Meet Ian Harvie, the ‘Transparent’ Actor Playing the Authentic Trans Roles He Never Got to See on Screen
This interview is one part of ScreenCrush’s new franchise Our Hollywood, a month-long series about the past, present and future of transgender visibility in film and television. Stay tuned throughout June’s LGBTQ Pride Month for in-depth profiles with photos shot by Amos Mac, essays and exclusive videos.
If you don’t know Ian Harvie from his stand-up, you probably know the actor-comedian from the first season of Transparent. In his acting debut Harvie played Dale, a transgender man and teacher’s assistant. When he goes on a date with Gaby Hoffmann‘s Ali Pfefferman, she imagines a fantasy where Dale is an ultra-butch, flannel-clad dude living in a cabin in the woods. But in reality Dale is just an average guy with a typical house; just because he’s a trans guy doesn’t mean he’s a lumberjack stereotype. It was a brilliant episode that spotlighted the ways society can often place assumptions on trans men, and on masculinity in general.
Coincidentally, the first trans person Harvie ever met in real life was a man who worked at a lumber mill. “I don’t feel like I existed until I met my first trans person, and they weren’t on TV,” Harvie told us during an interview in Los Angeles last month. “When you get to see yourself in somebody else, for the first time it can feel like you exist, and if you feel like you exist, then it might be f—ing life saving.”
Though Harvie didn’t get to grow up watching positive transmasculine1 characters or even trans actors onscreen, he’s helping to change that for trans people today. Following his Transparent gig, he had a four-episode arc on ABC’s Mistresses as a wealthy businessman, and a guest role on Freeform’s Young & Hungry as an estranged uncle who re-enters his niece’s life years after transitioning. During a photo and video shoot for ScreenCrush’s Our Hollywood series, Harvie spoke about the self-affirming power of seeing yourself reflected in others, and how he hopes his characters bring comfort to young trans people watching at home.
Looking back on Hollywood history, what’s one way the industry got trans representation wrong?
Probably one of the biggest mistakes, I think, in showbiz and Hollywood, is not including trans people in the writing process. Whether they’re actually writing, they need to be part of the story-writing process as a consultant. You can’t possibly write the trans experience without ever having consulted a trans person. So probably my biggest beef, my biggest issue, is historically not including trans people in the creation of the story to get it right.
What was the first trans image that you remember seeing in scripted media and how did it affect you?
You know what I was going to say, and it’s not trans at all – Tootsie. But it was the first time I had seen somebody in a movie play with gender that way and it wasn’t trans at all. […] I was young and that was really fascinating to me. It was probably the first time that I recognized in myself that I wished that I could change my gender, become that other gender. In that film they just made it so easy you know! [Laughs]. Slap on some makeup. But I realize that it’s not a trans film, it was the first time that I related to someone changing their gender.
What’s an image you remember from film or TV that was particularly awful to you or that you wish you hadn’t seen?
The first time I ever saw a trans image that hurt my feelings was probably in The Crying Game. The rejection of somebody because of who they were broke my heart. What I remember watching and thinking and feeling was that this person is a freak, and I remember how that hurt me and I didn’t know why.
Was there a trans image you saw on screen that felt positive to you? One that gave you hope for what it means to be trans, or hope for becoming a trans actor?
Not until really recently have I seen anything that has given me hope as a trans actor, in the last two or three years, maybe four years. Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black is really exciting, but [she’s] still a woman of color in prison. So as excited as I was for her as an actor to be cast as a regular recurring role – I think that that’s fantastic. And I know that that’s a reality, trans women of color are in prison. It gave me hope as an actor that I could be an actor, but the storyline of this trans woman of color being in prison still made me a little sad.
Do you think your journey as a trans person would have been different had you seen positive trans portrayals on screen at a young age?
Yeah, of course my life would be different. My life would be different because I would have felt like I had existed a lot sooner than I did. I don’t feel like I existed until I met my first trans person, and they weren’t on TV. I didn’t know they existed, and I didn’t know I existed as a result of it. Had I seen someone when I was younger, I might have known who I was, and it might have saved me from a lot of struggle.
I think about other gender non-conforming2, trans-identified, non-binary3 kids out there and that they get to see something today that – when you get to see yourself in somebody else, it for the first time can feel like you exist, and if you feel like you exist, then it might be f—ing life saving. To be able to see yourself in somebody else. That first time that I met a trans guy and had the mirror put in front of me, I felt like – well, I was scared, but I was relieved. I was so relieved to know that there were others out there. That I was not alone in my trudging and that maybe I didn’t have to trudge anymore. That actually this guy that I met had a life. He had a life! A productive life. He worked at a lumber mill. He transitioned at a lumber mill, in Maine! He had a really great life and I just thought maybe I can have that life too.
What has your auditioning experience been like?
I would say that most of the auditions that I go to are for trans guy roles. But I have gone out for cisgender4 roles and I’ve gotten those roles as well. I have to say I’ve not had any bad experiences in the audition room. I don’t feel judged about my transness in that room, but I also have the privilege of being a trans guy. When I go out for a [cis] role they don’t know that I’m trans so they are not necessarily making that judgement. I know that I have that privilege because of how I look.
I eat it all the time in audition rooms and really it’s not a game with me and them, it’s always a game in my head of like, just go in and do your best. If you don’t get an invite to the party, then you didn’t want to go to the dumb party anyway! Move on, go to the next thing. I’ve personally not ever thought yet that I didn’t get something because of my identity. I absolutely know that that happens, but I’ve also gotten things because of my identity. I got Dale in Transparent because of my trans identity. I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on role because of who I am, I’ve missed out on roles because I ate it in the audition.
What affect do you hope your characters Dale on Transparent, Michael on Mistresses, and Chris on Young & Hungry have on young transmasculine or gender non-conforming people?
A couple of things: One, that hopefully I’m telling a story that is authentic and that pieces of it [will resonate], and not all of it because those stories are never going to embody one person watching [but] pieces of it will. I hope that the youth feel comforted that parts of their story are being told, that they, too, could be an actor one day, and that they don’t have to nix their dreams because they’re trans. That there are people out there actually doing these things. That they can be a storyteller too, and it doesn’t have to be as an actor, it could be as a director. Hopefully it snowballs into this big ball of positive thinking that things are possible. It’s back to that [idea], when you feel like you exist, you can also feel like things are possible. That connectivity and seeing yourself in somebody else, I hope that’s what happens with younger people.
1Transmasculine: An umbrella term used by someone assigned female at birth (AFAB) who feels that is an incomplete or inaccurate description of their gender identity and/or gender expression, and who identifies on the masculine spectrum of gender identity.
2Gender non-conforming: A term used by someone whose gender expression does not conform to conventional expressions of masculinity or femininity. Not all gender non-conforming people identify as transgender, and not all transgender people identify as gender non-conforming.
3Non-binary: A term used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the conventional categories of man and woman, and/or outside of the male and female binary. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from the above terms.
4Cis or cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
Note: Not all of the above terms are universal to people of trans, gender non-conforming, and/or non-binary experience. Definitions may vary from person to person.