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Rain Valdez on how she's changing trans stories in Hollywood

When Rain Valdez entered an acting class, she was often the lone queer person or the only trans woman.

During auditions in Hollywood, she was pigeonholed into playing roles that centered around certain stereotypes about sexuality, gender and race. But Valdez wanted more nuance — and more people like her in the room.

Two years ago, she founded ActNOW, Los Angeles's only LGBTQ acting class, which she said "allows us to be the majority" so "we can literally just focus on the craft of acting." It's also a counter to Hollywood's age-old practice of casting cisgender actors to play transgender characters with the excuse that there simply aren't any "big name" transgender actors. To her, it's "a space where people can find us."

ActNOW is just one approach Valdez is taking to improve transgender representation in the entertainment industry. The past few months have been rewarding for the creator of "Razor Tongue," a short-form series that earned her an acting Emmy nomination this year. That seven-part series was shot in four days, by a crew that was largely LGBTQ and people of color, and was written and produced by Valdez. She also plays the lead role of a self-assured Belle who has no qualms in calling men out for their behavior. (Valdez is currently working toward a second season with more characters and longer episodes.)

Nearly all of Valdez's projects are borne out of a craving for more diverse and challenging characters on screen. Valdez's acting career kicked off with roles on TV Land's "Lopez" and Amazon's "Transparent," the latter of which she also helped produce. Those roles, along with her other two short films, "Ryans" and "Hexed," amassed a fanbase that allowed her to entirely fund the $15,000 production budget for "Razor Tongue" via social media.

When Valdez received a Primetime Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series" for "Razor Tongue," that recognition also came with some milestones. She is the first Filipina American trans actress and just the second transgender performer ever to be nominated for an Emmy, six years after Laverne Cox was the first. While last year saw the highest percentage of LGBTQ representation on screen, more than half of LGBTQ characters received fewer than three minutes of screen time. Last year was also the third consecutive year with no transgender representation in any major studio films, an especially troubling statistic when 80 percent of Americans don't personally know someone who is transgender but 90 percent know someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Whether in front of the camera or behind the scenes, Valdez wants better representation of the trans community on the screen. She believes Hollywood has made baby steps — and is proud of the progress made so far — but changes are still needed, starting with empowering trans voices in the stories they create.

"Trans people deserve to feel like they're grand prize," she told the PBS NewsHour. "They deserve to feel like they're just as valid as any other artist in this industry."

Ahead of the 72nd PrimeTime Emmy Awards, which will be a virtual ceremony on Zoom this year, the NewsHour sat down with Valdez to talk about her love of romantic comedies, how Hollywood ought to improve transgender representation, and how she's complicating narratives around trans characters.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You've talked about falling in love with Hollywood at a young age. What specific movies or TV shows did you cherish and why?

I loved romantic comedies growing up, so anything that was [a] Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts lead were definitely up my alley. It's one of the movies that I would always look forward to. I also really loved Michelle Pfeiffer because she had a different way of dealing with her intensity and her emotions and her sexuality. And I kind of related to her a lot because she was funny but she also had this intensity. I'm a huge fan of Whoopi Goldberg. I loved her growing up, her comedy and her movies.

And one of my favorite shows is Ally McBeal. I see a lot of myself in an Ally. It was also one of the first times where I saw a trans character played by a woman [Cindy McCauliff played by Lisa Edelstein]. But she wasn't vilified. She wasn't there for the purpose of being shamed. And it really made me feel like there was hope with the industry. So I appreciate that show, not only for the fact that it's an incredible show, but just the way that they were able to handle a transgender character.

You love rom-coms, but they rarely — if at all — feature trans women. Why is trans representation important for romantic comedies?

Romantic comedies are propaganda for who gets to be loved. For the past few decades, we've been telling the world that those who get to be loved are as cisgender, heterosexual, gorgeous and moneyed. Trans people haven't been afforded an aspirational narrative like cis people have. Cisgender people have been able to move around the world pretty freely and as if they own it, where with trans people, what we've seen is content through film and TV that sort of ostracize us out of society. It's really important that we start shifting that narrative and giving trans people the kind of representation that they deserve because we're all human beings.

