Jen Richards interview feature image by Rich Polk via Getty Images.
As a trans woman in Hollywood, your job is rarely just to act or write or fulfill whatever role is next to your name in the credits. Whether you want it or not, you also become a teacher, an activist, an advocate — for the community and for yourself.
Since releasing her Emmy-nominated, Peabody-winning web series Her Story, Jen Richards has appeared on shows such as Nashville and Take My Wife, starred in the standout episode of the new Tales of the City, and written and pitched a multitude of her own projects we’ve yet to see. She’s also established herself in interviews, online, and in last year’s landmark documentary Disclosure, as one of our most thoughtful voices on trans media.
She’s someone I’ve looked to for inspiration since the moment I came out and it was such a pleasure to talk to her about her work on CBS’ Silence of the Lambs sequel Clarice and her experiences navigating the industry as a trans woman.
Drew: Hi Jen!
Drew: You’re in Vancouver right now, right?
Jen: One week into quarantine.
Drew: Right, the rules there are still really strict. You’re there working?
Jen: Yeah, I’m here writing a show I have in development.
Drew: That’s great. I’m calling you from Cincinnati where I’m working on Monica starring Trace (Lysette).
Jen: Oh it finally got greenlit! I didn’t know they were actually making it.
Drew: Yeah! We start shooting tomorrow.
Jen: What’re you doing on it?
Drew: I’m the director’s assistant. Andrea (Pallaoro) was actually my first ever film teacher when I was 16. We’d lost touch but in 2018 I was writing a script based on the summer when I met him and I happened to look him up and saw on IMDb that his next movie was about a trans woman. So I sent him an email like… been awhile funny story I’m trans… and then we met back up. And yeah I can’t believe it’s finally happening because he was working on getting it made back then.
Jen: That’s fantastic. I loved the script when we were all auditioning for it and I can really see Trace in the part. I’m very excited.
Drew: Yeah me too! Okay so my goal with this conversation is to give people a bit of a window into your career so far and just the realities that go along with being a trans woman in Hollywood. I first learned about you in 2016 when you were on a podcast I really loved called Represent (hosted by Aisha Harris) but I imagine you were doing stuff before then. What was your first job in the industry?
Jen: My first actual job… I mean, Her Story.
Drew: That was your first? When did you move to LA?
Jen: To do Her Story.
Drew: Oh wow!
Jen: Yeah. I mean, if you want to go back I was first on stage when I was six months old. Both my parents were actors. Not professional but in the little town in Mississippi that I’m from. My mother was a great actress and a very beautiful woman. My father was very charming and always dreamed of going to Hollywood to be a writer and an actor. I didn’t learn that until much later — he died when I was young. So I did theatre and I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. I can remember my Apple IIe and writing fantasy stories on that and doing theatre through elementary, junior high, and high school. I was the — Well, I was the hot young guy. (laughs)
Drew: (laughs) Oh yeah?
Jen: Yeah I was the lead of everything. And I continued to do theatre in college, but I never had any professional aspirations. I think I always wanted to be a writer but we didn’t have much money and my mom was very practical. And I had wanted to become a professor of philosophy. So to me writing and acting was just what I did for fun. It was my relief. It was how I spent my evenings. I would write screenplays or write stories and just jot down ideas. I wrote my first feature screenplay when I was in my early 20s. But mostly I just did theatre at night. Like I had a regular life and then would just do theatre on the side.
For ten years I worked in non-profit management in the fine arts — dance and classical music. So I would work in the office during the day and at night I’d either take Shakespeare classes — which is still a big passion of mine — or just do plays at the local community theatre. But I never really thought about pursuing it professionally. It just seemed so far away and so remote. Like that was something that other people do. And I didn’t like being poor. I was kicked out when I was 19 and I had to work full time — I didn’t get to go to college — so money was also an issue. I just had to work full time. That was first and foremost. And everything else was just for fun.
