Actress Alexandra Billings talks Trump-era Transparent, her many real-life connections to Davina and surviving the ’80s
“I’m shocked that I’m sitting here talking to you, to be honest,” Alexandra Billings reveals, blown away by the fact that she survived the ’80s when many of her AIDS-stricken friends did not.
Around that time, the actress was living and working in Chicago as Shante, her stage name while performing at a local club called The Baton. In the ’90s, she would memorably star in a number of theater productions, including campy fare such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack, before shifting to dramatic roles such as Mama Rose in Gypsy.
Now we marvel at her as Davina Rejennae in Amazon’s Emmy-winning series Transparent. The role is esteemed not only for her genuine, real-life-influenced portrayal of the trans, HIV-positive character, a guide to her friend Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), but in the significant way Billings and Davina have become torchbearers for the trans community. Take, for instance, the episode “Groin Anomaly” from the show’s recently released fourth season, where Billings’ pre-op body is seen au naturel, the first time a trans performer has gone full frontal on TV.
With rich insight and heartfelt gratitude, Billings, 55, spoke about Transparent and how the show has afforded her a fortuitous, life-changing platform to be a voice for the trans community.
Given the resistance to the trans community from political powers, is there a new sense of urgency and importance with Transparent?
I think that there has always been a sense of urgency and need in the trans community – that’s been true for generations. The portal that the Trump administration has opened up is actually a great gift because it’s afforded us a much louder voice. I think it’s doing the opposite of probably what their intention is, but thank god that that’s true. I always find the angriest, loudest voices in the room usually tend to come from a place of misdirection. That’s not to say that advocacy needs to be quiet and kind – it doesn’t – but as long as it’s in service of the movement and not in service to self, then the loud voices should take up more space. And so, these voices that are coming out of the administration are angry and misguided and misinformed.
Misguided, misdirection – those are all very politically correct ways of addressing their ignorance. I appreciate that outlook. What do you say to these misguided people?
It’s less about what you say and more about what you do. I think the great thing you can do for those people is to have more trans friends and bring them over to their houses for dinner, for lunch, or bring them places that are queer-friendly and are self-created safe spaces for trans people. I think that would help. Usually humans behave better when they surround themselves with people who do better.
That’s where Transparent continues to excel: It humanizes trans experience through personal narrative. So, if you’ve never met someone who is transgender, well, you’ve met Maura, you’ve met Davina.
Yeah, I think that’s right. We have to be really mindful that the character, Maura, is trans, but the actor who plays Maura, Jeffrey Tambor, is not. So, the important thing is to make sure the direction is specific when we’re talking about the trans experience. You really look at Davina. You really look at other people on the show. (Trans comedian) Ian Harvie was on for a season. Really look at the people who are actually trans, because we come from a whole other experience. Not a better experience or a deeper experience, but a specific experience, and Jeffrey will be the first to tell you that. So, I think it’s important that we’re mindful.
How does this season reflect what it means to be trans in Trump’s America?
(Transparent creator) Jill (Soloway) has spoken about that. It’s a great question. What Jill says, and I think it’s really smart, is that she doesn’t want to get really specific at this time because this political pendulum swings so rapidly, and if we get time specific and event specific, by the time it airs it may not be true and she wants it to be inclusive. So, I think that’s smart.
When I interviewed Judith Light in 2015 regarding Transparent, she told me, “My service and my work have all come together in one place, so it makes me feel fantastic.” As a fellow actress and LGBT activist, can you relate to that?
I think she hit the nail on the head. Transparent is, for me, an open door, and what it’s done is given me a megaphone, so now, what I believe to be true is heard globally. It has great reverberation, and with that comes a great, honorable way of being in service in a way that I never dreamt would be possible. It has afforded me a real clarity and a real need to be clear in what I believe to be true, and ignited something in me as well. It’s all come to fruition.
Can you tell me about the time in your life when you didn’t see that in your future?
I transitioned in 1980 when it was illegal and unheard of, so I spent many years – as most trans people do – in a deep, deep shame. Also, for me, (there was) resentment, which caused a deep-rooted anger that has taken me a very long time, and continues on a daily basis, to look at. Remember, too, this was in the ’80s when the plague had hit, so my friends began contracting HIV and dying, so I was dealing with an enormous amount of loss while I was transitioning too. Just really looking back on it, I’m shocked that I’m sitting here talking to you, to be honest. It’s just too good to be true.
Is this a better time to be trans than it was in 1980?
