Spoiler alert: The following contains spoilers for the limited series When They See Us.
Surely, you remember Isis King from her America’s Next Top Model days. After all, she was the reality modeling competion’s first transgender contestant, in season 11 — or, “cycle” 11, for the real fans. What you might not know, however, is that the PG County, Maryland native is also an actress with almost 10 years in the game. Granted, the majority of her roles have been in off-Broadway plays, shorts, and indie films, but it’s all prepared her for this moment.
King stars in a vital supporting role in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, the limited series recounting the real-life misscarriage of justice that was the 1989 Central Park Five case, now streaming on Netflix. She plays Marci, the older sibling of Jharrel Jerome’s (Moonlight) Korey Wise, who, of the five Black and brown boys wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman, was 16 years old and sentenced to adult prison. The majority of his 14-year sentence was spent in solitary confinement. Marci, who was trans, died while Wise was imprisoned.
The series also stars Niecy Nash (who plays King’s mother), Blair Underwood, Aunjunae Ellis, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Felicity Huffman, Famke Janssen, and numerous others.
Ahead of the release of When They See Us, Out spoke with King via phone about her emotional role, which is in the fourth and final episode of the series. She also talked about working with DuVernay and the importance of giving opportunities to trans actors.
Talk to me about your acting career thus far and how the opportunity to audition for this came up.
I feel like at the beginning of my career, I heard a lot of, “You're too petite,” “You're too feminine,” “You're too ‘passable.’” And I was already talking to my manager about that frustration … They don't say it like that anymore. I wanted to audition for a high profile show, got the “Oh, they're interested” call, and then I got another call that said, “Oh, they're saying you're too pretty.” So, that is the new “You're too ‘passable.’” And there's a wide scale for us under the trans umbrella, and there is passing privilege, but as an actor, I feel like [being “pretty” or “passable”] has done the opposite for me.
So, right after a conversation about this with my manager, it was like, “Oh, we have an audition for you. You have to submit a self tape by tomorrow for a new Ava DuVernay project." When I heard her name, I was, first of all, freaking out, but I was like, for Ava, I have to figure it out. Literally all day long, I studied the lines and I went to my manager and she helped me film it.
And because a lot of people don't know my acting background, and also I come from a modeling and reality TV background, I feel like those things are against me as an actress. Usually, the roles that I am up for are just pretty girls with no real depth, or not that much depth. When I saw this role, and that I’d have to play [pre- and post-transition], I got so excited because I said: “Oh my god, this is a chance for me to really get out of my comfort zone and be able to, in a way, have a disguise. Because as an actress I feel like that's something I always wanted, to really be transformed into a character.”
So you submit the tape. What happens next?
The day after the self tape, they said they wanted me to come and do a second audition in front of Ava in New York the next week. I got to New York, I got in the room with Ava, there was a casting director and I think two other people. They told me I was going to be doing my scenes with Jharrel Jerome. When I saw him, it was like a full circle moment and I got to tell him and Ava both that when I saw Moonlight, him in that role reminded me so much of myself and something I went through at that time and I remember being in the movie theater and standing up with tears like, “Wow, I see me.” So, to find out that I'm going to be auditioning to play his older sibling, that really touched my heart [and I knew] I had to blow this out the water.
I got in the room, did the [post-transition character] and when I did the other one, I was like, "I'm going to take my wig off." Ava was like, "Are you sure? You don't have to." I was like, "I want to." She was like, "Okay, everyone turn around." They were just so thoughtful about the situation and me being trans and being so respectful.
What was your reaction when you found out that you booked it?
I was still in New York and was about to go to Maryland. I just kept praying about it, because this is a chance for people to really see me as an actress and also for me to be a part of a project that really matters. So, when I got the call, I literally started crying in the hallway of my best friend's apartment building. I was like, "Oh my god." It's not a huge part, but it's just so … I think it was just so impactful and I knew it would be so impactful in my life, so I literally started bawling like, "Oh my gosh, thank you so much!"
What was your preparation process like, in terms of learning more about the real-life Marci?
I have three different scenes and, to me, it represents the evolution of most trans people. The first part is me before transition. The second part is me right after transition — which is a very emotional thing where my mother, played by Niecy Nash, is seeing me in drag for the first time and I’m telling her, "I don't want you to call me ‘Norman’ anymore.” It's basically her kicking me out of the house … And that’s followed by the last phase, which is my character as an angel that Korey sees, because my character was killed.
Personally, I wasn't necessarily kicked out of the house, but I did move to New York to transition. I knew that my transition was going to be too hard on my family and I didn't want anyone to take away from me the journey that I wanted to go through. So that in itself helped prepare me [for this role]. A lot of it was art imitating life for me … For many of us, especially trans women of color, when we are kicked out of the house, we are shunned from our family. So, it was already so much of that happening [in our community] that I didn't really have to look far for research, which is unfortunate.
And then just over this past weekend a few Black trans women have been murdered, so to hear that Marci didn't even get to live a full life is so sad and is still so common now that the emotion that I have to pull was already there.
Seeing that scene in particular, in which Marci returns as an angel, was tough for me. I have to admit that it fucked me up, because nothing has changed with how we treat Black trans women.
The crazy part about that is that, as I was preparing for it, Ava came to me and said, “However you feel is okay.” Because I was thinking about it and I really wanted to be authentic in it, but I also thought about me telling my brother that I'm okay as an angel, so I tried to keep it as balanced as possible. But I have to admit, as soon as she yelled, “Cut!,” I started bawling. It makes me want to cry just thinking about it.
