Laura Zak Talks Trailblazing New Trans Web Series, Her Story

herstory

Her Story, a groundbreaking new series that explores dating and relationships among trans and queer women in Los Angeles, launches online today with its first six-episode season available for immediate binge-viewing (and, clocking in at a total run time of 55 minutes for all six episodes, you will). In it, Allie (played by Laura Zak) is a reporter who approaches Violet (Jen Richards) to interview her for a story she’s writing on trans women. Meanwhile, high-powered attorney Paige (Angelica Ross) gets thrown a curveball when she meets James (Christian Ochoa) who she could actually fall for.

We recently spoke with Laura Zak (below), who also penned the series with co-star Jen Richards, about why Her Story was so important to tell.


 

Out: How did Her Story come to be?

Laura Zak: So Jen and I originally met a couple years ago on the set of another web series that I created called #hashtag that shot in Chicago. There was a small role in that script that called for a transgender woman to play a waitress that flirts with my character. We had never met before. And so the very first time that Jen and I interacted was in a flirtatious moment on screen and, um, we ended up connecting and starting a friendship from that point.

Jen ended up telling me that she was actually impressed with the fact that even though it was such a small role, that it called for a transgender actress to portray this transgender character but that there was nothing in the script that brought attention to the fact that it was a trans person. It was just an attractive trans person who had an attraction to my character.

And then we ended up just having a lot in common - same education, similar interests - and, this led to Jen pitching the idea of me writing, at first a spin off with her waitress character… but, then, as we started to brainstorm around this story, we pretty quickly decided it would just be easier to create an entirely new story in an entirely new world but still based on this kind of friendship and relationship between a trans woman and a queer woman. From the beginning, too, the third main character was always intended to be a trans woman of color, Paige, who was very closely based on Jen’s roommate at the time.

 

Often in media, male-to-female trans people - both on and off screen - are lumped in or equated with gay men, portrayed as part of the same group. Why was it important for you to tell Her Story in the context of a female, and mainly lesbian and queer, network?

We came to that portrayal because we were starting with what we knew and as writers what we had experienced in our specific perspective. One of the lines in the script was taken almost verbatim from an earlier conversation that Jen and I had with each other about having been perceived as every letter on the LGBTQ spectrum. As someone prior to transition, who was a bisexual man and who had had relationships with both women and men, and then, had transitioned and post-transition still feeling an attraction to both. So Jen, at a certain point in her life, had been perceived externally as every one of those letters. As one of our characters said: “she won gay bingo.”

When I learned that about Jen, that was just such a fascinating thing to think about and then, of course, getting to play with characters of different sexual identities and gender identities. Showing how those two things are not completely correlated; that gender and sexuality aren’t the same thing. We were very interest in showing two different aspects of a trans woman’s sexuality through Violet, on one hand, being someone who is actually - I don’t want to say more attracted to women - but, we do see her searching on Craigslist for w4t listings. She’s definitely still attracted to women, as she was prior to transition, whereas Paige is a straight trans woman and is exclusively attracted to men.

There is a scene of Violet talking about being self-conscious about the size of her hands compared to Allie’s and feeling like she is seen as less of a woman for being romantically attached to another women versus when she’s with a man and her femininity feels more firm. That’s Violet’s major obstacle on the show, to get over her own insecurities in order to follow this connection and chemistry she has with another person. And, inversely, my character Allie, has to get over her questioning of, “does this make me less of a lesbian to be drawn to someone who is a trans woman?” And we felt it was really important to show how strong the chemistry was between these two characters so that we can implicate the audience in feeling like “get over your shit. You two should obviously pursue this. This is obviously a positive healthy connection and you should go for it and these things that you’re worried about don’t matter.” And then hopefully the audience is then like “oh right. They don’t matter.”
 

A few years ago, a friend had introduced me to this guy that I thought was cute who I later found out was F2M trans. It never went further than that meeting but I have always wondered if I would be open-minded enough to date somebody that didn’t fit into this box I’ve created.

