EXCLUSIVE: Jill Soloway and Alexandra Billings Discuss How Far-ish Transgender Storytelling Has Come
By Hillary Crosley Coker
Getty Images / Amazon
In its fourth season, Transparent delves into more of the Pfefferman family ancestry and anxiety -- if the latter were possible. As the crew travels to Israel so Maura can attend a conference, the Holy Land serves as a place for revelations and realizations for everyone. Back home in California, Davina’s origin story becomes clearer as she struggles with her own illness and her place in life and stars in the first nude scene of a transperson on television.
“First, television has never seen a trans person, certainly with the age I am and with the body that I have, naked on television,” says Alexandra Billings, who plays Davina. “There is a care that Jill and the writers took -- it wasn’t about fetishizing or sexualizing, and it wasn’t desexualized. It was simple, plain conversation.”
Soloway, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronoun “they,” began Transparent pulling from their own experiences with their transgender parent. In the first season, as Jeffrey Tambor’s character transitions from identifying as Mort to Maura, her personal journey causes reverberations across her family, including her ex-wife Shelly, son Josh and daughters Sarah and Ali. The second and third seasons delve into what people think they want and, instead, their journeys to what they need. Season four is a bit of a reckoning as well, as the next leg of the Pfeffermans’ trip to self-discovery plays out not in Los Angeles so much as on camels and amidst shooting guns at dusty Israeli hills.
Soloway and Billings spoke to ET about the Pfeffermans’ next phase, what Shelly, a cis white woman, might have in common with “baby Davina,” a transgender girl of color, and how they’re aiming to illuminate the true meaning of intersectionality by weaving those stories together in the next phase of this groundbreaking show.
ET: Each season of “Transparent” has a different theme, and this one seems to be how everyone is interconnected in their sadness, thanks to whatever personal demon they’re fighting.
Jill Soloway: Gosh, I felt like things were getting a little less sad this season.
Alexandra Billings: I did, too.
Soloway: Things are getting funnier and sillier; they’re all on a trip together, there are hijinks.
But there’s a dead person, Rita, following Josh around the whole time.
Soloway: You’re right, there is a dead person. It’ll be less sad in season five. We think of it like a melancholy and uncomfortable pleasure you get from the pain in Transparent.
Because people are growing and moving through it, like when Maura and Ali are traveling to Israel for what they think is just a conference but the trip becomes so much more.
Soloway: Yeah, it’s real, hard and uncomfortable, but then it gives birth to good stuff. A lot of other shows are just all pain or all pleasure -- I’ve been trying to do the roller coaster thing.
Billings: There’s a great moment that Maura has when she’s in the airport, and she puts her hands up and says, “If you need me to be a fucking chicken, I’ll be a fucking chicken!” There’s this horrible thing she’s going through, which as a trans person, you just go, “This is the most awful thing,” and Tambor pulls this gift out of the center of his heart space.
Soloway: The airport scene is a pretty common thing, people want to “out” you. A lot of trans people have been through something just like that.
Billings: Especially if you’re a trans person of color. Every time I travel with my wife, Chrisanne, who’s as white as white can be, security loves to touch my hair -- which I’m like, don’t touch the motherfucking hair -- I am searched and she is not. I’m flying first class now, and I or my suitcase am always stopped.
You’d think going through the airport would be simple, but really…
Billings: I was talking to some girlfriends of mine about the great juxtaposition in this show between about trans people who are passable and those who are not. Maura falls into the container of not passable. Shea, played by Trace Lysette, falls into the passable, and both have their sets of problems because when you look like Shea, you have to explain. Can you imagine going with someone who looks like that but her transness is completely invisible? However, Maura’s is very, very visible. Then you look at Davina -- and this has been true of my life -- and I’m on a spectrum. It really depends on where I am, if I’m passable or not. I’m very out with transness, but not everybody knows at first sight, and that’s troublesome to me.
Billings: I think it’s a curse. I don’t like it because I don’t like to have to explain my race or my transness.
Speaking of that, how did you feel about the nude scene? I loved the way it was just so pedestrian, like, Davina is in bed with her man, why wouldn’t she be naked?
Billings: Jill is changing the face of television. First, television has never seen a trans person, certainly with the age I am and with the body that I have, naked on television. There is a care that Jill and the writers took, because the writers need to be given credit, too. It wasn’t about fetishizing or sexualizing, and it wasn’t desexualized. It was simple, plain conversation, and you’re looking and then go, “Oh, what the --” It takes you into the situation.
How did you feel about it, since trans nudity has become so politicized, especially with Laverne Cox having been vocal about saying people don’t have the right to ask her about her body?
Billings: I’ve talked to Laverne about this at length, and she since has gone a little away from that, not too far. I go way away from it. I don’t want it to be my whole life, but it’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to do this. I actually talked to Jill about this and said, “I think it’s time,” because if we don’t have the conversation, the situation gets bigger. If you have the conversation, you can be done with it.
In interviews, you’ve said that seeing other trans people on television stopped you from taking a fistful of pills. How does it feel to be on the other side of that coin and be the vision of representation for someone else?
Billings: I feel insanely lucky, truly and deeply blessed and constantly grateful -- constantly. There was a girlfriend of mine who Trace and I went to lunch with recently, she’s of a certain age, and she’s been living in stealth with her transness. During lunch, she turned to Trace, and she said, very sincerely, “Because of you and because of this show, I now have the strength to stop lying.” This is not a 20-year-old child, this is someone who has had to live this way for a very, very long time. There is this show that has cracked open a conversation that certainly I never thought would be possible, so just to even be a small part of this is quite remarkable.
