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Work in Progress's Theo Germaine Smashes Cis Hollywood's Trans Formula

Work in Progress's Theo Germaine Smashes Cis Hollywood's Trans Formula

Theo Germaine

The actor chats with The Advocate about trans representation on TV and about wanting to create a legacy for other trans actors. 

An actor who came up in the Chicago theater world, Theo Germaine had a breakout year in 2019 with a pair of auspicious and refreshing roles. One was in the Golden Globe-nominated Netflix series The Politician and the other in the critically lauded Showtime series Work in Progress, which airs its freshman season finale on Sunday.

Landing the role of James in The Politician afforded Germaine the chance to give up a day job in a coffee shop and act in a show with a massive platform. But on a grander scale, the roles of James in the Politician and Chris in Work in Progress have helped moved the needle in terms of trans representation in Hollywood. And Germaine, who is nonbinary and uses they/them and he/him pronouns, hopes they can leverage the success of those roles that broke the mold of Hollywood's "formula" for trans representation to help trans actors land work.

"I've just tried to grasp at the opportunities that have come my way and build upon the things that other trans people have already done to try to get more representation for others and more work for others," Germaine tells The Advocate. "It's learning how to use your voice, to stick up for yourself, to offer suggestions, to navigate what it means to bring more of us into the industry, which is intimidating and scary and hard sometimes because there's not a map."

With the rise of shows about trans lives like Transparent and Pose, and other inclusive series like Freeform's Good Trouble, which tells several stories about trans and nonbinary people, visibility has improved tremendously over the past few years. Still, the opportunity to tell narratives about trans and nonbinary people beyond the coming-out and transitioning piece of their lives is part of what drew Germaine to the roles they're currently playing (Germaine is currently shooting season 2 of The Politician, and Work in Progress has been picked up for a second season).

On Work in Progress, created by and starring Abby McEnany, who identifies as a queer butch dyke, Germaine plays Abby's love interest Chris, who is thoughtful, grounded, funny, and loving. And who also happens to be trans. While James on Ryan Murphy's The Politician was billed as trans-inclusive, there's no overt mention made of the character's identity on the show, which celebrates the sexual and gender fluidity of all of its politically and academically ambitious characters. With James and Chris, Germaine has pushed beyond the coming-out or transition narrative that Hollywood often tells.

"I was excited because there's a breakdown [of James] that is trans-inclusive, but also it seems that's not really what this character's storyline was going to be about," Germaine says of his role on The Politician. "It felt like a new opportunity."

"[A character like James is] something that didn't really exist yet because so many storylines for trans actors specifically have to do with gender identity," Germaine says.

"When you resort to just telling stories about [coming out, transitioning] and about our gender identity, it kind of makes it a personality trait," Germaine adds. "That's a big part of our history and our journey and how we came out. [But] sometimes, telling stories that are just focusing on a person's transition or about coming out can give cisgender people a very narrow idea of what it means to be trans."

Theo Germaine

While James is mostly hyperfocused on helping his candidate, Peyton (Ben Platt), rise to the office of high school class president, Chris is an open book of queer identity. He discusses desire, consent, passion, STDs, sexual and gender identity, and feelings with Abby through every step of their romance. Yet there's also something very fresh in the way that Chris and Abby navigate not only their relationship but also queer identity in general.

"It feels like it's the right kind of project that talks about gender. It feels super real and candid," Germaine says of Work in Progress, which was created by McEnany, Tim Mason, and Lilly Wachowski and gained traction when it was accepted into the Sundance pilot program.

"When people are writing trans content, it feels there's this little mental checklist. And it's 'We have a trans character. We've got to talk about this, we've got to mention something about this thing.' It feels like sometimes there's been this formula," Germaine says. "Chris is someone who breaks out of that formula a little bit, and he feels very much like a real person that you would just see in Chicago, a real Midwestern person who has come to the city because of not having anything at home that is supportive."

Chris and Abby represent various ends of a queer spectrum. Abby is a 45-year-old queer butch dyke who came out in lesbian bars where singer-songwriters performed downbeat tunes about sisterhood, as is skewered in the show. She's chronically depressed, considering dying by suicide, and still recovering from the trauma of being tortured by being name-called Pat a la the Saturday Night Live sketch that Julia Sweeney created and apologizes for somewhat in Work in Progress. Chris, who's upbeat and optimistic despite having fought his own battles over identity, is squarely of the Gen-Z generation of queer openness. His single dealbreaker is that she never ask him his deadname. Still, their queerness overlaps and diverges in ways that have rarely been depicted on TV before.

"A 45-year-old butch dyke queer woman and a 22-year-old transgender man from Kansas being in different generations -- there are things that they have experienced that are so different. Also, there are bits of intersections, and it's hard to talk about this stuff because everybody is different. It's hard to parse that out," Germaine says.

"I appreciate how it is not just a romantic relationship, but it's also something that feels like a little bit of a metaphor for figuring out intergenerationally how queer people can learn how to get on the same page with each other," Germaine adds.

"I am one of the main characters in [Work in Progress], and also, I feel I'm an audience member. There are so little examples of things that I really want to see and things that I need from media and from TV shows, I feel like I am getting something for my soul that I needed [with Work in Progress]," the actor continues. "There's so much about mental health and about queer trauma. There's so much about relationships and processing my feelings. All of this stuff feels really important."

For all of Germaine's groundbreaking work in The Politician and Work in Progress, they are focused on creating a future not only for themselves but for others, noting that even in a moment of forward motion for visibility, trans actors aren't afforded the same opportunities as cis actors.

"Success for a trans actor doesn't always guarantee the same kind of follow-up success that a cisgender actor might experience because it's all dependent on if somebody feels like they want to see us," Germaine says. "There are pockets of representation that are happening."

"In the grand scheme of things, and that goes for so much, not just trans representation, but for all kinds of marginalized people who are not getting seen or shows that are getting snubbed at award shows, it's like stuff is better. Then, on the whole, we're still really struggling with all of this stuff."

To gird against the ups and downs of what remains a predominantly cis, white, straight male industry in Hollywood, Germaine has taken to diversifying and creating their own projects. They are currently working on a short film. But beyond ensuring their own future, Germaine has an even bigger goal to help their community.

"I want to make content because I want to hire other trans people. It's not fair that so many of us don't have jobs," Germaine says. "I wake up in the morning and I crush an empty soda can and then I punch a pillow and I'm like, 'Ah, more trans people should be hired!' That's me every morning."

Work in Progress's season finale airs on Sunday.

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