The Story behind Transgender Talent
by Ann Thomas
Here we were, 197 beautiful people, all different shapes and sizes, ages, and ethnicities, wandering about the back lot of Paramount Studios. Antique and classic cars lined New York street. Tour guides weaved through the crowd now and then with their cars full of wide eyed tourists. Crew members set up or took down equipment of all kinds –very large equipment for outdoor use.
I paused beside the entrance to the stage that had become our break room for the day. The large bronze plaque beside the door spoke volumes in just a few short words: Stage 14 – Constructed 1929 – and below it the names of features films shot in it’s cavernous interior. I had heard of most of them, and seen some of them. Paint Your Wagon, Saturday Night Fever, Top Gun, The Hunt for Red October, and the list went on. The bottom section showed only three television shows shot there: Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and the show we were on that day – Glee!
How Things Led Up To This
Back when I first moved here to southern California, during the high unemployment of 2009, I responded to an ad on Craigslist looking for a transgender actor for some production (I can't remember the details now). Having been a volunteer technical director in live theater for over 20 years, I responded to see if I could be who they were looking for. But no, they wanted someone both transgender and who had professional acting training and experience, and they went on to lament they could find only one or two at that time, and it was the same ones who played all the roles. Being new to the area, and not yet out down here (I had been out where I moved here from), I knew no one, so I could only keep that in the back of my mind, a hint, as it were, of something to come.
I had decided to come down here and just punch a clock for a time. I have owned multiple businesses throughout my life, with my most successful being a consulting company I ran for over 20 years. Most of my career has been as a business owner, an entrepreneur.
I had received my business training through an apprenticeship of a very wealthy business man who had offices in 70 nations of the world, whose name decades ago had become a household word in parts of the world other than this one (mostly southeast Asian countries). During that training, we had major business people, academics and politicians from all over the pay this well respected old man visits. I was in the middle of it all most of the time, as he had hired me to replace his brother, and my office was adjacent to his. I was introduced to all these people, and many times participated in the meetings, went to lunch with them, and got to know them a little. The main thing I learned is that people are people, and not to be intimidated by anyone due to their economic, business, cultural, or political status.
It had been a rather frenetic few days leading up to the shoot, which was November 12, 2014 at Paramount Studios. I’d heard of this from my transgender coordinator for our OC PFLAG Speaker’s Bureau, and had hesitated at first. But when I brought it up at work the next morning that I had a chance to be on Glee, the owners became excited and said they’d make it work and that I should be on the show! I sent in my picture and short bio to the casting agency listed, and got nearly an immediate positive reply. That turned into several emails back and forth, as it turned out the casting director had no way to find transgender people. The only option they had was grassroots connections. Any organization that even remotely had connection with the trans community had been contacted. The casting director asked me to let all my friends know, and I did what I thought was appropriate at the time, not knowing how historical this shoot would become.
First thing in the morning at the studio, while I was in the enormous line to sign in, I found a few friends in line and was introduced to others. It was amazing being in such a large group like that for a scene. Asked to line up by height, I dutifully lined up towards the rear where most of the trans women ended up. The assistant director pulled me out of the crowd and placed me in the center, right next to Dot-Marie Jones, who was playing Coach Beiste. I’m clearly and prominently in many shots from that scene, which was not what I had expected at all when we first came on set that day.
About 2 months after the taping, yet one month before the air date, myself and two trans friends, Kristi and Gabby, met with Sande Alessi, the casting director whose company handled the casting of our choir. At that time, she said Glee was considering having us all back. She also said being trans was the hot thing in Hollywood now and there were lots of things to come. She asked me to be the contact person for the choir, which I obliged to do.
So I waited for the call... and waited... and waited. Finally, my patience ran thin and knowing the end of shooting for Glee had to be nearing, I contacted all the choir members I could just to make sure I'd be ready on short notice if Sande called me. I got hold of as many as I could by phone, text message, email, and Facebook. I soon set up a private Facebook group for those of us that were on camera to have to share. Well, they didn’t have us back on the show, as we all know.
