The Mary Sue Interview: Trans Actress Michelle Hendley On Positive Representation In Boy Meets Girl
It’s not every day that an actress makes her debut on screen in a leading role, but for Michelle Hendley, that is exactly how she entered the film industry. When writer/director Eric Schaeffer was looking for a trans woman to play the lead in Boy Meets Girl, he stumbled upon Hendley’s old YouTube channel and thought she would be perfect fit for the role of Ricky. Hendley wasn’t looking to be an actress; she was in cosmetology school at the time, and had very little experience – but proved to have the right stuff. Now, Hendley has a critically-acclaimed movie on her filmography and is a working actress, who will next appear in the pilot for Endgame (starring Wesley Snipes), and is planning to pursue an acting career. We spoke about Boy Meets Girl, her new career, and being a positive representative for the transgender community.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): I understand Eric approached you personally about appearing in the film?
Hendley: Yeah, I think he had actually done a Google search for trans women and my old YouTube channel popped up. He connected with me through that, saying I’m making a movie, would you like to be a part of it?
TMS: Were you a little apprehensive about some strange guy just coming to you and saying “I want to make a movie with you?”
Hendley: Oh God, yes. I really didn’t know his movies at all, so I just assumed he was some creepy guy online. But after chatting with him a little and Skyping, those fears immediately dissipated and I trusted him implicitly. I figured out that he was a professional filmmaker who had made movies before.
TMS: When did you get a chance to read the script?
Hendley: It was pretty early in our initial conversations. I don’t think he gave me the full script until we had read a few lines. I think he wanted to make sure I wasn’t terrible. But I read it pretty early in the process.
TMS: Were there things in the script you asked to have changed or felt particularly strongly about including in the film?
Hendley: It was very important for Eric to make sure this was a story which rang true within the transgender community. He wanted everything to feel authentic and representative of the transgender community, and there were a few things he ended up changing for that reason. But he checked with me and his own friends within the community to make sure that happened. I don’t think there was anything in the movie we wished we could change, except for one line. At the very end, when Ricky is saying good bye to her little brother, she says “You’re the man of the house now.” And every time I hear that, I just cringe because it sounds like I’m saying I was the man of the house. So I wish we had reworded that, but I didn’t notice that when we were filming.
TMS: Did you have any acting experience before this?
Hendley: Barely. I think I was like a bush in the background in a school play, but I really don’t have any experience acting.
TMS: Was it scary to be going into a professional acting job, in a role this large, when you had no experience?
Hendley: I wouldn’t say scary as much as it was exciting. At the time I was in beauty school and wasn’t really sure what I was doing with my life, if I wanted to be a cosmetologist. So this just felt like the opportunity of a lifetime. I just decided to put my all into this and give it a try.
TMS: Did your costars help with adjusting to screen acting?
Hendley: They were invaluable. Every scene they gave me a tip or suggestion on how to do something. I actually stayed with Alex before we went into rehearsals, and we read lines and showed me tricks of the trade.
TMS: How comfortable were you doing the sex and nude scenes?
Hendley: Months before filming I decided for the first time that I would start working out because I knew about the nudity. The hardest scene was the love scene with Francesca’s character, and I wasn’t expecting it to be as physical as it was. With Robby, it wasn’t hard because I date men and know how that works. And initially, I thought I would pretend she were a boy. But its not that at all when you’re with a girl and Alex and I had to rehearse the scene. I was not expecting to have to choreograph a love scene.
TMS: The film focuses on Ricky’s supportive community, family, and friends; those just around town. And when we see a lot of movies about the transgender community, it is often about losing that sense of community. Was that different approach to the subject and the fact that it showed that transitioning doesn’t mean being alone important for you personally?
Hendley: It was one of the things that got me interested initially, the idea of portraying a positive story about a transgender girl. We’ve seen a lot of stories about tragedy and loss, which is of course a reality for a good majority for trans people. It is very real for my transgendered brothers and sisters. But for me, I grew up in a very supportive family and community, and I wanted to show that it is possible. You can transition and still have your tribe and find love. And just think it is important to show positive stories, because there are so many misunderstandings about what trans life is. My parents really weren’t sure what my future would hold, because they’d only seen stories in the news, stories about people being killed, disowned, or having to work in the sex industry. And that isn’t the case for all of us, and as we see younger people coming out of these relationships, it is changing and showing that we are lovable people.
TMS: Ricky also has a very active life on the internet and has a community with her blog and videos. Did you find the internet to be the same important resource and outlet in your own life?
Hendley: Absolutely; in fact I first learned how to go about transitioning [online]. I was on a lot of different forums and they were such a huge help on how to go about name changes or obtaining hormones, and just getting around all the hurdles so I could do this. And I wanted to give back to my community, which is why I decided to start blogging.
TMS: Was it stressful and healing, or both, when you decided to be open and public by putting yourself forward as an advocate within the trans community?