Absolutely. It’s similar to that moment [in the series] where Lisa (played by Caroline Whitney Smith) has her first interaction with Paige and clearly thinks, “What’s her deal? That’s a beautiful woman.” And, the Lisa character - this is someone that has a lot of pre-conceived notions about what a trans woman is and what a trans woman looks like and has a lot of bias against trans people - but her initial, most authentic reaction to this other human was, “oh, I’m drawn to this person.” And, of course, then she’s very surprised to find out that this person that she has just met in no way fits the stereotypes she has in her mind. We tried to play with that in many little ways throughout the show.

It kind of seems like a lot of violence against trans people, or at least the way it’s been portrayed in media, sort of stems from that kind of interaction where somebody feels “tricked” or they feel an attraction to someone who isn’t exactly who they presumed them to be and they lash out - of embarrassment, perhaps - at someone who is just being who they are.

And that’s SUCH THE narrative that we fear that is the most endangering of trans women’s lives: That tricked narrative. In reality, the vast majority of times, the men committing violence against trans women absolutely know these women are trans but it’s more the discomfort with being exposed and the discomfort with what that supposedly means about themselves and about their own sexuality, and you’re right, that leads to this violence. And, so this is something we felt was so important to do with the show, is to really portray how positive it is and beautiful it is to be with a trans person so that hopefully those ideas of it being at all shameful will change and then in turn the violence will become less prevalent.

One other great thing I noticed about Her Story is that almost the entire cast and crew is trans and queer women….

Yes, we really wanted to show that you don’t have sacrifice quality of your film or project by including authentic trans people, queer people, people of color, in every aspect of the production.

When we were looking for a director, our first choice was to find a trans director, and if not a trans director, then a queer women, ideally a queer woman of color. When we set out to do this we only knew of a handful of trans directors - like Lana Wachowski - and some of them were outside of our budget or not available when we needed to shoot, so we pursued other options.

We then came across Sydney [Freeland], who had created this amazing film called Drunktown’s Finest that had been at Sundance and had done really well and was really beautify shot and had a beautiful story. In it, there’s a lead character who is a trans woman played by a trans actor, and we knew of Sidney as a queer Navaho woman. And so we approached her. She was our first choice. We had our meeting with her and Sydney was saying how much she loved the scripts and Jen started to explain to Sydney who Janet Mock was and Sydney was like, “I know who Janet Mock is.” And, then Sydney kind of paused and looked around the room and said, “Wait, how much do you know about my background?” And we were like, “Oh, we know that you have this amazing resume and this amazing film and that you’re Navaho and from New Mexico.” Then Sydney says, “Oh, I’m trans.” And we were like, “What?!”

She totally assumed that that’s why we reached out to her, but that wasn’t it at all. It was because of her work. And it ended up being perfect and exactly the point of this project that we ended up hiring a trans woman by accident because she was so talented. And that’s exactly sort of the point we were trying to show, that you can have diversity in every aspect and still have a beautiful final product.

You have managed to cover so much ground in these six webisodes, in the way that you touch on a lot of familiar themes we often see with trans characters, but also managing to open the story up into places I hadn’t seen explored before...

One of the things that was sort of daunting about this project is because of the visibility and representation of these stories [of trans people] has been so poor to date. We felt we had so much to tell that hadn’t been told before and it was a bit overwhelming and we definitely didn’t want this to be too heavy handed or soap boxy. We wanted this story and these characters to really drive the show and, so the challenge was, how do we get in some of this information while making it organic to this story. But now that we’ve gotten that out there, Jen and I can truly follow the story and characters and organically telling things that haven’t been told before. But we’re not so front-loaded anymore with stuff that people just have no idea about.

So, does that mean we expect to see more of Her Story?

So what we’ve shot so far, these six episodes, we’re actually treating as an independently produced pilot. Jen and I have written a fully-developed treatment for an entire 10 half hour episode season of the show. To become a show and not a web series. Of course, there’s a lot happening with the same characters. And, a lot happening with new characters that we’re going to explore.

Our producer has put together a budget and a workbook for what that first season would require for us to produce it. As soon as we can point to there’s a demand an audience. We’re going to start pitching it to multiple networks and hopefully get it pitched to go to series.

Watch all six episodes now at herstoryshow.com

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