Shakina Nayfack has made transgender TV history.
As of Thursday evening, the Connecting star will be the first trans series regular on a prime-time comedy on network television. She stands on the shoulders of Laverne Cox and Candis Cayne, who pioneered as trans women in dramas on CBS's Doubt and ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, respectively.
Nayfack, known for Hulu's Difficult People, her one-woman show Manifest Pussy, and Amazon's Transparent Musicale Finale, in which she portrayed the spirit of Maura Pfefferman, now plays Ellis on Connecting, "a trans woman living alone and trying to navigate life in quarantine," according to a description from NBC.
Helmed by Blindspot's Martin Gero and Brendan Gall, Connecting follows a group of friends who stay connected in socially distanced times through video chat. In a sign of the times, the cast members also filmed remotely on iPhones and were directed through Zoom.
In a phone conversation with The Advocate in August during production, Nayfack offered a few more details about her character: She is a "big" Los Angeles Clippers fan. And like many folks in the world right now, she fears losing her job (she's the manager of a high-end retail establishment) due to the pandemic.
"I'm not known to be a sports fan," Nayfack said in her preparation for the role. "But I have been a super fan in other arenas. So I think I channeled everything I love about super fans into this character."
"I think we have a unique opportunity to introduce the world to a new trans woman for whom many people will be their first experience getting to know a trans woman," she added. "I think that every time I have a job in a television show we become ambassadors."
In production, Shakina said she met with Connecting's writers to help develop Ellis into a three-dimensional character. "We get like [a] scorecard: Check one for representation. But then like, how are we going to complicate that representation? How are we going to be responsible with that representation? And those are the really cool questions that I get to ask with the creative team."
On the topic of her history-making role, Nayfack placed it in the larger context of the transgender movement. "It feels like a huge honor and a huge responsibility to get right," she said. "And also, I think it is a benchmark in a process of social change that so many other trans artists have forged alongside me and ahead of me. I like to stay away from the narratives of like, you know, 'first achievement' and think more about the legacy that we are building together as a community of trans actors fighting for representation for the rest of us out in the world."
However, in a time when few Hollywood productions are being made due to the pandemic, and in an election season to boot, Nayfack acknowledged how special it was to have a trans character represented.
"I look at Connecting as one of the first shows to be made amid the crisis of COVID-19. And one of the seven series regulars on that show is a trans woman," she said. "So that's really exciting to me because we're already guaranteed admission. We're here. We're inside the theme park. So let's go on some rides."
Connecting premieres Thursday on NBC. Watch the trailer below.