UPDATED: Feb. 20, 2017, to add clarifications.
In order for a movement to flourish, you need to have a trailblazer. Asia Kate Dillon (who uses the pronouns they and them) has been blazing trails long before becoming the first nonbinary gender-identifying actor to be cast in a major television series.
After a memorable role as racist skinhead Brandy on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Dillon joined the world of high finance and politics on Showtime’s Billions, as Taylor. In a TV first, a nonbinary gender-identifying actor is portraying a genderless character.
“You want to cast partly for veracity but primarily you want to cast the best actor for the part," Billions showrunner, David Livien, recently said to Entertainment Weekly. "People were coming in to [audition] from the entire LGBTQ spectrum. Some were in various stages of transition and some were asked if there was going to be a major change in [their appearance in the] next couple months. But when Asia came in and read they were so locked in and perfect for it. And it was only after that we learned how they lived their life. When casting a role you can’t ask questions [about a person’s gender] in advance, that would violate all sorts of decency.”
Before playing Brandy on OITNB, Dillon was already redefining the way casting directors and audiences look at gender. After graduating from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, they were chosen from nearly a thousand actors to participate in a workshop of 50 new plays by Tony- and Academy Award-winning (and nominated) playwrights. It was there, at the Flea Theater in Manhattan, where Dillon really began to blossom.
After playing Lucifer in The Mysteries and performing in The Tempest with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Dillon landed strong roles on TV shows Master of None and Younger.
The founder and producing director of MIRROR/FIRE Productions, Dillon is part of the artistic resistance. They are creator, curator, and director of US, a storytelling and talkback series at New York’s Dixon Place, which “puts a magnifying glass to racism in the United States using original and found text, audio, and video footage to drive the #BlackLivesMatter conversation forward.” The Advocate chatted with Asia about the future of genderless television and their role in it.
The Advocate: Do you feel any kind of pressure on your shoulders?
Dillon: You know, if I’m among those leading the charge then I’m certainly honored and very grateful, and I will strive to embrace that role with humility and grace.
The world of film and TV is full of gendered types — the ingenue, the masculine lover, the girl next door. I’m curious about your experiences with casting directors and agents.
I’ve been fortunate that the roles I’ve auditioned for, I auditioned because I felt I was the right actor to play that part. I have disregarded gender when deciding which part to audition for. Let’s say for a play, when it was up to me, my agent certainly knows — and has sent me out on any number of auditions for any number of gender identities because they know that’s something that’s important to me. I find when I walk into a room I’m often the first person like me that anyone has encountered and that often leads to conversation, which often leads to understanding and acceptance. And if on top of that, I’m the right actor to play the part, then I get the part.
Pictured: Damian Lewis and Asia Kate Dillon in "Billions," courtesy of CBS Television
Have you gotten any great advice?
Predominantly, the advice right off the board — whether it was from my mother or a teacher or a professional of some kind — was stay true to myself. No matter what you do, be true to who you are. I really heeded that advice and was grateful for it. During your final semester at AMDA, you have to come up with a six-month plan. In that meeting, a teacher said, “Always know how you’re going to pay your rent.” Because a home — a safe place you know you can always go back to, a roof over your head, [where] you can go cook a hot meal — that would be the most important thing in a city where everything is happening around you. Having a calm center in the universe is the most important thing in the world.
Tell me about your journey of self-discovery growing up in Ithaca, N.Y.
Ithaca is sort of a populated and diverse area. There’s a wide spectrum of people living there. In that sense it was a wonderful place to grow up because it was a microcosm — ultimately, I would learn — of New York City. That being said, there is certainly violence anywhere, and I don’t mean just physical violence, but emotional violence. I was gender-nonconforming in high school in terms of the way I dressed, the way I styled my hair, things like that [and] I probably had an easier time because I was living in Ithaca than, say, if I was living in a town where there was nobody else who looked like me.
Once you made the move to New York City you had your first big break, right?
I moved to New York after high school. After I graduated [college] I spent time working, trying to pay my rent, and ultimately I went back to Ithaca to finish a Meisner training program at the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca. I spent some time there doing some theater, and at that point I realized I was ready to come back to New York City and I auditioned for the Flea Theater in downtown, and I was cast [as] Lucifer. I think I might refer to Orange Is the New Black as my “break” as we think of it. But having come back to New York to audition for that theater company and achieving that, for me it felt like my break. It felt right.
Taylor on Billions is unique because they’re one of the first nonbinary-gender characters on TV. Could a role like this have been available 10 or 20 years ago?
I can only speculate. Yes, there is a lot more visibility and there is a lot more understanding. We still have a long way to go. If a role like this had been on a major television series 20 years ago, my guess is that it would have been a story like a lot of the stories we’ve seen. A story that focuses on the person’s gender identity as the main focal point of the story, that didn’t create a fully fleshed-out character, and ultimately you see them having a horrible experience dealing with their gender identity and being rejected by family and friends. I feel like those are a lot of the narratives that I grew up with in the media regarding anyone who had a different sexual orientation or who was gender-nonconforming or different. That’s what I admire so much about where we are as a culture and about Showtime in particular. The character of Taylor, their gender identity is just a small part that makes up the fleshed-out character they are, which is why I’m so excited to play the part.
Credit: Shirin Tinati
Has being on television affected your dating life?
Dating has never been something I’ve done. It’s never been a part of my life. Having said that, I would say in my experience, in terms of hitting on people or being hit on, it’s similar to what happens when I walk into an audition room. I’m the first person they encounter that looks like me. It’s about communication and questions. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I’ve been rejected in a derogatory way. It’s more been like, “Oh, OK, we’re just not vibing.”