Don’t Ask ‘Shameless’ Star Elliot Fletcher About His Backstory
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.
If you look back on the history of transgender characters in film and TV, you’ll find few depictions of trans men. Besides Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, there was Daniela Sea’s Max on The L Word, Glenn Close and Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs, and a few minor TV roles here and there. The one thing all those roles have in common? They weren’t played by trans actors. But Elliot Fletcher is swiftly changing that trend and paving the way for a better future on the small screen.
At just 20 years old, Fletcher already has two recurring roles on major shows – something that’s never been done by a trans man before. On Showtime’s Shameless he plays Trevor, a young activist and a queer trans guy who begins a relationship with Cameron Monaghan’s Caleb. On Freeform’s The Fosters Fletcher plays an entirely different character, a teenager who’s less public about his trans identity and in a relationship with a young woman, Callie Foster (Maia Mitchell). And on MTV’s Faking It, Fletcher’s Noah was a more flamboyant portrait of a queer trans man. Fletcher says it’s his goal to depict a variety of trans experiences because trans people are just as diverse as any other community.
During an interview in Los Angeles last month, Fletcher talked about the types of trans stories he still wants to see on screen, why cisgender1 actors shouldn’t take trans parts, and recounts his experience losing a role to a cis actor after he spoke up during an audition.
What’s the first trans image you saw on screen that really affected you?
The first trans image I saw in TV and film was actually kind of positive for me. It was Angel from Rent. I just fell in love with her. We never really know if she is trans or if she is gender non-conforming2 or non-binary3, but that was the first exposure I had and I thought she was so cool. She’s my favorite character. I have her named tattooed on my leg.
Looking back on the history of trans representation in Hollywood, what’s one way film and TV has gotten it wrong?
Just as I was coming out, I saw Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. I didn’t see it actually, I couldn’t watch it because I knew his portrayal and the way he talked about the character in interviews was just so wrong. I knew from the get-go that he had no idea what he was talking about. That was such a major disappointment because he won an Oscar for it, too, and he is a white, cis straight dude playing a trans woman. It was just so disappointing. I think we’ve gotten a little bit better [and] since then people have recognized that that was a big mess-up.
Cis actors continue to get cast in trans roles. If you had any advice for the next cis actor who plays a trans character, what would it be?
As of right now, my advice to a cis actor playing a trans character would be: Don’t. Because it’s really important that trans people play trans characters in film and TV. In the future, I don’t know. They’d have to be the perfect cis person. They’d have to do all their research on their own and be a really active ally. Don’t just, you know, retweet things or post things. Go to events and donate to GoFundMe and YouCaring and transition funds, or do what you can to immerse yourself in that community. But don’t tokenize it.
You’ve talked about losing a role to a cis woman. What was that audition experience like?
I walked into the room and I did it to the best of my ability. Sometimes in an audition, because a lot of the writers of these shows are cis, they don’t know how to talk about trans people. And that’s okay. So I go in and I say, “Can I change this line around a bit?” I went into this audition and I did that and I didn’t get a callback. Then a couple of weeks later the casting for the whole show came out and they had cast a [cis] woman to play this trans character and I thought, “God, is it my fault? Did I do something? Was I wrong to correct them? Should I have kept my mouth shut?” But at the same time it’s like, no. I would rather have them be educated about this character. Even though they really f—ed that up — I won’t say the show, but they really screwed it up. But I would rather them have that information and not give me the part than be bitter about it. It’s important that I went in and read for it and said, “Hey, this is how you do that,” even though they didn’t listen to me.
Do you ever feel there’s a burden placed on you to educate cis people in the industry about trans identity?
I do feel a little responsibility for the trans community, if things need to be corrected, to correct them. There have been a couple of times where the “T” word is in the script where my character would say the “T” word and I would be like, “Oh wow, I don’t think a trans person would say that.” I’ve been very lucky in the shows that I have been on where I do go in and say, “This isn’t how you talk about this,” and, “This is inappropriate or not how you should phrase this, you should phrase it this way.” And they are always super, super nice and respectful, and they want my feedback. But at the same time I’m like, Wow, is this my job? I don’t know if I want this to be my job. I just want to come on set and be able to act because I love to act. I don’t want everything I do to be this big lesson, and I’m sure it won’t be forever. But right now it’s really important, so I don’t mind giving that feedback.
If you could give advice to writers or directors, what would you say is one thing they shouldn’t ask a trans actor?
If you are trying to build a backstory for a trans character, and you approach the actor playing that trans person and they are also trans, and you say, “Hey, we need a backstory. Would you give us a little bit of your backstory?” That’s extremely inappropriate. You’re a writer, so you can write it yourself. That’s happened to me. Or it’s like, “Oh, we’re trying to navigate sex with this character. How does that work?” Why are you asking me about my sex life? Please, go on the internet, contact GLAAD. There are so many things that you could do without insulting or getting way too personal with me.
How have you dealt with those situations where someone is invasive and asks about your personal experience when you’re on set?
When people are really invasive or try and get really personal with me I try and be as nice as possible. I don’t like being mean so I usually just shut it down as kindly as I can. […] If you are working with a trans person, and especially [an actor] playing a trans character and a lot of their story is about the fact that they’re trans – it’s not our job to educate you and make you feel like, “Oh no – it’s OK. You can say these things around me. I’m a cool trans person.” Like no, I’m not going to pretend. You can’t say s—y things around me and expect me not to speak up. But that’s just sort of a life lesson. Whether you’re in TV and film or not, you will encounter trans people, gay people, queer people in your life, and it’s never their job to educate you about themselves. You should never expect them to open up about themselves and give you all the information so you can be OK. Just go on Google, or if you have a really close friend and they’re comfortable talking about it, be like, “Hey I don’t want to offend you. I just want to become more educated and I want to make sure that you’re comfortable with me.” It works both ways; it’s not just cis people being comfortable with trans people, it’s trans people being comfortable with cis people too.
What’s the future of trans representation that you want to see in Hollywood?
The future of Hollywood that I want to see for trans people — normal, which is a loaded term to begin with, but trans people need to be normalized. That’s just how it has to be right now. No one is normal, like what is normal? But we are an everyday occurrence. Expanding – I want trans people to be cast in more than just trans roles. I would love to play a cis character. I would love to play a Jedi, a supervillain, a superhero. That would be so, so fun.
In general, transmasculine4 people are underrepresented on screen. How do you hope your characters on Shameless and The Fosters, and previously on Faking It, are helping to change that?
I want my characters to give a little insight into the transmasculine experience or the trans male experience. Every character I play has a different trans experience so every character I’ve played up until this point has been very, very different about themselves being trans. Trevor was really open about it, Aaron is pretty low-to-no disclosure, he doesn’t tell many people. And Noah was also low-to-no disclosure, but a little bit more flamboyant [and] very outwardly gay. I want to make sure that every kind of trans experience is shown in TV and film because there is no one trans experience. I want there to be a movie starring a trans man or transmasculine person where they don’t go on hormones and they don’t have surgery because that’s a really legitimate trans experience and you never see that. I want to see a trans guy in a movie where he wears makeup and he does drag. I want more trans men of color in everything, and I want more trans people of color in everything.
1Cis or cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
2Gender non-conforming: A person whose gender expression does not conform to conventional expressions of masculinity or femininity. Not all gender non-conforming people identify as transgender, and not all transgender people identity as gender non-conforming.
3Non-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.
4Transmasculine: An umbrella term for a person who identifies on the masculine side of the gender spectrum who may or may not identify as male.