In 2005, Billings became the first openly transgender woman to play a transgender character on television in the film “Romy and Michele: In the Beginning.” She has since had roles in countless productions including “Transparent” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” This Q&A is part of a special series examining diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Read more profiles here.
Was there a person in the industry that looked like you and made you think this could be a career for you?
When I transitioned in 1980, there was nobody and because I never saw any transgender actors or actresses — the trans characters were all played by cisgender people — I just assumed that I would lip-sync for the rest of my life; acting was just a dream. I’m sure that we existed, I just never saw them.
What was your reaction to #OscarsSoWhite and the lack of diversity of this year’s nominees?
I used to sit with my mother and not only watch the Oscars, but we each would have scorecards with our predictions of who would win the awards. The person with the most correct would get to eat whatever they wanted the next night for dinner. That’s how into the Oscars we were; we were insane. I skipped them this year — the first year that I have ever not seen the Oscars. I skipped them purposely because I can no longer subscribe to a celebration that can’t be representational in truth because it’s not inclusive. Right now, it’s exclusive and excludes people of color and gender identity of all kinds. My turning off my television probably meant nothing to them, but it meant everything to me.
How do you feel about the academy’s response?
I think that’s very smart, but we need to take ownership as well. We need to create our own work and hire each other, both people of color and those of varying gender identities and expressions. We need to hire others like us so that we can practice our art and tell the stories that need to be told. There is no one solution. There must be many seeds planted before all of us can blossom.
What would being in the film academy, if you ever got the invite, mean to you?
I would say hell yes because there is no way to change the rules of the party unless you get into the party. We’ve got to get in. I’ve never been too proud to have someone open the door for me. If you want to open the door because I’m carrying too many packages, great. I’m a revolutionary at heart and activist by nature, so the minute you let me in the room, trust me when I say, something will change.
What’s your favorite Oscar memory?
During one of the honorary Oscar moments, they honored Charlie Chaplin, who was a genius filmmaker but was blackballed and forced out of the country. When he came on stage, he got a round of applause and you can see in his spirit that he is deeply and profoundly moved. At that moment, I swear that I saw inside the spirit of this broken man who suddenly had come back home to be healed. It was incredible.