The Mary Sue Interview: Her Story’s Jen Richards Talks Bringing Trans and Queer Women’s Stories to Life
"I hope they laugh with our characters rather than at them, that they cry with them rather than for them..."
We’ve told you about Her Story, an awesome-looking upcoming digital series that’s by trans and queer women, for trans and queer women, and looks honestly (and accurately) at their dating and love lives. Well, The Mary Sue had the chance to chat exclusively with the show’s writer/producer and star, Jen Richards, who talks about the evolution of Her Story, what she hopes it will accomplish once it’s released, and a slew of recommendations for stories featuring trans characters!
Teresa Jusino (TMS): What made you decide to take a project like this on? What was the thing that made you say “I have to make this happen. I have to write this. I have to produce this”?
Jen Richards: As with so much else, the beginning was inauspicious. I could never have predicted where we’d end up. There was a web series called Hashtag, produced by Tello, a Chicago production company that made original lesbian content. In the first episode, there was a scene for a transgender waitress and I was asked to play the part. I was nervous about being on set with so many lesbians, there’s been some issues between trans and queer women, but I had a fantastic experience, and developed a crush on writer/star Laura Zak. The founder of Tello, Christin Baker, saw me talking on social media about the lack of trans representation in the media and approached me about writing a web series, with the only requirement that it have a lesbian story line.
Because I hadn’t written a script before, and wasn’t particularly familiar with lesbian culture, I asked Laura if she would come on as a co-writer. And it gave me an excuse to spend more time with her! At about the same time, Jill Soloway had reached out to me. She liked my nonfiction and encouraged me to try my hand at screenwriting. Much of what I know about screenwriting comes from Jill. Unfortunately I’ve made every single mistake she warned me about! But as she also told me, your first script is therapy.
We eventually parted ways with Tello, on good terms. A friend of Laura’s, Kate Fisher, had read the script and was eager to produce it herself. Everything changed when Kate come on. More than anyone else, she’s responsible for the quality of the production. It was through Kate that we were able to bring in Director Sydney Freeland and Cinematographer Berenice Eveno. My jaw was on the floor when I showed up on set for the first day of filming and was greeted by a cast and crew of fifty professionals. I still can’t believe that so many people invested so much of their money, time, and talent, to bring this story to life so vividly. It’s profoundly humbling.
TMS: Where did the idea for the story of Her Story come from? How did that evolve between you and Laura?
Richards: I had primarily dated men since transition, and it was new and uncomfortable for me to have feelings for women as a woman. Laura, and most cis lesbians I know, had never dated a trans woman. We both felt like this made for interesting material. Likewise, many of my closest friends were straight trans women who have to deal with issues of disclosure in dating. I was living with Angelica, who inspired and plays the part of Paige. It was astonishing to see, on a daily basis, a woman so undeniably intelligent, charming, confident, and stunningly beautiful, struggle so hard with finding love. It made sense to center these two stories.
TMS: There seems to be a lot of diversity in Her Story [one of the leads is a woman of color, there are queer trans women represented as well as queer cis women, etc]. Was that intentional from the beginning, or was that something that evolved as you gathered your team?
Richards: I don’t think you can write diversity, at least not well, but you can live diversely and then write authentically. Many of my closest friends happen to be black and Latina trans men and women, as well as queer people, sex workers, addicts, survivors, people living with HIV, so it’s natural for me to write about and for them. With a project as sensitive as this, we sought out people we wanted to work with. Our crew was over eighty-percent women, and most of them were queer. We had black, white, Navajo, Mexican, Pakistani, Cuban, British, French, Japanese, and Turkish people on set. Our norm was basically anyone who would have otherwise been an outsider on any other set!
You spend 12+ hours a day on set, so the cast and crew become your family for weeks. You want to surround yourself by people you’ll have fun with, and the quality of what’s on screen absolutely depends on how comfortable you feel off screen.
TMS: What are your goals for Her Story once it premieres online?
Richards: Our intention has always been to release Her Story online for free. Because it’s so rare for trans people to see themselves represented positively on screen, we wanted it to be accessible to as many people as possible. Not everyone can afford Netflix or Amazon Prime. But of course, a project of this quality is incredibly expensive, and we’d all love to produce much, much more material like it. So ideally, a network or media platform will see Her Story, see that there’s a demand for this kind of content, and pay us a lot of money to keep the story going! It would take me a lifetime to get out all the stories in my head. I want nothing more than the chance to make this my career, but I’m sure as hell not going to sit around and complain or wait for the opportunity. I want to show the world what we can do when given the chance.