Hendley: It was more exciting to to be a part of something which is gaining momentum. Trans visibility is growing in the mainstream media. But it is also a little intimidating because in a way, I am representing my community and I don’t want to come across like an asshole or something. But I was more excited to have the opportunity to be a representative or ambassador.
TMS: What is it like to work with someone like Eric, who is cisgender, to want to make a movie like this and throw his public support behind the transgender community?
Hendley: He’s definitely an ally. Even though we’re seeing a lot of cisgender people being cast in transgender roles, I think that is helping more than it is hurting the cause simply by spreading awareness. But until I see trans people cast in trans roles and see more trans filmmakers making movies, we still have a lot of work to do.
TMS: Do you want to continue acting in films?
Hendley: I would like to. Because Boy Meets Girl was my first acting experience, I can’t say for sure that this is my calling in life, but it is something I want to explore further. And I have this momentum going for me so I can’t just throw that away. I would like to continue playing trans roles, but I hope I would also be considered for cis-gendered roles if the opportunity comes my way.
TMS: Have you heard from casting directors or agents about the opportunities you could have at this time in the industry?
Hendley: Yes, and its an amazing time for the industry. People are looking for trans actors, and there are pilots going on right now, and I’m working with an agency right now that are sending me scripts for roles, and I just got finished shooting a pilot starring Wesley Snipes called Endgame, and I play a transgender character in that. Right now is an amazing time for trans actors.
TMS: Do you have a sense why there has been a relatively quick increase not just in trans roles in mainstream media but the increasing opportunities for trans actors in Hollywood? Have you seen the community advocating within the industry for this kind of change?
Hendley: Over the years, we’ve seen a number of civil rights moments from all different spectrums of people. And from that wave came a movement among trans people to have their voice be heard, and for whatever reason, our voice is finally being heard. We’ve been fighting for awareness and visibility for so long, and the gay community had their spotlight, and while they haven’t 100% assimilated, there is still homophobia and hatred, but there was a time when shows like Will and Grace were on TV and everyone started talking about homosexuality and there were gay characters and stories of kids coming out to their parents, and I think right now is the dawn of that for the trans community. We are seeing those characters and having these discussions. I think it is an amazing time.
TMS: When you were going through the transition, what images of representation did you look to?
Hendley: There are a couple of trans actresses that have been around for a while. Laverne Cox has been acting for a long, long time, it just wasn’t until Orange is the New Black that she became a bit of a house hold name. And Candis Cayne, who was on Dirty Sexy Money years ago. I mostly looked up to other trans actresses, the ones who paved the away. And now that we have visibility, I have so much respect for them.
TMS: Have you heard back from people who feel the way you felt for people like Laverne Cox or Candis Cayne because of Boy Meets Girl?
Hendley: I have been getting so many messages every single day. I love it. I hear from trans people, parents of transgender kids, people from all over the LGBT spectrum. It’s amazing and I try to answer all their messages. People are so happy to see someone on screen that they relate to on an intimate level. I get messages all the time from people saying that’s me, I relate to Ricky. They are so grateful, and transition is difficult for everyone, but for some it just tear your world apart while you’re trying to rebuild yourself. And they are just so happy that something like Boy Meets Girl is out there. And I’m so happy my community likes the movie and feels they are being accurately portrayed.
TMS: Did you consider while making the movie how you were going to be received by the community?
Hendley: I was very conscious of the community while we were making the movie, and Eric was too, so there was a constant dialogue between us about checking certain things. Even just simple lines, we wanted to make sure we weren’t make fun of anyone. But at the same time, you’ll never please everyone. I don’t have a lot of experience in the film community but I knew that from the start, so all I could do was speak from the heart and hoped it would show that we were trying to share a positive story.
TMS: How did your family react when you said you were going to make this movie with a guy who contacted you on the internet. Were they concerned that he might be exploiting your circumstances?
Hendley: Yes, and before I was allowed to go out and film this, my dad insisted on speaking with Eric and reviewing all the contracts he sent to me with his lawyer. They were very protective of me, but at the same time they trusted me and knew I wouldn’t let anyone take advantage of me. After talking with Eric and discussing things such as the nude scene, they trusted him too because they knew it was necessary for the story and it wouldn’t be gratuitous and would be tasteful, and wouldn’t make a fool out of me.
TMS: What was it like to watch the movie with friends and family?
Hendley: We had a showing in my home town a month ago or so, and it was actually the most nerve-wracking event. The movie has been at film festivals and I’ve been going to a lot of them to do Q&As afterwards. LA, Boston, Chicago, all over, and I really enjoyed doing that. I wasn’t stressed at all. But something about being in my hometown, I was so nervous to even talk about it because they were all my friends and family, people I’d grown up with, looking at my naked butt. But it was really cool because it was all about love and support from people who were just so excited to see me on the big screen.
Boy Meets Girl is available on DVD April 28th.
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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