Meet Alexandra Grey, the 2016 Breakout TV Star of ‘Transparent’ and ‘Drunk History’
This interview is one part of ScreenCrush’s new franchise Our Hollywood, a month-long series about the past, present and future of transgender visibility in film and television. Stay tuned throughout June’s LGBTQ Pride Month for in-depth profiles with photos shot by Amos Mac, essays and exclusive videos.
In the past nine months alone, Alexandra Grey has appeared on three major networks, an Emmy-winning series, and portrayed an icon of transgender history. The 26-year-old actress had her breakout role on Season 3 of Transparent as Elizah, a young trans woman battling suicidal thoughts. After that Grey had guest roles on CBS’ Code Black, NBC’s Chicago Med, and Dustin Lance Black’s ABC miniseries When We Rise – and she would have had two CBS appearances had Laverne Cox’s Doubt not been canceled. Grey also depicted trans pioneer Marsha P. Johnson in the hilarious and educational “Stonewall” episode of Comedy Central's Drunk History. And now Grey is in consideration for not one, but two Emmys – Amazon and Comedy Central have both submitted Grey for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
Though Grey had a busy 2016 fall TV season, she’s still only been cast in one-off roles. (And she assures us, she’s nothing but grateful for those.) But the actress also recognizes how vital it is for the industry to cast more trans women, and especially black trans women, in large and recurring parts. “It’s like, Laverne Cox is everywhere [and] I live for her,” Grey said. “But there has to be more than one [of us] in order for it to start becoming a normal thing.”
During an interview in Los Angeles last month, Grey spoke about the importance of showing an abundance of trans actors onscreen and how her real-life experiences have informed her characters.
What’s advice you would give to aspiring trans actors?
I would say to know that you really want to be an actor and know that it’s going to come with hard work. You’re going to have to fight twice as hard as every other actor in the business. When I say twice as hard, for me I have to work three times as hard because I’m a black actress, [and] I’m a black trans actress. I’m not only competing against black actresses in the business, which the competition is already very tough, but now as a trans actor I’m fighting to even be seen or even be considered for certain roles.
How do you process that feeling of it being twice as hard for you as an actress?
It’s something that I never use as a crutch. I never play the victim. I know that I’m trans, I know that I’m black, but also that I’m talented and that I have a lot to offer. I remember an old manager told me, “Oh, Hollywood’s not ready,” and I went, “Well, what am I supposed to do? Just sit around and wait till they get ready?” I’m like, No, I’m not going to let that stop me doing from doing what I love to do. With that, I say don’t ever wait for Hollywood to come knocking. Do your own projects, create your own roles for yourself. That’s how you produce a Moonlight or a Tangerine.
Is the lack of opportunity in Hollywood the only thing holding you back from the next step in your career?
I think it is for any actor, you know? I listen to a lot of the stories of actors like Viola Davis or Taraji P. Henson and all the other women who basically talk about the same struggle. I don’t think it’s different being either trans or being a woman or a woman of color. It’s still hard for me to believe that no black actresses have won a Best Actress Oscar since Halle Berry in 2002. I don’t know who that's a reflection of, it’s just that I know we have more work to do. For me, I always wanted to do my part. Loving the arts and loving acting early on was like “Oh my gosh, I really have this chance that I can make history or be a part of history,” and I always let it be my motivation that I could actually break down some barriers.
Laverne Cox made history in 2014 with her Emmy nomination, but a trans actor has yet to win. What message would it send to audiences if a trans person won an Emmy?
That will be a huge thing. Laverne Cox has won a [Daytime Creative] Emmy for producing, but I don’t think any trans actor has been granted a [Primetime Emmy] award. All I would say to writers and producers is that you really have a chance to be a part of the change and be a part of history. Everyone loves a trailblazer. It’s like, Laverne Cox is everywhere [and] I live for her. But there has to be more than one [of us] in order for it to start becoming a normal thing.
