Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Nickelodeon Wants Its Next Kid Star to Be Trans or Nonbinary

Michael D. Cohen

Nickelodeon is committing to the visibility of transgender and nonbinary young people.

The youth-oriented network has partnered with Michael D. Cohen, the star of its shows Henry Danger and Danger Force, on a casting call for members of this community.

Cohen, who opened up about his "transgender journey" in 2019, launched the Michael D. Cohen Trans Youth Acting Challenge. The initiative asks trans and nonbinary youth living in the U.S. or Canada, with the help of parents, to submit audition tapes by December 23. Afterward, 12 finalists will be invited to a "Zoom acting master class" with Cohen and then have the chance to participate in an online webinar with Nickelodeon's casting team.

Cohen, who portrays Schwoz on Henry Danger and Danger Force, never saw himself represented as a young person. And he was inspired to launch the initiative after receiving an outpouring of love from LGBTQ+ youth who dreamed of becoming actors but feared their "trans-ness" would be an obstacle.

"It breaks my heart that these kids question their creativity or dreams because of their gender identity," Cohen said. "So I wanted to do something that would help trans kids who love acting get access to opportunities that they wouldn’t ordinarily have."

Cohen also recognized the importance of networks like Nickelodeon as a collaborator. "If communities who have been historically beaten down and disregarded are going to claim their equal place in our society, it needs to happen at least in part by people in positions of power opening up the gates and offering up a place to nurture," he said. "And that’s exactly what Nickelodeon is doing by being my partner in this project."

Below, Cohen further discusses his hopes for the Trans Youth Acting Challenge and what it means to partner with Nickelodeon in this historic endeavor. And he encourages trans and nonbinary youth and their parents to learn more about the initiative (and how to submit a self-tape) at www.transyouthacting.com.

The Advocate: What inspired you to launch the initiative?
Michael D. Cohen: I’ve always been passionate about helping trans youth. I’ve been a Trevor Project lifeline counselor, and I’ve volunteered with summer camps for trans youth. But I wanted to do something on a larger scale and thought it would be perfect to do so with Nickelodeon.

They have an amazing take on diversity and inclusion and they were totally behind me when I disclosed. Also, I think with everything that’s gone on this year regarding social justice and the political environment, we’re all thinking beyond social media. It’s one thing to offer support in a post, it’s another to take action.

Also, in the last few months, I’ve had a bunch of trans kids reach out to me saying that they want to be actors but that they’re scared that their “trans-ness” would be a problem. It breaks my heart that these kids question their creativity or dreams because of their gender identity. So I wanted to do something that would help trans kids who love acting get access to opportunities that they wouldn’t ordinarily have. 

How do you hope that the program will help the next generation of actors who are trans?
I hope it helps them on many levels. First of all, just knowing that a major mainstream network for kids — Nickelodeon — is interested in their talent, wellbeing, and worth is important. I’ve worked closely with the casting team for Nickelodeon and also for Danger Force. We are all on the same page. Everyone cares deeply about these kids and wants to support.

I want trans youth to know there are adults out there who care about their journey as artists and as human beings. Also, I’ve talked to casting about this — that it’s important that we have trans representation in the shows — meaning trans characters played by people of trans experience. But it’s also important that trans people are cast in nontrans roles. I want kids to know that their trans experience does not have to limit their possibilities. It doesn’t have to define everything they do, including the characters they play. My hope is that this initiative will increase the possibilities for these actors by expanding roles for them and also reinforcing their own belief in themselves. 

This program will also give these kids some practical skills. The process of putting together the audition tapes for the challenge will give these kids experience for the future. We’ve provided detailed directions and a video for them so that they can learn how to do it. The 12 kids who will end up taking the master class with me will get training that I hope will help them land jobs in the future. And ultimately I’d like to see a number of the kids coming through the challenge getting considered for roles on all sorts of Nickelodeon shows. So all in all, my goal is to provide these kids with some experience, training, and opportunities that will help form a foundation for them so that they can be successful in the future. 

What does it mean to have a network like Nickelodeon supporting you in lending visibility to trans young people? 
It is very hard to put into words the amazing level of passion and support I have received from Nickelodeon. I’ve had senior executives as well as gaffers and prop masters approach me and say, “I heard about what you’re doing. How can I help?”

When we were shooting the self-tape instructional video that’s on the website for this project, one of our Danger Force crew members was asked to help out. When he found out that this was for trans youth he got so excited — he went above and beyond to find set pieces, set up specific lighting, and even made an appearance in the video. That’s generosity. Everyone’s been so generous. They get it. And it’s important that the LGBTQ+ community — as well as other marginalized communities — see this because we need to collaborate, accept support, and stand together. If communities who have been historically beaten down and disregarded are going to claim their equal place in our society, it needs to happen at least in part by people in positions of power opening up the gates and offering up a place to nurture. And that’s exactly what Nickelodeon is doing by being my partner in this project.

If there had been a television network doing this when I was a kid, my childhood would have been vastly different. I wouldn’t have felt so alone. It’s validating for kids in a way that is truly lifesaving. The messaging to kids is “You exist, you matter, and we want you to be authentically you.” So it means the world. It means that in all this mess that’s happening in the world, there are great people and great companies doing great things. 

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