I don’t know that it’s a better time – I think that it’s a different time. I think as human beings, as the human race, we expand and move forward. We always have people trying to put on the brakes, but it’s never really stopped us. It’s why we have phones that you can hold in your hand and just talk into, and it starts to work. I mean, that’s extraordinary. Now, I don’t know if that’s better, but it certainly is different. So, I don’t know if it’s better to be trans now; it certainly is at least honored in a way that wasn’t true when I was transitioning.
Transparent exemplifies the very importance of casting people who do relate to the experiences of its characters.
Oh my god, it’s extraordinary. I’ve never ever been around this many of my tribe before on any set ever.
Have you ever felt the need to speak up about a storyline that didn’t feel particularly right or representative of the community, or do the writers always get it right?
They always get it right. I know that sounds like I’m blowing smoke up someone’s ass, but Our Lady Jay is a writer and she’s trans and she’s in the room, so we have a trans writer in the room who speaks from her own experience too. I’ve never looked at a script and said, “I’m not gonna say that,” or, “I’m not gonna do that.” It’s not that kind of show.
Have you experienced that previously?
Oh god, yes. I was on a show and I don’t remember what it was now. But it was a big monologue and I did it, and the director came up to me and said, “That was great, Alex. Just great. Now, could you do it again? But this time if you could do it a little bit more drag queen-y.”
What are some trans tropes played by non-trans actors that you would like to see abandoned?
I’d like to see any kind of label or container thrown away, or any part of the gender binary spectrum, and I mean calling people “he,” “she,” “they,” “it,” “their.” Pronouns that people prefer to use – use those pronouns. Also, the trans experience comes in all different shapes and sizes and races and beliefs, and by beliefs, I mean spiritual beliefs. And we need to start addressing that what we are is not learned behavior. It’s not fashion and it’s not commentary. It is biological, it is genetic, and it reverberates throughout history – let’s start talking about that.
As an actress, what in particular did you enjoy about digging into Davina’s backstory this season?
There’s a really beautiful scene that (trans Transparent actress) Trace Lysette has with young Davina, who is identifying as male at the time, and they’re in a dressing room backstage at a pageant and it could’ve come directly from a memory chip of mine. I mean, that’s how freakish it was. The way it was written and Trace’s beautiful portrayal is really just extraordinary, and it’s a view into our world that not a lot of cis people get to see. That really brought me back to a state of grace and gratefulness.
Is your own personal story a source of inspiration for Davina?
Oh, 100 percent. Actually, speaking of Trace, she is the one who has said to me before the season started, “Hey, we should go in and talk to the writers about our lives and our journeys and our characters,” and I was like, “Really? We should? OK.” So we did. And I just wrote down facts of my life and they took all of it and put it in the show.
It speaks volumes to the kind of people that we’re working with. I mean, what other show says to you, “Hey, tell us about your life and give us the gift of you and we’re gonna use that in order to represent human beings on the planet”?
Beyoncé is being lauded for having Laverne Cox model her new Ivy Park fashion line.
Oh, yes, I did hear about that!
What does something like Beyoncé taking the trans community under her wings mean for the T community?
Well, back in the day you had people like Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand, so a lot of gay and queer icons have been doing this for generations, so the fact that Beyoncé is doing it is fantastic, but she’s hardly the first. The difference is that this generation – this younger generation – has been the mother of invention, so the only real difference in being queer nowadays is that you can post it all over the freakin’ world, whereas in my day you had to write letters, for god’s sake. So it’s a larger megaphone, that’s what’s going on. You know, the great thing about Beyoncé is she’s a woman of color, so that’s huge. And she’s a mega superstar, who also comes from a marginalized background, so that’s what’s worth noting.
There’s been a lot of debate about non-trans actors playing trans roles.
All actors should tell all kinds of stories. I think in order to authenticate a story you need to have someone who is rooted in the historical experience of the storytelling, otherwise it can fly into fabrication. If you’re going to have an African-American story, you need to have African-American people in it; if you’re going to have a trans story, you need to have trans people in it.
Felicity Huffman ended up with the role you were originally supposed to play in 2005’s Transamerica because the studio wanted a more commercial lead. Do you think a major studio would be open to casting a trans woman in a lead trans role now?
That’s a good question. I really don’t know. You’d probably have to ask the Hollywood people. I know that I have been in conversations with a director, and we’re supposed to be filming a movie next summer that is trans-centric and has me in the lead role, but all kinds of things can happen till then.
I just had a movie come out called Valley of Bones in which I played a non-trans role, and I’m filming Goliath too. I really am just sort of shocked and eternally grateful, and certainly the tide is turning. But when we have conversations about, “Do you think it’s possible that at least one time in movie history a trans person can play a lead role?” then we’ve got a long way to go.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).