“Whether we consent to it or not, our identities and our bodies are politicized,” Emmy-nominated filmmaker, actress and activist Jen Richards tells ET not long after the independent drama Easy Living premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Richards, who has appeared on Nashville and Caitlyn Jenner’s docuseries I Am Cait, has a smaller role -- the “steady best friend,” if you will -- in the film. But it’s significant for her to play this particular part because it’s one of the first times a transgender actor is playing a character that has nothing to do with being transgender.
While Emmy-nominated director Silas Howard offered one of the first instances of this in 2001’s By Hook or by Crook, the film is still a far cry from Hollywood’s usual portrayals of transgender roles, which have historically been the butt of a joke, a prostitute, a villain or predator, a murder victim or a victim of any kind, for that matter. Only in the past five years, on TV series like Orange Is the New Black, Sense8 and Transparent, have their portrayals truly started to evolve, with Candis Cayne, Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton and others breaking the glass ceiling for transgender actors.
Cox earned an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black -- a first for an out transgender actor -- and has helped usher in “the tipping point” for the transgender community in Hollywood. That said, in an interview with ET, Cox revealed that she often feels the pull between “activist” and “actress” as she continues her climb up the A-list, and Richards agrees -- in a way. “My body,” she says, “my identity is political the moment that anyone knows who I am. For me, there's no separating it. I mean, there's separating it in the sense that acting is a craft, and when you show up to do your job you're just there to do your job to the best of your ability and you put anything else aside. But the moment a cultural product is in its context, it gets politicized.”
In navigating Hollywood as an openly transgender actor, Richards would like to move beyond simply seeking roles that don’t pigeonhole her in one of those stereotypical transgender characters. Her role on CMT’s Nashville was a step in the right direction; she played a transgender physical therapist to Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) for three episodes in season five. “That is one of the things I liked about my character on Nashville: There was one mention of her being trans, but it wasn't the predominant thing,” she says. “The fact that she was trans was part of what provided her the empathy that made her a good physical therapist. It was actually relevant to the plot.”
But Richards would prefer that more casting directors look at casting her as a cisgender woman, rather than a transgender woman. “Unless you're actually watching a woman give birth,” she says, “it could be a trans woman [playing that role]. We are part of the world, [but] that's a leap for a lot of casting directors. They're not quite there yet. Honestly, they're just catching up to casting trans people in trans roles, so we've got a little ways to go before they think we can just be the lawyer or the cop or the server and don't have to get into the personal lives [of the character], at least not immediately.”
For now, though, Richards doesn’t believe she has the luxury of making choices that keep her from limiting herself: “I get so few auditions because casting directors don't think to give me a shot unless it's a trans role.”
Easy Living, about a self-destructive makeup salesperson who turns to bars as often as she does to self-help books as she tries to cope with problems in her life, is the exception. In the film, Richards plays Sherry’s best friend Danny, who never discusses identity. It’s significant not only because of the nearly unprecedented nature of it, but also because it came as a direct offer from director Adam Keleman without an audition.
Keleman had seen Richards’ 2016 Emmy-nominated project Her Story and thought she’d be great for his debut feature film. They met on Skype and he offered her the part, but Richards kept waiting for the moment when being transgender would come up.
“I read the script and that moment where it's a thing never happened,” she says. “I asked him, then, why he wanted a trans woman if it’s never mentioned that she’s trans -- even I've inherited this bias that I only exist to be trans -- but he said, ‘Well I thought about it, then I figured they've been friends for a long time, she lives in the same town, she's lived with her boyfriend for years, and it just doesn't come up.’ That is so perfect. That's what 99 percent of my life is like -- it just doesn't come up. Most people don't know I'm trans unless I tell them. [So this film] is kind of groundbreaking and revolutionary, I think.”
Easy Living follows a string of positively received transgender narratives on TV and films, including Tangerine, which earned Mya Taylor an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female, that have helped opened doors for the transgender community. But when a transgender character can just be, that’s forward-thinking for Hollywood.
At the moment, while still trying to land roles where she can get them -- transgender or not -- Richards has been pitching a full season of Her Story to networks. “We're a little bit niche, we're a little bit gritty, it's a dark story, but I'm hoping someone out there wants to take a risk,” she says. She’s also written a feature that spends a week in the life of three transgender women in Chicago and is developing a series about a transgender hit woman who returns to North Carolina to take revenge on the white supremacist religious cult that raised her.
While those three projects revolve around being transgender, Richards doesn’t feel she’s pigeonholing herself. Instead, she says she’s creating these roles for transgender actors and championing transgender stories. And let’s face it, Hollywood needs more transgender people developing authentic narratives.
“Yes, I'm an actor who needs to pay my rent and build a name for myself in Hollywood, and I want to stretch my wings as an actress,” Richards says. “Then there's the part of me that is a creator, so of course I'm going to center [those stories] around my own experience as a trans woman. There's this wealth of stories that have never been told, and I'm in a position to tell them. There's the political and moral imperative that trans people need better and more representation. I'm one of maybe two or three active trans screenwriters in the industry, so I feel an extra burden of responsibility there. Also, I want to make more parts for other trans actors. I love acting, but I have more power as a trans writer to create these narratives and these worlds and these characters.”