It was only after transition and getting involved in trans advocacy work in Chicago that it changed for me. I was really, really fired up. There was so much happening at the time. This was a few years prior to the big trans moment in the national media but obviously there was still a lot happening. And there was a lot of violence at the time too. The year that I came out I think three different trans women in Chicago were murdered. The first event that I ever went to as an out trans woman was a memorial service for Paige Clay who was murdered in Chicago. And I was living with Angelica Ross at the time — Janet Mock had introduced us. When none of us were known by anybody. (laughs)
Jen: And I was just doing advocacy work. I created a website called We Happy Trans and then I created this other project called the Trans 100. It was this exciting moment of advocacy but I still maintained this fantasy of writing and acting.
I had quit doing Shakespeare when I transitioned. I remember when I came out I accepted that three things were going to be true: 1) I would always be a freak — just a man in a dress, 2) no one would ever love me again, and 3) I would never act again. Those were the three things I had to accept before I transitioned. Because, you know, there were no trans actors! Ten years ago? That didn’t exist as far as I knew. I mean, besides Candis Cayne, I just didn’t know of anyone and she seemed like such an impossible standard. But I happened to live in the same neighborhood as one of my Shakespeare teachers and after a couple years they were like it’s time to come back and start doing female monologues. I was reluctant but they coaxed me back. And then I was like oh shit I forgot how much I loved this.
Right about that time there was a web series being filmed in my neighborhood called Hashtag and one of the producers had seen me tweeting about trans actors and asked if I would come be on the web series. So I got cast in this one scene role as a waitress who comes and helps one of the main characters who was played by Laura Zak — it was her web series. So we actually met on screen. You can see in the show Hashtag the very first time Laura and I ever met.
Drew: Oh wow!
Jen: Yeah so I got to know some of the people involved in that series — it was a little company in Chicago called tello. And then they asked if I wanted to write a web series about trans women and I said yeah that sounds great. And I asked Laura if she would do it with me in part because I like collaborating and in part because I had a crush on her and didn’t know how else to hang out with her.
Jen: Like, hey do you wanna work together?
Jen: It’s very effective. And so, yeah, I wrote Her Story on yellow legal pads and Google docs with no scene headings. I would just write “Violet:” and then dialogue and then “Paige:” and then dialogue. And then Laura turned it into a script.
We felt like we made something kind of special. I felt like we were writing something I had never seen before. I was taking from Angelica’s stories and my stories and I was always really intrigued by our differences — who we were dating, our race, and all that. I just felt like we had something special. But the producer in Chicago didn’t seem very excited about it and I got frustrated. Laura had a friend in LA — Kate Fisher — who came across the script and she loved it and she asked if she could produce it instead and put more money into it. We would just have to come to LA to make it. And so we decided to go with Kate and we made Her Story. I came out to LA to film that and while I was there Caitlyn (Jenner) asked me to be on her show so I stayed a little longer to film that. And then some filmmaker asked me to film his movie so I stayed a little longer to film that and eventually it became a career.
Drew: After you and Laura wrote Her Story, were you trying to still make it with that original producer and it didn’t work? What was the timeline there?
Jen: It was going to get made for like $8,000 with the producer in Chicago. It was going to be a tiny little web series that our friends could see. Very, very low budget. But their lack of enthusiasm bothered me. And then Kate was so enthusiastic about the script and she had more money to produce it. So we asked the producer in Chicago if she would let it go — she happily did so. And then we made it with Kate.
Drew: When you’re making a web series like this and a producer puts up money they’re not expecting any return on their investment. Was the conversation with Kate that it could someday be a series and that was the investment? Was it just that she really loved the project and wanted to give money to be a patron? What were the conversations around getting financing for a project like Her Story?
Jen: I always feel bad when I talk to people — filmmakers especially — about how I got my start because it was so opposite of everybody else. Kate wanted to give us a ton of money all well knowing that she would never get it back. She’d actually gotten inheritance from a very homophobic, racist grandparent and she kind of wanted to spend the money on something that would piss them off. (laughs)
Drew: (laughs) Incredible.
Jen: And she just got severance from another job. So she basically came into this money and she was either going to go to grad school or make a series and she decided to make a series. I mean, she’s an angel. It wouldn’t have existed without her.
