It’s hard to find a balance between skepticism and positivity. It’s hard to know when change is superficial, marginal, placating, and when it’s substantive. I have such big dreams for our world — on-screen and off. I vibrate with frustration, I vibrate with hope.
As you probably know, Max — one of the most meaningful and maltreated characters on the original series — has come back to The L Word universe for a one episode appearance on Gen Q. When we last saw Max, he was pregnant and alone, mocked by friends who were never friendly. He was a cautionary tale of what happens when transmasculine people dare to assert their genders. All the while, Daniel Sea, the real trans person playing the character, faced similar treatment behind the scenes.
When I first reached out to Daniel three years ago, I felt like there was a story that wasn’t being told. The initial Gen Q press tours were all about how much progress the show had made since the original series — while repeating the mistake of misgendering Daniel. Progress is rarely as linear as we hope, nor is it possible without an honest reckoning with the past. References to Daniel’s transness on Instagram were vague but they were there if anyone cared to look. Most people didn’t care.
Throughout the process of our initial conversations and our formal interview, I was lucky enough to get to know Daniel, the person. I wanted clarity on their gender, but I learned so much more. One of the highlights of my time writing for Autostraddle was doing that interview, getting to play a part in deepening our understanding of this moment in trans TV history, and, best of all, developing a friendship with Daniel.
And now they’re back on The L Word. And Max is getting a happy ending. And it’s happening in an episode that has a nonbinary director and a nonbinary writer. This one correction, this one apology, this one episode is not everything. But it is something. It doesn’t erase the past — nor should the past be erased. Instead it adds a new layer.
I talked to Daniel about this new layer. I hope you enjoy reading our chats as much as I’ve enjoyed having them.
Drew: How have you felt since we did our interview? I’m wondering where you’re at with things like public perception and your sort of return to having a public image.
Daniel: I mean, I never meant to go anywhere.
Drew: (laughs) Right.
Daniel: It was a convergence of reasons that kept me out of the public eye. And it was significant to do that interview with you because it happened in such a caring way. There was a mutual respect that made it feel good and like it was meant to be happening. It took us a while to feel comfortable and figure out how to do it. I was careful and also you were careful. And that set a tone that everything else has been able to build on which has been amazing.
Drew: Has there been an increase in fan messages?
Daniel: I think there was an increase when there started to be an increase by me. What happened was because I’m Gen X I was unsure if I wanted to engage with social media at all. I only started my Instagram account when I went to Standing Rock in the service of hopefully putting stuff out. And after that I started to use social media a bit and I think that’s what initially put us in contact. I’ve grown to appreciate it as a place for people to contact me and to foster community with people who want to reach out. I like to be there in that way. It’s one of my side jobs. To help people along their journeys and just be there to hear their stories.
Drew: For any trans person with any sort of platform, you’re never just an actor or musician or whatever. You take on a role in the community that can become challenging to find boundaries and balance but it can also become the most meaningful part.
Daniel: Yeah and I think coming out of punk rock and riot grrrl-adjacent spaces, my association with social media will always be fan zines. So for me it’s always about having pen pals. I try to bring it back to we are community with each other as quickly as I can. I mean, it’s wild that I can represent this thing for people —the first time they saw themself reflected or the first time they saw themself on TV — but I try to be clear that this is what we all do for each other. It’s just a version of what we do in queer community.
Drew: How did the return to The L Word come about?
Daniel: Well, it’s a chain of events. I had a meeting with a friend of mine, Jenni Olson. She’s a queer film historian and filmmaker and ran Frameline.
Drew: I love Jenni! I interviewed Jenni!
Daniel: A genuinely amazing person. She came over to my best friend’s house to buy a silkscreen for a fundraiser thing and we saw each other and decided to meet for coffee. She had read the interview that you did with me and we just started talking about the misunderstandings that can happen regarding gender and generational stuff especially when it comes to media. As a historian I think for her it was very important to talk about this and check in with me. And through that process I realized that I really wanted to act again. So she introduced me to a few people, one of whom was Marja. We had a great general meeting but I didn’t think anything Max-related would come of it. It was just nice to meet and talk. We had a really generative hour long conversation. I also met with Thomas Page McBee who I’ve known about through mutual friends. We got to meet and talk and I just kind of put my desire out there. There wasn’t a space for me back in the day and I thought it was because I was doing something wrong and I wasn’t good enough to be part of it. Reflecting back it was actually more about transphobia and ignorance around nonbinary identities. But because of our interview and seeing that there’s more space in the industry now, I wanted to make it happen. So I just let them both know that.
