At first, the story of a father and son taking off on horseback through the Montana wilderness on the run from the authorities seems like a classic Western setup, but in Anna Kerrigan’s new film Cowboys it’s also a powerful story about trans youth and their families featuring a stand-out performance from a new young trans actor named Sasha Knight.
The heart of the movie lies in the relationship between Knight’s character Joe, and Steve Zahn, who plays his father. Zahn's character, Troy, has bipolar disorder and takes his son away from his transphobic mother so he can live as the boy he is, leading the police on a chase throught the Montana wilderness. And because Kerrigan found the perfect trans actor for the role, the movie is full of powerful moments that will make your heart swell and eyes flood with tears.
“Honestly, I didn’t know how someone who wasn’t nonbinary or trans could play the role, from a personal standpoint,” Kerrigan tells Out. “Especially when you’re dealing with kids. I felt very strongly that it had to be someone who had had that experience.”
When she first saw Knight’s audition video, she was blown away, “Oh my god, he looks so much like Paul Newman,” she remembers saying. She knew then that he was perfect for the role.
In one pivotal scene, Joe comes out to his dad while they’re sitting in a pickup truck. “What was really important for me with that scene is it needed to feel authentic,” Knight tells me, “It couldn’t come from me as an actor or anything, it had to come from Joe as a person.”
Any trans person or family member of a trans person will immediately recognize the emotions on Joe’s face in the scene, and the way he tells his father that he’s not a girl is one of the best coming out scenes for trans folks, I’veever seen in TV or movies. Because the role is played by a trans actor, there's an authenticity to the scene we rarely see in media about trans youth.
He may be young, but Knight knows that there aren't many movies like this. “There’s not very many roles for trans kids, even small roles, they’re just not very many,” he says, “especially transmasculine roles. It's cool to be a part of something that's breaking barriers.” And he’s right.
There are some teen trans actors like Josie Totah and Zoey Luna, but very few who are actual children. In 2016, 12-year-old Sophie Giannamore (now acting as a teen on The L Word: Generation Q) played a young version of Maura Pfefferman on Transparent, and that same year, eight-year-old Jackson Millarker guest starred in an episode of Modern Family. Then last year, nine-year-old Kai Shappley appeared in an episode of Baby-Sitters Club on Netflix, but there haven’t been any trans actors this young starring in movies.
Knight tells me he’s wanted to be a film actor for a while. “[My mom] has been a casting director for a very long time and I was like, ‘Mom please let me be an actor?’ and she kept being like, ‘No,’” Knight laughs. But when the family moved to LA, he finally convinced her, and thank god he did, because his Hollywood future is bright. And he wants to use it to help others be comfortable being their true selves.
“So people say, ‘Oh there’s something wrong with your because you’re trans, there’s something wrong with you because you’re bipolar,’ but really people are just people, trying to move through the world, and I hope people will take away from the movie that they should just love and be their true, authentic self,” Knight says. “You can’t just change that just because you want them to be the way you want, or because society wants them to be a certain way, people are different. It’s always going to be that way. It’s not like you can change that.”
Cowboys is available on demand now.