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Transgender actors are in demand for TV's pilot season




Laverne Cox plays Sophia on Netflix's
Laverne Cox plays Sophia on Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black," one of several current shows exploring the lives of transgender characters.
Paul Schiraldi/Netflix

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It’s another busy pilot season for casting director Risa Bramon Garcia. And with close to two dozen shows on her résumé from "Rosanne" to "Masters of Sex," she knows a trend when she spots one.

"It seems to have just happened," Garcia says. "It’s been creeping along slowly. I think it just exploded with 'Orange Is The New Black,' followed up by 'Transparent.'"

She’s talking about calls for transgender characters, which are often cast with actors identifying as trans themselves. People like Christopher Aguilar, who lives as both a man and woman. 

Recalling his audition track record, Aguilar says:  “It went from [none] three years ago. Two years ago I had one, and now, this year alone, I’ve already had four.”

In an Orange County coffee shop, Aguilar explains that in the past, those trans parts weren’t always what you’d call multi-dimensional, like the time he had sex in a bathroom stall on "Shameless," or was a human punch line on "Mike and Molly" their friend made out with by mistake.

But this year, Aguilar says the roles are more about character.

"I feel like its time for trans people to be present, to own the fact that they don’t have to be represented by our genital makeup," Aguilar says. "We’re people with souls, and we want to feel confident, and for some reason I feel more confident wearing a dress."

People credit two shows with starting this trend: "Transparent," about a father of grown kids who comes out as trans; and "Orange is the New Black," which features breakout star Laverne Cox as a transgender prisoner.

Paul Hilepo is Cox’s agent. He points to a CBS pilot Cox was just cast in as another sign of progress.

"She being trans is not like the focal point of her character," Hilepo says. "She’s an attorney, one of a handful, she happens to be trans, just like an actor happens to be Asian or female. It’s secondary to the fact that they created a legal drama and they want an interesting and qualified actress to play the role."

Casting director Garcia says it’s not a case of networks suddenly realizing the trans demographic is so underserved or valuable, it’s that Hollywood likes to copy anything that’s a critical success.

“It does come from a place of these are the boxes you have to check," Garcia says. "There is a lot of pressure on the networks to do the right thing. But they are cutting edge, the work is excellent, and what everyone looks to is [trying to] touch on that because they feel the pulse of success.”

There’s even a term for it. It’s called “outcasting” and the stats show it’s growing. According to the most recent GLAAD survey of the upcoming TV season, 3.9 percent of series regulars will be lesbian, gay or bi-sexual or trans, up from 3.3 percent the year before. But that figure doesn’t tell the whole story.

The survey doesn’t breakdown the many LGBT characters on "Orange is the New Black" or "Transparent," which both stream online but aren’t considered primetime broadcast television. Nick Adams from GLAAD says that data will be included in next year’s survey. And he points out that parts in pilots are great, but that doesn’t mean the shows will make it onto the Fall lineup.

“There has been a great inclusion of LGBT characters on TV, but there are still no regular trans gendered characters on cable or broadcast show, characters on network or cable," Adams says. "We’re still at the very beginning stages of talking about transgendered representations.”

Alexandra Billings is the trans actor who plays the role of Davina on "Transparent," the woman who mentors Jeffrey Tambor in the ways of owning his female identity. She says while there is more acceptance, there’s also more backlash, and, in her case, lots more hate mail.

“It’s unbelievable," Billings says. “Calling me names, throwing the bible at me, all kinds of terrible things. It’s never been this bad.”

And then there’s the backlash from within the transgender community itself.

When Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a trans character in "Dallas Buyers Club," some people in the community were upset he had taken a part that could have been filled by one of their own. And on "Transparent," despite the presence of many trans actors, creator Jill Soloway has taken heat for casting non-trans actor Tambor in the lead role.

Billings says in the end it’s a trade-off, but one she’s happy to be a part of.

"Should only transgender actors play transgender roles?" Billings says. "I don’t think so. Do I think it’s more honest to our community? Yes, of course, but as long as our stories are being told with compassion and kindness, then I would rather they be told, period.



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