my girlfriends wrote [in a thread about the incident on my Facebook page], "I'm terrified to speak in a restroom, because I know how many times our people get beat." And she has a very, very low voice, and she thinks—because of gender specificity and these rules we set up for each other—that if she speaks, that somebody's going to say "You don't belong here." So she goes into the restroom, even with another girlfriend, and says nothing. Because she's terrified. That shouldn't be true! It just shouldn't be true!
You mention that this role is different for you, and significant for you. There was a disagreement between your show's creator Jill Soloway and Orange is the New Black's creator Jenji Kohan about the necessity of trans writers on their shows. Do you think it's necessary?
I think it we have to be careful with that word. "Necessary" is less inclusionary. It immediately sets up barriers between us. "This thing must happen in order for A, B and C to happen."
But I always want to direct people to our racial conversation and the divide that happens in our country and in the world. And I want people to understand—and I'm just taking the African-American experience—if you have African-Americans on a show starring African-Americans that's about African-Americans, I assume you would want an African-American writing straff. I would assume that would be true, that you wouldn't want mostly Caucasians writing for the show. But that doesn't mean you want to exclude them. That's when we get into problems, when we say this must happen or this must not happen.
But to say that it's unnecessary, I think defeats the purpose of having specificity in a journey. And here's what I mean. You have a Greek myth, and you have the hero of your journey and he's gonna go on this very specific journey and fight dragons and conquer the witches and go through the haunted forest and then come out of there, wounded, but wiser. If that's going to be true, it's most likely going to be more authentic to the journey if you have someone who's actually battled the witches and gone through the forest. As opposed to people telling the story who have never. It just makes more sense, and it makes the story richer, if you have people who have traveled the same road.
And you want to be careful, because listen, you can be in a room full of transgender people, and if there's 45 transgender people, you're going to have 45 different experiences.
And on a related note, there's been some contention around Jeffrey Tambor, a cisgender man, playing the role of a trans woman. I think he doesn't does a beautiful and nuanced job, but I'm wondering if you think that should be handled differently, or if every case is different.
It's complicated. My opinion is not, but the situation is. I wrote an essay on Jared Leto and his performance in Dallas Buyer's Club, and I just recently did an interview where the interviewer accused me of talking about Jared Leto and his ability to act this particular role, which is not what this essay was about at all. The essay was about the fact that as he began to pick up accolades for his brilliant performance, which was brilliant, and sensitive, and really complex and beautiful I thought. And as he began to pick up these accolades, he didn't thank us! Quite frankly, you don't get to be a cisgender human being on the planet, and represent our people, and not at least say hello to us. So that's why I was upset.
Most all of my scenes are with Jeffrey. I spent a lot of time with Jeffrey Tambor. And I mean a lot of quality time with this man. This isn't a role that he's acting. This isn't a role that he's portraying. This is a part of him that he's revealing to us. So this is less about some actor who was hired because he's famous and pretending to be a woman. This has nothing to do with that. This has to do with a spriritual journey that he is actually taking with great compassion and an enormous amount of respect.
Now, logistically, can we sell a TV show without a name? No, of course not. Can't do it. And logistically, because this particular character goes back to Mort [Maura's male name in the show], and then forward to Maura, would it be fair to ask a transgender actress to do that? I wouldn't do it! I don't know, maybe there are some fabulous, middle-aged transgendered actresses out there would would be willing to do this. If they are, then they should absolutely come forward. That would be great! But I think just logistically, the kind of role it is would be difficult to case from within our community.
In one of your first big scenes together, you're in your character's apartment and Maura is looking at Davina's things and you advise her really poignantly, saying that a friend told you in your transition, "In five years you're going to look up and not one of your family members is going to be here."
It was such a sad revelation in the show, and something that seems like it could really be true. Have you ever played that mentor-type role in real life, for somebody who was transitioning, where you've had to reveal things like that to them?
I actually have not, weirdly, and sadly. But I am portraying my actual best friend. Because Jill allows us to improvise a lot, a lot of what I say has come out of her mouth. Her name is Errin West, and her professional stage name is Honey. She's a performer in Chicago. And in the last two decades, she helped me get through the loss of both my parents and the loss of many, many friends and family who couldn't be around me, simply because they didn't understand what I was, it didn't make any sense to them.
So strangely, when we're in a scene and I don't know what to say, I just think of what Honey would say and then I say it. That one line is something she's actually said to me.
Really? And did you find it to be true?
Yes, I did. When you begin to transition, and that can look like anything—it can look like going from 21 years old to 30, from single to married, from straight to gay, from gay to straight, from whatever it is that you're moving into; sexuality is fluid, I believe, and so is love—everyone around you also transitions. So here's the problem, and we forget this, because we're selfish creatures. We transition, and we immediately think, "Okay, everybody. Calm down, step up!" We immediately go into this mode of "Everything's going to be fine" when everyone around us is going, "Wait a minute, I don't understand what's happening. I don't understand. I liked you before. Can't you stay the same?"
So we force people. We're in the middle of our own journey, and we're moving forward into the newness, and we're dragging people by the collar. That's not fair. So we have to be mindful of that. We have to remember that people have to do what they need to do just like we do.
That's something we don't always take into account.
Well of course not. Because it's all about us. I had a great friend who did a one-woman show, and she called it Get to the Part About Me.
I wanted to ask you specifically about this moment in time. It seems like trans issues are rising to the surface in a way that we haven't seen yet in pop culture. All of a sudden Laverne Cox is on the cover of Time and has this runaway hit show and Janet Mock is everywhere with her book, to name only a couple examples. Why do you think this is? And how do you feel about it?
I want to remind all of us that every couple of decades we have a revolution. In 1969, we had a revolution and the transgender community was at the forefront of it, we forget that. Stonewall was ours. We own that. The feminist movement came out of the transgender movement and vice versa, we came out of their movement as well. When the plague hit, we had a huge gay revolution, an LGBT revolution we splintered off into PFLAG and all kinds of things because everyone was dying.
Laverne is a fantastic woman, with an incredible head on her shoulders and her feet on the ground. And I really believe that that Time magazine cover changed the world. It changed sexual and gender politics as we know it. So this is a resurgence of an underlying earthquake of a gender revolution that began a very, very long time ago. And what you're seeing is the results of it. It is our time to flourish. Now what we need is more transgender men. We need more male voices in the transgender community, and that will happen. The transgender community needs to be in the arts just because we are artists. We need to play roles that have nothing to do with our history. That's the next step.
Alexandra Tempus was a lead researcher on the bestseller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate by Naomi Klein, and has written on climate and politics for VICE News, Al Jazeera America and others. TV is her only escape from existential horror. Follow her @tempus_flies.
Photo by David Mullen
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