- The Magazine
“I never spend one minute doing anything that doesn’t bring me joy,” says Alexandra Billings. “As soon as it stops bringing me joy, I get the hell out of the room. My drapes are on fire. I got to go. I get the hell out. That, among everything else, is the foundation of my artistic journey.”
Currently, one thing that is bringing Billings — and her fans — an immense amount of joy is a recurring role on season three of ABC’s hit series, The Conners. Billings plays Robin, a supervisor at the factory where Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Becky (Lecy Goranson) are employed. When first introduced in late 2020, Robin’s character immediately clashed with Becky. But the combative relationship gave way to one of mutual respect, as Becky goes to bat for Robin in an effort to keep her from quitting, and in the process learns that her boss is transgender. True to form, The Conners deals with the moment honestly and frankly, but also, being a comedy, with a low-key punchline that is not just inspired but authentic.
“When Robin reveals herself, Becky doesn’t go, ‘Holy crap!’” says Billings. “She doesn’t have that ridiculous reaction that most everybody does in every other TV show. Like ‘Oh, my God!’ Literally the only thing she says is, ‘Wow. Plot twist.” That’s it. That’s as big as her reaction gets.”
“We cast Alexandra because she is so talented,” says Sara Gilbert, who also serves as an Executive Producer. “She’s one of those performers that has that extra special something — a mixture of charisma and soul. We were thrilled she wanted to join us.”
Gilbert adds that they only “saw trans actors for the role” and that “ABC has been supportive from the start. They have expressed that diversity is very important to them as a company, so this story fell in line with their mission to be inclusive.”
Originally brought in for only two episodes, Billings was quickly incorporated into additional episodes, one of which airs next Wednesday, Feb. 24, and another planned for April. It’s conceivable (but not confirmed) she’ll be back for more next year.
Billings is a familiar face in the entertainment industry, notably from her stunning turn as Davina Rejennae on the groundbreaking Amazon series, Transparent. Over the years, she has made appearances on several high-level series, including Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder, and ER. In 2005, in the TV movie Romy and Michelle: A New Beginning, she became the second openly transgender woman in history to play a transgender character, and in 2019, she took on the role of Madame Morrible in Broadway’s Wicked, becoming the first openly transgender person to star in the show.
Her career has been vast, but it’s not been without its frustrations.
“I audition constantly and get very little, which has always been true my whole career,” the 58-year-old says. “I’ve gotten very, very few things that I’ve auditioned for. There are many auditions I get where being transgender is not in the script, where they’re just a character. And it’s very rare that I’ll get those roles. And what goes through my head is, ‘You know, Alex, you’re auditioning against five million other middle-aged women for this lawyer.’ But if it’s a trans role and it’s a certain age, I’m like, ‘Well, there’s probably only 10 or 12 of us.’ So my chances are better.”
In 2018, the same time Transparent was soaring to cultural heights, Billings had a recurring part on the Amazon series, Goliath.
“Here’s how that show happened,” says Billings, a natural, engaging storyteller. “My manager calls. ‘Hey, listen. Billy Bob Thornton wants to know if you want to do his show. It’s for a judge. And you have a love interest and it’s Paul Williams.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck, yeah! Sign me up.’
“So, we film it. It’s wonderful. It’s a great experience. And on the third day, I’m sitting around with Billy Bob and we’re talking. And I say, ‘You know, this is so weird. I don’t mean to piss on my own parade here, but how did you find me? Like, why me?’ Because the judge was just a judge. It wasn’t a transgender character. It was just a judge.
“And he says, ‘Well, we really wanted you, but we didn’t cast you to begin with. We actually cast this other actress.’ And I say, ‘Oh, so I was the second choice.’ And he says, ‘Well, you were the first choice, but we went with this girl because we thought she could do what you do.’ I say, ‘I don’t understand.’ He says, ‘Well, we got her on set and she just wasn’t bitchy enough.’ I was like, ‘Check. Got it.’
