Rhys Ernst is an Emmy nominated producer of Amazon’s “Transparent” and long time trans activist. Rhys will be joined by Alexandra Billings and Silas Howard on an exciting panel, “Being Transparent: A Conversation” this Sunday at Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival. Learn all about “Transparent”, “We’ve Been Around” and “This Is Me” from the Rhys and company. Opening night sold out so you might want to get tickets now. Click here.
Earle Dutton: Tell me a little about your panel and plans for Translations Seattle?
Rhys Ernst: I am doing a panel with Alexandra Billings and Silas Howard on “Transparent”. Alexandra plays Davina. I believe she is the first out trans person to actually play a trans role. She is such an amazing actor and even teaches acting. Silas has directed a couple of episodes of “Transparent” and is an out trans man. His career really started when his first film, “By Hook or by Crook” played at Sundance Film Festival several years ago. They are both just amazing people and friends. So it is really fun for the three of us to be there to talk about and represent “Transparent”. One of the great things about “Transparent” is that we have employed about sixty transgender people in speaking roles or on the crew over the three seasons. We are really proud of that achievement.
What originally attracted you to “Transparent”?
I got my master’s degree in fine arts at Cal Arts some years ago. My thesis short film had a trans character in it. I am trans and I decided when I transitioned that I really wanted to commit my filmmaking to a discussion of trans issues. I really want to put story first. My thesis film got into the Sundance Film Festival and I met Jill Soloway and I met Jill Soloway there. This was before she created “Transparent”. She was there with her own short film. At the time, she had a writing and producing background in TV but was never given the opportunity to direct. She was very accomplished in so many ways but she just couldn’t get the chance to direct so she made her own films. One of her short films made it into Sundance, where we met. This was also about the time that her parent came out as trans. We had sort of a fortuitous meeting at the festival and kept in touch. She reached out about two years later when she was working on the pilot for “Transparent” and contacted me to talk about collaborating on it. It had been one of my one of my goals to be a part of one of the first early waves of crossover representation of transgender stories. I knew when she reached out that this was a really special project and opportunity.
Jeffrey Tambor has is amazing and has been around for years. Do you think that casting him brought an audience that might not have watched the show otherwise?
Yes, I think that having a familiar face in the leading role certainly does bring in a wider audience. I think that Jeffrey’s acting on the show is so human, nuanced and real. It is really relatable to pretty much anyone who watches it. So many trans people on the set or even out in the world just walk up to Jeffrey and tell him how they related to his character. There is a real humanness to how he has gone about it all. He is an incredible actor and just an incredible person. He has become a huge ally to the trans community. I think it has been an incredibly transformative experience for him. I think it has really changed his world view. He spends a lot of his personal time now working out ways to help the trans community.
How did it feel to get eleven Emmy nominations in just one year?
It was amazing! We all gathered together on set that day. We were in the middle of filming season two but we had a TV on set and gathered around it. We were all together watching the nominations come in while we were screaming and cheering. We also got the nomination for “This is Me” the series that I directed and produced right in that same moment with everyone. That part was really a stunner. I was not expecting that at all. It was an amazing moment with a great group of people. I remember just being stunned for almost a week.
What has been most difficult for you growing up or coming out as a trans person?
I think that the media having a total lack of trans representation when I was growing up. There is still not enough to this day. When you are a kid trying to figure out who you are but looking at the world it looks like you are alone and you don’t really exist is a very troubling feeling. There is also an incredible amount of shame when the one or very few examples you come across are negative or completely unflattering. I think one of the biggest challenges to the trans community is shame not counting or discounting other external obstacles that are very real as well. There is also a lack of access to jobs. I have personally been denied employment basically for being trans. I don’t like to dwell on the negative things I have experienced.
What do you think of all of the obnoxious and obtrusive bathroom laws that are being enacted?
It is really frustrating and sad. I was kind of expecting some backlash for the past couple of years since there was such progress and gains for trans people. That is exactly what we are seeing here. I am from North Carolina and my family lives there. It is particularly disconcerting to me to see that being the epicenter of all of this hate. I think that we are going to win. This bell of trans people existing can’t be unrung. The bell has rung. The world has already changed. All of these bills do have consequences for people in the short term but I do think that they will be short term. We really need nationwide non-discrimination bills for LGBT people. You can still be fired in thirty-two states for being trans. That has not changed. You can get married on Friday and get fired on Monday. The rights of trans people have generally been left behind when it comes to these larger conversations. We have to get real. We have to come together. This is a wakeup call for everyone.
Do you have a message for trans youth?
Don’t be afraid to be you. Being trans is your gift and your strength. Don’t be afraid to really be trans. I think there is a real strength in being trans and being different. I hope that young people hold onto that and don’t just feel so much pressure to conform. I think that trans kids are our future. They will lead us. They will grow up in a world where being trans is so much more common and accepted. I am excited about the opportunities they will have in the future. Just remember to just keep being badass!
Opening night sold out so if you wanna catch Rhys Ernst you might want to get tickets now. Click here.
Keep up with Rhys Ernst!