In a recent op-ed for Variety, you wrote, "I started to realize that film and TV did not love me back." Can you talk about how your relationship to both mediums changed over time for you?

It was quite evident that Hollywood had an issue with trans people and kept using it as a plot twisting device in a way to sensationalize our identities. Lucky for me, I was able to identify as a woman so I saw myself in the female representations that I loved growing up. It wasn't really until I arrived in Los Angeles [that] I realized that it was going to be a lot tougher to get a job as an actress or in the industry in general because of how I identify. So for a long time, I didn't disclose that I was transgender because I was having a hard enough time just being an Asian American.

But once I started to realize that the power to change the narrative partly was solely on my responsibility, when I started to realize that if I wanted to be seen differently and if I wanted to be treated seriously about what I stand for and what my skill sets are, then I had to show people what I was capable of. So for me, it started with this notion that if we want to revolutionize the industry, we have to take responsibility for some of the representations that Hollywood has partaken and figure out a way to kind of reverse all of that and give my community something that makes them feel validated and makes them feel that they're being seen.

What hurdles did you face in finding work in the entertainment industry as a Filipina American actress and filmmaker, and also as a trans woman?

A lot of the roles that I was getting to audition for were very stereotypical. They had a Filipina accent or an Asian accent or they were nurses or maids. I didn't really identify with any of those roles. To be honest, I saw myself as the lead of a show, because that's what I wanted to do and the women that I watched growing up, that's what they were. If I was going to change that or shift it, it was up to me to show people what I was capable of. It really wasn't until I started writing roles for myself where I showed people that I could do more than what they think that I can do — I could actually be funny, and I could actually be strong, and I could actually lead a show.

Valdez's 2016 short film "Ryans."

The struggles were just realizing that there weren't the kind of roles in Hollywood that I wanted to play because those roles were specifically going to white women, white actresses. It made me want to quit the business for a while because I thought that they would never happen for me. But, luckily, that idea didn't last very long, and I just started creating for the sake of feeding my passion and allowing myself to do the things that I wanted to do. If I wanted to act, I had to create the opportunities for myself.

In creating your own work and your own films and then also starring in them, what kinds of narratives were you wanting to tell?

I wanted to show trans people in a nuanced, aspirational but also messy lens, but told from a perspective that's community based — a perspective from a Filipina American trans woman. Just like Reese Witherspoon and Sandra Bullock get to be bitchy or they get to be an asshole, and then they get to be funny — I wanted to play those roles, but make the character Filipina American and trans so that my community in the intersectionality of it can see that we can do those too. So for me, it was also important for me to kind of prove to myself and Hollywood that when you have a character who happens to be trans, the story doesn't have to solely be based on her identity as a trans woman. The story can be anything, and her identity as a trans woman is just a part of who she is, it's just part of how she moves around in the world and how she became a woman. It's just part of her experience.

I wanted to show that our stories don't necessarily have to be about the transition or tricking people and deceiving people and making them think that we're something that we're not. That's an archaic narrative that's been told over and over again in Hollywood that I wanted to change.

"Razor Tongue" is a show that you wrote, crowdfunded, produced and starred in. It's now up for an Emmy this year. What effect are you hoping this representation will have on LGBTQ people watching who want to be writers, actors or producers?

For me, courage begets courage, and I think that I was placed on this earth not only to work hard and do what I love to do, but also inspire people. And my community needs as much inspiration, aspiration, representation in order to combat all the negative depictions that have been created in the last hundred years.

The first episode of "Razor Tongue."

It's very important that when people find this show, they know how much of the [LGBTQ] community was employed in front of the camera and behind the camera. And I hope that inspires them to continue to not just dream, but to actually live in the dream and pursue everything that they want to pursue. I believe that trans people deserve to feel like they're grand prize. They deserve to feel like they're just as valid as any other artist in this industry.