“So sometimes they want this sort of Bea Arthur side of me that has nothing to do with anything except I have a little bit of attitude and I can talk a good game. And then other times it’s because I’m mixed race and trans. Who knows? I have no idea. I tell my students all the time, ‘Look, you can go into the room and you can give the audition of your life, but if you’re taller than Tom Cruise and he’s the star of the show, you ain’t getting that role, my friend.’”
Those students, by the way, are fortunate, because to hear Billings, an Assistant Professor of Theater Performance at the University of Southern California, spin a story, a theory, even a passing thought, is to be spellbound. Billings is currently applying for tenure at USC, which required her to supply the university with a full roster of every role she’s ever played.
“When you’re an artist and you’re trying to get tenure, you have to prove somehow that you’re worthy in order to bring the people right into the university,” she explains. “And because I’m not Meryl Streep, I don’t have a name that’s internationally known, I had to show them the things I’ve done.
“And my brain is not linear. Luckily, I married somebody whose brain is linear. So Chrisanne, my wife, sat down and wrote out literally absolutely everything I had done. I began in theater when I was seven. So that’s what, fiftysomething years of doing stuff? And it really wasn’t until she printed out the sheets and sheets and sheets of paper that I went, ‘I can’t believe this.’ Because how many times did someone actually print out your life in bullet points in front of you? It’s a very rare occurrence.
“And so I was lucky enough to sit there and look at all these pieces of paper. And I thought, ‘I am the luckiest human living on the planet.’”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start on a biographical note. What was your upbringing like?
ALEXANDRA BILLINGS: I was born in Inglewood, California. I lived there for the first 9 or 10 years of my life and then I moved to Illinois. Back in the day, when the husband of the house was transferred, then everybody moved. Those days are long gone, but when you worked for a corporation, and dad had to move somewhere, that’s where you went. And my stepfather worked for IBM, and he was transferred to Chicago. So the family, my brother and my mother and myself, moved to Schaumburg, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago when I was about 10. I lived in Chicago for, God, almost 40 years.
Growing up, it was quite a culture shock for all of us, because none of us had seen snow. I mean, we’d seen snow of course, but only in movies with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. That’s as close as we got to snow. So the very first winter that happened we just were shocked. We kept going, “Oh, isn’t it beautiful? Oh, it’s so pretty! Let’s go outside!” And then we all went outside and went, “Let’s go inside! This is nuts! We don’t want any part of this!”
But what was really fascinating for me was that I would go back to California in the summers to visit my father, because my parents were divorced. My dad was a conductor of musical theater, so from a very, very young age, in the summers I would spend these sort of magical musical theater summers with my dad in California, where it was beautiful and sunny and gorgeous and filled with hippies. And then I would come back to Chicago and spend it with hardworking, responsible farmers, who got up early in the morning and went to bed early at night. So I had a very Bohemian nine-to-five mix, which I still carry with me, strangely.
MW: Did you play an instrument?
BILLINGS: I played the guitar and the piano, both very badly.
MW: So you were splitting your time between households. Sounds like you had a good childhood.
BILLINGS: I don’t assign words like that anymore to my childhood — good or bad — because I think everybody does the best they can with what they know. I’m 58 years old. I’m mixed-race. I’m transgender. Fifty years ago, there was no such word as transgender. It didn’t exist — literally didn’t exist — and I had never met another trans person ever in my life. And, of course, neither did my parents or anyone that we knew, so nobody really understood what the heck was going on with me. Including me.
I think my parents could have been kinder. They could have been more inclusive, more understanding. And to be perfectly honest, even though both of them were teachers, I think they could have been better teachers, because a good teacher is a good student. And they were not great students of the human condition, unfortunately.
However, the great gift is that towards the end of their lives, we got to be very, very good friends, all of us. And this is going to sound terrible, but as a teacher myself now, when I’m in the room with my students, if something goes haywire, I think to myself, “Now, what would my mother do?” And then I do the exact opposite. So it’s super helpful.
