EXCLUSIVE: Why 'Actress' Doesn't Ring True for 'Billions' Breakout Star Asia Kate Dillon
By Raymond Johnson
Change can be as simple as walking through an unmarked door,
or, in Asia Kate Dillon’s case, writing a letter to the Academy of
Television Arts & Sciences about the gender requirements for submitting
nominees to the Primetime Emmys’ acting categories. Turns out, there are none.
“The rules have always stated said any performer can enter either category for
any reason,” says Dillon, who identifies as nonbinary, just like their season
two breakout character, Taylor, from the Showtime series Billions.
The definition of the word ‘actor’ has a long history that does not include the gender of the performer, which Dillon wrote about in their initial inquiry to the Emmys. The words ‘they/them’ have a long history, too, of being used as a gender-neutral pronoun, and as more people come out about not fitting into the simple categories of men and women, use of the pronoun -- preferred by Dillon -- has increased by individuals who identify as nonbinary or genderqueer.
“I did not do it to consciously push back against expectations,” Dillon explains to ET about their decision to submit for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series rather than Actress. “I don’t identify as a woman, so it wouldn’t have felt right to me to submit to Best [Supporting] Actress because that word doesn’t ring true for me.”
Dillon has been pleasantly surprised by positive responses, both in person and online, from people of all different ages, sexes and identities since their letter went public. “There was a time when it was important culturally to have the word ‘actress,’ I suppose, but when it comes to awards ceremonies we don’t have ‘Best Directress’ or ‘Best Cinematographeress’! Looking at why we have that category to begin with will lead to a deeper uncovering of the misogyny and patriarchy that has existed in Hollywood and culture for so long now, and those are the conversations I’m really excited to be having.”
Largely new to TV, Dillon first appeared on season four of Orange Is the New Black as Brandy, a vocal and violent member of Piper’s new white supremacist gang. The character’s politics are very different from Dillon’s, whose theater production company MIRROR/FIRE has been working on a Black Lives Matter performance project for the past two years. “The work that I engage with, whether it’s self-generated or collaborative, is uplifting and supporting historically marginalized and disenfranchised people, because when I uplift up those groups, I’m uplifting myself and supporting myself -- it works out in that way,” Dillon says, adding: “This character I play on OITNB is an antagonist in a Black Lives Matter storyline, but you need antagonists in order to tell those stories.”
While Dillon brought some much-needed villainy to OITNB, it’s their role as Taylor, the first nonbinary character played by a nonbinary actor on TV, on Billions that’s earning them a considerable amount of buzz and attention. And going beyond tokenism, often seen as a form of inclusion on TV, Dillon’s role is also integral to the plot in season two.
Starting off as an intern for Axe Financial Group, Taylor
catches hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod’s (Damian Lewis) attention with their
skills at analyzing the numbers and seeing impossible solutions. Axe shows
professional interest in Taylor, hiring them and then promoting them up through
the company and serving as a mentor along the way. “Working with Damian is
really a dream; he is a consummate professional,” Dillon says. “Because he’s
always prepared, he’s able to have fun and simultaneously take the work very
seriously -- he’s so present, he’s there with me, he’s reacting honestly in the
moment, and I couldn’t ask for more from a scene partner.”
In episode two, a balcony conversation between Axe and Taylor holds significance for Dillon personally. “Axe says to Taylor [that] the lens through which Taylor is looking is an advantage, their difference is actually an advantage. It reminds me that my differences, the way that I’m unique, those are my advantages, those are my strengths. Taylor is hoping to be seen as a human being first, and that’s why Taylor decides to stay at Axe Capital and I -- Asia -- am always hoping to be seen as a human being first as well.”
Billions is a show stacked with acting powerhouses, starring Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff and Malin Akerman, and with guest stars including Mary-Louise Parker, Eric Bogosian and Rob Morrow. Dillon is enjoying every moment on set with their cast mates. “We all love each other so much and there’s such a great level of respect among the crew. It’s really incredible, it really feels like family, and we have a blast.” Noting the amount of praise for the ensemble work in season two, they add, “I feel like that’s such a high compliment we all hold, because we love and respect each other so much, and it comes across in the work.”
Fans of the show agree; the season two finale aired last month and left many aghast knowing they have to wait an entire year for season three, which will see Dillon bumped from recurring to series regular. But for fans of the actor, season five of Orange Is the New Black offers a respite, even if Dillon won’t tease anything about their return. “No spoilers, but anyone who was hoping that they might see a little more of Brandy? You won’t be disappointed.”