Brow Beat

Rise’s Ellie Desautels Talks Playing a Transgender Teen on Network TV

Jason Katims’ new series has been criticized for “straight-washing” its lead, but Desautels’ role is groundbreaking.

Characters in Rise sit onstage.
Ellie Desautels (right) as Michael in Rise. Peter Kramer/NBC

Ellie Desautels’ work on Rise is almost unprecedented. When the show debuts on NBC this week, Desautels, who uses the pronoun they, will become only the second nonbinary actor to appear on a prime-time network series, and their character, Michael, is one of just a handful of transmasculine teens in the history of TV. But throughout an hourlong conversation, Desautels was consistently determined to draw my attention to others, going out of their way to reference The Fosters’ Tom Phelan, Shameless’ Elliot Fletcher, The OA’s Ian Alexander, and Ser Anzoategui, a lesser-known nonbinary actor who had messaged them on Instagram. “Hang on,” they said as they scrolled through their DMs for the details on Anzoategui’s Starz show, Vida. “Let’s give this person some credit.”

Desautels was effusive about the people and things they admire—Jason Katims, the producer behind Rise, Parenthood, and Friday Night Lights; Aaron’s storyline on The Fosters; Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting chops—and sincerely emotional as they talked about the impact of representation on their own life. Over coffee, we discussed working with Katims on Michael’s arc, their first meeting with fellow trailblazer Asia Kate Dillon, and why Degrassi brought them to tears.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alex Barasch: It’s exciting and still relatively rare to see a trans person in a trans role. What was the process of developing this character like? Did the producers always want a trans person to play Michael?

Ellie Desautels: They were looking for someone who hadn’t medically transitioned, and I’m not on testosterone, haven’t had top surgery. I don’t know about everyone else who auditioned, but I know that they wanted a trans person. And essentially, that’s what made me want to play Michael so bad—just knowing that the creators wanted a trans person for the role. It was crazy for me to think that I could be part of improving trans representation in TV.

I am nonbinary, but I identify as transmasculine, so playing Michael wasn’t really difficult in that aspect—basically, I played Michael as a transmasculine person, because that’s the only experience I know. I wasn’t going to play “trans boy,” because I’m not a trans boy. So that’s how I brought him to life. But the one thing I didn’t have experience of was being trans in high school. I realized, hey, I need to talk to some trans teenagers, because I wasn’t one—I realized that I was trans in college. Pretty much everybody was open to talking to me, so that was kind of my research into figuring out how to play a trans teenager, and what goes on in their lives. I had known a couple transmasculine teenagers, so knowing those other teens in my life definitely also was inspiration for Michael. I feel like a lot of trans teenagers who are in an environment where they’re safe to be themselves … be themselves, you know what I’m saying? Like, trans flags everywhere, trans pins, trans stuff in their lockers, on their backpacks. For the pilot, I had a trans flag pin, and I was like, “I want to put this on my backpack. Can we do that?” So they let me do that, because I was like, this is what trans kids who are in a supportive environment are like—they show it off, you know? I really want to embody that more with Michael hopefully, in the future, if there’s a Season 2.

It’s great that you were going out and talking to these kids. Do you know if the writers had similar interactions? Did you get to have much influence in terms of bringing your own experience to it?

Jason Katims, the creator of the show—who I also freakin’ love because he created my all-time favorite show, Parenthood—he and the director for the pilot, Mike Cahill, were very open to hearing what I had to say about any concerns that I had with the script, so I was grateful for that. He just asked me about my experience as a trans person, how I figured out that I was trans, what it was like for my family—all the right questions. It made me feel safe that the creator of the show wanted to do it all right and valued my opinion.

I had some epiphanies over the summer too, about myself, and myself in high school. I had this weird minicrisis in high school. I briefly was watching Degrassi, and for some reason—because at this time I didn’t know that I was trans, and I had never heard the word transgender before—I had this strange connection to the trans character, Adam. But it scared me—and it shouldn’t have. And I realized over the summer, just talking to Jason, that I was scared because the representation of Adam was scary. He didn’t go through a positive experience of being trans, and they also never said the word transgender, at least in the episodes that I watched. It was always like he had to fight for himself, and nobody accepted him, and I just remember it not being good for him. It was confusing—the transgender representation wasn’t clear. They just didn’t talk about it enough, you know? I remember I was in the car and I told my mom, “I don’t know why I’m feeling this way. I think I might be a boy.” I just remember crying about it. And after I cried about it and talked about it, I thought, “No, no, I’m not a boy.” I pushed it in, and I pushed it away. And if the representation of Adam had been positive and helpful and encouraging, I might’ve realized who I was. Talking to Jason, it was crazy to find out that I did sort of have a trans experience in high school, and I didn’t know what it was until this summer, when I put the pieces together. It was cool and terrifying, but it’s sad to think, like, who would I be now if I had found out then? That’s a whole different person that I never got to know.

That’s incredible. There are very few trans guys on TV, especially young trans guys who are still figuring things out—and as you said, what little representation there is hasn’t always been great. Did you feel under pressure at all in terms of this story and this arc?