What was your reaction to the Emmy nomination?

My reaction to the Emmy nomination was a shock and a lot of excitement. I don't think I've ever shook that way in my entire life. I could barely type on my phone. I barely could speak. Part of the shock was that I knew that this was a huge deal. As a Filipina American transwoman being nominated for an Emmy, it's not something you hear of every day. And so it's huge for both of my communities and it makes me proud that I get to share this honor with them. I feel like this nomination is a win in a big way, not just for me as someone who's being acknowledged for their talent and their hard work, but for our community it validates us and it allows us to be seen more, and I think that's part of the revolution and that's part of what I've been working so hard to do.

What was the inspiration driving the story behind "Razor Tongue," which you've described as both a "spoof on call out culture" but also one that touches on themes of new romance, loving yourself, and standing up for yourself and knowing your convictions?

I had this idea for a character who just was at a place in her life where she valued herself and has done the interrogation of knowing her worth and knowing when certain things shouldn't be said or when certain things shouldn't have happened and allowing herself the agency to stand up and speak up for herself. It's a very empowering thing to write, to perform and to actually see on screen because more often than not, when an uncomfortable situation happens, we feel it being uncomfortable but we don't really say anything. We just kind of walk away and realize, wait a minute, that shouldn't have happened. So I love seeing a character who actually in the moment stands up for herself and says something, because I think that that will empower more women to do so.

The story centers around Belle who is navigating people's reactions to her as a woman and a woman of color. How much of Belle is autobiographical?

Maybe 30 to 40 percent. The first episode — that did happen in real life. I was on a date, and I couldn't get a word in edgewise. It was one of the moments where I allowed myself to actually stand up for myself. I've been in so many job interviews where I'm immediately dismissed as well, and no one really knows why I'm immediately dismissed. I don't know if it's the way I speak or the way I look or whatever. I just know it just never really felt fair. I wanted to show how uncomfortable it can be being a woman of color in any workforce or in any dating capacity. But also, I wanted to give my female audience something to really root for and to aspire to.

The first episode also begins with a conversation about race not gender. Was this intentional?

That was definitely intentional. The "Where are you from?" question is something that I can never escape because of how I look, people aren't sure how to place me. And men, if they can't place you, suddenly they exotify you. It becomes sort of this fulfillment of their fantasy of being with someone who is different from their skin color or different from the women they see in their neighborhood. And that's a consistent theme that's happened all my life here in the industry — no one really knows if I'm Hispanic or Asian or Italian; I've gotten them all. So I thought it would be fun to focus on that and have people see what it feels like for a woman who's just kind of over it.

Not focusing on gender also allows us to see Belle and the different aspects of her personality, seeing her in her vulnerability, seeing her in her power and inner strength, and also seeing her get very sexy and romantic and funny. I like that she gets to be pursued by this gorgeous, blue eyed-man and he doesn't care whether she is trans or not. And so for me, I wanted the audience to realize that there are people out there who don't care about our identity. They're just attracted to us because they're attracted to us.

What did you want the audience to come away feeling and thinking about differently after watching "Razor Tongue?"

I wanted people to walk away after watching Razor Tongue to be excited about the characters, but I also wanted them to feel like there are consequences to being bold and to calling people out and to stepping into the role of who you think you are. I think with Black Lives Matter and with COVID and also with this current administration, we're all kind of like, "Wait a minute, where do I actually stand, and what do I actually believe in, and what am I actually going to be fighting for?" So I think Belle is at a crossroads — Is she going back to being complacent again and just live in her privilege as a light-skinned, transgender woman, or is she going to join forces with the bigger movement and actually use her voice for change? I want people to walk away thinking that you can have a voice, and you can stand up for yourself, but there's actually a bigger movement that people need to start fighting for.

READ MORE: Yo-Yo Ma's heartfelt call to action to artists during the pandemic

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