In mid-October, Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, clashed with Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan during a New Yorker Festival panel. Their disagreement was about Soloway’s stated intention to hire a trans woman writer to work on the show’s second season: Kohan thought that put too much emphasis on identity and too little on writing skills. “What you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art. It doesn’t necessarily translate,” Kohan said. But Soloway insisted:
In the same way where I wouldn’t want a man to say, “I can have a writers’ room full of men, and we can write women just fine.” I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me. It’s absolutely necessary, and it’s gonna change the show.
Lost in the coverage of the thought-provoking panel was word that Transparent and Orange Is the New Black (as well as The Fosters, which was also represented on the dais) bring trans people into the writers’ room to share their life stories with the creative team.
An interview published at Advocate.com today drives home how important those visits can be. The Advocate’s Mitch Kellaway spoke with Transparent associate producer Rhys Ernst (whose role in incorporating scenes from the 1968 movie The Queen into the show’s opening credits was recently discussed in Slate) and comedian Ian Harvie, who plays trans TA Dale in two episodes of Season 1. Ernst, who serves as a trans consultant on the show, said that he is “constantly looking out for trans personalities and actors to put in front of Jill and the writers, in hopes that certain individuals will end up inspiring characters.” When he brought Harvie into the room, “Dale came into focus.” Not only did Harvie inspire the character of Dale; Soloway also asked him to play the role. As Harvie put it, “Dale and I share a soul and some life experiences.”
Of course, there’s a long history of actors and writers working with technical advisers, and these days many actors turn to YouTube for help with characterization, but Soloway seems to be particularly open to listening to trans people and learning from their lives. Trans actress Alexandra Billings, who plays Davina, told the Guardian’s Steven W. Thrasher that when she was offered the part, she told Soloway, “I want to be who I am, which is a jeans wearing, e-cigarette smoking, transgender-by-birth-but-fabulous-by-choice kind of gal!” Billings also echoed Harvie when she said, “Davina is a birthing of myself and of Jill. She’s a real person.”
Of course, as Harvie acknowledges, that trans real-ness can occasionally work against the show. “I sometimes struggle with people’s language when they talk about Dale’s character and how it doesn’t directly represent them,” he told Kellaway. “Sometimes I want to say, ‘You’re right, this character doesn’t represent you, this is a story and it’s not about you, it’s about someone sort of like you, but not … you.’ ”