The Mary Sue Interview: Ann Thomas, Founder of Hollywood’s Transgender Talent
After working as an extra on shows such as Glee and season two of Transparent, Ann Thomas realized there was a big gap in the industry which needed to be filled. Even if there are more roles for or open to transgender actors, major talent agents have not yet opened themselves up to representing transgender actors. So Ann Thomas opened Transgender Talent, a talent agency which specializes in placing transgender actors in the entertainment industry.
After a recent article in Reuters and her work on casting the Dr. Drew episode “Transgender in America” I spoke with Ann about her new company, which is still getting off the ground and looking for funding via GoFundMe.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): I know that you’ve worked as an extra for some time, but are you interested in pursuing acting personally or is your primary focus right now on casting and improving representation in media?
Ann Thomas: I’m focusing on casting and representation primarily, although I will still take acting jobs myself. But that has become my secondary focus, because I’m probably a bit on the old side to start an acting career at this point in my life. There are a lot more opportunities for younger people now and I think my skills can be better used elsewhere.
TMS: How long has the company been active and considered a professional agency?
Thomas: Probably around 3 to 4 months, and it is still a side job for me. I have a day job which still keeps me busy, so it has taken some time because of that. I just don’t have the time to devote myself full-time to this yet.
TMS: When did you realize that there was a growing need to have an agency which focused on representing transgender actors?
Thomas: After I got on Glee, I tried looking for an agent, or any kind of representation, really. And that was when I realized that there just wasn’t any agent that would take someone like me. When you sign up for central casting to do background acting, there is nothing in their database to let them know you are transgender. So they will only know that about you if they happen to remember you or if they have a special notes field. There is nothing that talks about gender in their databases. They have male or female, and that is it. So in order to be found, you have to already be known by the casting directors. And then when I did a search online, I found a few places that said they were SLGBT, but then when I looked at their website, I didn’t see any LA offices. Which was surprising, because I thought there would be more here than anywhere else.
I realized there was this huge hole that needed to be filled. And after that, I found by talking to people in the industry that when you are with a major talent agency, you are still just someone they are trying to make money off of, and they don’t get the difficulties we face as transgender people. They don’t care about the script content. They will throw them into roles which are degrading, and that has been an issue with Hollywood for decades. 50 plus years, and most of the roles that transgender people have played are degrading. They play dead bodies under a blanket and the detective will lift up the blanket and say “oh, a tranny” and laughs. And this is stuff in cop shows even now. Nick Adams talked about this at OutFest, where they had a SAG-AFTRA panel for transgender actors, and Nick went over the history of transgender characters in Hollywood, and it was very disturbing to see decades of being made the joke. And his comment was, it wasn’t secondary characters making these comments, but primary lead characters. Characters the viewers were expected to relate to that were mocking the transgender person, and that makes society feel like it’s okay to mock them. So that is something I’ll be looking for in scripts. If I see a script that is insulting, I’m just not going to fill it and I’ll tell them why.
TMS: Do you exclusively receive casting calls for actors to play roles which are transgender, or are some of your clients taking on cisgender roles or nonspecific roles?
Thomas: I get a lot of clients who tell me they only want to play transgender roles, and what I tell them is “how am I going to place you in a major role, if you have no experience.” You need to play cisgender roles and nongender roles to get experience.” Because every single transgender actor I’m aware of has played both and that’s how they got where they are. So you can’t turn up your nose to a role which can ultimately help them hone their craft. That is the important thing right now, because that is what will get you work. It isn’t enough to have an exotic look. You have to prove you can act. There aren’t a lot of roles in Hollywood right now that call for serious transgender actors, but when they come around, I need actors that can fill those roles.
TMS: Are you working with casting directors to help them to open up roles they might otherwise consider cisgender which could just as easily be played by a transgender actor?
Thomas: That is a very good point. Most of the situations I’m facing right now are from casting directors who are coming to me asking about a role for a transgender actor that they need to fill and don’t know where else to go. I wish I were in this full time because then I could approach casting directors about opening more roles for transgender actors or to consider them for roles that were otherwise considered for cisgender actors, but right now I have enough roles coming up that are keeping me quite busy. Like we just finished doing the Dr. Drew show and had to come up with 50 something people for that show. I had a week’s rest and have more people coming to me with more roles. I have two scripts right now I have to read.
TMS: What kind of feedback have you received within the industry regarding the actors you’ve put up for roles?
