I was there in my best teenage boy attire: Baggy jeans, chest binder, crew neck T-shirt, chucks, and no makeup. I knew that I still didn't pass completely from across an audition room, but I walked up to the table, and flashed my equity card. I asked for the "Eric" audition sides. My face was undoubtedly blushing. This wasn't my first time, but I could feel panic slowly start to rise from my belly. The audition monitor briefly hesitated as she passed over the female sides to grab the ones with 'Eric' scrawled at the top.
I identify as transgender*. Specifically I identify as genderqueer*, and up until very recently I worked under my given name, Emily. I have since changed my professional name to my more androgynous nickname, Em. I'm tiny and I have a feminine face and voice, so when I 'came out' as transgender in the business about two years ago, I wasn't sure what it would mean for my career. I was scared. Now, there are people who have never known me as anything other than transgender, and people who have known me for years and are hearing about this for the first time. As anyone who has ever 'come out' about anything knows, it is a never-ending process. And it is only accentuated in this business because you are constantly meeting new people and being asked to define yourself. As an actor, I am willing and passionate about playing roles all across the gender spectrum, but I actively seek out opportunities to play gender non-conforming females, transpeople, genderqueer people, and cisgender* males. Which hopefully explains why I asked for the audition sides that said 'Eric,' instead of the ones that said 'Tiffany.'
I felt good about my audition. I was relieved that everyone in the room seemed to accept my choice of roles. But I would be lying if I didn't say I was pleasantly surprised that they wanted to see me again. At the callback, there were about 15 cisgender boys and myself auditioning for the roles of Eric and Dylan. In moments like those, I get two very conflicting feelings. I guess you could chalk them up to 'fight or flight.' Fight: I want to be so good at what I do that they will have no choice but to go out on that limb and cast me! Flight: Run away, because I hear over and over in my head, "One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn't belong." Fight won.
When they offered me the job, I had an immediate feeling of accomplishment and joy, quickly followed by panic and doubt. Were they taking a risk by casting me, a transgender actor, in a cisgender male role? I have played a lot of male roles so far in my career, but this one is different. The role of "Eric Harris" would be the first time I have played a post-pubescent, cisgender male. Not a fictional character, but a real person. How would I get my voice low enough? Would audiences suspend their disbelief? How frickin' short would I look next to my costar James Scully? I kept asking the very same questions that piss me off when everyone else asks them.
Then I started to research Columbine.
Very quickly, my concerns about being perceived as enough of a 'man' took a back seat to my concerns about telling this story honestly and respectfully. I read everything I could get my hands on about Eric, Dylan, and the people of Columbine High School. I knew that the only way to tell this story was with as much real, honest information as I could gather. I spent two months reading books about Columbine, watching interviews with witnesses and victims, and reading and rereading Eric's journals, assignments, and transcripts from his home videos. I spent nearly all day, every day immersed in the events leading up to the murders as well as the attacks themselves. I memorized Eric's mannerisms and ticks from all the videos of him online. I read post-mortem psychological evaluations of his writings. I watched the movie Natural Born Killers that inspired the code name he gave to the attack - NBK. Just reading about all of that anger and hate started to eat away at me.
I have a hard time separating myself from the characters that I play. Playing Eric, I sometimes struggle to keep his intense anger and hatred from getting to me. I find that I need time after each show to crawl out of Eric's world and back into my own. Theatre can and does change our world. It forces us to truly look at people and events from which it is easier to turn away. Great theatre pushes us to explore topics we never have before or at least see them from a new perspective. When I walk out into the lobby after each show, I hear the audience's intense need to discuss and debate the events of the play. Those conversations seem to center around two VERY different topics: How and where genderqueer people can fit into our business, and our incredible need to find a way to end the threat of violence in our nation's schools. But either way, conversations have been started and that is why I will continue to walk into audition rooms and ask to be seen.
*Some definitions (as used in this article):
Transgender: an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. (GLAAD.org)
Cisgender: People whose gender identity matches what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Genderqueer: Identifying outside of the gender binary.