I felt bad that Kate kept putting in more money and upping the budget. Here I am a first time filmmaker and she’s putting all this money into it that we were never going to get back. She had to talk me into taking money. That was my first experience in Hollywood.
Jen: As a first time writer, I felt like nothing I created could possibly justify this much money. That was the cognitive dissonance — nothing I wrote could possibly justify this kind of expenditure. And not just the money. We were hiring real professionals, we got a real director, we had auditions with real actors. I was having a panic attack. I mean, Laura had to coax me through it every step of the way. It was just too weird to think professionals would spend their time and Kate would give her money to something that came out of my head. That just did not make any sense to me.
Drew: It’s interesting though because you said that since you were a kid you were writing. This was your first professional project but you just said you wrote your first screenplay when you were in your early 20s. It’s become a cliche to say walk through the world like a cis straight white man but, you know, there are film students who are cis straight white guys who are making stuff and taking that money who spent fewer creative hours than you had.
Jen: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, that’s true. God I wish I had the audacity of a mediocre straight white man.
Drew: Do you feel like you have a bit more now?
Jen: Um… No. (laughs)
Drew: Well then I’ll take this as an opportunity to boost your ego a bit and talk about Her Story. So I first knew about you in 2016, like I said, and then I came out in early 2017 and because you were one of the few trans women who I was aware of I watched Her Story maybe the week that I came out — I watched it really, really soon after I came out to myself let alone to anyone else. I remember writing something on Tumblr about it where I was just so overwhelmed.
I think my experience of transitioning would’ve been significantly harder if I hadn’t been able to watch Her Story. For two reasons. One, just seeing the on-screen representation. But also like you were saying when you came out you said to yourself you had to give up acting — that was something I wasn’t willing to do. For so long I wanted to write and act and direct and I could never sacrifice that. Maybe I would’ve gotten to a point where I could’ve, but that was a really big issue for me. And knowing that Her Story existed and that all these incredible trans women were making the kind of art that I wanted to see, that I wanted to make, it just completely shifted my worldview going into my transition.
I think it’s just an amazing show separate from my emotional attachment to it and representational stuff, but that was all very important for me.
Jen: You know, I haven’t seen it in awhile, but it stands up.
Drew: It really does.
Jen: When we would tour around with it I didn’t want to watch it because it’s hard for me to watch. It’s very personal. There’s some pretty raw stuff on screen. And sometimes I’ll be like oh I’ll only watch a little bit. But I always get sucked in! I feel like I’m watching someone else’s work. And it’s pretty compelling.
Drew: It’s really good. I’m glad you can acknowledge that.
Jen: Yeah, because it doesn’t feel like mine. I mean, Sydney’s fingerprints are such a huge part of that. And you can’t plan for someone like Angelica Ross. For me, being Angelica’s roommate in Chicago — you can’t know Angelica and not know she’s a star. Like it seems obvious now because she is a massive star, but at the time she wasn’t doing this and it was still so obvious that was who she was. So you just can’t plan for that kind of thing. I mean, Sydney hasn’t stopped working. She’s done movies. She’s done so much TV. She’s brilliant.
Drew: Yeah she’s amazing.
Jen: And we had Fawzia Mirza! It was just one of those lightning in a bottle kind of things. I watch it and feel just how lucky we were to find Kate and to find the talent that was involved. And the timing. It just so happened that we were doing an Indiegogo for Her Story as I Am Cait was airing so there was so much public attention. And then the Emmy’s category. There wasn’t an Emmy category for short form narrative at the time. And then after it came out they decided to make it an Emmy category and it had to have at least six episodes and it had to be at this length and we met all the criteria by accident. So the things that ended up being so definitive like the Emmy nomination weren’t even in our minds as a possibility. It was just one of those rare things so I feel humbled that I got to be some part of it.
Drew: So then it was nominated for an Emmy and I assume there was a process of trying to get it turned into a series…
Drew: And we all know that didn’t happen. Can you talk a bit about what that process was like?