Thomas: I think the most interesting person I’ve come across is a producer who has worked with a lot of transgender actors and he’s told me he’d like to cast as many future roles with transgender actors, whether for TV or movies, no matter the role. Whether the roles are transgender, cisgender, or nongender, he wants to cast them. Because what he’s seeing from working with transgender actors is that we’ve dealt with so much stuff in our lives and understand ourselves so deeply, we have more to draw from to create a character that has much more depth and is therefore more impressive. So he’s telling me, I have roles to fill, I’m not going to first go to the cisgender community like everyone else, I’ll go to the transgender community first.
Because in general, the cisgender community don’t seem to have their act together. Especially younger ones who seem to be coasting through life. They are pursuing careers, but they haven’t dealt with personal issues. And transgender people are required to deal with personal issues. We are required to see a therapist and talk about things and deal with our issues. So we’ve gone through a growing process far in excess of our years, especially younger ones. So by the time they are pursuing their career in Hollywood, they are much more in tune with who they are than people the same age who haven’t gone through the same things. Because that person has never had to consider all the different aspects of their lives to the depths we have to. Because we have to draw from an incredible amount of inner strength just to go out in public every day and not feel like we’re going to be attacked or killed. And that is something that people who are not transgender don’t understand. So I thought that was a good insight that guy had, and I hope I see more of it.
TMS: There was an article that came out recently that claimed a lot of transgender actors who are being hired are non-professionals or lack training. Are you hoping to work with clients who come to you to help them develop their skills so they are considered serious actors in the industry who are pursuing acting as their profession?
Thomas: Oh, yeah. My approach is, I want to provide people with all the different ways they can grow in the careers of their choosing, not just actors. So I’m working with stand-up comedians and public speakers as well, all three. I’m working with organizations right now to set up some acting lessons with transgender people in my area, and I would be welcome to looking into working with organizations in other areas too, because I’m get reached out to from all over the country. And I’m hearing over and over again, “where do I go to get training?” Because people are very leery of the cisgender community and don’t want to be taken advantage of. That is why so many people work to become passable, so they can become stealth and walk into these situations and other people don’t know.
There are many, many transgender people working in stealth mode in Hollywood that people don’t even know about. A lot of actors have been working with a transgender actor for years and don’t know it. And that is because they want their careers to be taken seriously and not be treated like a freak. So that is why they do that. So as a general rule, transgender people are very leery of people wanting to take advantage of them. So finding the right place to take acting lessons is a huge issue, because they may not want you or they may want you but for the wrong reasons. So that is why I’m trying to set up acting classes, hopefully in September. And as far as stand-up comedians, I’m just getting started on that. And as far as public speaking, that has been going very, very well. We have a lot of highly trained people signed up for that already, as you can see from the Dr. Drew show. I’m encouraging local people to join the OC Speaking Bureau for training, which I’m in. I go out and speak with college students and it is an extremely polished organization for training.
TMS: The past 5 years or so, there has been a noticeable increase in representation of transgender people in film and television. Do you have any thoughts on what the cultural tipping point was and where the next big step will come from?
Thomas: I’m not sure what brought about that change, but it seems that we are finally becoming credible in the population. The richest woman in the world is a transgender woman. It isn’t Oprah Winfrey or JK Rowling. And we have Lana Wachowski, who put out an incredible set of movies like the Matrix series. So people are seeing that transgender people are not in this to play games, they are trying to make significant contributions to the world. Those of us transitioning to being women are going through what other women went through in their early teens, so you have to give us some space to explore the same way you might have. But once we get past what is called the pink fog or pink cloud, a comment made on I Am Cait a few weeks ago, we blossom and grow when we are allowed to be who we were meant to be. Our productivity goes up, our creativity goes up. And because before we had who we were, we had to have an inner strength to get through that come out the other side, we are stronger and more focused, so our careers take off. And I think that is beginning to catch people’s attention, and major people who are doing studies and realize you can make money working with us. So that recognition is happening, not just in entertainment but everywhere, and as that ground swell grows, the entertainment industry is seeing new opportunities.
As for the future, in my company we are sort of thinking of this is a short term burst. This has been the longest burst we’ve had in a long time, if ever, so we don’t know how long this will last. It could be a few more weeks, a few more years, or decades. Personally, I have no idea. I can’t project that, but we’re trying to set ourselves up by giving the training people need so after this dies down they can still get good jobs, which is what I’m really concerned with. I’m not just working with actors, I’m working on the crew side of this too. I’d really like to see more transgender job placement across the country. And maybe they don’t have much of an entertainment industry where they live, but maybe they have factories or something else. I’d like to see companies doing that. We have an incredibly high unemployment rate which could be helped if we had more people willing to work with us to find jobs.