TMS: Multi-part question: 1) Is it possible for a cis person to tell a story about trans characters? If not, why? If so, what would need to happen in order for it to be a good, accurate portrayal? If you can think of any, what are some good examples you can think of where cis writers get trans characters right? 2) Also, what are some other works by trans creators that our readers should be checking out?
Richards: I might have said no at one point, for political reasons, but yes, I do believe a cis person can tell a trans story well. Writing, acting, directing, these are learned skills, it’s a craft. It’s ridiculous to think that merely being trans makes you a good storyteller or performer. But it’s just as ridiculous to think that there aren’t great trans artists, or that a cis person could tell a trans story well without engaging with trans people.
A lot of the characters in my scripts are black, and I was anxious about that at first. My friend Janet [Mock] told me I should be writing black characters, because I won’t write them as cliches. My depictions aren’t based on assumptions or other shows, but rather on real, complicated people. An old friend of mine is a novelist, and has a forthcoming book with a trans character. I know she’ll get flack for it, but it’s a honest depiction and informed by her relationship with me, as well with other trans people she knows. It works because she’s observant, sensitive, informed, and a good writer. There is some great trans content created by cis people. I loved the show Hit & Miss, despite the ignorant comments made by Chloe Sevigny. Gun Hill Road, Different for Girls, Ma Vie en Rose, Better than Chocolate, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Soldier’s Girl, and Bad Education are movie depictions I like.
For me, the bottom line is always quality. Politically, I’ll always prioritize depictions by trans people, but aesthetically, I’d rather watch Eddie Redmayne deliver a superb performance as a trans woman than a trans woman give a terrible performance. The real problem is the false assumption that those are our only two choices.
To that end, I’m most excited to see Reina Gossett’s Happy Birthday Marsha! Reina is simply brilliant, and the cast includes the very talented Mya Taylor and my friend Cherno Biko. I enjoy Orange is the New Black, but I’m dying to see Laverne sink her teeth into a different role, and am excited for Grandma, and hoping that Doubt gets picked up. In the UK, Boy Meets Girl with Rebecca Root looks cute, and I’m looking forward to Amy Fox’s The Switch. I’m eager to see what Transparent does in Season 2, now that they have Our Lady J as a writer, and continue to bring more and more trans voices into the production. I’m obsessed with Sense8 and am thrilled that they’ve been renewed for a second season. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for someone to give Jamie a big break, and it’s not surprising that Lana was the one to do so.
Likewise, now that Candis is back in the public spotlight, I’m hoping she’ll get more roles. I would watch her in anything, as well as the stunning Trace Lysette, who is in both Transparent and Stars’ Blunt Talk. I’d love to see Isis King and Alexandra Billings in more roles, and I know that Her Story is going to create some opportunities for Angelica Ross, who absolutely owns every second she’s on screen. Bailey Jay has been excluded by Hollywood because she does porn, but some day a producer with courage and half a brain is going to realize what a star she is. I’ve been longing for Paris Lees to jump the pond and make some appearances here. There are young actors like Nicole Maines who deserve the shot at both trans and cis roles. There’s behind the camera talent like Lana Wachowski, Sydney Freeland, Zackary Drucker, Rhys Ernst, Shadi Petoski, Kimberly Reed, Silas Howard, StormMiguel Florez, and Andrea James. And where are our trans guys? Tom Phelan is great on The Fosters, I’m glad to see Scott Turner Schofield in The Bold and the Beautiful, and I loved seeing comic Ian Harvie on Transparent. D’Lo has stolen the few scenes he’s had on screen, and every woman in my world has been in love with Tiq Milan for years, and he’s a powerful presence on screen. There’s a whole other world of nonbinary talent, people who don’t neatly fit into a male/female binary. Here’s the thing, I could keep going on! There is so, so much untapped talent in our community.
TMS: What do you hope people get out of Her Story? What’s the takeaway you hope they end the series with?
Richards: I hope they laugh with our characters rather than at them, that they cry with them rather than for them, and that they see something of themselves in us, no matter what their own background is. That’s what good art should do.
Her Story is running an IndieGoGo campaign right now to finance post-production. Check it out, and support if you are so inclined!
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—