Jen: Laura and I decided to pitch it as a one-hour drama and we came up with ten episodes. And it was brilliant. I mean, it was really fucking good. What we came up with was stuff that had never been seen on TV — this was pre-Pose — and some things I still haven’t seen. And we had compelling characters, a proven audience, so many awards — not only the Emmy nomination but we won a Peabody, we won a Gotham, countless awards. We were the first web series to be entered into film festivals — AFI did a whole case study on us. We had so much there and we would come in and we would pitch — we pitched it everywhere — and we had thought it out in so much detail. Kate put together this beautifully designed pitch deck. I thought it was a really strong pitch. I would get very, very passionate in the room. All the creative executives seemed to love it. And then we would get the same feedback all the time — it’s too niche, we don’t know what this is, there’s never been anything like it, it’s too much of a risk, it’s too much of a gamble, we have a gay show somewhere in the works. We just got No’s everywhere we went. We just got No’s. It was really demoralizing.
Drew: Ugh I’m sure.
Jen: Especially knowing it was good! It’s still a really good fucking pitch. We would always get the same feedback from — not to center them — but straight white cis dudes would just be like oh my God I forgot this was a trans story because I was just invested in these characters. And I felt like we brought that to the whole series. We built out the world. We had trans men, we had non-binary people, we had more trans people of color, we had a young person, we had an old person. It was tragic and comedic and sexy. It was really good TV! I know that objectively. It was good TV. And Hollywood was just scared because they’d never seen anything like it. It sucks. It really sucks.
Drew: It really does suck. Since then about how many projects have you written or pitched?
Jen: I wrote a feature script about three trans women who are friends. A Latina trans lesbian who’s a recovered drug addict, a white trans woman who has just come back to town and gone stealth, and a Black trans woman who is very successful and meets a Black trans guy who she doesn’t know is trans at first — like he has to disclose to her that he’s a trans guy — and then she falls in love. And the premise was they were friends when they were in their 20s in a trans support group, they’d grown apart since then, they start hanging out when the one comes back, and it’s just about their relationships with each other and their personal relationships. I think it was called Girls Like Us, because that name hadn’t been used yet. So that became sort of a writing sample. It got me into the Outfest screenwriting lab, but I don’t think anyone seriously considered making it. I don’t remember having any meetings with any producers about it — and again this was still pre-Pose. I don’t think there was any interest from anyone in actually making it. It’s not a great script by my standards, but it’s a good script and there are good characters and I think it would have been a nice little indie film. But I didn’t have the confidence or the connections. I didn’t even have an agent. So I didn’t really know how to take it out.
And then after that — all the jobs were in TV, like if I wanted to be a writer I had to be a TV writer, and so I wrote an hour long pilot called The Third Way and started using that as a sample. And that’s when everything took off for me. Because people actually wanted to make that from the start. And I said no. I felt like it wasn’t ready. I wanted to be the showrunner on it so I wouldn’t lose control and I needed to have more experience to get to do that. So it just became a sample and it got me a thousand meetings, Hollywood generals with producers and production companies and studios. And those meetings are what led to the jobs that I have now.
Drew: Was that also what got you an agent?
Jen: No, I got a writing agent through my acting agent. And she’s the one who told me I really needed a drama pilot in order to get the meetings for the work. And then from there it got bigger and I got a whole team.
Drew: Speaking of acting, about how many auditions do you have each month?
Jen: Maybe one or two? It’s kind of pathetic honestly. Compared to other working actors at my level I have remarkably few auditions. And the tough part about that is auditioning very much is a numbers game. To be the perfect fit for a role is so rare. It’s kind of like dating. You just have to date a lot of people and hope that the right fit happens. But the fact is we’re still at a point where trans actors pretty much only get called in for trans roles. And trans roles are still few and far between. And generally not very good. And if I do get called in for something that’s not a trans role I’m competing against a countless number of very talented, usually experienced white cis women who are also struggling to get work in Hollywood. And I just become one in a million. It’s still very tough for trans actors.
