Last fall, Amazon had a hit with its new original series, Transparent. In 10 half-hour episodes, the first season explores a father's late-life transition into womanhood and his adult children's attempts to come to terms with it. Jeffrey Tambor's careful, endearing portrayal of Maura earned the actor a Golden Globe Award last month. Each episode races through moments of sharp wit, familial failures of communication and tender poignancy.
Transparent producer Rhys Ernst, who grew up in Chapel Hill, has been a key figure behind the scenes since the beginning. He met series creator Jill Soloway at Sundance in 2012, where he presented his MFA thesis film, The Thing. They kept in touch, and Soloway hired Ernst when the show began taking shape. He helped bring on a diverse trans-, queer- and woman-friendly crew, and also designed the opening credits.
Though Ernst left the Triangle to earn degrees from Hampshire College and the California Institute of the Arts, and now lives in Los Angeles, he considers Chapel Hill his hometown—his parents still live there. In a recent phone call, he caught up with his old stomping ground's weekly paper to discuss Transparent and larger trans issues in TV and life.
INDY: How did working on Transparent happen for you?
RHYS ERNST: I transitioned [to male] around the time I went back to grad school for film, and my MFA thesis film got accepted to Sundance. That's where I met Jill Soloway, who was there with her own shorts. She had done United States of Tara, a lot of TV. She was kind of transitioning into directing, and also into the indie world a bit. We kept on bumping into each other and chatting, and kept in touch. At the festival, we talked about trans issues in film. One of her parents had just recently come out [as trans], and she was writing the pilot. She reached out to collaborate, and I've been on it since.
The show has become a pretty big hit. Did that surprise you at all, or did it feel like you were working on something big?
It was sort of both at once. There was an incredible amount of kismet around the show. There was a strange, special vibe around it, and you kind of felt like there was a spark. But at the same time, it felt very small and intimate. There wasn't massive oversight from executives. Amazon was involved, but really pretty hands-off. It enabled the creative process. The cast and crew felt like a smaller family than a huge network production. It was on the Paramount lot, everything was union, all to the traditional standards. But something about it felt more organic or independent.
I think part of that is due to Jill's feminist approach as a filmmaker. There's a lot of women as heads of departments. We hired a bunch of trans people behind the scenes —that was one of the things I oversaw. Jill's approach is a lot more collaborative, laterally modeled rather than hierarchically modeled.
Last fall, around when the second season was announced, the show started publicly searching for a trans woman writer. This may be an obvious question, but why is hiring trans people so important for a show like this?
Basically, trans stories have been a marginal part of television and film for a long time, typically in really problematic ways. Most of the characters are either villains or victims. It's pretty exploitative. The storytelling methodologies are starting to change, but one of the most important next steps is to start to integrate trans people into the production chain. Imagine if you had a show—Designing Women or something—but there wasn't a single woman in the writers' room, or a single woman producer. You can apply that to any underrepresented group. Trans issues in the media have been so underdeveloped.
I think until trans people become media-makers themselves, become a part of their own representation—that's a huge piece that's necessary to go forward. We've seen a lot of incredible figureheads in the trans movement in the public sphere, but I'm interested in more than casting. While that's incredibly important, I'm really excited about imagining trans directors, producers and writers behind the scenes, who actually become authors in their own work.
I recently talked to The Pinhook's Kym Register and the musician Chris Pureka about the rising tide of LGBTQ acceptance in mainstream culture. Kym raised the point that people are accepting not so much of queer culture, but of gay culture, and only if it looks like mainstream culture—like marriage. What are your thoughts?
I think that's true. Gender is the complicated next step. It's always been there. People transgressing gender norms has always been a part of homosexuality, for instance. However, it almost became the sticking point for homophobia. If you were a masculine, straight-acting gay guy, you're going to have a different experience than a really feminine androgynous, more queer gay man.
The "T" has been totally left out of a lot of the progress in recent years, and it's kind of catching up now. One of the things that's so transgressive about Transparent is that it's not just trying to show transgenderism in terms of assimilation. It's not about the trans woman belle of the ball. The character, Maura, is a late transitioner. Passing might not be a part of her experience. She has different issues in front of her than a knock-out 20-something trans woman who totally passes. It's opening questions about the gender binary. I think that's the future of what we need to deal with, culturally—to actually look at the gender binary instead of, just, "Gay people can be just like straight people" or "Trans people can be just like pretty, straight people."
Everybody is trapped in the gender experience, cis people included. I think that's one of the reasons Transparent and stories like that are really affecting for cisgendered people. Gender freedom for someone like Maura can actually mean gender freedom for a cis person. Like, what is a cis person's gender box? What kind of compromises or self-imposed restrictions has this person gone through life with, in terms of relating to the concept of what they're supposed to do as a man or a woman? At the root of it, there's really radical ideas about gender for all people.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rhys' pieces."