Some people think camping out in the wilderness around a fire sounds like a dream vacation or an escape from reality and the pressures of the big city, but Alexandra Billings is not one of those people. "My idea of roughing it is the Hilton. That's as rough as I get," the actor explained to me of her aversion to the great outdoors. It was a surprising anecdote because, in her new film Valley of Bones, her character Kimberly isn't just a fan of the wilderness--she owns an entire ranch.
For fans of the actor, her latest role is a far cry from the streets of Los Angeles she lives in on Jill Soloway's hit show Transparent. Over three seasons, Billings has played Davina, the cool-headed but tough best friend of Jeffrey Tambor's character Maura, the transgender matriarch of the Pfefferman family. Now, ahead of a fourth season of the show where her backstory will finally be revealed, Billings took a detour from Transparent by way of the Badlands.
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In the Dan Glaser-directed film, aptly about a valley of bones, she's busy helping a paleontologist and a recovering meth addict dig up dinosaur bones and, yes, it's as wild as it sounds. It's also a showcase for how far the actor has come since making history as one of the first transgender women to play a transgender character on television.
As Valley of Bones hits theaters and she gears up for the new season of Transparent to start, we called up the actor to talk about the inspiration behind the Western outfits in her new film, her favorite moment as a transgender actor, and her take on the debate about cisgender actors playing trans roles.
OUT: The film is a big step away from your role on Transparent. How was your experience on set? Did enjoy wearing all of those fun Western outfits?
Alexandra Billings: [Laughs] It was great! It's funny because... this is way before your time, I think. I studied Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley who I just love. I took a lot from her--from the way she held herself and her gestures. It was really fun to do and it was out in the wilderness. This was not on a soundstage. We were in the thick of it but it was really great to be out in the middle of the wilderness with these kind of people.
Would you ever want to own a ranch like your character?
Are you kidding? Why? What would I do? No.
[Laughs] So you're definitely not a fan of camping?
I'm not, but my wife will camp. She'll do the camping and she's been bugging me for the last twenty-something years to rent an RV, but I keep deterring her by taking her to Rome and Italy.
The movie itself is pretty violent. Do you want to play a sort of female action hero one day?
Oh, that would be great! Will you write one? Would you do that?
I'll try! Do you have any dream roles?
No, I never really think in those terms of "oh I wish." My life is a series of happy surprises so I don't sit around and wish for things like that. I'm just really grateful for what happens to me in the present.
You've been such a big name in the trans community for decades. What kind of progress have you seen in terms of transgender visibility?
I think the great thing that we can all celebrate is the fact that we're now known as a community and a tribe instead of a choice and a fetish. We're becoming accepted--among artists, anyway--as a viable part of not only the LGBTQ community but the community as a whole. I transitioned in 1980 when it was not only unheard of, it was illegal! Now, in many parts of the United States, its celebrated.
Alexandra Billings & Trace Lysette on Transparent (Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)
What's been your proudest moment as a transgender actor so far?
I think one of the moments that really struck me was a couple of years ago. I was at a Starbucks and there was a little blonde haired girl with a sundress on [who was] probably eight or nine-years-old sitting at a table. Her mother came up to me and said, "Can I get your autograph because my daughter just loves you."
I walked over to the table and she was so happy and thanked me. She was so kind and polite. I said you're welcome and asked for her name and she said, "Well, my name now is Rebecca." I said, oh what was it before, and she whispered what the name was, which I won't repeat, but she was trans. I was really, truly shocked in a way that rarely happens to me.
You're going to make me cry! On another note, you're such a big advocate for the HIV positive community. Is that an aspect of the community we still need to work on?
Oh, absolutely. The virus is peaking again among our community because now we think, well I'll take a pill and everything is fine. The red ribbons are gone because it's not the fashionable thing to do anymore. I'm 55 years old. I went through this and buried all my friends. We're going to end up right back where we started if we're not careful. We've got to take care of each other because, look, we're in the center of a government who couldn't care less about us.
There's been a lot of debate about cisgender actors playing trans roles and, in this movie, you're a trans actor playing a cis role. What are your thoughts on this dialogue?
Well, I think you can look at someone like Jeffrey Tambor on Transparent. His role seems to be coming out of him from the center of his spirit in some kind of way. I've never seen this kind of acting before, [and] it's remarkable, but he'll be the first one to tell you to stop doing this.
I think there's a difference between doing that and deciding to play a transgender female as an acting challenge. I think it's not only a waste of time, but it does a disservice to trans people. I'm all for any actor playing any role, but we have got to confront something. The only people that I know who are working are a handful of trans people. Once the scales become balanced, I will be much more applicable to having cis people playing trans characters.