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Appearing in the must-see documentary Disclosure, a clever and concise history of transgender and non-binary representation in the media, actress-writer Jen Richards made quite an impression on the creators of Clarice, the new Silence of the Lambs spinoff on CBS. Brilliantly deconstructing Hollywood’s pervasive trans killer narratives, Richards discussed the impact in her own life of one particular negative portrayal in Silence: the character of serial killer Buffalo Bill.
“There was a moment many years ago,” recalls Richards, “when I wasn’t out yet as trans and, at my workplace, I started kind of feeling my colleagues out to try and figure out if I could safely transition and not lose my job. I mentioned it to one of my coworkers that I was thinking of transitioning, and she looked at me kind of quizzically and said, ‘You mean like Buffalo Bill?’ It was her only touchstone for what a trans person was, and that was horrifying to me in the moment. In my head, I didn’t think about that link at all, but for her, that’s all she had. So that’s 10 years ago — in the press, in pop culture, that was her only touchstone.”
Clarice showrunners Alex Kurtzman, Jenny Lumet, and Elizabeth Klaviter saw and heard Richards’ story in Disclosure, and realized, she says, “the complicated legacy of the Buffalo Bill character and its impact on the trans community.” Already in the trenches writing the dark CBS thriller, which follows FBI Agent Clarice Starling, portrayed by Rebecca Breeds, in the aftermath of the Buffalo Bill case, the team recognized an opportunity to address “the trauma of that representation.”
“They started working with GLAAD, and they found a trans writer, Eleanor Jean, to write an episode that introduced a trans character into the world of Clarice,” says Richards, who eventually would be invited to join the show’s writing room as a consultant on the trans role. “Since it would be a multiple episode arc, and Eleanor would just be involved for that one episode, they wanted someone who could help create the character, help create the arc, and then track all three episodes, help with casting, help with press, just kind of oversee everything to make sure it was done well.”
Richards was impressed with the producers’ commitment to address “the issue and find a fun, creative way to acknowledge the legacy of Buffalo Bill [and] move trans inclusion forward within the world of Clarice. It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s talk about what went wrong,’ but also, ‘Hey, let’s do something right.'”
What Richards didn’t expect, however, is that she’d become the face of that inclusion on the show, stepping into the part she had helped create. “Elizabeth [Klaviter] asked if I would just play the part, and they could shape the part for me,” says the actress known for roles on Mrs. Fletcher and Tales of the City. “I was thrilled that they asked me to do it.”
Introduced in episode nine of the series, airing Thursday, May 13, Richards’ character, Julia Lawson, plays a pivotal role as a potential confidential informant in a murder investigation that has nothing to do with the character’s trans identity, or with Buffalo Bill. Yet, Julia’s transness does inform her role in the story, and, in an electric scene between the character and Clarice, she relates the harm caused by the media’s constant association of trans people with monsters like Buffalo Bill.
Richards especially appreciates that balance in the storytelling around her character. “Often when I’m on television, it’s one of two things: either I’m explicitly trans and it’s only about being trans, or there’s no mention of my being trans, and then everyone assumes I’m a cis character. And what I really like is a character where their transness is acknowledged as part of who they are. Sometimes it has something to do with why they’re in the story, but they’re just not reduced to that one factor. Because that more reflects my actual lived experience.
“My being trans doesn’t come up often, but it’s a huge part of what’s shaped who I am, my perspective on the world, my compassion, empathy, my commitment to social justice, just how I move through the world,” she continues. “It’s a big factor — it’s just I can’t be reduced to that one factor. I think this show is actually one of the best examples of that, where part of the way that Clarice and Julia’s relationship is established directly flows from Julia’s transness and the way that she was damaged by Clarice’s involvement with the press around Buffalo Bill. And her transness also ups the stakes for the character, because she has to be stealth in her work, and she doesn’t want to put herself out there or take any risks.”
As Richards points out, the Julia Lawson storyline is elevated and intensified by the fact that she’s trans, but not defined by it. “The story could still stand regardless of whether Julia is trans or not. So for me, it’s that perfect kind of tightrope of trans representation,” she says. “And I love the fact that somewhere out there, there will be a closeted trans person…or a trans kid who will see Julia on their television and be like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I can be a trans woman and I can be a hero, I can do the right thing. I can be part of the story in a way that you don’t normally get to see.’ It’s an incredible opportunity to be part of that shift.”
New episodes of Clarice air Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on CBS, and are available for streaming a couple of hours later on Paramount+. Visit www.paramountplus.com.
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