In the movie Hidden Figures, [Janelle Monae’s character] was trying to enroll in school and they didn’t want her to because she was African American. She said, “You have the opportunity. What do you want your legacy to be?” And I would say to Dick Wolf right now, you’ve had Mariska Hargitay for  seasons on Law and Order: SVU. Put a trans person in a lead role and maybe they’ll get an Emmy nomination and your legacy is going to be even greater. One can only dream.
What are your hopes and dreams as an actor?
It’s not about awards, but I hold up my little lotion bottle in the bathroom and I say my speeches, so that one day if I ever win, it will come true. [Laughs] It’s just something that I talk to my sister [about] because we’ve had a hard life growing up in foster care and around drugs. I just tell her, I have dreams of being able to buy her a house and we’re going to live in the same subdivision, and I’m going to be able to watch her kids. I just hope that I would be able to live my dreams enough to really be able to do that one day.
[...] I think [my sister is] proud that I took a chance and I came to California and [was] homeless and lived in a shelter to really try to figure out who I was and to live this impossible dream. And now I can say that it doesn’t feel so impossible. I feel like I have one foot in the door. It’s not about fame at all. It’s about finding your purpose, and my purpose is to go out there and become visible enough to where I’m opening hearts and minds. I’m letting these trans boys and girls know that you can live your dreams, too, because look at me – I’m doing it. I was strong enough to get through it.
Do you channel those experiences into your acting and has it helped make you a better performer in any way?
Yeah, I definitely think my life experiences have helped me. Most of the trans roles I’ve done have been battered women, women battling with suicide, depression, violence. A lot of that has been taken from my own life, and I think that really helps me when I go into these audition rooms and I just sort of leave it all there. Because I want someone to tell [those] stories.
I know there’s this whole controversy with cis1 actors playing trans roles. My thing is that I really don’t care. I’m an actor, I’m serious about my craft, and I believe that anyone can play anything, but I think what the fight is, is we’re saying we’re not even given the opportunity so at least give us the opportunity to play ourselves. And I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do that, but I now want that to be more than just a one-off or a punchline. I’m ready for people to see me more. I think Lee Daniels is doing that with Amiyah Scott on Star, I think Orange Is the New Black is doing that, Transparent has several recurring trans characters. I know there are a lot of shows starting to do that, but it has to become this thing so that it’s normalized and we don’t have to keep having this conversation.
You’ve appeared on almost every major network, yet only in guest roles. Why is it so important that trans actors get more than one-off parts and graduate to recurring and leading roles?
I think it’s important that people see that our stories are very much real and they are very much deserving of time and love. You can’t really see that when you just have someone on as a guest star. I don’t like to complain or expect anything, but I think it’s really important because right now trans people are in crisis. If you have an opportunity to really be a part of that change, you really should do it. I don’t see why I can’t play a cisgender woman on TV. I hear that a lot of people don’t really know who I am because they thought I was a cisgender woman playing a trans character and they didn’t realize I’m actually trans. But I’m very grateful for work that I get to do. I get so many messages from teenagers and people all over saying how much seeing me in a small role made a difference. Imagine if they saw me all the time, what kind of thing that would do for them.
How do you envision the future of trans visibility in Hollywood?
I think we’re making progress. It’s going to be slow, nothing happens overnight, but I think that it can happen. In show business it’s about the money. It’s about ratings, so if we can alert [the industry] that there’s a whole trans community, [and] those millions of people will be watching your show, that’s real green money.
I worked on Transparent and I can say that it’s genuinely the best set that I’ve ever been on. The smallest role I’ve ever had, but the love and the care – those people are not doing it for the money or the ratings, they’re doing it because they love to do it and they want to actually make a difference. But if your goal is to have good ratings, then there are millions of [trans] people out there. By capitalizing off of us, you’re helping us become more visible. I have no problem with that. The producers, writers and managers have to start understanding that trans people are valuable. We have stories, we have talent. I think that once we start realizing that, it will just be amazing.
1Cis or cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
Update: This story has been updated to note that Comedy Central and Amazon have submitted Alexandra Grey for Emmys consideration.