Zach Barack made history this year when it was announced that he would appear in Spider-Man: Far From Home, making him the first openly trans actor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While there are a few canonically trans superheroes in Marvel Comics — the best-known being Loki, Thor’s brother, who’s trans and nonbinary — and a few supporting trans feminine characters in the Marvel TV Universe (Mj Rodriguez as Sister Boy in Luke Cage; Shakina Nayfack as Frankie and Aneesh Sheth as Gillian in Jessica Jones), there’s never before been an out transgender actor or obviously trans character in the Marvel movie world.
Barack is not only a trans actor making history but a singer and comedian as well, all while studying music industry at the University of Southern California. He spoke with The Advocate about his trans identity, his breakout role, and navigating a superhero film’s set.
The Advocate: What inspired you to pursue acting?
Zach Barack: As a kid I liked attention, so that’s the basic part of it. No, I grew up in a family with three older brothers, so I think just by nature it’s hard not to occasionally fall on the shadow of each other, and I think that we were a little competitive. I wanted everyone to look at me. But I also just sort of fell into it. I saw an open casting call through [Transgender Talent, a talent management agency] and was like, you know, why not? I got one job before [Spider-Man]. It’s a social work video [for USC]. I play a trans alcoholic, but no one can view it unless they want to pay full tuition.
What impact has your queer identity had on your art?
With everything I do, whether it’s music, comedy, or acting, there’s a lot of things I want to say in the moment, and I tend to struggle with that. I think part of that is because a lot of my life people looked at me as being a woman. I was socialized and absorbed the norms of not taking up space. I went to an all-girls school, which obviously made things very complicated as a trans person. But the one thing it did empower me to do is realize how to take up space. When you’re in a room with people that are also struggling with that, you figure it out together, and art was one of the ways I did that. With comedy, it’s been empowering and such a cathartic outlet for me. With Spider-Man specifically, I’m always trans, so it permeates everything, right? It’s always going to be there. So even if I’m not playing a character that’s explicitly trans, it’s always going to be true for me. You can’t remove that. It’s always going to be part of my heart.
Zack Barack on set.
What was it like working on such a big project, particularly as, I believe, the only out trans actor?
There was another trans actor on the movie who’s also one of the classmates. But the truth is when I first got there, I didn’t know he was trans. So for most of the movie, I was functioning like [I was] the only trans person. I was really afraid. I didn’t know if I should tell people or not. The three boys [who lived near me], Tony [Revolori], Jacob [Batalon], and Remy [Hill] — Flash, Ned, and Brad [in the movie] — they were such nice guys, inviting me to everything, and one of those things was swimming. I was like, well, I’m going to take my shirt off, I’m going to have scars, and then it just won’t be a choice anymore. Then in the back of my head, I was like, they might already know.
I hopped into the pool and no one said a thing and it was fine. There was one day, actually, when I was with Jacob and we were talking about identity politics in a really loose way. He was talking about his stuff as a person of color, and I was talking about my stuff, and he said we all like each other and that’s where it ends. You know what I mean? And I think there was sort of an implication in that, like we get it, we’re here for you.
While trans feminine folks are becoming more prominent in film and TV, trans masc people remain largely unseen. Do you have any thoughts on that? How does it feel to be the face of such a big milestone in terms of trans representation?
Well, there’s a lot of pressure. I really want to do it right, and I also want Sony and Marvel to do it right. I think they did, but there’s this feeling of “I have no control of what’s going to happen!” So you cross your fingers. But at the end of the day, and I think this is just true of most art, people are going to garner whatever meaning they are from it. And I hope and sincerely believe that it will be meaningful and powerful. Because for me, even just knowing there was a trans person in the movie would’ve changed everything when I was a kid. Absolutely everything. Things would have happened a lot sooner for me in terms of coming out, in terms of feeling like I could be myself. I mean, the only exposure I had was really violent movies, especially with trans men. The only one in the mainstream was Boys Don’t Cry. And while I think it was a really beautiful movie in a lot of ways, it also made me feel like I couldn’t come out and that I didn’t want [that experience] for myself.
So I want trans men to be shown on-screen because the experience of [Boys Don’t Cry] is true. We need to be out there in a positive way so people know that we exist and aren’t afraid of us and don’t want to treat us that way. We need to stop being the butt of the joke and start being people, in the eyes of cis folks specifically. And the only way we’re going to do that is showing positive representation — not just us getting killed or assaulted. I think it’s taking longer with trans masc [representation] for frankly kind of gross reasons, which is that there’s this weird fascination with trans people, and trans women in particular, who are romanticized in this inappropriate way where people ogle at them. We’re people, you know? Our stories are interesting too.