MW: When you look back at your childhood and the fact that society hadn’t really figured out how to address the transgender community, how does that impact one’s self-worth?
BILLINGS: I can only speak for myself. And I can tell you that not having any kind of reflection either in art or in life, I was isolated and I felt as though I was the only one who felt the way I did. I really didn’t know that I was doing terrible things until people told me I was doing terrible things. Like I would go into my mother’s closet and put on clothes and her wigs and her makeup and all kinds of things and run around the house. And I really thought everything was great. Until someone caught me and shamed me.
And then I went, “Oh, I guess I’m not supposed to be doing this. Well, that’s strange.” And actually it doesn’t make any sense when you think about it, because we have a very patriarchal colonial view of both gender and sex, which are, as we know, two very, very different things. Being gay and being transgender are two completely different things. They live in very different containers. Your sexual identity is who you go to bed with, and your gender is who you go to bed as. So they’re very different things. And for me, those two were very confusing because I didn’t have any models.
We are erased, LGBT people, from history. We don’t exist, even though we have many queer people throughout. Michelangelo and Sigmund Freud, all kinds of people running up and down history, but we don’t talk about that. I didn’t think I belonged to a tribe. So I tried to assimilate like most LGBT people do and fade it into the background. And what happened is that created PTSD — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — and an anxiety that is crippling.
It’s really important that we understand this: For trans people, our average lifespan, especially for trans women of color, is 24 years old. That’s it. That’s as long as we live on the planet, most of us. And when we kill ourselves — and it’s also very important that we hear this — when we kill ourselves, we don’t just take pills or slit our throats. We shoot ourselves in the head. We throw ourselves in front of trains. We dive out of twenty-five-story balconies. There was a trans girl, 16 years old, who three or four months ago set herself on fire in the middle of the hallway at her high school. So the amount of trauma the trans community faces is not only ancient, it’s almost surreal.
I inherited that trauma, and it wasn’t until I found my tribe when I was in my twenties that I went, “Oh, I’m not crazy. I’m not doing anything wrong. In fact, what I am should be celebrated, and really it’s you people that need the help, not me.”
MW: The suicides, it’s almost as though they’re finding the most violent way to erase themselves from the planet.
BILLINGS: You’re exactly right. It’s not only the most violent, it’s the surest, right? Because if you shoot yourself, you could miss. If you take pills, you could not take enough. If you throw yourself in front of an oncoming train, you’re going to die.
MW: That is truly horrifying.
BILLINGS: Shocking, isn’t it? I know. It is horrifying.
MW: Something I learned while researching you is that you’ve been living with HIV since 1985.
MW: That’s remarkable.
BILLINGS: Is it?
MW: Well, I think so. Because I lived through this period as well.
BILLINGS: I know you did.
MW: And I know so many people who didn’t survive from those years. When I speak to somebody who survived HIV in the early years, I often wonder how they made it through.
BILLINGS: Well, I’ll give you my stock answer: I have absolutely no fucking idea. You’d have to ask a power much greater than me about how I survived it. I can tell you this: that the images I have of that time are of a very specific, tangible sense of death. And I find it fascinating that we are — you and I and our whole queer generation — in our second viral plague. And the funny thing is nobody comes to ask us what to do next. And yet, strangely, all of us know what’s coming. All of us do.
I predicted this [COVID] thing right down the fucking line, man. I predicted the next thing and the next thing and then I predicted this new strain, because that’s what happened with the HIV virus. Remember? Like it happened and then AZT happened and then this other wave happened and killed fucking everybody.
We dropped her off at the emergency room exit and then drove away. That is what I remember from that plague.”
And here’s what’s even more remarkable. The guy that’s heading up these new vaccines is Anthony Fauci, the same guy that invented the HIV antiretrovirals. It’s the same guy. The same guy. So, we’re going to be okay. It’s just the HIV and AIDS community has been completely forgotten, and all of us are triggered.