Drew: When you say the roles aren’t very good I imagine that both means quality but also politically. And knowing you, how often do you turn down auditions and have you ever turned down a part after getting offered it?
Jen: I’ve never turned down a part after getting offered it because I won’t go that far. (laughs)
Drew: (laughs) Right.
Jen: I have a… I don’t know. How do I put this nicely? I can… I can be a bit much. I can be very unchecked in my opinions. And I don’t regret it. I’ve told casting directors in the room that parts are problematic or that projects shouldn’t get made or should at least be rewritten. And I kind of felt like it was important for me to do for a number of reasons. When I’m in an audition room often it will be Angelica and Isis and Trace and Alexandra and Rain — it’s the same group of us. And because I’ve gotten enough work to get by and because I’m primarily a writer I feel like I have a bit more latitude. I’m also white and a bit older than some of the other girls, so I’ll often speak up so they don’t have to. I’ve sometimes taken auditions knowing I would never take the part just so I can get in the room and tell the casting director hey you’ve got to rewrite this part it’s terrible. (laughs)
Drew: That’s amazing.
Jen: I rarely won’t audition at all because I want to take that opportunity to connect with someone and let them know. Usually I try to do it in a respectful way. Because I just want things to get better. And I will say things have changed a lot in the last year or two pretty radically. There are more trans parts. The trans parts that are there are better. And I get more auditions that aren’t for trans people. Just because the level that I’m at now I’m being considered for more roles. And all the advocacy work that we’ve done behind the scenes has made directors more open to casting trans people in non-trans roles.
Drew: When you’ve spoken up in those situations, what’s been the range of how people have responded?
Jen: Sometimes people have wanted to hire me to be a consultant or have been willing to change the part. But, I mean, I sat down with one director and explained to her why the whole premise of her movie wasn’t feasible and she recoiled and went back into her position and did it exactly the way she wanted to. And with the Matt Bomer movie I never made it past the casting director. I told them they were going to have a big problem if this movie came out with Matt Bomer and then it never went further than that. It ranges.
Drew: So Tales of the City and Clarice are both shows that are building off of these thirty year old works of art. And obviously the original Tales has a lot better intentions than Silence of the Lambs — there’s a very big difference between Anna Madrigal and Buffalo Bill.
Jen: Yeah I’d say that. (laughs)
Drew: But it’s still a product of its time and the cis people who wrote it and made it and acted in it. I know with Clarice you first got involved as a consultant but when approaching projects like this how do you feel a confidence with the people involved especially when they’re cis?
I think it’s really easy for us to get tokenized and to get in situations where they’re pushing forward a supporting actor or even just a consultant to do the press and sort of sign off on something that isn’t very good. Knowing you, you would never talk up something that you didn’t actually stand behind, so when you’re first signing onto a project — especially ones that have these histories — what are those conversations like?
Jen: It really has everything to do with the creators. And just a vibe check really. I just have to feel like they listen to me and will be in conversation and stay open. It’s their attitude. With Tales of the City it was very different though, because just reading the sides — I think there were parts of five scenes — and even then I felt like it was the best part I ever read as a trans person. It was fucking brilliant. I was so in awe of it that I went in with just pure enthusiasm. And then as soon as I met Alan (Poul) the director I just trusted him. I just liked him and we hit it off from the beginning. But the script was so good my only concern was if I could do it. Usually my job as an actor is to elevate the material — take what’s there and make it better. But Tales of the City was the first time that I had a part where I felt unsure if I even could elevate the material. I had to rise to meet the material. That was really scary for me. I didn’t want to let the script down. I just thought it was so good and so complicated and layered and rich and demanding. So for me it was always the opposite there. Alan and Lauren (Morelli), the showrunner, were just the best collaborators I ever had. I absolutely loved everyone involved in that show. The whole thing felt very magical for me from start to finish.
