by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
THREE DOLLAR BILL CINEMA
SIFF EGYPTIAN THEATRE
May 15 @ 1 p.m.
The 11th annual Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival kicked things off last night with the screening of Annalise Ophelian's spectacular documentary Major!. Exploring the life and times of iconic black Transgender activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, commonly referred to as 'Mama' by those who know her best, the movie is a rousing examination of her half-century of activism. Going from the Stonewall Riots, to her time as a sex worker, to her fight for prison reform, virtually no stone is left unturned in this vital, thought-provoking documentary, Ophelian doing a splendid job of telling Griffin-Gracy's story in ways that are electric, alive and, most of all, relatable.
Running through Sunday, May 15, this is the biggest Translations Film Festival yet, featuring events and screenings at locations as varied as the SIFF Egyptian Theatre, the Northwest Film Forum, 12th Ave Arts, and even the Comet Tavern. There are numerous highlights, not the least of which are the spellbinding Deep Run from director Hillevi Loven and the fascinating Vietnamese import Finding Phong, but the biggest event might just be a panel featuring actress Alexandra Billings, director Silas Howard and producer Rhys Ernst, all best known for the hit Amazon television series 'Transparent.'
Before her arrival here in Seattle for the festival, I had the opportunity to touch base with Billings via phone. Our wide-ranging conversation covered everything from her work on the award-winning series, to her early days in Chicago theatre, to thoughts on cisgender actors playing Transgender roles, to current political debates involving the use of the gosh-darn bathroom. It was a freewheeling, anything-goes conversation, and if Sunday's panel at the SIFF Egyptian is anything like it attendees are virtually guaranteed to enjoy themselves. Here are some of the highlights from our chat:
Sara Michelle Fetters: I'd be remiss if I don't start right out and ask about 'Transparent.' Where are we going next? What's going to happen? Any big reveals for Season 3 you can share?
Alexandra Billings: I'm trying to think how much I can actually tell you. [laughs] They keep swearing us to secrecy!
The only thing I can tell you is that this season there's a lot more scenes this season with a lot of us in [them]. There are a lot more ensemble sequences. There's a lot of family stuff. There's a lot of group stuff. The storylines are very intermingled now. There are also some answers to some really good questions as to Moira's life and her Transgenderism and the roots of it, the beginnings of it, but, good lord, I have to stop talking. It's possible I've already told you too much.
Sara Michelle Fetters: No worries. I won't tell anyone. Well, maybe just the people reading the interview. But only them.
Alexandra Billings: [laughing] Sure. That's fine. But only them.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Moving on, though, when you and 'Transparent' creator Jill Soloway talked about this series, talked about the character of Davina, what were those conversations like? You'd known Jill for quite some time, correct?
Alexandra Billings: I had. Jill, her sister Faith and I go all the way back to Chicago theatre of the 1990s, so we'd known one another for however long that is. So long.
She and Faith - this is actually my favorite story - we doing a play called Co-Ed Prison Sluts and I was down the street doing a play called Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack, and one day one of the girls in Co-Ed Prison Sluts, Susan Messing, who's a brilliant actress and a teacher over at Second City, had to leave for like a week. So, somebody over at their show, called me and said that their show started at 9 p.m. and mine didn't start until 11 p.m., and as such wondered if I wouldn't mind doing their show for a week or so and then run across town so I could also be in mine. And I was like, 'Sure!' I mean, I was up all 24 hours, I was on cocaine, why not do this? It seemed like a great idea.
And that was how we met. It was kind of surreal, me running back and forth between two different shows like a crazy person. But we also kept running into one another solidly for years, so I can't say it was all that shocking when she came to me with the opportunity to be in 'Transparent.' What was shocking was that something like 'Transparent' had the potential to become a television series in the first place.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How weird is it to be playing a character like Davina, in a show like 'Transparent,' and to see it receive so many accolades and awards? Isn't this just a little surreal at times? I can't help but imagine it would have to be.
Alexandra Billings: It's absolutely bizarre. It makes no sense, and it shouldn't be happening, especially to me. It's so funny, but you're the first person in the press to actually say this. I'm the one who usually has to say this. Isn't this weird? Yes! It is weird! I still can't believe it sometimes.
You know, I was diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980s, and that was a time when everyone was dying. The sense of loss was astronomical. It was like we were all being rounded up and killed by this plague. It was the utter wreckage of an entire LGBT generation. As such, when I'm diagnosed the doctor is like, I really think you should just go max out your credit cards. You should go to Hawaii. You should get a car. You should just go have fun because, realistically, even with this new AZT thing that we have, you're so sick, you probably have six months left to live.
I was in my late 20s at the time. I remember sitting there, and I had my wife there with me at the time, and I remember thinking, if I'm going to do that, then someday I'm going to have to pay that bill. So, the fact that I'm alive? That's extraordinary. It defies medical science and it is also mindboggling to me. But add into it Jill coming back into my life wanting me to do this particular role in this little, tiny series on Amazon of all places? Insane. Just insane. But to have the show basically be out there in the wild, wild west of television, not on NBC, not on CBS, and to see it do so well, to gain such momentum in a way that is revolutionary, not just in television but in the LGBT movement? It's above and beyond bizarre. Without question.
But, in the course of the strange events of my life? It oddly makes sense.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How much of yourself are you allowed to bring to Davina?
Alexandra Billings: What's great about Jill and all of these 'Transparent' guys, all of them, from the writers, to the costumers, to the producers, to the cast, to everyone, is that they listen to all of us. They were so applicable to any sort of tribal or communal dialogue from the Transgender community with such opening, if I were to ask if I didn't have to say a line because it didn't ring true they were always like, 'Sure! What do you want to say?'
I mean, I never thought this show was going to get this kind of notoriety or acclaim, so when I came aboard I was like, listen, I'm not going to play [Davina] like some finger-snapping, hair-twirling, 'Miss Thing' kind of gal. I'm Transgender. I'm 54. This is the way I look. This is the way I dress. This is the way I sound. This is how I'm going to play the character. I didn't want to be in a hospital. I didn't want to be a murderer. I just wanted to be who I am, and Jill and the rest of them all got and understood that. That was exactly what they wanted.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I admit, this show is brutally hard for me to watch at times. It can be so honest. There are times where it makes you look at your own life, especially for anyone who is Transgender, in ways that can be decidedly uncomfortable. This is undoubtedly by design, I imagine.
Alexandra Billings: Absolutely. Jill wrote for 'Six Feet Under' and 'United States of Tara,' so this is who she is. Her great gift is that she is able to embody this sense of humor that's a combination of darkness and light, which is true of the human condition. It's the brilliance of shows like 'Black-ish,' the ability to be really funny but also very human. To not fear making the audience uncomfortable as they laugh. Jill understands how to do that in a way that is almost cellular. I mean, when you're talking about our [Transgender] community, isn't that where we came from? We were born from chaos and misunderstanding. From ostracization. I mean, marginalization is our [community's] middle name. It's pretty much who we are.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You do have to love how this show could sometimes be so ahead of the curve as far as cultural dialogues are concerned. I was rewatching a couple of episodes to prepare for this interview and stumbled right into one humorously looking at how those of us in the Transgender community have to deal with the plight of public bathrooms. And, what are we talking about right now in the middle of this ongoing Presidential primary? Transgender people going to the freaking bathroom.
Alexandra Billings: Isn't that unbelievable? Don't you just want to pull all of your hair out? Not to get too philosophical, though, but isn't this the great reflection of art? Life has reflected art and art has reflected life, this has always been true. That's why we paint, sculpt, speak, sing and dance. That's why we do what we do. So it actually makes perfect sense.
As I said, I'm approaching 60. I transitioned in the 1980s. So I've been living this life for quite some time. I was on 'Phil Donahue' back in the day. I was on Sally Jessy Raphael's show. I was on 'Jenny Jones.' I was on all of those ridiculous shows, and we were still talking about the bathrooms. Of course, back then, it was comical. It was so ridiculous. It was so outrageous that I would use the women's bathroom; it would produce laughter.
Nowadays it induces anger. The fact people are upset and angry, that they are so viscerally angry to the point they have to write laws to protect Transgender people so they can go to the godforsaken bathroom? That actually makes me really happy.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I have no idea if it was the show you were on, but when I was a little kid, I was watching 'Sally Jessy Raphael' during one of her crossdresser/transvestite/transsexual shows and I remember my mother walking in the room and being mortified. Letting me know in no uncertain terms how happy she was that I would never be like 'one of those people.' Now, I'm one of the lucky ones in that my entire family, all of them, including my mother, love and support me in every single way, but that was still her kneejerk reaction not all that very long ago. It's crazy, then, to think how far we've come in some ways since then, is it not?
Alexandra Billings: And don't you sometimes hear that voice, even just vaguely? 'Thank God you'll never be like that.' Don't you still hear that?
Sara Michelle Fetters: Yes. And my mother, as I said, loves me to death, so that makes it even weirder that I still have to deal with that voice in my head sometimes.
Alexandra Billings: And that is the reason I believe all of us, whether you're Transgender or not, all of us in some way deal with that particular message. Your family owns a house painting business and you're watching a show about lawyers because you're dreaming about doing something in regards to law, and someone in your house painting family says, 'thank goodness you'll never be like that.' All of us in some way deal with things like this. I really believe, especially as it pertains to our community, if we embrace the fact that other people have told us, have literally given us a prayer that we're not like that, we can say that they're right. That God did not make us like someone else. That God made us like ourselves.
I'm not like someone else. I'm not like any of the girls on 'Sally Jessy Raphael.' I'm not like RuPaul. I'm not like Caitlyn Jenner. All of those people are like them. They are who they are supposed to be. This is how I am. This is me. That's the difference. That's the revolution. And I really think it's because of people like Caitlyn and RuPaul, going all the way back to our forebears like Christine Jorgensen and Tula, going back and back and back, that's the road we've been painting all along.
