“I got into acting because I was doing too much cocaine after I graduated high school,” says actress Rachel Crowl with refreshing frankness. The multi-talented performer (she’s also a photographer and musician) exudes a cool confidence and quick wit that is immediately disarming and endearing. This woman knows exactly who she is — and knows how to have fun with it.
“I graduated high school in the ’80s, and I was supposed to go to college because I was an upper-middle class white kid, and that was the expectation,” continues Crowl, a woman of transgender experience, on how she got her start on the stage. “But I was not having it because I was over it…. And I saw the college theater course and I’m like, Oh, I can take that and I’ll build sets and do blow, and that’d be fine.”
However, she explains, her plan to breeze through school as high as a kite was slightly derailed when she learned you actually had to act in theater class.
“And then I realized that I was really good at pretending to be other people, and that there was something about pretending to be other people that was deeply meaningful to me,” says Crowl, recalling the liberation she felt at the discovery of her hidden talents. “It was a reminder of what it’s like to be 6 years old in the sandbox with just your toys and your imagination. And I was so thrilled to get that feeling back, even though I was a fuck-up during my college years.”
Crowl says after “I dropped out because I was an idiot,” she was feeling a bit lost and needed to “get out of Florida.” She ended up in upstate New York, apprenticing at a local professional theater for five years. “I did everything under the sun there, including getting paid. Let’s just say I’m one of the few actors I know who’s consistently only ever been paid to work.”
Though she eventually managed to kick her coke habit and was happily working in theater, Crowl says there still was one major issue in her life that she was avoiding—the fact that she identified as female.
“At some point I knew I needed to deal with the gender stuff, because it was always there,” she says. “I was like, I’m going to move to New York City because that’s where even more theater is, but also, that’s where the queers are.”
Living in NYC in the 1990s was an amazing and transformative time for Crowl. It’s when everything changed for the better.
“I immediately got work and…I met my future soon-to-be wife and did off-Broadway theater up until about 2003, 2004, when I decided it was time to transition,” she recalls.
By that time, Crowl’s wife, author Helen Boyd, had written her first memoir, My Husband Betty: Love, Sex, and Life with a Crossdresser, about the couple’s transitioning relationship.
“I was already out in the world and doing stuff, and I was already giving up on the gendered look of a leading man,” Crowl admits.
Though she was discovering a new sense of self and freedom in starting to live her truth openly, Crowl says she basically felt forced to quit acting in order to transition.
“My eyebrows were getting thinner and my nails were longer,” she says, explaining that although ’00s New York City was progressive, it still wasn’t that progressive when it came to trans folks. “I cofounded a theater with a group of friends and I finally just told them, ‘Guys, I’ve got to do this,’ and decided to retire from acting because it was 2005—and that was a really different world.”
“I made a deal with the universe,” she says. It was a clear-cut choice at the time: acting or transitioning. “I was like, ‘You can have my acting career if I can have a decent quality of life.’”
After eventually relocating to Appleton, Wis., when her wife got a job teaching gender studies at Lawrence University, Crowl says she slowly transitioned into a much less glamorous but content life working in a well-paying 9-to-5 position in the communications department at the school. Twelve years passed without acting. She explains her absence from the artform isn’t as sad as it seems, but rather a necessary step in her new life.
“I knew that I didn’t have enough lived experience in the world where I was going to go out and successfully play women,” she says. “It’d be like two layers of acting at that point. So I knew I needed to, at the very least, just spend some time in the world as a woman so that I could have some points of reference for character.”
Luckily for the world of stage and screen, Crowl eventually started acting again. She explains that after a while, the 9-to-5 life began to grow stale and admits she grew a bit envious watching her wife’s career skyrocket while not pursuing her own passions. Not only had her wife written a second successful memoir (She’s Not the Man I Married: My Life with a Transgender Husband), Boyd was also flying off to do things like meet with the Obama administration to discuss college-related LGBTQ+ issues.
“I was like, This is some bullshit,” she quips. When Crowl did eventually dip her toe back into the acting waters, she was surprised to find that she was being cast in lead roles. Remembering her cosmic pact when she quit acting over a decade before, she says, “It looks like the universe has renegotiated the deal…. I [thought], Oh my God, I’m an actor. I can be an actor again. The world has changed.”
Since then, the dynamic performer has been wowing audiences with exciting roles on both stage and screen, including playing the romantic lead in the 2017 drama, And Then There Was Eve. (She’s also got some big upcoming TV and film projects in the works that, as of press time, she couldn’t quite talk about yet.)
Crowl has also been noticed for her work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There she was able to show her wide range as an actor—in a single play she portrayed 12 different roles of varying genders. The show was Between Two Knees, the critically acclaimed dark comedy about the traumatic history between Native Americans and European settlers, in which Crowl played “all the bad white people.”
“It was literally like getting to be Kate McKinnon in a really good episode of Saturday Night Live,” she says. “I played a massacring soldier at Wounded Knee, a pedophile priest, a new age wedding guru, an army soldier, a deer, and a North Dakota TV reporter.”
On playing outside her gender, Crowl says she actually enjoys the challenge—plus, it was something she says she already had lots of experience in.
“There’s no mystery to it. There’s nothing scary about getting on stage and pretending to be a man,” she says bluntly. “I’ve done that. I know how to do that. And I’m old enough that I don’t particularly care…. I know non-trans people need to hear these stories, and they need to see how people like themselves react to somebody being trans in their midst, which is what I think is the value of the transition story—not so much the trans person, it’s how their immediate world reacts.”