With Clarice that was different. I mean, that’s a fucking network procedural on CBS. I had hella concerns. But Alex (Kurtzman, co-creator of Clarice) already had a bit of a track record working with trans people. And Nick (Adams, GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation) had already been working with them extensively. I met with Elizabeth Klaviter (a writer and producer on Clarice) about it and she seemed like someone I could trust. And at that point — this was about a year ago — I felt so much more empowered. Disclosure was out in the world and I had gotten to a point in my career where I had plenty going on and I could’ve said no. So I felt very empowered in that one from the beginning to be like this is how it is, you’ve got to do it this way or you cannot do it this way. So I felt pretty good about that situation. And also about the fact that they had hired Eleanor Jean to write one of the episodes. And then once I was in the writers room and got to know the writers I felt like we would be okay here.
The big X factor would just be what the network did with it. But I trusted the players enough and I trusted my own voice enough. I trusted the impact that Disclosure had that this was a somewhat safe bet. And then the symmetry of it for me felt right. So much of what I do is just by my gut and intuition. And I liked the narrative of having the beginning of my transition marked with a reference to Buffalo Bill and having talked about that in Disclosure, having the makers of Clarice see Disclosure, and getting the chance to do it right. It felt like I could close this circle in a way that felt right to me.
Drew: Was Eleanor already hired when you got involved?
Jen: Yeah she was hired before I was. They had already brought her on to write the episode that introduced the character and first address the issue of Buffalo Bill. And she had already been a writer on Mrs. Fletcher, so I’d worked with her.
Jen: So I knew there was already a lot there. And I was initially just brought on as a consultant to oversee the three episode arc since she was only writing one episode. I would be in the writers room for all of it and oversee casting and all of that. So I knew I wasn’t alone there which is also really helpful.
Drew: Yeah that’s important. Also I love Mrs. Fletcher so much.
Jen: It was a lot of fun. But that was another one where I actually had a lot of issues with the book. So when I first sat down and met with the showrunners I told them all my issues. I laid them all out in our first meeting and I left that meeting thinking I was going to get fired. (laughs)
Jen: I basically told Tom (Perrotta) that he’d written a textbook cliché trans character. But from the start he wanted to do it better. He wanted to do it right. So he listened. He wanted to be in conversation. So we recreated the character for the screen.
Drew: That’s really good to know. On all three of those projects, how many other trans people were involved? Eleanor, of course, and I know Thomas (Page McBee) wrote on Tales and there were other trans actors on that as well. Were there any trans people on the crew?
Jen: Well, on Tales I was in a bottle episode with a completely different cast and we had a lot of trans actors which was great. Let’s see… on Mrs. Fletcher our prop master was trans so that was nice there was at least one crew member. I remember when we did our camera test and the prop master came up to me and here was this trans woman it was such a profound experience for me. Like oh my God! I’m not alone here! That was really exciting.
Tales was the type of show where I feel like a couple people came out as trans…
Jen: It always happens. If you have enough trans people on set.
Drew: We’re contagious.
Jen: So yeah a couple trans people here and there. Not a lot. But enough that I didn’t feel like I was alone which was a nice change.
Drew: Because yeah I imagine on a lot of other jobs you’ve had you’re probably the only trans person on set?
Jen: Oh yeah. The show Nashville which was my first network thing I had done. Walking onto that show about country music filmed in Nashville when my character was there to be trans — that was her function in the story — I’m pretty sure that I was the first out trans person that most people in that crew had ever met. And I was the only trans person there, so that’s a kind of pressure. But it’s just not that way anymore which is really nice. Like two of my co-stars on Clarice have trans kids and talked to me about them. It’s a very different world now.
Drew: Yeah I even know just from my experiences being on sets that there’s such a range between active aggression and well-meaning things that are still difficult to navigate — because, as you said, sometimes you’re the first trans person people are meeting. But most of the time in my experience it’s not malicious. And I came out in 2017 and that year really only did theatre stuff so my first production jobs after coming out were 2018/2019 and things over the last five years every year have just been changing so much. But I’ve still dealt with a lot.
I mean, even the movie I’m working on now, the only trans women around are Trace and I.
