“What a difference it makes when an actual trans person plays the role.”
That was Laverne Cox’s reflection in 2011 on how, after years of intermittent visibility, transgender actors like herself were being cast more frequently in films and on television as honest-to-goodness transgender characters. (Mostly women.) Four years later, Ms. Cox has an Emmy Award nomination for her role in the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” now in its third season on Netflix, and will be seen this summer as an old friend of Lily Tomlin’s in the film “Grandma.” She is leveraging her success to redefine, physically and culturally, what it means to be an actress.
But what about other transgender performers? Has Ms. Cox’s breakout widened their chances in the audition room or inaugurated a new wave of transgender characters? Conversations with several transgender actors working in film and on television suggest that Ms. Cox’s rise to stardom has rewritten the rules.
“We have come a long way, especially in the past two years or so since ‘Orange’ hit,” said Trace Lysette, who plays a trans yoga instructor on the Amazon series “Transparent.” “Laverne is the one who really kicked the door open and let people on to the fact that we can have a real story line and really be human.”
The new crop of transgender talent includes many actors making their debuts, including Mya Taylor, a star of “Tangerine,” a hit at the Sundance Film Festival scheduled to reach theaters next month, and Michelle Hendley, who as the star of the recent coming-of-age film “Boy Meets Girl” has a bold nude scene. Others, like Alexandra Billings, who plays a worldly confidante to Jeffrey Tambor’s character, a transgender parent of three in “Transparent,” are reaching wider audiences after years of under-the-radar roles.
Brad Calcaterra, a New York acting teacher who counts Ms. Cox among his students, said the number of transgender actors in his classes had exploded. “Art doesn’t have gender,” he said.
Tom Phelan, who plays a transgender teenager on the ABC Family show “The Fosters,” said that as more young trans people like himself have joined the national acting pool, there has been an increase in rich roles that ask actors to dig deep emotionally.
He recalls taping a scene set at a beach that required him to remove his shirt. “The camera sees my scars, which I think is cool,” he said. “If I were a young trans man living somewhere where there is little information, that would be amazing to see on television.”
Recently these actors spoke about the newly opened doors they’ve walked through and the challenges to come. Here are excerpts from those conversations.
How would you describe the environment for transgender actors?
Tom Phelan We are in a better place than ever before. They are not only drawing from the same two people. But it’s still slim pickings.
Alexandra Billings There are more opportunities, but look carefully. They’re very specific. We’re either in the hospital or visiting someone in the hospital or in jail or some kind of cage. God forbid you put us in charge of children or in the corporate world, where we have power. We’re having specific conversations, but it’s difficult to say it’s getting better.
Trace Lysette When we get to a point when trans folks are included in the creative process, the narrative will be much more authentic. Trans actors playing trans roles is a key part of that. But some of the trans talent is not even making it into the audition room, let’s be honest.
Have you experienced discrimination on the set?
Laverne Cox I’ve had moments when I’ve been misgendered by folks on set, where someone used the wrong pronoun. Earlier in my career, I might have taken that personally and lost focus. But I’ve learned that when those moments happen, if it won’t take me out of the work, I will gently correct them. If it will take me out of what I’m there to do, then I go on with the work. At the end of the day, what is on screen is what matters most.
Lysette Nothing too negative, just educational moments about certain terms that people may not know. You wish that everyone knew what cisgendered meant. Everyone has access to Google. You can find out what’s appropriate to ask a trans person.
Taylor Our crew was very familiar with trans people. They were very cautious that they could say certain things. Everybody was very respectful.
Hendley In my daily life, I deal with that. It’s important to understand where people are coming from. Are they trying to hurt your feelings? Or do they just not understand? I’m open to educating people.
There has been a push on shows like “Modern Family” to make gay people seem just like everyone else. But there are big differences between the gay and straight worlds. Do you think roles that treat transgender characters as next-door-neighbor types might be erasing what makes transgender people unique?
Cox Me embracing my trans identity but also my identity as a black woman from a working-class background from the South, all of these things make me special. I’m not interested in erasing. In some ways trans people are like everybody else, and in some ways we are not. When we get specific in the storytelling, that’s when the universality happens.
Billings People say to me: “I don’t see color. I have black friends, but they are just like me.” I think to myself, if you don’t see an African-American human being standing in front of you, you’re either a liar or need medication. Our transgender life is rooted in history. You can go back to the Greeks and see us. When I say we are your neighbors, we are, but we will not be erased. We will be thought of. In order to do that, you have to know that I am transgender. This is a tricky conversation in this community.
Phelan I would love where someone happens to be trans, but other than that it was like one character attribute of a very well-rounded person. We are moving toward that. I know that for the rest of the world, you’ve got to ease them into it, as much as you don’t want to. You have to provide them with a very bland version of this thing to be a gateway into it, and then as you move along you can have more in-depth story lines.
What transgender stories aren’t we seeing on film and TV?
Cox The challenges for trans women who date straight identified men, those stories are really not told. I think the men who date trans women are even more stigmatized than trans women are. And until recently, most trans stories out there were focused on transition and surgery and bodies. We are so much more than that.
Taylor I think one of the biggest things is growing up, being a little kid, what goes on in a household. I was a boy, and the household I lived in wasn’t as accepting, so I had to hide everything. I would wear makeup, and my parents would go into my room and throw it in the trash. There are so many stories.
Lysette If you can go through everyday life, get on the subway and make it to work without an incident or someone shouting, “That’s a man!,” you’re blending with heteronormative folks, and that’s a really interesting story that hasn’t been told yet. As much of a privilege as it is to pass, it’s painful. You have to compartmentalize your life. That’s awkward. Dating can be horrible. That’s a really deep story that hasn’t been told. Trans male stories definitely need to be told.
Hendley Ten or 15 years ago, we thought “Will & Grace” had normalized the gay community for America. I’m hoping we can get to that point where we will have those characters, but the central point is not just that they are transgender. They will just be your best friend. That’s the ultimate goal.
Billings I really would love to see some transgender people in something light and silly. Terrible things are always happening to us, which is true, and I understand that. But I would love to see something like “I Love Lucy.” We’re just as funny and light as we are dark. If you’ve got a pie, throw it in my face.
What’s your advice for young transgender people interested in pursuing an acting career?
Cox There are all kinds of aesthetic realities about the business that can be frustrating for people who identify on different places on the transgender spectrum. Everyone who is transgender doesn’t necessarily transition from male to female or female to male. Some people identify as bigender or agender or genderqueer. That will affect your ability to work. At the end of the day, it’s about creating your own opportunities when you can.
Phelan It’s the same I’d give to any actor. Disappointment is the worst thing to live with, but sometimes you’ve got to live with it. Don’t be ashamed of the person you are. Don’t feel you have to change anything about yourself to fit what other people want. Trying to be the leading man is probably something you aren’t if you are trans, and that’s O.K.
Films and Shows With Transgender Characters.
Below is a sampling:
“Mala Mala” (July 1), a documentary about transgender people in Puerto Rico
“Tangerine” (July 10), a drama about a night out with transgender women in Los Angeles
“Boy Meets Girl” (on DVD and streaming), a coming-of-age movie about a young transgender woman in a small town
“Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix), a dark comedy set in a women’s prison, featuring Laverne Cox
“The Fosters” (ABC Family), a family drama about a lesbian couple raising children
“Transparent” (Amazon), a dark family comedy about a transgender woman and her family
“Sens8” (Netflix), a sci-fi series featuring the transgender actress Jamie Clayton
“Outtakes,” a semi-improvised mock documentary about two trans men making a web series