One image from those years I have in my head is this. I had a best friend. Her name was Ginger. She was 23 years old. She worked at a place called Club 19. She lip-synced when I did. I worked at a place called The Baton in Chicago. And both of us were, at that time, drag queens. That’s what we were called, and I’m fine with that. I own it. I have no problem with that term.
And she and I became best friends very quickly. She was my confidant and my protector, my cop. She was one of the greatest teachers I think I’ve ever had in my life besides my wife. And she came down with it. And remember, when you were diagnosed with this, you were diagnosed and then you died. That was it. There was no getting sick. There was no going to the hospital. People didn’t come near you. They were in spacesuits, much like they are now. There was no touching or talking. There was a lot of whispering, because AIDS was a very shameful disease, because it was a queer disease, and according to Ronald Reagan and his crew, it was killing all the right people, if you remember that phrase.
So she got very sick very quickly and died. And at that time, her parents didn’t want her, of course, because she had AIDS. The hospitals couldn’t do anything because they were full up, much like they are now. And the funeral homes wouldn’t take us because they would not physically put us in the ground because they didn’t know how the virus was spread. So there was nowhere to put our dead. You couldn’t put them in the back of ice trucks. I see these now and I’m like ice trucks? I would have sold my soul for a fucking ice truck.
So I sat on the edge of her bed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and wrapped up my best friend — who was 24 years old when she died and weighed maybe 80 pounds, covered in her own vomit and shit — into baby blue sheets. Gloria, my other friend, and I took her dead body down to our VW — our powder blue VW — put her in the back seat, drove her to Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, which was about an hour and a half away from Wisconsin and dropped her off at the emergency room exit and then drove away. That is what I remember from that plague.
So how did I survive? I have no idea. I do know why, though. I know I’m here for a very specific reason, and one of them is to tell you this story so that you remember, and that everybody who reads this remembers, and that everybody who’s sick now remembers. And so that when this generation gets to be our age, they have two war stories to tell. Because here’s the thing: if we continue to tell the stories of those who passed, we manifest them, and they’re never really very far away.
MW: I am so thankful that you are one of the survivors.
BILLINGS: Well, I appreciate that, darling. You know, you survived as well. So here we are together talking about this. That’s a gift.
MW: You’ve been doing theater since you were seven?
BILLINGS: Yeah. You believe that? My dad was a conductor at the LA Civic Light Opera House in California, back in the day. This was back in the ’60s and ’70s. So he did a lot of big tours that would go through. Big, big, big shows. And these were national tours and some with Broadway stars. And one of them was The King and I with Yul Brenner, who was very old at the time, but still fantastic. He’d walk on stage and he’d sing — well, talk-sing, do his thing — and then he would leave the stage and go to one of the wings where his oxygen machine would be and he’d take some puffs, like Darth Vader, and then run back out on stage and finish the stanza. It was the damnedest thing you’d ever seen.
I said to my dad when they were casting this thing that I really want to be in this show. I want to be on the stage. And my dad said, “Well, okay. You can do that. But if you’re going to be an actor, you’re going to have to learn how to do these other things, too.” And I said, “Well, like what? What else is there besides being a star?” And he said, “You’re going to have to learn how to take tickets. You’re going to have to sweep the stage. You’re going to have to learn how to make costumes. You’re going to work in the wardrobe department, in the set department.” So in order for me to be on stage, I had to go do everything else as well, because my dad was the head honcho. So I ended up playing — this is terrible — I ended up playing one of the Asian American children in The King and I.
MW: It’s a start.
BILLINGS: [Laughs.] It’s a start. It’s horrific. But yes, it’s a start.
MW: Do you enjoy the film and TV medium over theater? I know that’s a common question and that they’re very different beasts.
BILLINGS: Before everything went away, I have always said not just to anyone who would listen, but to myself as well, “You’re blessed, so be present.” So when I’m on set, that’s the greatest thing. If I’m in Wicked, that’s the greatest thing. If I’m in the room with my students, that’s the greatest thing. If I’m sitting on the couch with my wife watching Meet Me in St. Louis, that’s the greatest thing. I don’t mess around when it comes to being on the planet. I just don’t.
