‘When We Rise’ Star Jazzmun Says Trans Actors Can Play Any Role
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.
Jazzmun has one of the most extensive filmographies of any trans actor working in Hollywood today. She started off with a recurring role on The John Larroquette Show in 1994 and has appeared in everything from NYPD Blue to Roseanne and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Most recently, she portrayed trans activist and minister Bobbie Jean Baker on ABC’s When We Rise.
Though some of the characters Jazzmun played in the ’90s and early 2000s can be considered problematic depictions of trans women – characters who are often the butt of the joke or stereotyped portrayals of trans sex workers – Jazzmun is nothing but grateful for the opportunities she’s had and how she’s grown as an actor.
During an interview in Los Angeles last month, Jazzmun reflected on how much the industry has evolved since she first started her career and the growing opportunities for trans actors. She also shared stories about having her scenes cut in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, getting recast on Desperate Housewives, and talked about the importance of employing trans people at every stage of the filmmaking process.
You started acting in the '90s. How much do you think the industry has changed since then as far as opportunities for trans actors?
They are evolving. I started in 1993 on TV with John Larroquette and [in 2006] I had the opportunity to play a nurse on The Closer. One thing I like about my characters is I really wasn’t the victim. It could be portrayed or seen like that, but I never was, my character[s] didn’t die. Not until recently when I was on When We Rise, but that was a true story. But I always play characters that say something or do something. Even when I did the show called The Cleaner. I don’t know how long it stayed on, but there was a beautiful part. I was a counselor at this rehab center, and I just thought, “Oh my god, Hollywood is getting creative.” I was on The Division years ago and I played a woman who had gender reassignment surgery and she was in jail. And then I got to playing parts with other trans folks. Candis Cayne and I, we did CSI: NY together.
I love the direction of how we are evolving. Hollywood is starting to listen and look at various storylines. I would prefer them to start putting more trans folks with those lived experiences in those parts because they could really bring so much depth and levels to it. It would be fascinating for any young [trans] actor to bring all their life experiences and maybe even the life experience they don’t have to the table to grow and learn. Because that is the whole process. We are getting the opportunity to be characters and share [our] stories, and we're bringing ourselves to the table. It’s a win-win situation when you get to have that collision of energy and history and spirit.
What was your most difficult moment in Hollywood?
I had a recurring part on The John Larroquette Show and I really thought they were going to bring me back and add me on as a regular. They told my management that they were worried about family values, so they didn’t bring me back. So my big chance in Hollywood, I felt, was ruined or over. But I guess they did me a favor because it opened the door to other wonderful roles and opportunities.
Then I had never been cut from anything and I experienced my first time being cut on Desperate Housewives. I had shot the whole thing and it was supposed to come out in a couple of weeks with Marcia Cross, and she was wonderful. We had a great scene together. Then I get a call from my manager saying not only did they cut your part, but they recast you. And they put someone that looked more [how] they needed the part to look. Sometimes they say I read too real as a woman. I don’t know what that means because I’m actress, that’s what we do. But I found out when [the Desperate Housewives episode] came out I was not in it and I was like, “Oh no, not again.” But I was cut in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, too. But you see a little bit of me so, you know, I’m not bitching or complaining. I’m not bitter.
What was your experience like making that movie?
The 40-Year-Old Virgin experience was quite interesting because I auditioned for it maybe six months prior. I went in and that was it. Then my manager called me and said they want to see you again. This time when I showed up, Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow — Steve [Carell] was not there — I read with them. […] They called me and then I got the job. The first day I showed up we did the scene on the mountain where we are dancing, the end scene. I met a lot of the other cast members who I wasn’t familiar with at the time.
It was one of the biggest movies and they made everybody in that movie a star or relaunched their career. Paul Rudd’s career got relaunched and then all of a sudden [the other actors] were making all these movies, and I thought, “What about me?” I was in the movie but they cut it out so much people don’t remember me. But I’m just honored that I had the privilege and the opportunity.
Looking back at your character in that movie, a trans sex worker, she can be seen as a negative portrayal of a trans woman. How do you feel about the role today?
You’ve got to remember I played a prostitute in Hollywood for many, many years. I’ve been one of the number one call girls in town on TV. I also find it fascinating. For one, I’m an actor, let’s put it in perspective. I show up, I do the work as it’s written. Two, I’m always fascinated when Hollywood thinks I’m still sexy enough to be the call girl. But in today’s context with all the deaths of trans women of color and how prostitution is looked upon – I’m personally a sex positive person and I have nothing against sex work. I understand it. I understand the ideology that goes into why people have to do survival sex work at times. And then some people just enjoy sex work. Sex is a positive, wonderful thing. […] So being able to explore sexuality and energy on screen, and [have] it be seen and loved and adored – I would do it again if given the opportunity. I actually evolved from that performance as a human being, as an activist and as a woman of trans experience.
What is one thing people in the industry should never say to a trans actor?
With all the experience that I’ve had working in Hollywood, the one thing that I would say you shouldn’t say to a trans actor is “You can’t do that part, you can’t play that part.” Or “That part is for a real man or woman.” Define "real" for me. What is your definition of real? I can play anything given the opportunity. […] You just have to create the landscape. Believe me, any of us can step into those roles and let you have it. It’s just that people have to be given an opportunity.
Throughout Hollywood history, what is one way that the industry has got trans representation wrong?
You know, I hate to say that showbiz has gotten it wrong. I always had a problem with Jerry Springer and [trans women] fighting each other and fighting the dudes because the dude didn’t know [the women were trans]. I don’t like the violent part, I don’t like that [trans characters] always have to die. What I’m saying is I can play the nurse. I can be someone’s lover. I can get married. I think they have limited scope of how our lives are, how colorful and evolved our lives are. They tend to go to sensationalism. The sensationalism of Jerry Springer [where being trans] is a secret that nobody knew, that I’m hiding out. I don’t live my life like that. Nothing about me is hiding out.
So I don’t want to say that anybody got it wrong, but I understand that people focus a little bit on particular angles of an experience. We take up lots of space in the world, but we are limited to these people’s minds who are writing these scripts and parts.
What is the future of trans representation that you want to see in Hollywood?
I want [Hollywood] to invest in my community. I want you to give my community opportunities to freely express themselves. I want you to make a commitment and create relationships with us so that we can evolve and grow in the process. I want you to celebrate all aspects of a transition and to come to some understanding that transition is constant and there is no one road to it. A to Z, and maybe I stop at B and be OK with that. And be willing to want to explore that and not limit me to a pair of breasts and hair and some makeup.
Let us take on some leadership. We need to be in leadership positions and know what it takes to produce a film. To be the EP. To understand that a lot of that is coming out of your own pocket. It feels so good and so powerful when you step into different arenas. How to do the makeup. How to [be] the grip. [To] have conversations with the director. It is very important that we work [at] every aspect.