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.

One of the most refreshingly self-aware episodes about a trans person on TV this year didn’t appear on progressive off-cable networks Netflix or Amazon, but in the most unexpected place: a TV Land sitcom. In the second season of Lopez, George Lopez (playing a version of himself) has a disastrous meeting with rising trans actress Coco, played by Rain Valdez in her TV acting debut. After the network’s HR department awkwardly counsels him on how to respectfully talk to trans people – a scene that’s educational and playfully pokes fun at PC culture – Coco calls out the producers for hiring her because she’s trans. “I’m not here to be your token,” she protests. Eventually she and George have a heart-to-heart that strips away the HR-sanctioned rules. “Thank you for taking the time to talk to me like a person,” she tells him.

Valdez’s role as Coco is one fictionalized example of how bringing an actual trans actor into a meeting or onto a set can radically change the way the industry views trans people. Valdez, who’s also a filmmaker and a coordinating producer on Amazon’s Transparent, is helping revolutionize the way the trans community is represented in front of and behind the camera.

During an interview in Los Angeles last month, Valdez spoke about why it’s essential for trans people to have vital roles behind the scenes, how her feedback on Lopez helped shape the show’s portrayal of Coco, and why villainous trans characters can be damaging for trans youth.

You’ve been working the industry for 15 years in post-production. What led you to acting and directing?

I started out acting and I got a little bit disappointed with the business itself so I found myself in post-production. I was doing the finishing work on feature films and through that experience I learned how to package a film. That inspired me to go back to the front end of filmmaking, so I started writing, directing and acting again.

Why do you think it’s important for actors to also work behind the scenes?

Because you can learn so much. Once you have experience on set, your confidence level when you are hired for an actual job is something that you can’t really buy. It’s something you gain through experience. Your visible input and your presence can make a huge difference with the story.

How have you seen your work behind the camera make a difference?

My role has been valuable particularly on Transparent. Not only does the show celebrate us for being who we are, but our opinions and suggestions are valued, which could really make or break a story. For trans people who have trouble communicating their story or their ideas, you can get a lot of that experience by just working behind the camera.

As a producer, being tans can sometimes be quite a responsibility. You’re kind of the spokesperson for the community and in some cases it works really [well] because you can help shape a story and tell an accurate representation of what is actually going on in our community. You can pull in viewers so much more when the story is accurate, particularly if a trans person is watching it because they will know what is authentic and what isn’t. It’s very important to have a trans producer or a trans creator somewhere in the decision-making process when it is a trans-centric story.

Amos Mac for ScreenCrush
Amos Mac for ScreenCrush

Have you ever encountered a problematic storyline with a trans character? And how did you approach it?

When I first auditioned for Lopez there was a line [referring to Maura Pfefferman of Transparent] that I didn’t want to say, but I had to for the audition. You know, when you’re auditioning for a part you just have to go with it and do what you have to do. So I said it for the audition, but after I booked it, there was a lot of excitement but there was also a little bit of, “Oh my god, I cannot say that line.” So I wrote them an email. I gave them the reason why I couldn’t say the line and told them this is what Transparent has done for me and a long list of what Transparent has done for the community. They responded with a simple, “You are more important to us than the line itself and we are happy to work with you. You don’t have to say that line.” The fact that they took the time to hear me out and actually considered my concerns was awesome.

In another incident a few episodes down the line, they had a line where my character was referring to us as “transgenders.” We don’t call ourselves “transgenders.” We call ourselves transgender women, or transgender men or just trans people. So at the table read I changed the line to say “transgender women” and the next day I got a new script with how I said it at the table read without even asking them to change it. The fact that they are listening really means a lot to me. That’s all we could ever ask for. When you’re trying to tell our story, listen to us as much as possible.

What’s the one thing people should never say to a trans actor?

“Oh my god, you are so beautiful!” “Oh my god, you’re so pretty!” I think when we hear that it comes across as you’re seeing us for the beauty of our transness and not really as a beautiful person. So maybe tone that down a bit and say something like, “You’re so talented,” or “You’re very smart,” or “Thank you for being here.” It is as simple as that.

Looking back on the history of trans representation in film, what’s one way Hollywood got it wrong?

Growing up watching television, there weren’t any positive representations of trans women that I saw. If anything there was a plethora of negative depictions of trans women, particularly Soapdish and Ace Ventura [Pet Detective]. When I was watching [Soapdish] with my family, we were having a really good time and we were laughing until we got to the end when Cathy Moriarty’s character was outed and then she was made to be the villain. That is when I got really uncomfortable. My family would look at me wondering how I was feeling. It was no wonder my family didn’t know what to do with me because these movies kept telling them that I was going to grow up to be a villain. It had a huge impact on my life. I was very fearful to grow up.

It is time to start reversing the shaming, reverse the vilifying, reverse the stigmatizing and fetishizing, and start humanizing trans people. Start creating stories that are more accurate and start creating stories where we are being loved or romanced, because we do have those in our lives, we just rarely ever get to see it in the media. There have been [13] trans women murdered this year alone, mostly women of color. About 27 trans [people] were murdered last year, also mostly women of color, and about 2000 transgender people murdered in the last 8 years. I hate to say this, but I feel that Hollywood played a part in perpetuating the hatred that there is now. I think as a whole and as an industry we need to start taking responsibility for that and start creating stories to reverse that effect and start humanizing us in a way that we have never really seen before.

What’s the future of trans representation in Hollywood that you want to see?

The future Hollywood that I would like to see is run by women and trans people. I would like to see trans people in different genres. It would be great to see a trans person in a romcom where she is not the butt of the joke. I think if we start allowing female filmmakers and trans filmmakers to see a story through their lens we will start to see a difference with movies. I am not saying that [cis] men should stop making movies – I think what they do is fantastic and very entertaining – but I think we need to allow space for female filmmakers and trans filmmakers to start telling their stories.

The industry has made some progress with trans storytelling so far, but how can trans actors break out into bigger roles?

Shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black have changed Hollywood in a way that we can’t really go back to the shaming and the otherizing of LGBTQ, particularly trans people. They basically opened the doors to allow authentic stories that aren’t just about our transition, but are actually about our lives. I am excited to see where Hollywood takes this. We will get to a point where there aren’t going to be any trans stories to tell and at that point my hope is trans actors don’t go away [but] that we’re able to play roles that aren’t gender-specific, that aren’t gender-identified, because we could play anyone. We can play a doctor, we can play a teacher, we can play a superhero or Catwoman. But we need to have those opportunities considered. We need the opportunities to go into a room and show our talent and put the gender aside. If we can do that then I assure you, you would be meeting a lot of talented folks.

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