MW: I want to talk about Transparent briefly. What is it like to be associated with that show? It was groundbreaking in so many ways.
BILLINGS: Joey and their sibling, Faith, and I, go back about 30 years to Chicago Theater. I was doing a play in my twenties called Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack and they were involved in a play called Co-ed Prison Sluts. This was when late-night Chicago theater was on fire. Boy, that was a great time. Anyway, one day Mick Napier, who ran a theater called the Annoyance Theater, which is still around and iconic now in Chicago, called me and said an actress can’t be in the show for about two weeks, can I do the show? And I said, “Mick, I can’t do that show. I’m across town doing Cannibal Cheerleaders.”
He said, “Well, here’s the thing, Co-Ed Prison Sluts start at 8 o’clock and you’d die in Act Two. Your show doesn’t start until 11 o’clock. So you can come here, do Act One, die, get the cab, go across town and start your show at 11.” I was like, “I love it.” I’m in my 20s and filled up to the eyelids with cocaine, so that’s what I did. That’s how Joey and Faith and I met.
I’m telling you all this for a reason. Years and years later, they sent me, out of the blue, this message on Facebook and it was Faith, Joey’s sibling. Faith said, “Listen, our parent is transitioning and we don’t know what the hell to do. Can you help us?” And I was like, “Sure,” so we started to talk through their transition. Now, about six months later, out of the blue, Faith texts me back on Facebook and says, “I think we’re going to turn this into a TV show. Would you like to be involved?” And you hear that all the time, but I know the Soloways. I know how brilliant they are, so I was like, “Sure.” They said, “We’re doing this for Amazon.” I said, “You mean the place that sells books? What the fuck are you talking about? Who does TV shows at the place that sells books?”
So I auditioned. Jeffrey Tambor and I got along like we had known each other for decades. It was crazy. We laughed. We had a great time. They cast me. None of us assumed anybody would see this, so we just did whatever the hell we wanted because no one was paying attention to us, because Amazon didn’t even really have a TV and film thing. This was brand new. So people weren’t going, “Listen, you can’t show transgender ladies, penises, and things. You can’t do it.” Nobody said anything, so we just did stuff. We were like, “Hey! Here’s a really good idea. Let’s talk about this.” We had a ball. This is exactly how it went. I’m not kidding you.
And then, one day we all get an email collectively from Amazon. “You people were just nominated for a Golden Globe Award,” and we were all like, “What? What are you talking about?” And they went, “Yeah. Yeah. You were nominated for a Golden Globe Award, for the love of Pete. You have to go to the Golden Globe Awards.”
Now here’s the funny thing. Everybody got invited. But I was a guest star. I was never a part of the regular cast. So when something gets nominated, really the only people that go are the series regulars, and that was not me. Unfortunately, all the series regulars were cis people in a show called Transparent. So I called them and I said, “Kids, you can’t do this. You can’t not have a trans person go to the Golden Globe Awards. It’ll be suicide. First of all, it’s a terrible message to send to all the trans youth that will be watching us. And second of all, it’s terrible representation.”
So they acquiesced and said, “Okay, put another seat at the table for Alex.” So I went and that was really the summation of our experience. It was familial. It was fun. It was filled with joy. It was silly. There were no boundaries. We all just played and truly had a great time. And those people, Amy, Kathryn Hahn, Bradley Whitford, Our Lady J, Trace Lysette, all those people are my family still. That’s really what that experience was like. Until Jeffrey lost his mind and behaved abominably.
MW: It took a really bad turn at the end there, didn’t it?
BILLINGS: It did. And just to be clear — because I need really need to be clear — it wasn’t just the end. Jeffrey’s behavior was terrible for many years and Trace Lysette and Van Barnes were absolutely correct, and I still stand behind absolutely everything they said, just so we’re clear.
MW: Have you spoken with Jeffrey?
