Actors Transcend Small-Screen Limits

By Kelley, Seth | Variety, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Actors Transcend Small-Screen Limits


Kelley, Seth, Variety


Next year, Laverne Cox will play an Ivy League-educated lawyer in the CBS series "Doubt," making her the first transgender actor to play a transgender series regular character on broadcast television. It's a looming historic moment for television, and one in a series of recent turning points that indicates change and acceptance for the transgender community.

In 2015, Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover launched with viral force followed up by her reality series "I Am Cait." In 2014, Amazon found a juggernaut in "Transparent." The year prior, Cox was starting to become a household name for her performance in "Orange Is the New Black" and her transgender activism.

Yet, almost one year after Jenner's announcement, transgender representation on television is still leaping over hurdles. "We still have a long way to go," says Nick Adams, GLAAD's director of programs and transgender media.

In its report on the 2015-16 television season, GLAAD found that out of the 271 regular and recurring LGBT characters in scripted broadcast, cable and Streaming programs, only seven were counted as transgender, and only one a transgender man. As historic as Cox's upcoming role on CBS may be, it's just as much a reminder of how underrepresented and invisible the transgender community has historically been in television.

Many of the shows that are incorporating transgender stories and performers - and there are positive examples - are making a concerted effort. MTV's scripted show "Faking It," for example, recently added transgender actor Elliot Fletcher for a five-episode are in its third and final season. To find their actor, showrunner Carter Covington and the "Faking It" team enlisted GLAAD to help publicize a nationwide casting call for transgender actors, similar to how "Glee" recruited a 200-person transgender choir for the episode "Transitioning" during its final season. This time, Fletcher would be more than a voice in a crowd.

GLAAD assisted the show by reading scripts and guiding the storytelling, as well as bringing in a panel of transgender youth to tell their stories. Covington says the process was "incredibly helpful in making sure we told this story honestly and truthfully, but also with optimism because the trans youth we spoke to were incredibly inspiring." And from the extensive casting process, the show also hired about a dozen transgender actors to play background and small speaking roles.

Covington says that creating his role, and casting Fletcher, was a much more involved process than it would have been for a cisgender role of the same size. But it was important to cast a transgender actor. Especially since Fletcher's character, Noah, would almost certainly be placed under a public microscope.

"It is a delicate line to want to try and create a character that's real, and allow it to be human, flawed and all those things," he says. "But also know that there is such little representation that every move this character makes will get much more scrutiny, and be extrapolated much more than the other characters on the show."

"Transparent" showrunner Jill Soloway also specifically worked to bring on transgender talent for her show, which is how Our Lady J became a writer for seasons two and three. But the transgender writer and performer is quick to point out that she is not alone - the show employs many transgender people above and below the line.

"It's hair and makeup. It's wardrobe. Our director's assistant this year is trans. There are people in the camera department. This season we have two new trans actors," she says. And, she adds, the transgender people are keeping up with their cisgender co-workers across the board. "And not just keeping up, but shining brightly."

But similar to the external pressures that Covington felt on "Faking It," Our Lady J wears many hats including artist, activist and role model. "I did feel a lot of responsibility, and I still do," she says, "to connect with the community, and to make sure that I'm representing the community well. …

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