Drew: Yeah and look, it’s such a great group of people. And a lot of queer people. And the cis people on this project have been open to listening to Trace and I and making changes and really want to do it right. But just how the industry functions we’re still often alone or in the vast minority even when it’s our stories being told. And when you’re an actor — I don’t need to tell you this — you’re being put in such a vulnerable position and have so much work to be doing. Dealing with the other stuff whether it’s comments from crew members or if you’re on location dealing with how someone in a hotel in Nashville speaks to you — it’s this added layer of work that actors who don’t have marginalized identities or aren’t secluded from people with their experiences in this way don’t have to. I imagine that can be really challenging.
Jen: Yes. But I don’t know any other way.
Jen: I think it’s just a part of being a first wave of something. You have to deal with extra things. But I’m just grateful to be part of the wave at all. So I just kind of accept all that. Yeah I have to work a lot harder, I have to deal with things that other people don’t, it makes my job more difficult. But I’m lucky to be where I am. I’m lucky to get work. And I am the result of the struggles of many other people who had to work a lot harder than I did so I could have these opportunities. And there’s something profoundly satisfying when you start to see the world change around you and it does get better. Like seeing so many young trans actors now is so deeply gratifying. And knowing there are trans actors young enough that they don’t remember a time when there weren’t trans people on TV.
I would say as somebody who works in social justice, your goal is kind of to be forgotten and to be taken for granted. Like I love the fact that it’s just considered obvious now that trans people should play trans parts. Because I had to have that fight so many times. I mean, I can’t tell you how many years I spent just working on that one argument. Here’s why it’s important for trans people to play trans parts. How many generals, how many auditions, did I spend half the time trying to make that argument. Regardless of whether that person was going to hire me or I was going to get that part I wanted to leave that meeting or that audition having changed someone’s mind. That was half my work. Just fighting for that space to exist at all. And now I see people articulating the argument for trans people playing trans parts that I made in Disclosure not even knowing where that argument comes from, just arguing it like it’s a given, like it’s obvious. That’s profoundly gratifying.
Drew: Yeah I mean my perspective being on a sets right now is as someone who knew that you existed when I was first coming out and had heard you making that argument on a podcast and had seen Her Story and had watched Orange is the New Black and knew about all these other trans people working in the industry. My expectation of how I should be treated is so much higher.
One of my favorite moments in Disclosure is when you’re talking about the scene in I Am Cait where the father talks about how lucky he is to have a child who is trans and how it completely changed what you thought was possible. And that’s what you’ve given to me and what so many people have given to me. To be in a situation where I’m like of course we should be on set, of course we should be acting in things, of course we should be here and actually we should be treated better and we shouldn’t have to deal with the microaggressions. I’m very aware that it’s such a privilege that I have to even be expected to be treated better.
Jen: That’s wonderful. I love hearing that. I love the fact that y’all will be fighting for stuff that I never even knew I could fight for. We each go a little bit further. It’s deeply gratifying.
Drew: Well, thank you so much for talking with me. I’m really grateful to know you from afar and now know you a little bit closer. And I’m just so grateful for your talent as well as your patience and work and fight and everything. I’m so excited for more and more of your pitches to be bought and turned into things, so we don’t have brilliant scripts and pitch decks sitting on computers and instead they’re actually on screen and we can all watch them and enjoy them.
Jen: Yeah I hope so. I’m excited for what I have in the works right now. Hopefully some of it gets out in the world.
Drew: I hope so. I think it will because things are changing.
Jen: Yeah. And keep up your work too, Drew. Criticism is very important to me. It’s a vital part of the artistic ecosystem. One of my big issues with queer media over the years has been the lack of honest criticism. I feel like so often we get into a situation where we want to support anything just because it’s queer and we lower our standards. I’m astonished at how much content we celebrate just because it’s queer rather than trying to hold it up to a higher standard. Like I think queer content should be even better. I want to put up a higher bar for ourselves. And one of the ways that we do that is by having critics who make a real effort to hold people to those standards.