BILLINGS: I don’t speak to him. And the reason I don’t speak to him is because he still won’t own it. He still denies it and he’s lying, and he knows he’s lying, and I know he’s lying, and everybody else knows he’s lying, so no. It was very sad because I did like him. I can’t say that we were friends. We were never friends. But make no mistake, his behavior didn’t suddenly switch on season [four]. After season one, he was very difficult to deal with and he was dangerous. And I used that word purposefully.
MW: How did you all deal with that throughout the years of filming?
BILLINGS: Well, I can only speak for myself and tell you that I didn’t because of my PTSD. I went into hiding. I retreated, which is what happens when you suffer trauma and anxiety. I went into myself. I dove into myself. I pretended it wasn’t happening. I looked the other way. I tried to diffuse the situation. As you can see, I’m a really good talker, so when things get bad I turn into Jerry Lewis really quickly. It’s something I’ve done my whole life. So that’s what I did. I didn’t deal with it until after it exploded, and then I finally dealt with my own feelings about it. And I’m still dealing with it.
How many shows center around the transgender experience? How many, besides Pose?”
MW: I was sorry the show never got a proper final season as a result of the situation with Tambor. I was really enjoying the narrative journey of Transparent. I have to admit, though, I still haven’t watched the musical finale.
BILLINGS: I’d be very interested to hear what you think about the musical. Because the musical in and of itself tied up a lot of loose ends and answered some interesting questions and asked some more interesting questions. And I’ve got to tell you something — filming that musical was so healing for all of us. We needed it, and we had a ball. We laughed and we cried. We held each other and we told stories. It was beautiful, really. It was necessary. So, whatever anybody thinks of it, familial-wise, it was necessary.
Now, you have to remember that we had a cisgender human being playing a transgender human being, and you can’t do that anymore. And I wouldn’t be a part of it. I don’t think any other trans person would, either. So it had to end. It had to. It couldn’t go on. Strangely, I think the Divine works in very specific ways and I think the universe just said, “We have to transition,” because then along came Pose, thank God.
MW: I think I already know your answer to this question, but I have to ask, as it’s a pervasive one in the industry right now: should transgender roles only go to transgender actors at this point?
BILLINGS: Well, let’s look at the reality of the situation. We were talking about representation earlier. We were talking about being able to see yourself as another trans person. We were talking about trans women of color committing suicide in ways that are permanent and violent because they don’t believe that they exist on the planet because art does not reflect who they are. We know those are facts. That’s not philosophy and it’s not my opinion. Those are facts. People are dying at an alarming rate because they believe what they’re told. “You’re a fad. You’re a fetish. You’re a costume. You’re not a real tribe. You’re not a real community of people.”
Every time I go to an awards show, I look around the room and I can count on one hand, sometimes two, how many trans people I see. But if you look around the room, you’d run out of toes and fingers to count all the white cis patriarchs in that room. There are not enough digits. The white men in that room are in the hundreds. How many shows center around the transgender experience? How many, besides Pose?
So, when we look at the reality of the situation, the question is so ridiculous. Because if you say, “Oh, no, no, no, I still think cis people should continue to play transgender roles,” what you’re saying is, “Well, right, we don’t want those people represented. There’s no reason for them to be.” Because it’s a great acting challenge for Joaquin Phoenix to show his prowess as a guy who walks around with a limp wrist and a high voice. It’s ridiculous. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Just as an extreme example, if you were to ask me, “Don’t you think it would be really great if Reese Witherspoon were to play the Halle Berry story? What a great acting challenge that would be.” What are you talking about? It’s ridiculous.
MW: There’s also increased discussion about gay roles only going to gay actors.
BILLINGS: But now, remember: being gay is completely different than being trans. Who you go to bed with. Who you go to bed as. They are two different containers. That question is not fair to ask to a gay man or gay woman as it is to ask a trans person. It’s not a fair question.
MW: So let’s frame it a different way. Shouldn’t we have more opportunities for people who are transgender to play any role that doesn’t necessarily define them as transgender within the context of the character they’re playing?
