Prizm News / January 1, 2018 / By Chris Azzopardi
Alexandra Billings brings her own experience to her ‘Transparent’ character, Davina.
By Chris Azzopardi
“I’m shocked that I’m sitting here talking to you, to be honest,” Alexandra Billings says, blown away by the fact that she survived the ’80s when many of her AIDS-stricken friends did not.
She was living and performing in Chicago back then. In the ’90s, she starred in campy fare such as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” before shifting to dramatic roles such as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.”
Now we marvel at her as Davina Rejennae in Amazon’s Emmy-winning series, “Transparent.” The role is esteemed not only for her genuine portrayal of the trans, HIV-positive character, but in the significant way Billings and Davina have become torchbearers for the trans community.
Take, for instance, the episode, “Groin Anomaly,” from the show’s latest season, in which Billings’ pre-op body is seen au naturel, the first time a trans performer has gone full frontal on TV.
With rich insight and heartfelt gratitude, Billings, 55, spoke about “Transparent” and how the show has afforded her a life-changing platform
Judith Light once told me, “My service and my work have all come together in one place, so it makes me feel fantastic.” Can you relate to that?
“Transparent” is, for me, an open door, and what it’s done is given me a megaphone, so now what I believe to be true is heard globally. It has great reverberation, and with that comes a great, honorable way of being in service in a way that I never dreamt would be possible.
Can you tell me about the time when you didn’t see that in your future?
I transitioned in 1980 when it was illegal and unheard of, so I spent many years—as most trans people do—in a deep, deep shame. …
Remember, too, this was in the ’80s when the plague had hit, so my friends began contracting HIV and dying, so I was dealing with an enormous amount of loss while I was transitioning, too.
Is this a better time to be trans than it was in 1980?
I don’t know that it’s a better time. I think that it’s a different time.
I think as human beings, as the human race, we expand and move forward. We always have people trying to put on the brakes, but it’s never really stopped us. It’s why we have phones that you can hold in your hand and just talk into, and it starts to work. I mean, that’s extraordinary.
So, I don’t know if it’s better to be trans now; it certainly is at least honored in a way that wasn’t true when I was transitioning.
Have you ever felt the need to speak up about a “Transparent” storyline that didn’t feel representative of the community?
They always get it right. … Our Lady Jay is a writer and she’s trans and she’s in the room, so we have a trans writer in the room who speaks from her own experience, too. I’ve never looked at a script and said, “I’m not gonna say that,” or, “I’m not gonna do that.”
Had you experienced that previously?
Oh god, yes. I was on a show, and I don’t remember what it was now. But it was a big monologue and I did it, and the director came up to me and said, “That was great, Alex. Just great. Now, could you do it again? But this time if you could do it a little bit more drag queen-y?”
Felicity Huffman ended up with the role you were originally supposed to play in 2005’s “Transamerica” because the studio wanted a more commercial lead. Do you think a major studio would be open to casting a trans woman in a lead trans role now?
That’s a good question. I really don’t know. … I know that I have been in conversations with a director, and we’re supposed to be filming a movie next summer that is trans-centric and has me in the lead role, but all kinds of things can happen till then. …
I really am just sort of shocked and eternally grateful, and certainly the tide is turning. But when we have conversations about, “Do you think it’s possible that at least one time in movie history a trans person can play a lead role?” then we’ve got a long way to go.