I really did bawl and I wanted to maybe use that during the scene, but I think my spirit told me it would be better to kind of hold it back a little bit because you want your brother to know you're okay. I was thinking, if I came back I wouldn't want to add fuel by him seeing me … But, it was a really emotional scene, because it happens way too often in our community and nobody speaks up. Not enough people speak up for us and it's hard. It really is hard when the average lifespan of a Black trans woman is only 35-years-old.
With Niecy Nash as your mother, were those heavy moments on set also full of moments of joy, laughter, and levity?
On the day that I knew I was going to film the most emotional scene, which is me leaving the house scene, I knew that was going to be hard. That was also my first day seeing her so I was kind of sitting on one side at the end of the studio. I was staring, waiting to be taken up into my dressing room, and I was getting a little nervous because I looked up to Niecy for so long, and she is so funny, and I'd never met her. And I was just like, “This woman that I look up to who is so funny is about to basically yell and cuss me out over and over again.” I know it's a character, but I was nervous.
Before I got put into my dressing room, she and I were standing there with our breakfast and I was like, “I just have to tell you, I love you. I love you on Scream Queens and all your stuff and I'm kind of nervous because I look up to you as a comedic legend, and this is going to happen.”
And she was like, “Aw, baby, it's going to be okay. We're going to get through this. We are going to enjoy it. We're going to do our best. And don't worry.” And that was nice, to just meet someone who was so, so sweet off the bat.
That was, I think, in September and then when we came back in November, because Jharrel [had to] beef up a little bit and grow facial hair [for the role] of him in jail. Then it was a lot lighter, so in between it was just us in this little cell and we're making jokes and coughing on our fake cigarettes and just actually getting to enjoy that moment together. And, I really loved our chemistry together, all three of us. That part was easier to cut into, versus the actual scene that's emotional, where I know I can break character quickly so in something that's so emotional I kind of just kept to myself. We all kind of did for that one.
What would you say was the best experience of filming this altogether?
I honestly just thought that filming for a woman director would be the same. I didn't really think it would be any differently, but Ava really brought such warmth and power and calmness to set. She was so in control without having to be aggressive or yell. Not to say that all men directors are like that, but at the end I was like, “Wow, this is really awesome.” I got on set everyday and she would speak to us one-on-one and it was so gentle. But, when it's time to yell, “action,” it's so intense and she wanted you to give your best and because you cared so much about her, you wanted to do your best.
I remember I had a dream that Ava told me I did a really good job and that she was just so proud of me. So, I told her, "I had a dream last night that you told me you're so proud of me, after seeing how I act." Cut to four or five hours later when she yelled “cut,” she came over and she put her hand on my shoulder and said, "You did an awesome job. I'm so very proud of you." And I started bawling. As an actress, especially for me, it's been a struggle to really be seen as one for so long — and of course we think we're good, I think I'm an awesome actress — but to do something so intense and someone like Ava to be so proud of me in the moment and what I brought, that moment really, really hit me really hard and I was just so thankful.
We're having conversations about inclusion and representation in the industry, and particularly, about having trans actors play trans roles. One of the things that stuck out to me, as you mentioned earlier, was that you played both the pre and post transition versions of your character, something I haven’t seen before. What would you say to filmmakers and television producers about the importance of having trans people not only play trans characters, but cast in their movies and their films at large?
Number one, putting on a chest binder for the first time with boobs, I have to say I have so much more respect for gender nonconforming people, trans people, anyone who wears a binder because they feel like that will make them feel more comfortable. I have so much more respect.
I will say that maybe eight, nine years ago at the beginning, I would have cringed at the thought of doing this part, at playing “the before,” because of my comfort level. But I realized the more comfortable I got, the more experience I got, the more I realized that I want to be taken seriously as an actress. I look at all these actresses that I look up to and them going through disguises, like Tracee Ellis Ross or Cameron Diaz on Charlie's Angels, and I realized if you really want to be taken seriously, you have to think bigger. And, for me, thinking bigger means being uncomfortable as an actress.
[Trans people] need the opportunity. A lot of times they think that we're not capable, we're not big enough names, without even giving us the opportunity to even audition. I hope that this project helps even one producer or director or casting person to realize that we should let [trans people] get opportunities to audition. They'll see that we live both lives, many of us. We have experience and we don't have to look for research when we lived it. I always say, I was always an actress because I lived as a boy for 20 years. I wasn't the most masculine boy, but, I know how to be a chameleon. That's a gift of transitioning in that you learn tips and tricks along the way that a lot of people don't. And there are little nuances that you miss when you don't really have the experience.
We just want the opportunity to audition for these big parts. Because I would love to be an assassin, to do voiceover work, to do green screen work, when I can just be characters because I love to do voices. I just want a chance to show that I can be more than a model. I can be more than just a girl standing there looking pretty. I want to be put into prosthetics. I want to be put into costumes. I want to be able to really show that I can do a character. I want to do comedy.
Cameron Diaz is one of my favorite actresses and I would love to be a complete airhead in a movie and not just how they always portray us. Because the only roles they really allowed us to go for back when I was starting were just street walkers who have one or two lines and then they get killed. And we are more than that and we can do more than that.
I walked from a dressing room in Harlem, which was part of my old stomping grounds, to set and I was like, “Wow, I have on cornrows and sideburns and facial hair and this high waisted pant” and I was comfortable because I know who I am, number one, but number two, I'm an actress and I actually get to be in a fucking disguise for the first time. On a big budget. I really took it in and I just put it in the universe that although it's been almost a decade, this is the next step and I'm just excited for what comes next.