BILLINGS: Most of my roles have not been defined by me being transgender. But know this: every single role I play is transgender because I am transgender. So if you have me playing a mother of three children, I’m still transgender. I can’t pretend I’m not transgender. It doesn’t make any sense.
Let’s go back to Halle Berry. When Halle Berry plays a woman, she’s playing a woman. She’s playing a mother; she’s playing a teacher; she’s playing a store owner; she’s playing a lawyer. She doesn’t stop being black. So the character is still black, right? So, all these people that I’ve played, sometimes being transgender is in the forefront and sometimes it isn’t. The fact that I am transgender playing a role is what matters.
So if you have me playing a mother of three children, I’m still transgender. I can’t pretend I’m not.”
A lot of actors — this is very common, bless their hearts — but it’s very common among actors to say, “I’m a completely different person. I transform.” There’s a great interview with Meryl Streep, arguably one of the greatest actors in America. James Lipton asks her, “How do you do it?” And she turns to him and she goes, “I don’t know.” And then she puts her finger up and she says, “And I’ll tell you, I don’t want to talk about it because if I do, I’m terrified it will go away.”
So this idea that she becomes Julia Child or becomes Margaret Thatcher is bullshit. She doesn’t become those people. She reveals. She sheds who she is and she opens up her experience and we see more of her, more of who Meryl Streep is. But she doesn’t stop being Meryl Streep. She doesn’t stop being a white cisgender female. That never stops. When Felicity Huffman did Transamerica, she was not a transgender person. She was a cisgender white woman pretending to be a trans woman, and we bought it or we didn’t buy it, whatever your experience was.
MW: But does it diminish the impact of the movie because Felicity Huffman played the role?
BILLINGS: I think it diminishes the transgender journey. I don’t know if it diminishes the impact of the movie. I think the movie was important. It needed to be made, but we didn’t see an honest truth. I’ve spoken to Felicity about this. We didn’t see an honest true transgender journey, just like we didn’t with Jeffery.
Jeffery’s performance in Transparent was remarkable. I watched it. I would stand right next to him when Maura would come out of him. I watched it happen. It was extraordinary, just as another actor in the room. It was stunning work. But he was never a transgender ever. I was.
MW: So, The Conners. I love the way they brought your character into it through her adversarial relationship with Becky at work. And I really loved the episode surrounding the drug test. It was a great moment between your character of Robin and Becky, when you said, “I just shared something really, really personal with you.” The gravity was meaningful. What has the experience been like for you?
BILLINGS: I was only hired to do two episodes. And the three cis white men writing the show said to me, “Here’s, what’s going to happen and then you’re going to disclose,” and so on and so forth. And I said, “Great.” And the head writer, the showrunner, who’s a dream, said to me, “So when we write the scene about you telling Becky who you are and revealing your identity, we really want your opinion.” And I leaned in closely, as far as I could, and I said, “Oh, don’t you worry about that, honey, you’re going to get my opinion.”
So when they wrote this, I got the script and I said, “Kids, this is wonderful.” And it was, it was wonderful. “However, there are a few problems. So how about this? Why don’t you just let me speak, because I’ve been through this. I understand this. And you’ve also added this great new character, which is a new aspect of me, which I’m really interested in exploring. This sort of dark, sardonic lady who’s done with being a revolutionary.” Which is very different than how I feel, but it’s fascinating to me. And they said, “Great.”
The Conners] have taken race, gender, identity, sexual identity, femaleness, any kind of otherized experience, and have put it in front of us. Because that’s America. This is who we are.”
So that moment that you’re talking about is a mixture of what they wrote and part of what I felt. I just started talking and they wrote shit down. And they were so kind and open because they could have very easily told me to fuck off and just said, “We’re not going to do that. This is the script. This is the way it’s written. You’re only doing two episodes. Get the hell out.” They could have easily said that.