Then Marja reached out to me this past springtime and said, “I have a dream to bring Max back and to see him thriving and happy. And I want it to be an equally healing experience for you. What would you need for us to make that happen?” She wanted to repair the harm of the past and to see Max happy. Marja loved that character and told that to me in our first meeting. Max represented not just transness but also a type of queerness and underground alternative culture for her and, I think, a lot of people.
I thought it through and then listed some basic things. No diva stuff but just things I’d need to feel comfortable coming back. I talked to Scott Turner Schofield who does this kind of advocacy. You know, for trans people my age you don’t really expect the mainstream to do anything. So it was kind of incredible to hear how there’s like on-set safety and people doing advocacy. You can have someone by your side to help you!
I also said I would like to talk to Showtime and the publicists to talk about what happened in the past that was harmful to me. Unbeknownst to them — there are new people working in those positions — but just to make sure it didn’t happen again. It felt important having played one of the first transmasc characters on TV to say what happened. I did it in a very caring and kind way and they were great. They listened. They apologized even though none of them were there. They heard what I was saying and assured me it was different now.
And then there were things like getting to see the script beforehand in case there needed to be adjustments. Because there was so much in the original series that was problematic that I had almost no input on even if I tried to have them change the harmful stuff. Everything I asked for this time was honored down to costuming. I mean, the whole scenario has just changed. The old crew was largely supportive, but we’re just in a different time culturally.
Drew: Speaking of crew, what was it like no longer being the only trans person on set? How different did that make the experience?
Daniel: It was great. It felt like I’d been waiting for this moment my whole life and I didn’t even know it was possible. I only worked two days so I didn’t get a chance to get to know the crew as a whole and I’m not sure how many trans people were working in general. But our director, Em Weinstein, is trans, the main writer, Nova Cypress Black, is trans, and then I got to work with Leo and Armand. Do you know Armand Field’s work?
Drew: Yes! They’re so good on Work in Progress and the new Queer as Folk.
Daniel: Yeah they’re great. Everything was just so different. Even down to the costuming, nowadays we don’t have to invent anything. There’s a precedent set. They’ve had years of experience working with transmasc actors and are like this is what we can do with the shirt, we can do this and that. Our old costume designer was amazing and always so supportive of me using whatever I wanted but we had to figure it out together.
Drew: Beyond any sort of missteps, there is just a difference between showing up on set and getting to just be an actor versus when you show up on set and you have to be an actor, a costumer, a set decorator, a consultant. I remember you talking about this in the original. And it often wasn’t from a place of maliciousness — they just didn’t know someone like Max so it fell on you to do all these other roles.
Daniel: Let me represent the underground queer. Let me teach the PR people. All of that. And it’s fine. We all do it as culture creators. You do it. I do it. That’s what we’re doing in this work. But it is kind of wild to come in and just be able to go to my trailer and work on the scenes while, at the same time, still being included in the larger creative process with other people who understood these things in their own way.
Leo and I were super into having this intergenerational queer connection. We wanted it to feel like this really affectionate, connecting moment where Max is encouraging and moved by Micah. This is how it is for queer people. We are each other’s family and sometimes pretty quickly you can have these bonds. That was really special. And also to show Max in this beautiful relationship with their partner which we didn’t see a lot of it in the past. I was very happy with the casting of Armand Fields and the way it felt with us all on set with Em. Everyone was so committed to this moment. At one point, Armand said, “Welcome back to your franchise” as if it’s Marvel or something. And I realized so much of what I experienced in the past was trying to prove I was a part of something because they always tried to make it very clear that I wasn’t really a cast member because I wasn’t a woman.
But these people — Em, Nova, Armand, Jillian, Leo — they all just made it really clear that they were happy I was back. It was a dream. I mean, I cried several times. And working in that environment with Nova and Em and these actors, it was the most fun day acting I’ve had since I was doing improv when I was young. Because we got to be innovative and try different things and people were supporting each other. There was no competition. It was exactly what you’d want queer and trans filmmaking to be. And I have to point out that of the five people I’m naming, four of them are BIPOC and that’s significant. They’re all from different backgrounds and I don’t want to generalize but for me that didn’t go unnoticed. And they’re all just uniquely amazing people. They were kind and encouraging. Armand was so affectionate. It felt like a special moment for all of us and for this character who they all seemed to love.
Drew: What was it like being Max again?
Daniel: It was fun! For me it’s like a spiritual thing. Because he’s a side of me. I put myself into him and fought really hard for the good things that were included. And I just think he’s a nice guy and I love to see him happy with a cute kid.
