Why Trans Actors Are the Best Actors, According to ‘Looking’ Star D’Lo
This interview is one part of ScreenCrush’s new franchise Our Hollywood, a month-long series about the past, present and future of transgender visibility in film and television. Stay tuned throughout June’s LGBTQ Pride Month for in-depth profiles with photos shot by Amos Mac, essays and exclusive videos.
You might recognize D’Lo from a few places. The Tamil–Sri Lankan–American actor and comedian has played Taj on HBO’s Looking, the Trans Got Talent emcee on the first season of Amazon’s Transparent, Disney in Netflix’s Sense8, and was featured on Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker’s Amazon docu-series This Is Me.
D’Lo is helping bring positive depictions of transmasculine1 characters of color to TV, and in between roles he opens up about his journey as a trans person in everything from BuzzFeed videos to standup comedy and theater work. But D’Lo didn’t grow up seeing his trans identity or ethnicity reflected on screen. “The one time I saw a trans person on TV, a transmasculine person, I felt both freedom and jailed up in less than 30 seconds,” he says.
During an interview in Los Angeles last month, the actor talked about the importance of showing authentic trans and non-binary2 characters in film and television, how positive representation can impact the trans community outside the theater, and why his experiences have made him a better performer.
What advice do you have for aspiring trans actors?
My advice to trans actors would be to not let anything stop them; find communities where there are other people who can be expansive in their way of teaching; and ask other actors where they go for classes, for headshots. It’s within our communities that we are going to get the best parts for ourselves to shine. I feel like acting classes are always like a crapshoot. It’s happened to me so many times where I’ve gone into an acting class and the teachers don’t know what to do with me because they are so used to assigning [a character] to the gender binary. Especially when my voice was a lot higher, they just didn’t know what to do.
Do you have a piece of advice for how acting teachers should approach trans actors and non-binary actors in classes?
Oh yeah. If you are a teacher [and] you have a trans or a non-binary person in your class, you have to go out of your way to make sure that, first of all, your actor is comfortable. And secondly, stop with the judgement right off the top, bring them in, and know that they are there because their talents need to be unleashed if they aren’t already. Work with them the same way you would work with anybody. It astounds me that acting classes can rely on the binary so much that they cannot be cracked open to allow for somebody who is not binary to play a male role or to have a trans woman play a female role.
How can Hollywood move away from the gender binary and introduce more non-binary characters?
Hollywood can introduce non-binary and trans roles into a lot of different areas by sticking our community in the writers room, in sessions with casting. I know that there are people who are really trying to do that at a lot of the networks, and I appreciate that, [but] I don’t think that it’s done enough. In the same way that you would want a network to be sensitive to a marginalized group, whether that is race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, the same goes for trans and non-binary people.
Why are non-binary characters so important to show in film and TV?
I think as a society, we are screwing ourselves and creating a s—ier world when we don’t include every part of the gender spectrum [on screen] to teach us what their lives are about. If Hollywood has mostly been about the binary, they have literally been causing or creating the situation in which our world has crumbled. I know that is really strong to say, but religions have done that with queer people—where they have pushed queer and trans and non-binary people away from the table. And families have crumbled under the weight of their secrets. In that same way, if Hollywood has been reflecting just what is okay to talk about, then it adds to that illness that pervades our society.
Media is probably the only way that people get to see themselves reflected. Being that I’m a person of color, I didn’t grow up seeing anything close to me racially or ethnically. The one time I saw a trans person on TV, a transmasculine person, I felt both freedom and jailed up in less than 30 seconds. It was me watching this whack-ass talk show. A trans man was on it, and I was like, “Oh my God, freedom! There’s my life. I could be that.” And then the minute he started talking about his life, the whole audience just started mocking him, making fun of him, and I was like, “Never mind. Let me get back into this closet, lock this up real tight.”
When you normalize the lives that should be normalized, then everybody who thought that they should mock someone or judge someone is like, “Oh wait, we all aren’t making fun of them? Oh okay, I won’t either.” It’s just as simple as that. Bullying only happens when other people allow it to happen. The minute it is not cool to bully somebody, then the bully stops.
Looking back at the history of trans representation in Hollywood, what’s one way that Hollywood got it wrong?
Oh that’s hard. I feel like I didn’t see any trans people in TV shows, except if there was a trans woman who was a hooker. That’s it. That’s all I ever saw. And then she was quickly killed off. I didn’t see trans representation at all. Occasionally I would see a butch woman, who was of course mocked.
How does your journey as a transmasculine person inform your roles?
I had to try to be a girl for so long in my life. Studying and watching women, how they walked and how they held their books and how they sat and how they behaved. And I had to study that stuff for my f—ing survival. That kind of life makes you observe things on a whole lot of levels. I can sense danger in less time than it takes my partner. All those things happen [when you are] a person who has had to constantly hide and constantly disguise. If performance for a lot of trans people is a mode of survival, that makes us the best f—ing actors.
What is the future of trans representation in Hollywood you want to see?
I want to see complex stories. I want to see trans people of color, I want to see their lives being celebrated. I want to see the family that accepts [what] their trans child looks like, the Muslim family, the Christian family, the Hindu family, the Buddhist family. I want to see the family stories talk about their trans members. I want to see the trans serial killer, but have it be complex, you know? I want to see a transgender private detective who solves crime and helps his clients.
1Transmasculine: An umbrella term used by someone assigned female at birth (AFAB) who feels that is an incomplete or inaccurate description of their gender identity and/or gender expression, and who identifies on the masculine spectrum of gender identity.
2Non-binary: A term used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the conventional categories of man and woman, and/or outside of the male and female binary. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from the above terms.