TMS: This is a question that I’m not even sure you can answer or have any statistics about, but you mentioned working with younger people who transition. Are a lot of the people coming to you individuals who transitioned at a relatively young age?
Thomas: Well, personally, I only came out in the past five years, and before that I was kind of living alone in Eastern Washington. I worked on a 3,000 acre farm and I was the only transgender person in my community. So I had no contact with the community and have no frame of reference. I do know people who have been around it for a long time. My dad was transgender, and I wish I’d known so I could have asked him about it. I found out he was trans a few months before he died at 67, and he had to hide who he was his entire life. But we all know who were are, usually before we even hit puberty, and when we are given the opportunity to put words to it and say we were born in the wrong body, we will.
So I wish I could have transitioned at around 6 or 7, because my life would have been much better, because I wouldn’t have built a life around a façade of a male image. I didn’t understand at the time, why even when I hit 18 or 21 or even 30, why I couldn’t call myself a man. It was a concept which was foreign to me. And there was no internet to explore this. So because of the information age being how it is now, young people have a greater advantage to go through this earlier and earlier, and the results are stunning and beautiful. When you meet someone who has transitioned, they don’t look like they’ve ever lived as the other gender, and they don’t really relate to it. And they are getting younger and younger, but many people of all ages, who were holding off until they saw this happen, are transitioning. Now they are going, okay, I can finally be myself. And maybe they are 70, like Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent. Jill Soloway’s father transitioned at 72. And that to me in astounding when someone of that age decides to transition. So people of all ages are transitioning, and there are a lot of young people.
I attended a panel a few months ago, and asked a question of a panel, how many of them had kids who were transgender, because my dad was transgender and I wanted to know how common that was. Between the three of them, they have worked with 1200 kids that are transitioning. And then the next question is, how much investigating do you do with the kids, asking who they are and is this a phase. And the vast majority of these kids were not going though a phase and did or were going to transition. So just imagine how many kids are questioning their gender.
TMS: You mentioned Jill Soloway’s show Transparent, and along with The Danish Girl and About Ray, a big topic of conversation is the issue of having major transgender roles which are being taken on by cisgender actors. What are your feelings about that larger issue in Hollywood?
Thomas: I think if they are a good actor, they’ll do a good job no matter what. And having worked with Jeffrey Tambor on Transparent, I really like him, and watching him do the part, I’m impressed. He’s doing a wonderful job and he really cares. He’ll ask people around him who are transgender how he’s doing. He’s not just making it all up in his head, he’s asking people “is this how you feel”? So he’s open to suggestion and asking important questions, he’s actually curious to find out what it’s like. And I appreciate that.
But the other thing I have to say is, the tide is turning. It’s already started in the indie world, casting transgender actors in leading roles. Look at a film like Tangerine, with transgender leads and a lot of transgender people in the background of that film. And there are a lot of transgender people on Transparent. And I’ve already been approached by two people who are each making films, and they are going to cast transgender actors in the leads. So I’m being asked to provide actors for major roles, and I’m barely starting.
But if we can get some of these transgender people who are stealth and working in Hollywood already to come out, they can start taking these roles. There are a lot of people who don’t realize that a lot of transgender people have been stealing roles from cisgender people for years. So it’s just a matter of getting them to come out. I’ve also had a lot of people asking why it seems that all the notoriety and opportunities seem to be going to trans women. I hear that a lot and they cry on my shoulder. But the fact is, the very first two things I cast were almost exclusively trans men. But within another year, they’ll see a lot more of those performances. We cast two films recently, we put up two trans men up for the lead and supporting character, and we got one of the parent. And we have another, and we can use a trans man or trans woman to play the role, because they have to play a character pre-and-post transition, so I can fill that role from either side. I just have think about who can carry a feature film for an hour and half.
TMS: Have you worked with any transgender filmmakers so far?
Thomas: I’ve had one screenwriter want to sit down and talk with me, but he hasn’t told me about the project yet. But I have three or four writers who need to learn the formatting of screenwriting, but are established writers already. As far as directors, however, not yet. But I haven’t been pushing myself out there much yet either. But since Dr. Drew, I’ve had people reach out to me. We’ve never had that kind of coverage or that many trans people on TV at one time.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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