It took Chaz Bono nearly 30 years to find a spotlight not shaped by his famous parents, Cher and Sonny Bono. Now he's becoming one of Hollywood's most sought-after character actors, blazing a new trail and challenging the system in the process.
Since his breakout role on The Bold and the Beautiful in 2016, the trans actor has had recurring roles in the comedy series Where the Bears Are, and the drama American Horror Story (starring in both Roanoke and Cult, the latter which earned acclaim for his portrayal of a fervent Trump supporter).
Before his role on the daytime drama, Bono's projects mainly consisted of documentaries and non-scripted shows, notably his 2011 Becoming Chaz, and groundbreaking stint as the first trans contestant on ABC's Dancing with the Stars. These projects brought him a new fan base, but weren't what he wanted to do long term.
"I remember saying to [my team], 'I'm not going to do [reality TV] anymore, I'm going to be an actor,' and they were like, 'What? You're going to do what?'" he shares with The Advocate. "I said 'I can't do that anymore, because people won't take me seriously, and it's going to be hard enough as it is. This is what I've always wanted to be, and I'm going to be an actor.'"
He also decided not to play trans characters, not wanting to be typecast before having a chance to establish himself as an actor. After all, says Bono, with "every trans actor I know, [trans roles] are all they get offered."
Bono is proving himself as an actor, currently starring alongside Denise Richards, Jane Seymour, and Brigitte Nielson in Adi Shankar's Gods and Secrets. Next, he can be seen in the indie supernatural horror flick Reborn, playing another of the "weird creepy bad guy" roles he admits he's drawn to.
"I am a nice guy and I think having been in the public eye... [people] think of me that way," he says. "I thought that if I did those type of parts, then people would be able to forget they were watching me, and maybe somebody would give me a shot."
Someone who did give Bono a shot was American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy, who Bono describes as a "guy who is not afraid to take chances if he sees somebody who he likes" -- something that was missing from the industry back when Bono attended a performing arts high school in New York City.
"In my senior year I got cast in our one big production we did there, in a male part," Bono remembers. "And it was so life changing. It was the first time I ever felt I knew what I was doing onstage." He would later quit acting, thinking he had to "put that dream aside," assuming it would never happen for him the way he needed it to. "I spent a lot of years in the lesbian community, [but] that was never a good fit. I knew something was off. Those weren't fun years by any stretch. And then coming to terms with being trans, it was a long, hard journey."
After Bono came out trans in 2009 and underwent gender confirmation surgery, his craft improved too. Bono says acting is a job "where you have to be comfortable in your skin to be able to do it. I'm a fairly hetero-normative guy. I was like that when I was in a female body, and therefore to play a woman -- I couldn't do it."
He says now, "I lived my life before really in my head and completely disconnected from my body. I didn't like what was reflected in the mirror, it wasn't me. It wasn't how I saw myself. So, there was a huge disconnect with myself physically." He adds, "Now, it's about being able to pursue the life I always wanted to have, but I wasn't able to because I was in the wrong skin."
This is Bono's time to shine. His talent is abundantly clear on screen. Though shy and introverted in real life, on screen he says he is "really far away from myself. When I'm acting, I can be insane. I can just do stuff that I would never do. I can come out of a voting booth and scream at the top of my lungs, 'Welcome to Trump's America motherfuckers!'"
On re-establishing himself as an actor, Bono adds, "If I was born male, I would have done what so many of my classmates [did] who... went on to college and then started their careers and are still working. But I couldn't do that, and I had a 30-year absence almost to getting back and being able to now finally start to do the career that I've always wanted."
The competition in Hollywood is fierce, but Bono isn't letting any of that stop him -- no matter how late in the game he might be. "The good thing is that I'm a lot more mentally and emotionally prepared for this, which is great, so I don't let it make me feel less than," he says. "I know that I'm good at what I do. I take it seriously. When I'm not actively working on something, I'm always in class. So, I'm always acting. That muscle is always working."