With a sex-positive story that humorously portrays both gay and trans issues while maintaining a dramatic flair, Boy Meets Girl is a refreshing new indie rom-com and the first for transgender actress Michelle Hendley. Written and directed by filmmaker Eric Schaeffer, whose previous works range from star-studded films such as If Lucy Fell and Mind the Gap to television programs such as Starz's Gravity, the film follows young Southern trans woman Ricky as she deals with friendship, romance, hate, and the messy gray area in between, all while working to get accepted at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
As Schaeffer explains, he wanted to make a film about people in their early twenties that would be different from his past work. "I wanted to change the cosmetic landscape of the film I was making -- even though the themes were the same," he says. "I also thought, on first blush, the story of a transgender girl in the South might appear to be a story that may embolden those themes of alienation." Hendley hadn't acted professionally before, so it was a big leap of faith for them both. "Prior to transition, I did a few amateur drag shows, and had some minor, minor roles in a few school plays," she explains. "Now, I've won awards for my acting! It's just crazy to me. I'm like, 'What, who, huh? I'm an award-winning actress?' I'm just some kid from Missouri." In anticipation of its upcoming limited theatrical release, we sat down with Schaeffer and Hendley to ask them why this film means so much to the two of them.
Out: Michelle, how did Eric reach out to you?
Michelle Hendley: He, I think, googled trans women and my YouTube page popped up and he messaged me there and asked if I wanted to be a part of his film, and I thought, This guy's crazy, I don't know who you are on the Internet, leave me alone. But I checked out his IMDB and everything seemed fine, and he talked to my dad, and everything checked out.
I haven't been as active on YouTube in the past year or two, but I started making videos at the start of my transition three or four years ago. It really was just documenting the process of my transition and then personal vlogs about my life and my dating stuff and all that.
Eric, it's a big step to cast an untried actress. Why did you cast Michelle?
Eric Schaefer: There's not that many transgender actresses working that you can find through traditional avenues like calling agencies, so I had to get creative. It was very important to me that I cast a real transgender woman for the part, so I went on YouTube and searched "transgender woman, transgender girl." A few women popped up, but I needed her to look a certain way, to look super pretty and in her early twenties. I contacted the few that sort of seemed right for the part, and Michelle was always the frontrunner. I also saw that she had this YouTube channel and that she wasn't afraid to be in front of a camera, obviously. Because if you're on the Internet with 40 YouTube videos, clearly you have a performance bone in your body. So I was very excited to find her because the whole movie was going to live or die based on the casting of the main girl.
I was really excited, and then it was also apprehension, because acting in a movie is different from doing a YouTube video. And I make real movies. So I immediately started talking to her on Skype ,and we started working on the script. I mean, I could just tell: I could tell that she had a natural ability and ease, and I could tell that she was going to be able to do it. And in the few areas that she needed practice, we just practiced a lot.
How did you approach your parents about being in the film?
MH: You know, at that point in my life, and to this day, there's nothing that I can surprise them with. I've just always been a very different child. And so when I came to them and I was like, "Hey, so this guy wants me to star in his movie, and he wants to talk to you," of course they were like, "OK, hmm, all right." And this whole process is new for them as well, so when I said: "I guess I'm going to go to New York to film a movie now," they were like: "All right, OK, have fun."
ES: Her dad was understandably protective, as any dad would be of any 21-year-old daughter. He actually said to me at one point this line that I thought was equal parts beautiful and touching and funny: "You know, all my life, that kid's been throwing my curveballs, but luckily I play baseball." Later, I asked Michelle if I could use in the movie. I thought that it was such a sweet way that this Missouri dad could say something loving about his daughter.
Where did you get the idea to make this film, Eric?
ES: Most of my films or television shows are thematically about the same thing, ultimately: about finding love and falling in love and being accepted for who we are without shame about who we want to love, what emotional lives we have, what sexual practices we have. Sort of breaking out of the confinements and compartments of what it is to be straight, what it is to be gay, what it is to be bi, and even emotionally, how a straight guy is allowed to behave and not act like a girl. And in keeping with those themes, I thought, Is there a way that I can make a film that maybe could reach more audiences, that could maybe be perceived in a fresh way?
What was your reaction when you read through the script for the first time?
MH: I was very excited since, first of all, the trans rights movement is so huge right now, it's just at the forefront of all media. It was so cool to be able to contribute to that and to my community, and with a story that I don't really think has been told with a trans woman. Because we've seen the beaten and battered trans prostitute. We've seen that story, but there are other girls like myself who live a very "normal" life. We have family and friends, we work in coffee shops, we have boyfriends, we do the normal things. And I was very excited to be a part of that. It really is just a very normal love story.
What was it like adjusting to working with Eric on the script and finally being on set and being in front of the camera?
MH: Well, every single step in this process -- even the first Skype session that we had to read some lines -- I just tried to be in the moment and embrace it and go with it, because I really have nothing to compare it to. Of course, it was kind of scary, especially when we started filming, and all this work we had done. We do what we gotta do. But I've enjoyed it; it's been a lot of fun.
Are you hoping to continue acting in the future?
MH: Yes, yes. There's some things I'd like to complete in my transition before I go on to either New York or L.A., but that's the goal.
Eric, you talked about your own experiences as a cisgender man writing a transgender woman. Did you approach writing a transgender lead differently than writing a cisgender lead?
ES: I'm really proud and excited that women have said that I really capture a female voice in my writing in writing female characters, and I really like that. I always bristle when there's jobs or shows or movies and a book that's gonna be adapted and they say, "Well, we're looking for a female writer for this." I'm like, "Well, wait a minute, If Lucy Fell with Sarah Jessica Parker was a female lead and she had a great, strong female voice."
I don't write my female characters to be the secondary buddy to the man. When I made a movie called Never Again with Jill Clayburgh, I had all these women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, and people curious: "How do you know how to write a 60-year-old woman's voice?" So I've been proud of that. I approached it as writing a female character, which she is. The fact that she's transgender female, and that does come up at times in the movie when it makes sense it should come up, generally around romantic situations with people that might wonder what exactly is gonna happen or they're naive to dating a transgender woman. I ran those parts by Michelle to sort of authenticate and say: "Would this happen, does this happen, does this feel real to you?" I certainly did not want to have anything be funny at the expense of offending the transgender community or being bombastic at the expense of a joke or a cheap laugh.
MH: Going to these festivals has been incredibly humbling. We've gotten such a great reception, and I've gotten messages and I've talked to so many trans women who have thanked me for my role. It's overwhelming, it's humbling, and it's just really cool to be there and to represent.
Boy Meets Girl will screen in select cinemas in February. It's also available at Wolfe Video.