Did you have any input on your character?
It was a Marvel movie, so we got things day of. I read the script once in a locked room and never saw the full thing again. But they were so kind — Jon Watts, our director, was very receptive to [any concerns]. I never had complaints explicitly, but if I had, it would have been met with nothing but positivity. Even [if that wasn’t the case], Zendaya, Tom [Holland], Jacob, Tony, Remy — they would not have let it go. So I think it’s important, having people with clout, people who have a voice, in the room.
Can you tell us anything about your character?
He’s a classmate along for the ride. I think the truth is that what Sony and Marvel were trying to do and did very successfully was create a class that looks [realistic]. It’s so unrealistic to have a group of kids that all look the same, and yet that’s what it’s been. It’s not just that main characters haven’t been cast as people of color or trans people, it’s also the folks who participate in the exposition. I think being there, adjacent to all the action, is really important in that way.
What was your favorite moment on set?
When we filmed in Venice on a boat. It was maybe the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. There was no dialogue or anything; it was just us. So we had Jon on the floor of the boat, filming, and they gave Martin, who plays our teacher, a walkie-talkie. It felt very much like we were on a field trip in that moment, and we were all being completely irreverent. They were like, “Zach, stick your hand in the water!” So I did and then everyone was like, “Don’t do that, it’s not safe!” We were just being kids and it was so much fun.
Tony Revolori, Zack Barack, Remy Hii, Zendaya, Angourie Rice.
Did superhero narratives have an impact on you growing up as a trans person, since superhero stories are very queer and trans?
I think I said that a hundred times on the carpet. It’s similar to how, if you’re an outsider, playing video games is a really good way to live the experience that you sometimes can’t be. If you can’t express yourself for fear of safety or if you’re just not ready or the way you want to be in real life, there’s an opportunity for you. I always used boy avatars when I would play games and I was like oh, they’re just cooler, but deep down I’m thinking because I want to be that! I have a TED X where I talked about this, but superheroes were really meaningful to me in that sense. Spider-Man is a really good example. In Homecoming, he’s a kid, and a big thing he’s dealing with is “I want to go to this school dance, but also, I’m Spider-Man, so how do I deal with both of those identities coming into conflict?” It’s like [it was] on set — you just don’t know what to expect when you reveal that part of yourself or when it comes up, you know? It’s such a parallel, having identities that challenge each other while trying to live in the world and fit in, but also wanting to actively be proud of who you are and wanting that to be something people know about you.
I know lots of people headcanon Peter Parker as trans!
Yeah! Someone made this fantastic — they called it a Spider-Trans suit — for a convention recently, and it’s down to every detail exactly like his suit, but it’s pink and blue like the trans flag. I thought it was really impressive. I think it makes a lot of sense that people interpret that character in a way that they need to. It means something to them.
Do you have any trans role models? I know you’ve spoken on how you didn’t have any growing up, but what about now?
Yeah, and some are not even people I saw on media. I was fortunate enough to go to a student diversity leadership my junior year of high school, and that was my first time coming into contact with people my age who were trans, and not just people I saw on a 20/20 episode in the background when I was 10. So having these young people, some of whom are younger than me, dealing with the same insecurities and being out — I was like, you all are really brave, because I’ve been keeping this to myself for a long time, and you’re already two years on testosterone as a freshman in high school. Also, there were a couple of older kids that had also graduated from my all-girls’ high school and came back like, “We’re boys now!” Alexandra Billings is someone I’ve gotten to work with, and that’s like having someone direct positivity and support at you. Without even saying anything or even generally talking to a group, you feel noticed and spoken to directly. Alexandra Grey was also on [Transparent] — amazing, talented singer. Meeting people who are given and giving opportunities like Jill Soloway, who gave us that opportunity to be in [Transparent], is really rad. I don’t know if I would say that I have anybody at this moment that I look up to, so much as people I can look around to for support.
So you mentioned Transparent — what’s next for you?
It comes out in September — it’s a musical. It’s beautiful, and I really think people are going to love it. I’m Jewish, and it’s something I don’t talk about a lot because the trans thing kind of comes first, but it’s something that culturally is really important to me and is a big part of my identity. My favorite things about Judaism are honestly some of my favorite things about being trans. It’s a lot about questioning things, and I’m not religious, but just on a cultural level, I really connect with that aspect of my identity. Both of my parents are Jewish, and Transparent has a lot of those elements in it in addition to being about trans things. Jill is nonbinary and talks about that openly, so it was meaningful to get to be a part of that and work for people like that.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is in theaters now. You can watch Barack’s TED X speech on superheroes and identity below: