Feature image by Mark Von Holden/Variety via Getty Images
Trans characters have long been included in buzzy end-of-year award hopefuls. Ten cis actors have been nominated for Oscars for playing these characters. But only recently have trans people actually been involved in these films. Only recently did the industry start to include us in the stories of our lives.
When the Oscars announce their nominees at the end of next month, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, based on the Miriam Toews novel of the same name, is likely to be on the list. This alternately theatrical and cinematic tale of patriarchy and abuse in a remote Mennonite colony features some of the year’s best performances and one of the boldest artistic visions.
Despite the title, the film is not entirely women. There’s Ben Whishaw as the model of soft masculinity tasked with keeping the minutes for the titular discussions and then there’s Melvin, a transmasculine youth who’s response to abuse is to speak aloud only to children. Melvin is played by August Winter, a trans actor and a friend of mine. Their presence in this film may prove easy to ignore in a culture that views conflicts of patriarchy as men vs. women — but that’s exactly why it’s so important.
I talked to August about the singular experience of making Women Talking and about their experiences in the industry as a nonbinary actor.
Drew: Before you came out and changed your pronouns, what kinds of roles were you auditioning for?
August: I was an expert with teenage angst. Always the troubled daughter of somebody. Or the unsuspected murderer. Even though they were fun roles and fun characters, looking back I felt very stifled playing this kind of person. It wasn’t just being gendered as female. It was also the age. I was stuck at 17.
Drew: Do you think it was a queerness they were picking up on that made you the troubled teen? I mean, what’s a troubled teen if not a closeted queer?
August: (laugh) Yeah. And the first role I had like this was explicitly gay.
Drew: Was your hair long at that point?
August: Yeah it was. It’s so funny. I was actually looking back on a demo reel recently and it looks like I was wearing a wig.
Drew: I’ve had trans friends who have had top surgery show me what they looked like before and it looks like they’re wearing a breastplate.
August: 100%. It looks like a bad Halloween costume. For me that’s what it looked like.
Drew: When you came out, what was the conversation with your agents like?
August: I came out during the pandemic so all of it is quite a blur. But it was as simple as me telling them that this is something that’s felt true for a long time and I just wasn’t able to articulate it for myself. My agents were so, so receptive and immediately wanted to know what they could do to help. Vulnerable is such a watered down word but I was in such an exposed position, having people ask what they could do was really meaningful. Their first action was to personally reach out to casting directors who had known me throughout my career and be like, “Hey this is August.” Of all the ways it could have gone, it was very smooth in that sense.
Drew: Did they have other trans clients?
August: No. And so it was interesting because they were asking me questions to further their own understanding that I couldn’t yet answer. Like what roles I was comfortable going out for. And I had to get comfortable really quickly with saying I don’t know or I’m going to go think about this and respond to you tomorrow. That was the biggest thing in those first few months. Not trying to answer anything before I had figured out how I actually felt.
Drew: What did you decide on? What auditions have you done since then and what roles have felt good?
August: Honestly, I’m still figuring that out because it’s only been a couple years. But where it’s sitting right now is I’m going up for any gender identity: male, female, or nonbinary. Where I draw the line is if I need to be explicitly perceived as female. If it’s a character who uses she/her pronouns and has the name Jane but I feel I have the liberty to be in certain types of clothes then I can still connect to that part and want to stay open to it. That could change though.
I feel the most comfortable now in either nonbinary roles or male roles. It’s interesting going back and forth because I can get a really quick temperature read. I’m so much more relaxed taping some roles than others. But sometimes going up for trans roles can feel uncomfortable too. Based on what they’re looking for and whether I fit that traditional mold.
Drew: Can you expand on that?
August: I think what I’ve been seeing in the industry right now is more roles coming through for trans and nonbinary characters. Which is great! But they’re still written through a limited lens. If it’s a trans man, they’re assuming you have a low voice and all the physical attributes that come along with a binary medical transition. So when I go to tape for these things, I know they aren’t going to see me as what they’re looking for. And sometimes the part just isn’t for me, but often it seems like I could be right for it if they expanded their ideas of transness.
Drew: Do you feel like there’s a greater willingness for casting directors to see you for male roles written to be cis? Or do you feel like you’re doing it and just sending the tapes off into the abyss?
August: (laughs) That one. The abyss for sure. I think they’re willing to see me for everything and that’s great. That’s a privileged position to be in. But I know deep down that they’re still looking for what they think to be a man from their lens. Same with female roles. I might still be right for a character even if she has qualities generally associated with being a woman. I can still embody those things. But I know at the end of the day they’ll want somebody who people will recognize on TV as being attractive in a “feminine” way.
Drew: I mean, that still happens in queer-produced stuff. There’s a certain type of person wanted for certain types of roles. And, look, that’s casting. There are always going to be roles that don’t fit people regardless of gender. But I also think there’s a limit of imagination sometimes.
August: That’s exactly it. That’s what I’ve been feeling lately. A limit of imagination. On casting. On writing. Every side of it right now. It’s awesome that there’s more awareness around gender variance but people are still not being creative. If you’re in a creative industry and are committed to telling diverse stories you have to let go of the idea that they’re going to be told in the way you think they’re going to be told.
Drew: What was the casting process like for Women Talking?
August: Well, it’s really interesting because that was my first audition after coming out. I sent my email to my agent, then I had a panic attack, and then she sent one of the emails to casting and they were immediately like we have something. Literally days after I came out. I saw the project and I was like this can’t be right. This is wild! I connected so quickly to the character and felt really seen throughout the whole process. It was so meaningful because it was the first thing I auditioned for where I felt like I was being seen for who I was.
Drew: You were like wow it’s so great to be trans in the industry! It’s going to be such a breeze!
August: (laughs) Yes I did think that for two seconds.
Drew: So after six months you found out you got it?
August: Yeah. It was very soon after that we started going into costume fittings and the whole pre-prep process. That was another really significant thing. It was the first fitting I walked into where I could look in the mirror and not dissociate. I hadn’t quite realized the impact of all those previous roles and how emotional it had been for me. I felt so much more relaxed even in small talk. Like I’m actually talking to the costume designer right now instead of blacking out.
Drew: What was the rehearsal process like?
August: We had two weeks of rehearsal. One was over zoom. And one was in the set hayloft. The zoom stuff was weird because it was zoom but it was still so cool to start these conversations with all these actors. To get that time. Because you usually don’t.
And then once we were in the space it hit everyone. Sarah said that as well. Like now we actually have to find a way to do this. Watching all those actors figure that out was something I’ve never witnessed before. They all had this ability to be quiet and then come out with a brilliant thing that changed the whole scene. Everyone was so deliberate when they spoke. That’s something I really took away from that process. In this industry, we often feel pressured to always be saying something interesting and creative but it’s much better to be deliberate.
Drew: And this is a room of really accomplished actors. Legends. Sheila McCarthy, Judith Ivey, the whole cast really.
August: And art was imitating life. They were having a real conversation about these things, they were figuring out how they felt about this in the room together now that they were physically with each other. They’re some of the most intelligent, creative people I’ve ever met.
Drew: Did Sarah change the script through the rehearsal process?
August: No. I mean, don’t quote me on that because I wasn’t there the whole time. But I think there were so many rewrites up to that moment and it was a script that felt so much like a play that no one was really changing dialogue. There was no ad-libbing. By that point, Sarah had done so much. She said she actually did a pass from each character’s perspective to make sure she was never losing anyone. So by that point nothing needed to be changed.
I remember Sheila McCarthy saying the only dialogue they played with was toward the end of the film when she’s apologizing to Mariche. It was written as, “I’m sorry.” And there were three sorrys that made it in because it felt like three apologies were needed. But to my knowledge that was the only dialogue that was added.
Drew: Obviously the material is quite heavy. What was done in rehearsal and while filming to make sure you were all taken care of?
August: Well, this is another example of Sarah’s brilliance. She brought on a trauma psychologist named Lori Haskell. She spoke to the whole cast and crew first just educating us and then she was available to us at any time during the shoot if we needed anything. That was invaluable. We all felt that way. So that was one practical thing put in place. But also how Sarah handled everything. She was always checking in with us, emailing at the end of the day, making sure we were feeling okay. There can be a cost to doing this work but she gave you the sense that it was held in respect. That acknowledgment made any cost feel worth it. There was a reason to go there and to tell this story.
Drew: I’d imagine the flashback scenes were particularly traumatic both due to the trauma of the story and because you had to dress femininely. Can you talk about that experience?
August: Yeah. I didn’t know how I was going to feel about it, because it was relatively recent to me coming out and cutting my hair. It wasn’t until I got in the dress and had the wig on that it hit me. And it was deeply uncomfortable. I was really grateful for the support afterwards. I felt really taken care of. But I don’t think I was prepared to feel that. It was that jarring sense of no I can’t go back to being someone I’m not. It took me a few days to really come back from that. It was a very visceral experience.
Drew: The nature of PR is to simplify and this is a movie that has women in the title.
Drew: So I’m wondering if you can talk about what the experience has been like since it premiered this summer. It’s easy for people to be like this is a movie where women are talking! How has that felt? How do you navigate that?
August: To bring it back to Sarah, she’s actually acknowledged this. We’ve had a conversation about it. Especially in some of the press and the Q&As when people refer to it as an all female cast.
Drew: And you and Ben Whishaw are like, umm…
August: We’re up there too! So that’s one thing — it’s been acknowledged. That’s really meaningful.
But I think it just shows that as a culture we remain ignorant to these nuances. For me it comes down to people’s fascination with grouping things into familiarity instead of finding new ways of saying something. And I do think the title is very true that this story centers around a group of women talking. But a lot of press has maybe missed that this is about humans of all genders and this is just a container to discuss these issues. They affect every single person.
Drew: Yeah and I think– Wait, what’s Ben Whishaw’s character’s name?
August: It’s August.
Drew: That’s right! It is August. In August’s presence, it also shows that it’s about patriarchy and how that impacts everyone. I know that reading the book and seeing the movie that aspect really connected with me. That almost connected with me more as a woman than the women characters.
Drew: His experience of being this soft, maybe queer-coded person perceived to be a man in this space. It reminded me how I felt before transitioning.
August: That’s so interesting! I think August’s character is deeply important. Going back to how the work can be oversimplified, this is not a film about hating men or saying men are bad. It’s about the systems that are in place that are absolutely not working anymore. And what are we going to do about it? I think that both August and Melvin show a new way of understanding how a man can be in the world. They have that parallel and I think it’s really important that people don’t generalize and say the movie is about women trying to get away from men. The real question is how can we integrate all genders in a way without hierarchy. Tall order.
Drew: (laughs) I think we’ll get there in a couple years. A couple months even.
August: (laughs) By the end of the year.
Drew: A Christmas movie pitch: we have to solve patriarchy by New Years.
August: I would watch that.
Drew: What do you wish casting directors better understood about the trans experience? Or if that feels too broad, your trans experience?
August: Oh my gosh. Okay. The biggest thing I want casting to know is that qualities are not attached to gender. If they need someone soft or nurturing or playful that doesn’t have to mean woman. Casting needs to understand that any skilled actor can embody a range of qualities instead of having a set idea about who can play what role. I know it sounds so cliché and general but it’s as simple as knowing that trans people — as much as any other actor — have the ability to embody another human’s experience if they are able to feel seen and acknowledged in that role. That’s what it comes down to for me. Can I play this role and stay in my body or not?
Drew: It’s interesting because that’s the argument that people make when it comes to exclusion. Like why shouldn’t Matt Bomer be allowed to play a trans woman? Why shouldn’t Scarlet Johansson be able to play an Asian woman? These arguments that are ignorant to the long harmful histories of cis actors playing trans roles, of yellowface. Each of these unique histories with different reasons why it’s not okay for certain people to be cast in these roles. The response to this is often, but actors are just actors! Which again shows an ignorance of these histories. But that perspective, that energy could be redirected in a way that would allow our art to become deeper and more interesting. No, every actor is not right for every role and yet the way we think about casting could be greatly expanded.
August: Exactly. You have to look at the arguments for why people can’t play certain roles and question whether it’s actually true or whether it’s that limit of imagination. The question to me is can an actor embody a certain character’s life experience? Because there are lines. There are a lot of roles I could not play. It requires nuance. I just want casting directors and creators to ask why. If you think no that person wouldn’t work, take a moment to ask why.
I was in a scene study class last night and a bunch of people were missing so we all read for each other. And I watched scene after scene of people in the “wrong” gender. When the scenes were working, nobody noticed.
Drew: Okay same question but for directors.
August: Advice for cis directors working with trans actors?
Drew: Yeah. It sounds like your experience with Women Talking was really positive but I’m sure you’ve also had experiences that were less positive.
August: Honestly just an understanding that it’s meaningful to have your identity honored. I don’t think that feeling will ever go away for me. So put in the time and education to understand who you’re working with. I mean, one obvious thing is to talk about your actor with their pronouns instead of the character’s pronouns. Because that is an experience I’ve had. I’m in a role that identifies as female so I’ll be gendered that way constantly.
Just awareness honestly. Basic awareness that just because someone looks a certain way to you that doesn’t mean that’s who they are. And an understanding that being on set as a trans actor can be extra vulnerable. I don’t want to be coddled but I do want someone who will respect that I’m allowing myself to be seen in a certain way and for a director to make an effort to make me feel safer to do that. For me that starts with my own identity being acknowledged because then I can go somewhere else.
Drew: Okay and finally same question for journalists, myself included.
August: Well, you’re doing great.
Drew: Thank you so much. That’s really what I wanted to hear.
August: Can you imagine if I gave you a bunch of notes?
Drew: I’m a Capricorn. I’d love that.
August: (laugh) No, but, in general, I think it’s similar to directors: know who you’re talking to. This is just street smarts but understand where someone might be at in their trans journeys and whether some questions will be wrong for right now. I think it’s common sense how personal is helpful and how personal is invasive. The parallel for all of these is awareness. We’re so unaware of the humanity of the people in front of us. So for journalists or any kind of press to hold the sensitivity around, yes this person may be in a position where they’re in a more public view but that doesn’t always mean they’re going to speak about their personal experience. And sometimes the total opposite! Read the room and be prepared. Be intentional about what questions you’re going to ask and responsive to the feedback you get to those questions. Don’t just ask something because it’s what our society and culture wants you to ask.