Drew: I mean, you know how I feel. I think people so often remember the missteps — to be generous — that happen toward the end and I really am such a firm defender of those early episodes with you as Max. And I do think L Word viewers got a chance to see Max, the person, before the writing and ignorance took the character places that were stereotypical. I think that’s why the character and your performance as him has the legacy that it does. Because there was so much to hold onto that felt positive and real and human.
Daniel: Even the style of some of the first ones because a lot of the people were filmmakers. Like the road trip with Jenny captured a lot of my trans experiences. Dealing with stuff on the road, bathroom stuff. I mean, I still deal with bathroom stuff. Just the other day I had people screaming at me in the bathroom — nothing has changed. But the dreamy element, two people on the road, the promise of going off to the city. It’s also class stuff along with queer and trans experiences.
Drew: There’s a moment in this episode when Shane apologizes to Max and it feels like an apology from the show itself. Had you previously received apologies from anyone who was a part of the original show along the lines of this fictional apology?
Daniel: I did take that moment as a meta way for the show to apologize to me as an actor and for Shane to apologize on behalf of the original characters to Max. I also think it’s meant to serve her character since she’s on her own journey of growth. But to answer your question, I received an apology from the Showtime PR people — even though they weren’t there back then. And I received apologies from a couple of the actors.
Drew: So this moment was a reckoning that hadn’t happened that often before in real life. Is it fair to say that?
Daniel: Yeah. For me, as someone who believes in the healing power of art — which sounds very corny—
Drew: No, I love it. Be corny.
Daniel: We will take that apology to mean everything because it’s not about me, it’s not about Max, it’s about our community and the system at large that makes harmful things happen whether people know it or not.
Drew: I’m really fascinated by the way that the original series starts with Bette and Tina having a baby. It feels like this moment of assimilation. The first show about lesbians is on TV and here is our central couple and they’re having a baby. They’re being domestic. They’re fitting into this normative lifestyle. And then by the end of the show when Max is having a baby, it’s not shown that way — it’s a circus freak show.
But now all these years later we get this storyline — for better or worse — of domesticity. And I’m really interested in the way in which it suggests that now it’s trans people’s turn to fit into this version of assimilation. On the one hand you can read it as these basic sort of stepping stones of representation — the ways in which society wants marginalized people to conform — but on the other hand it’s not like Max settled down with a cis woman and is modeling a heteronormative life for Micah. Max is in a t4t relationship where one of their kids is biologically from Max, two are biologically from his partner, and the third they’re fostering.
I don’t know if you have any thoughts on this. But I was watching it and just felt like what an interesting cross section of queer media that shows how things are cyclical and shows how you can chip away within the details to be a little more representative, a little more inclusive, a little more radical even.
Daniel: My wish was for Max’s present to reflect more of a life like mine. I don’t hang out with mostly cis people, I don’t hang out with mostly white people. Diverse is such a weird word but my community is mixed and diverse in all sorts of ways. That’s my queer community. So I wanted to reflect that kind of queerness and to show a mixed family background as someone who was raised by gay men as well as my mom and different stepdads. Not that Max is me but I wanted that. So I did request that Max’s partner be on the trans/nonbinary spectrum. But this was created collectively and I want to give all the credit to the writers. Those requests might have already been planned. It was just important to me that Max and his partner better reflect my own queer community.
Drew: It’s really beautiful that some of the subtext you gave to Max in the original series— Well, it wasn’t subtext, because a punk poster in the background is text. But let’s call it soft text. The soft text you brought to Max in the original feels really validated and fulfilled and made more explicit in this window into his life. That feels really special.
Daniel: These gestures toward a certain way of moving through the world, a certain politic. I brought an Audre Lorde poster from home. I did the same thing bringing posters.
Drew: (laugh) You’re like, I know I don’t have to anymore but I still want to be involved in the set decorating!
Daniel: (laugh) We have this gorgeous Audre Lorde print that my friend made. And it frames the beginning of the scene. I like having these gestures. And it’s especially meaningful to fill out the world in this way when you’re already working with the text of Nova Cypress Black, a Black trans writer. I think of writers in the best scenario as holding space for what is possible.
For me, this is the most exciting part of the whole thing. Because again on that set the way the actors worked together with the crew holding that space, it wasn’t competitive. It was all about mutual support and collaboration.
Drew: No more lobsters pushing each other down as they try to get out of the pot.
Daniel: Exactly! It was what I always wanted it to be like. It didn’t have to be scary. We could just do our best and help each other.