We're not all the same. We're all unique. We have to individualize. We have to be who we are under the Transgender umbrella. We need to be very clear and say this is who I am. This is how I navigate this journey. This is me being me.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I think you bring up a lot of really terrific points here, and I think this moves nicely into something I wanted to touch briefly on, and that's another ongoing conversation in regards to cisgender actors playing Transgender roles. I took a lot of heat for saying how brilliant I felt Jared Leto was in Dallas Buyers Club, mostly from Transgender readers. They couldn't quite understand how I could laud his performance while still be critical of his statements, or lack thereof, in regards to the importance of the Transgender community in helping him craft it during his march to a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
You wrote beautifully on this subject, I think, most notably in an essay in The Advocate. Did it help that you're an actor, that you've worked in the industry for so long, that you were able to eloquently talk about this? Why is it often so difficult for people to judge a performance outside of an actor's public statements or actions?
Alexandra Billings: First of all, that's a great question. I've been a teacher for over thirty years. The foundation for my teaching with my students has always been there is no difference between your art and your life. I tell them, if you bring your life into your art, you'll bring art into your life. But you have to bring the whole thing. You can't just bring the pieces that are pretty or interesting. All that stuff is usually bullshit. It's the stuff that hurts, that's painful, the real joy, the time you really fell apart, you have to bring all of that into the room. Then you'll find the gift of you, the artistic voice that can move others.
So, I'm in full agreement. It is a great performance. What I wrote, and I want to be really specific about this, was not 'hooray' or 'boo' as to whether Jared Leto was playing this role, what I was upset about was that when he started winning all of those awards he didn't even mention us [the Transgender community]. He didn't even talk about us. He didn't even say the word Transgender. That's what I was upset about. You cannot or will you tell our story and then forget about us when the accolades come. Because the character you are playing and you yourself are the same person. They are one in the same.
And I'm not saying there was a Transgender person inside of him. Being Transgender had nothing to do with anything. But moving through this life? Moving through the life of a person that was ill. Who had wants. Who had needs. That all obviously made sense to Jared Leto and I think he navigated all of that brilliantly. Beautifully. I was thrilled by this performance. It was very brave. It was delightful. Painful, yes, but also delightful to watch. But you can't take on the entire tribe of a group of people and then, once the awards start piling up, take all of that on yourself. You had a little help.
Every time Jeffrey Tambor wins an award, and it happens often, as it should, because he's brilliant, he works so hard, the man is insane and I don't care if I'm a little biased, but every time he wins he honors us. I've known this man now for three years, and all of my time is with him. I've spent hours and hours with him. I've seen Jeffrey at his best and at his worst, and he's experienced the same with me. So I know these speeches he makes comes from a place of ultimate truth and openness. He understands he's not portraying a Transgender person, that's impossible. He's not Transgender. He was not born Transgender. He will never play a Transgender person. He is a cisgender actor moving his way through this story and this character. It is coming out of him.
It's all very simple, but we tend to complicate stuff. What we don't understand we put limitations on. If you're a different race, we put you on the other side of the room. If you're anything other than what I am, you get put on the opposite side of the room. And the same thing happens in the Transgender community. We put cisgender people across the other side of the room. I think it's time we stopped doing that. It's a big room. Let's intermingle. Because, if not, let me tell you, we're going to be in that room alone for a long, long time.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Do you think some of what you're talking about here is why there was such a strong reaction, on both sides of the fence, by the Transgender community to Eddie Redmayne being cast in The Danish Girl?
Alexandra Billings: I think what we're missing right now is balance. We're off-balance right now. What's happening is that the more cisgender males, especially white, privileged cisgender males, take on these Transgender roles and the less you actually see us the more unfair it is. There needs to be more balance in these representations, and as such, we're lashing out. We're being marginalized, legally, in the United States in a way that hasn't been seen since 1959 when African Americans had to use different water fountains. It's just insane what is going on.
When you have artistic expression that is unbalanced right now? I can understand it. I can understand the anger.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Switching to why it is we're actually talking, tell me more about your visit here for the Translations Film Festival? This festival is near and dear to my heart. I helped program it in its infancy. The fact we now have talented artists such as yourself coming for a visit just sends my heart soaring. Talk to me about this panel you are going to be a part of?
Alexandra Billings: This is so exciting. I love Seattle. The last time I was there I had the pleasure of singing with the Seattle Gay Chorus. [Billings guest starred with Diverse Harmony at Broadway Performance Hall on June 2, 2007.] That was so much fun.
But, I mean, I'm from a generation that the words 'Transgender Film Festival' just shouldn't go together. Who knew? I'm like, what? Is this true? I want to watch all of the films. All of them. And I want to meet everyone. Shake everyone's hands. I want to be around them. The filmmakers. The programmers. The guests. The ticket buyers. Everyone. I just want to hang out and talk with people.
Every time I get a chance to be around our tribe in a way that is based and founded in inclusivity and in being seen? I'm excited. I'm there. I honestly can't wait.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What do you hope you get to talk about? Where do you think the discussion will go?
Alexandra Billings: I hope the audience asks us a whole lot of things. I hope they ask us stuff politically. I hope we talk about art. I hope we talk about art for art's sake. I hope we have a good time. I hope we all get a chance to enjoy one another. Really.
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