But, one really good thing came out of this. Talking with those that I did showed me a wide variety of trans people were out there. They ranged from new to acting in any kind of capacity, with no training or experience other than Glee, all the way to well trained and highly experienced in acting. I also found trans people with other skills that would be very helpful and could be needed in the entertainment industry.
I kept an eye out for casting calls and tried registering with Central Casting and with a major online site. I even found out where the casting director's office was for Transparent and slipped a letter, with picture and resume, under their door (they happened to be closed that day as it was a minor holiday). Nothing came up, other than the call for Ryan Seacrest's reality show, which I didn't fit at all with where I was at the time.
"Where Are The Trans People?"
It kept gnawing on me that with all the places I had been registered with could not tell a cis person from a trans person. The closest thing I ever found was under the heading "Looks you can do: Drag Queen". I just don't do drag! I'm not into makeup and costuming that much to pull that off! I've been full time too long for that, and feather boas just aren't something I wear to work. They clash with my steel toed work boots.
One day, a friend of mine texted me about a casting call that caught my attention. I contacted the desperate casting director, and we chatted for quite a while. What she said cemented my resolve to make a new company happen! She'd been looking for transgender people for quite some time and with nowhere to go, she'd come up empty. I put out a little notice, did a few interviews and had her a few people in no time, which blew her mind.
In support of the transgender community, the Dr. Drew show on HLN wanted to have an episode with an all transgender audience. I came to understand through conversations with Burt Dubrow, Executive Producer, and Bill Hinkle, Senior Editorial Producer, that they were sincerely wanting to help our community. I was willing to spend the time to help them understand the transgender community in depth, and brought friends to a key meeting we had to let them know about our diversity and overall rejection from society due to society’s misunderstanding of us. There were many subsequent phone calls, including production meeting conference calls where I filled in more details.
At one point they chose to expand it to 2 one hour episodes, called “Transgender In America”, aired August 26 and 27, 2015 on HLN. The first episode being about transgender issues in general. The second episode was about transgender people of color, as the producers were unaware of the high murder rate and violence against trans people nationwide, particularly for those of color.
I really earned the title of “cat herder” doing that set of shows. I brought about 50 transgender people for those two episodes, which we taped back to back. There were an additional 20 or so that came via the efforts of Dr. Drew’s staff.
Casting Society of America
In the fall of 2015, we got our first casting call from a major network. I sent my usual, “we need to see the script first” message, to which the casting director obliged and requested that we chat on the phone. We did, and I remember very little about the conversation, as I didn’t realize how important it was at the time.
About six months later, I get an email from this same casting director, wanting to know if I’d like to work with an organization to provide free auditioning lessons for transgender actors. It was signed “Russell Boast, VP Casting Society of America”. I was floored. Of course I said yes.
In early June 2016 we had our two day series of lessons, taught by Marci Lieroff the first day, and we split the 70 or so actors into 4 groups at the end of the first day. The next day each group had individual reads with critiques by Amanda Lenker Doyle, Jeremy Gordon, Geralyn Flood and Jami Rudofsky. It was a huge help to our trans community!
With the visibility in media, we are becoming more and more the place to turn to for both independent productions as well as the major studios. We are in the loop for most places, in tv, theater and film for finding transgender people. It is not uncommon for our company to provide the majority, if not all the actors for a casting call. Some calls are extremely difficult to fill due to the way the script is written, so we openly might have a couple of people that fit it. But the majority of our submittals have been at least a half dozen or more people that fit the breakdown. At times they come in a steady stream, keeping Ann quite busy. Some roles have been really major, like a series regular on a major network.
Casting calls have been running approximately 80% for trans women, 20% for trans men, and 2% for non-gendered (doesn’t matter, just have to be transgender).
Several people have come and gone, helping here and there with projects. Eventually things have settled down and regular help has been provided by a few individuals.
We’re planning for the long term, like how to make sure there’s still work for transgender people if and/or when industry loses interest in highlighting us.
Transgender Talent is just beginning…