Q&A: ‘Her Story’ creators Jen Richards and Laura Zak highlight dating while transgender
Despite the landmark year that 2015 was for transgender visibility on screens large and small, there is still a long way to go in order to fully represent trans experiences. Though many may feel inundated with examples of trans identity -- from actress Laverne Cox and writer Janet Mock to Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent” or Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl” -- actress Jen Richards isn’t buying it.
“Right now we’re in the Sidney Poitier phase of trans representation, where the few that we have have to be so unassailable so that we can open doors,” she said in an interview with The Times last year. “But what’s next is we need our hot messes, our rebels, our sexpots and drama queens. We need representation across the board.”
Ahead of the release of the drama, Richards and Zak, along with producer Katherine Fisher, sat down with The Times to discuss creating “Her Story” and pulling together a team of primarily trans and queer women to get the job done.
So tell me, how did the idea for this series come about?
Zak: Jen and I met on the set of the Web series I starred in and co-wrote called “#Hashtag.” We had a tiny cameo together, but ended up talking and becoming friends. We originally explored a storyline where we would do a spinoff of “#Hashtag” with the relationship between our two characters, but after talking more, we eventually decided it deserved its own entirely new world and show. So the core origin was our chemistry and friendship and learning more about each other’s community.
And what about you Kate, how did you come on board as producer?
Fisher: We’ve all known each other for years. I remember us doing a read-through -- I read Angelica’s part very well -- and I just really fell in love with the script. They were getting produced by another company out of Chicago, but [when that fell through] I came in and convinced them to let me produce it. And they let me. We started pre-production three weeks later.
As the writers, what’s the message you wanted people to take away?
Richards: I don’t think it was so much that we were constructing a conscious message as it was wanting to ground a story in real characters and real experiences that we had never seen depicted in any other form of media. I had never seen relationships between trans women and cisgender women depicted. I had never seen friendship between two trans women -- much less a black woman and a white woman -- or the issues of a trans woman who passes or issues with disclosure and what it’s like to date. I hadn’t seen any of this reflected, but it was my lived reality. [Crafting the script] was more about fidelity to the truth of Angelica and my experience and wanting to keep it as authentic as possible.
You pack in a lot of topics in that one hour…
Richards: And there was more before the editing.
One of the topics I really liked was the line about the “tacit acceptance” of trans people by the broader LGBT community and how we can be complicit in transphobia. With such complex topics, was it difficult putting them into the script?
Zak: I don’t think it was difficult to tackle that particular theme because that was one of the obstacles built in for [my character] Allie, and grappling with this attraction she was feeling. She was looking at her own [surroundings], of what she believed was a progressive queer community of friends, and seeing there were no trans people. And then learning through her friends’ reaction to her new connection with this person, the transphobia within the queer community. I think a lot of people outside of the queer community don’t realize how much division there is within the LGBTQ world. For that part, the theme organically came out the story.
Richards: What that line refers to is something that was present from the very genesis. A lot of people in the queer community, because they’re queer, see themselves as particularly progressive and therefore are cut off from some of these other issues. But their groups are often entirely white, middle class, college educated and cis. They have an intellectual understanding of a lot of these issues without any direct experience.
Richards: The big one was we really wanted a trans director because it was one of our intentions to employ trans people and make sure they were a part of every aspect of production. But there aren’t many trans directors out there who are at the level we wanted the work to be at and available and that we could afford. So we gave up on that and looked for queer women and women of color directors, ideally a queer woman of color. That’s how Sydney Freeland came to us. We knew her as a queer Navajo filmmaker whose other feature had a trans storyline and used a trans actor. We didn’t know she was trans into well into meeting her, but we ended up hiring a trans woman of color because of her work rather than her identity and it was the exact identity we would have wanted anyway. I feel like the whole production had these types of happy accidents that ended up working out.
Zak: Something else that presented challenges was the fact that when Jen and I first conceived of this, it was very small in scale. With Kate coming on, and Sarah Baker-Grillo and Sydney, it elevated the scope of what we were trying to make. So it got bigger and bigger as we went on. But on the other side of it, the project was attracting to it so many people who really believed in it.
Fisher: I remember Skyping with Jen and being like, “I just need to let you know that the budget is more now than what it was,” nervous about what she was going to say. One of the bigger challenges was attracting the big, amazingly talented people and then trying to find a way to get them what they need to make the series we all envisioned.
Both Jen and Angelica had fairly limited acting experience. As two of the leads, did that cause any pause?
Richards: On multiple occasions I told them we might need to recast my part. [laughs] How terrifying that must be not knowing whether Angelica and I could act.
Fisher: We had some leeway in casting, but Jen, Laura and Angelica were in it from the beginning. We [just decided that] we’re bringing in a supporting cast that can create the best space for them.
Zak: I think that is where the truthfulness of the story and a lot of the lived experiences playing out in fiction form come to play because there is such an authenticity in both of their performances.
Fisher: When we were in it, we knew this was going to be great. But it was something we had to think about.
Zak: I think it’s twofold. One is that they are out there. You need to do a minimal amount of work to find these professionals. They are working. They are talented and the level is high. You just have to make a conscious effort to find them.
Fisher: And to hire them. It requires them having a chance to have their resume built up.
Zak: That’s the other part of it, from my perspective of seeing it on the acting side as an actor. Creating more opportunities for people in the trans and queer community to learn these skills, because I would say the one difficult part we had was finding trans actors that were good. And that’s not because they’re not out there. There are a lot of trans actors out there, but so far, I don’t think there has been a system in place for training that there has been for cis actors.
Fisher: Or agent representation.
Richards: Look at what we did. Look at “Happy Birthday Marsha” that Mya [Taylor] and Cherno [Biko] are in. To me it’s a silly question and objection. When they say that, it has nothing to do with us. It actually reveals the paucity of their vision rather than the lack of talent.
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