This is a massive, iconic hit show, you know what I mean? They could’ve told me to fuck right off, but they didn’t. They listened. This is what I’m talking about when I say inclusion and newness and how we self-reflect. These people have taken time to self-reflect, to look at their own behavior, to see what they could figure out, to try and go into the newness of who they are and embrace who they are becoming. It’s a perfect example of that. And then weirdly, they just kept me. They just kept writing for me.
MW: How do you feel about being on a show this iconic? Transparent is one thing, but this is at a whole different level of visibility.
BILLINGS: Yeah. It’s crazy. I’ll never forget walking on the set. I’ll tell you what really got me. I was fine until I walked up to the living room set, and I stood there. I came upon the couch. I was all by myself, and I looked at that couch and I thought, this is as large as being on the Ricardos’ couch. I mean, it’s that big. It’s that iconic. The Roseanne show, like I Love Lucy, changed the face of television, and I’m on it. It’s insane.
MW: Yet, here again is a show where the bad behavior of its star sabotaged it. But they salvaged it and it deepened because it’s not star-centered anymore.
BILLINGS: Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I think you’re absolutely right. I think what they did was they learned. Transparent was impossible to carry on. It had to end simply because of the political ramifications, but that wasn’t true of Roseanne. And the interesting thing is that Roseanne assumed that “You can’t do this show without me.” And everybody went, “Well, actually we can, strangely.” And they did.
I think what they learned was the show became about the human experience, the everyman. What they did was they took that experience and they moved it into the modern day. And the brilliance of it was they’ve taken the marginalized and the ostracized and crowned them the new everyman. The writers have taken race, gender, identity, sexual identity, femaleness, any kind of otherized experience, they’ve taken it and not normalized it, because I hate that term, but they’ve taken it and they’ve put it in front of us. Because that’s America. This is who we are.
So let’s stop trying to heal America. Let’s start trying to include America.”
MW: Final question. We have a new administration. What do you hope for with the changes that we’re seeing in society and in our government and in America, right now?
BILLINGS: The first thing that came to me, when you said that word, was inclusion. That was the first word that came to me. I really hope that we begin to look at the word inclusion, because inclusion for me doesn’t mean including the people that think, believe, and behave as you do. Inclusion for me is about the people that don’t think, behave, and agree with who you are, what you are, and what you’ve done. That’s inclusion. How do we look at all those people that stormed the Capitol and try and figure out what to do instead of just blaming them? How do we figure out how to navigate a brand new philosophy that these people have adopted, that they have turned into some kind of revolutionary war cry, without just blaming them and throwing them in jail? Because that’s not going to solve anything and it’s not going to include them in it.
I remember when I used to be on the playground and I would be playing with the girls. All the boys would be playing some sport that I hated, really had no desire to do, because I didn’t understand. It didn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t look like fun. I wanted to play dress up and I wanted to be with the girls and be with my people. But there was a part of me, because it wasn’t about playing football, it was about being included with a bunch of people that didn’t want me there simply because they thought they knew me.
So, if you’re going to look at this country through these broken shards of glass, and let me remind you, that if we’re going to spend a whole bunch of time trying to heal and put things back together, that’s all we’re going to do and we’re still going to get nothing done. Because if you take a great big crystal bowl and you stand on a 10-foot ladder and you drop that crystal bowl on a hard linoleum floor, what happens to it? It shatters into a million pieces.
If you get down off that ladder and you begin to pick up every single shard of glass and try and put it back together, piece by piece, all you end up with is bloody fingers and bloody knees. Meanwhile, everything’s passing you by.
My suggestion is to leave the broken pieces. The more broken pieces there are, the farther spread out they are, the more light will shine through, my friend. I’ve always found that to be true. You don’t have to heal me. That’s not your job. Consequently, I don’t have to heal you. That’s not my job. It’s a waste of time. Your brokenness is part of your gift. So let’s stop trying to heal America. Let’s start trying to include America.
Alexandra Billings next appears in The Conners on ABC, Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 9 p.m. Visit www.abc.com.
Follow Alexandra Billings on Twitter at @iamabillings.
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