Are there going to be any trans characters who become series regulars?
Soloway: In season five there should be, there could be and we want there to be. Maura and Davina will be living in a house together, so between family, the Pacific Palisades, local politics and hijinks, anything is possible.
Jill, a while back you told ET that there wouldn’t be any backstory for characters like Davina, because the show is focused on the Pfeffermans. Now, Davina has an origin story. What changed?
Soloway: I don’t know, we don’t really plan it. It comes from this organic place, so to be able to say there will be a trans character who will be a season regular, we’ve tried to do things like that. But in the writers room we’re always trying to figure out what the story is organically with the family. I think now that they’re living together, it’ll be easier. It’s so hard to represent the trans community, which the show does, because it’s called Transparent. We have a cis man in the title role, and that’s problematic, and we have this whole other family, these characters who are not trans, who are considered part of the show. It’s always a struggle to tell all the stories we want to tell. Also, I feel like trans men are like, “Where the fuck is our story?” and gay men say, “What do you have against gay men?”
Switching back to Davina’s arc, did the writers cull anything from your personal pageant experience, Alexandra, from competing in the Miss Continental pageant or performing at the Queen Mary?
Billings: I remember talking a little bit about it, but that was mostly from the writers’ brains. They’re feverish little manic things. I’ll tell you, though, that scene with Trace in the dressing room where she’s talking to baby Davina --played by Jaime, a former student of mine from Cal State Long Beach -- she is so freaking good. Trace brings her whole experience so bravely into that room, and just watching it, I fell apart. It resonates so deeply with that time period, and it’s a little portal that very few cis people are privy to. It’s the genius of this show, because you get a real look -- and it’s every dressing room I was ever in -- into where we go, whether it’s by choice or by happenstance or by must, but you get a real peek into that world, and that’s extraordinary.
It was interesting how the show touched on trans homelessness, when Jaime asks, “Can I stay with you?” and two girls say no because “you know I’m staying with so-and-so.”
Soloway: That’s a big question, especially for women, who they perform for for the rent. Cis women, trans women in patriarchy, a way that a lot of people get their access is through men. So when you’re getting your access through men, whether it’s your rent, your attention, your home, your sense of security.
I’m glad you brought that up, because I felt like that was another theme.
Soloway: Just the feeling of having to perform and not really getting to be yourself. For Davina, her transness is more about how much freedom she wanted and didn’t have, it was an the economic issue. And then we also had this very tiny little theme running through the season that we in the writers room were aware of in that moment when Davina -- she was David then -- didn’t necessarily have the choice to get up and leave [when the man she’s dating wants to have unprotected sex]. How that was connected with her HIV status, what consent actually means, when there’s that moment where her boyfriend and benefactor Roland says, “Come on, baby.” Can you consent if somebody else is paying your rent? We tie that in with Josh and Rita’s consent story and that moment of Shelly getting pregnant by accident. This is who I live with, this is who is in charge of me, these are my options.
And this is my financial situation…
Soloway: Yeah, we just wanted to draw those little connectors because what I realize [is] we’re always taking about the notion of intersectionality, which as far as I can tell means because of our intersections regarding race, gender and class, we do and don’t have things in common some of the times, and others, we don’t. It’s so broad, but it doesn’t mean solidarity, which people think it means. So that little thing of those two threads is an intersectional storyline, because it asks, what do we have in common here? What does a Jewish woman in the suburbs of L.A. have in common with a little trans girl getting HIV, and the biological results of that, the biological emanations of inability to consent? And for us, we try to weave these things into the background for those who are watching it closely or maybe for a class that people teach. We’re looking for those little sparks of connection to suggest sparks of solidarity within intersectionality.
Transparent has moved from telling a narrative to depicting a revolutionary trans nude scene as just another woman lying in bed with her boyfriend. Alexandra, considering your history standing up to the Curb Your Enthusiasm team, who wrote a hurtful scene where a transwoman bails on the line to the ladies’ room for a urinal in the interest of time and you said, ‘I refuse to read for this part and you should change it,’ do you think America has moved past the point of trans people being the butt of the joke?
Billings: Yeah, ish. I think that we have taken a step in the right direction, though we’re at a pause right now with the current government. The people who have kept their true selves silent because they know within themselves what they believe isn’t true, right or kind, have been given permission by all the white cis heteronormative men in power. They are blossoming in this really big way. I’m now a drama professor at University of Southern California, where I’ve been misgendered three times on campus in the three weeks I’ve been there.
How can they misgender you when you’re on a very popular TV show?
Billings: I’m walking down the main path on campus, and one of the buildings I teach in is where all the jocks hang out and also where I teach theater to the masters students. It’s a very long walk past some field -- I don’t understand sports -- and these two very large gentlemen are coming toward me. My sense is really good, so I knew something was going to happen. So I stopped, and I’m very much owning my own space, and they say to me, “That’s a guy,” one of them said. “That’s a tranny,” and they passed by me, laughing. It was horrible. I took all of that into the classroom, and luckily I am helped by these students in this university in a way that’s really extraordinary. We had a really beautiful day, strangely, but the gift was, this show is reaching the people whether they like it or not. The people who feel like they’re now getting bigger are getting bigger because of this government, they know who I am. I had to bless them and thank them because you know what? 10 years ago, you wouldn’t have known who I was. So, are we the butt of jokes? Yeah. Are we still in the center of violence? Oh, yes. Our suicide rate is 82 percent, we don’t survive. However, the glimmer of light is the fact that the portal is open and everyone is going through it, whether they want to or not.