It’s just an aspect of the artistic ecosystem that I’m really fascinated by. I remember being on Tales of the City one night and listening to Armistead Maupin and Laura Linney talk about that specifically. About how AIDS devastated the theatre world and one of the ways in which it did it was because the most discerning audience in the theatre world had been gay men. They demanded a certain quality. They were trenchant critics. And the loss of that generation of audience goers and critics allowed for theatre to kind of become pablum. It changed theatre because you could get away with crap. And theatre is still struggling to recover from that. Fran Lebowitz talks about some of that now as well.
So having good, astute critical critics who want to the material to be great, who want queer representation, but want good queer representation and are bold enough to stand out and demand it is an essential part of getting the kind of content that we deserve. I’m proud of you for being out there and speaking your mind and being honest. I encourage you to keep doing it and keep going further with it.
Drew: Thank you. It’s interesting being the youngest person on the Autostraddle TV Team and seeing the ways they were writing about queer media in 2010 and what they were writing about and forced to celebrate. They’re sort of in awe of my expectations. And a big part of that is there’s so much more now that I can have those expectations. Like I have seen the alternative — I have seen so much that is good. Even if some of the things that I’ve seen haven’t been done yet by a Hollywood studio, seeing it in a web series, seeing it in a movie from another country. Being able to see those things and know that we can do that here too and on a larger scale. And that’s a product of the progress that’s been made.
And you know me. I will continue to speak my mind. But always in a way that I hope is trying to understand all the factors involved in making something! Because I have a familiarity with the industry, I know all of the hoops that need to be jumped through, I know all the different voices discussing things, I know that what projects get made are not always up to the artists. A writer can have four scripts and the one that gets made is the one that fits most into what the executives want to see. And maybe the other ones were more interesting but this is the one that gets made. I’m aware of all those things and so I always want to have compassion toward other queer artists and especially especially toward other trans artists. But I do think it’s important to talk about all the nuances. And also acknowledge that things aren’t good or bad!
Jen: Well, we disagree there. (laughs)
Drew: (laughs) Oh yeah? You think things are just good or bad?
Jen: (laughs) No.
Drew: Euphoria is CANCELED.
Jen: (laughs) The fact is I can’t be critical the way I used to be because these people are my colleagues.
Drew: Of course.
Jen: But that’s why we need to have critics. And you’re kind of ideal because you want someone who gets it enough to know the challenges but is removed enough that they can be honest. To be like yeah I like this person, I want to see more of them, but that movie sucks. And be able to point out why — here’s where it fails, here’s how it could’ve been better.
Drew: Right. And I’m aware of the time limit on that. Well, hopefully. Hopefully, I only have a couple more years of being able to get away with that. I’m aware that whenever my own things start to happen I won’t be able to be as critical. I mean, even now I’m not going to be able to review Monica. I’m way too close to it.
Drew: The more you get involved in the industry the less freedom you have to critique. But luckily there are so many other trans critics and hopefully by the time I start making my own projects there will be even more to take over. I mean, that’s sort of how it happened for you. Before you had more mainstream success you were talking about these things very openly and I looked to that and was inspired by that.
Jen: Well, there you go. We’ll just continue the chain onward.
What a treat to read this conversation – thank you for such a thoughtful interview, Drew!
This was such a fantastic conversation! Her Story came out so long ago that I learned about it on the old AE, and I loved it very much. It’s great to hear more about how it came to be made! Jen’s screenwriting seminar at A-Camp was so thoughtful and fascinating.
This was a great convo thank you. It was cool to hear how Jen got her start.
Gosh. You are both some of my favorite media people to follow, and what an amazing interview! Thank you sooo much!
Exclusive Jen content! What a delicious treat. I absolutely loved reading this conversation.
Thanks Jen and Drew for sharing your thoughts with us. Love your work, Jen. Thanks for fighting for these spaces for us in TV. You’re helping an incalculable amount of people!
I am gutted to read the presumably very old news that Her Story could have been a bigger series but they passed!
Thank you both for this fantastic and thoughtful conversation!
This was so lovely to read. I liked the insight into the industry, both filmmaking and criticism. Thank you Drew! I’m so glad you are a part of the AS team, for as long as it lasts.