No! I was so excited, you have no idea! From the beginning, I was like, oh my God, I get to do this right, and I get to help people, help trans youth figure themselves out! If they’re in a vulnerable place, they can watch Michael and feel a bit empowered because Michael goes through some shit with being trans, but I never wanted to play Michael so that stuff gets him down. I didn’t want him to take it. And I didn’t let him. So, when he goes through stuff, I hope that trans youth will watch and be like, “Yeah, I can stand up for myself, and just be who I am and not take any crap from anybody.” And that’s how I wanted to approach Michael. That’s how I did it. I hope it comes off that way!

I know you met up with Asia Kate Dillon last month. What was that conversation like? Was that the first time that you two had talked?

Yeah, that was the first time I met them. It was chill! It was just Asia, and their agent, and their friend James [Scully], who’s on Heathers. We just had brunch and chatted. I wanted some advice going into it, and I really admire Asia being a huge advocate and making a lot of change. That’s really something I’m interested in, so I asked them, “How did you start? When did you realize you wanted to be an advocate as well as an actor?” And they said that they’ve kind of been an advocate for as long as they can remember, so it was always gonna be part of what they did as an actor.

One thing I really want to help with is getting transmasculine people of color on TV. Because I think the only one on TV right now is Brian Michael Smith on Queen Sugar. And it’s just—transmasculine people of color in the world need to be represented, and I really want to help make that happen. Especially for teens: Ian Alexander on The OA is the only transmasculine teen of color I know of, and that’s streaming. We need prime time—we need both, obviously. But for there to be only one or two people that I know of, that’s insane to me. I want to be an advocate, just get that conversation going so that trans people of color can carry it.

At first, fame was an interesting part of the job, and something I was excited about, but as it came closer and closer, I was like, this part of it is very weird—it’s like I market myself, you know? It’s the business side of the job. And I see acting as my craft; it’s my art. But I realized that the way I want to use my fame is as a kind of bridge. If I’m going to have a platform as a nonbinary individual, I want to use it to promote other trans people. I want to work with trans designers in the future, trans stylists, trans photographers, so that’s my goal, with this weird, foreign, bizarre part of my life that’s not my craft. I’m going to be one of the only well-known nonbinary actors, so that’s really cool, but it’s not just me or people like me who need to be seen.

Do you have other role models, or an example of representation that you think is really commendable? Is there a trans story that did resonate with you?

Aaron from The Fosters, played by Elliot Fletcher. Man, I loved the way they introduced him—you know, they introduced him as [though he were] a cis guy, and you didn’t find out until a couple episodes later that he was trans, and I thought that was the right way to go about it. The conversation with him being trans happened to relate to somebody else who was going through a lot of shit. It was a quick little conversation: He was trans, it was accepted, and it was done. And I loved it. It wasn’t a big deal, and ever since it’s been awesome, and I love that he’s been in a relationship with Callie, the main character; it’s just this normal thing. They’re normalizing it, I think. I love watching it. There’s one scene where Callie and Aaron went to a waterfall, and they swam in their underwear and kissed, and it was just bliss. And I was like, “Look at this! Look at this trans guy in a happy relationship! Let’s show more of this stuff!” Because it’s so exciting, and it makes me happy, so other trans people must be elated—so let’s get more stories like that, come on! I love what they’re doing with that character.

I don’t know if I have any idols. I mean, the person who made me want to act on screen was Benedict Cumberbatch. That had nothing to do with being trans, and everything to do with being an actor. [Laughs.] I had watched him in Sherlock, and I loved him in Sherlock. I started my education in theater in the middle of college, so I was really paying attention to people acting. … I’ve always loved watching TV and movies, so I loved Benedict Cumberbatch because I think he’s brilliant on screen. He’s just so good. And I saw him in The Fifth Estate—I don’t know if it was the movie, exactly, but there was something in his performance that sparked in me, and I was like, “Oh my God, I want to act on screen. I want to be in films and TV!” Because I like acting on stage, but I love the more nuanced subtleness of screen acting, because it’s so much more human. You can play human on stage, obviously, but you have to be big for the audience to see you, and on screen, you can really do anything as subtle as a blink. I like the nuances of screen acting, and I realized it after seeing Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate, so he gets all the credit for that. He’s my idol, and I need to meet him. Put that on the record, so that he sees it.

I’m curious about the development of the show in general. It’s inspired by a real high school in Pennsylvaniadid you investigate that at all? Did you read Michael Sokolove’s Drama High?

I did read the book, and I actually went to Levittown after the pilot—just for fun. I met up with the real Tracey Gatte [on whom Rosie Perez’s character, Tracey Wolfe, is based]. Me and Wren, my fiancé, we went to the school and saw the drama room that they talk about in the book. I loved it. It was so special to me—I just saw Michael in that town, and it felt so cool being there. And I guess that was part of my research, just seeing and knowing the place that the show was inspired by, and that the story that inspired our show happened there, on the ground that my feet were standing on. I’m going there again this weekend, because Truman Drama is doing Chicago, and I’m actually gonna go see one of their shows, because I think it’s important. And also, Lou Volpe [the basis for Josh Radnor’s Lou Mazzuchelli] is getting put in a hall of fame up there, and there’s going to be a ceremony, and they’re screening the first episode. [The event was later canceled due to a power outage.]

That sounds great! OK, one last question: What’s your dream role?

Oh! I want to play a nonbinary person.

No specific plot or genre?

Nope. I just wanna be a nonbinary person. I don’t have a dream role—oh, I want to be Mark in Rent! That would be super cool.