Alexandra Billings is sprawled in a chair, her legs swinging over the armrest while she gossips with Trace Lysette. Walking into the hotel room, it’s almost like I’m interrupting, yet as soon I walk in, the two women spring into a new conversation. They envelop me with a debate over the health benefits of McDonalds and its famous McRib, which is Billings’ go-to food of choice. It’s the same topic I’d debated with her last month, when I called her up about her latest film, Valley of Bones. It was second-nature to fall back into the conversation we’d began a month ago, despite this being the first time we’d met in-person—and with Lysette there to jump in, no less.
That’s just how Billings and Lysette operate. As Davina and Shea on Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking series Transparent, they’re casual, cool, and, most importantly, feel like people rather than characters. That’s especially true in the new, fourth season because, for the first time, we are able to see how Davina became who she is. Featuring an incredible musical number and a raw look at what transgender people go through just to survive, it’s the most true-to-life storyline of the season, but that’s because it is true to life—specifically the lives of Billings and Lysette.
As writing was underway for the fourth Transparent season, Billings and Lysette took charge and went to the writer’s room to tell their own stories as young, trans women. Through these conversations, real footage of Billings as a pageant queen got interwoven into the title credits and a developed backstory was written into the script.
While Billings and Lysette lounged on their chairs, I sat down with the pair to talk about the importance of assimilation, why having a cisgender actor play a trans character was a necessity, and where the hell Shea went in that taxi.
OUT: What was it like filming that big, incredible musical number?
Alexandra Billings: Oh my god, super fun. I mean, I asked if I could sing because before the season started, this human [Trace] called me and said, “Hey, you know what we should do? We should go into the writer’s room and tell them about our lives and where these characters should go.” I was like, “can we do that?” She said, “I don’t know, but let’s do it. Then we made these little pamphlets of what we thought and they put 90 percent of what I said into the show.
How much percent did they put in for you, Trace?
Trace Lysette: Zero. [Laughs] They picked one of us and it was my dumb ass idea. That’s what I get for wanting to be all in it. Shae is in a cab somewhere figuring shit out. She has to come back to Davina and who knows what else could happen.
Where do you think your cab is right now on the show?
AB: [Laughs] Where would you really go? Where would Shae go?
TL: You know, I think she went to Vegas for a hot second to make a cute coin because she was like, “Fuck Josh I’m about this motherfucking money, bitch.” She’s going to go have a little shopping spree and then she’s going back to LA to teach her yoga and reunite with her sisters, Davina and Maura. Maybe Josh will be grown up by then, or maybe he’ll just get to see me unbothered about it all?
AB: Do you think Shae lives in stealth?
TL: No, she teaches yoga at the fucking LGBT Center!
AB: Not there, but if she goes to Las Vegas...
TL: I think she dips in and out like I did.
AB: See, this idea of assimilation is very interesting to me. You have Maura who doesn’t assimilate. She wears her transness and then you have someone like Shae, who does assimilate. I like the idea of seeing those containers and Davina, who is in the center, can assimilate but also, in certain places, cannot. Those kinds of containers that our community lives in are important to see.
Photo Courtesy Amazon Prime Video
You can’t always assimilate in every situation or environment.
AB: No, nor do some people want to! Some people very much want to be visual and some people that are visual, don’t want to be. I have a girlfriend that’s in her sixties that transitioned late that is miserable all the time and all she talks about is, “I’m so tired of talking about my being trans.” It’s every conversation.
As a transgender actress, what has your experience been like on the show?
TL: It opened up my whole world. Prior to this, I used to divide my whole life into different compartments and was living stealth in parts of my life and then I had my gay friends and my trans friends and people who didn’t know I was trans. The strip club I worked at didn’t know and the auditions I went on were just for cisgender roles so Transparent was my coming out party. It allowed me to just say fuck it and be transparent about everything, own it all, have something to fight for, and really find my purpose.
What’s been your proudest moment as a transgender actress?
TL: I get messages on Facebook and Instagram from young trans people and the parents of young trans people who say how important it is that they get to see themselves on TV and what that means to them. Alexandra and I grew up not seeing ourselves on TV and, if we did, it was usually on something like Jerry Springer or Maury playing the “is it a man or a woman” game, or the occasional cis actor playing us getting murdered and stuffed into a toilet or some shit. The fact that they get to see a trans body on TV playing a trans character validates them and lets them know that they are worth it and they are worthy of success and love and they can dream.
In Davina’s storyline this season, how did it feel to switch places with Maura and be the one who needed help?
AB: It’s a common story in our community. Eventually, we lose our steadiness. Our transgender brothers and sisters who paid a high price for us to walk around free, they rarely had homes. The depiction of Davina’s wandering, as is true with most ostracized tribes, makes perfect sense and needs to be seen.
One of my friends refuses to watch Transparent because Jeffrey Tambour is a cis actor playing a trans character, but it’s so important to support a show like this.
AB: I agree and remind them if you can gently that when the show first happened, it was the only way to greenlight the show. There was no such thing as a trans person that could carry or open the door to a lead on a television show. It’s more true now, but it still isn’t happening. Jeffrey is hyper-aware of that in a way that is spiritual. It’s not just physical and visceral. He is spiritually aware of his responsibility.
TL: He spoke about that last night. His internal conflict when he goes home after shooting and [he wonders], should he be playing this role? A lot of people provided the anecdote that he opened the door for people like me and Alexandra to also be on the show and all of these people who work on the crew. The next step will be a show with a trans lead or trans showrunner. It’s not just going to happen overnight and maybe now, we’re ready.
It’s crazy that the show was just confirmed for a fifth season, too.
AB: It’s exploded! Whether you watch it or you don’t, everyone knows about the show. To think that people across the globe are having conversations about cisgender and transgender is mind-boggling to me. It’s extraordinary.