'Star Trek: Discovery': Ian Alexander on Playing First Trans Character
6th November 2020

Star Trek: Discovery introduced transgender actor Ian Alexander as Gray, the franchise’s first-ever trans character, in the latest episode of the CBS All Access series. The 19-year-old, who uses the pronouns he/him or they/them, came into the fold after executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Michelle Paradise saw his work on Netflix’s short-lived series, The OA, where Alexander played Buck Vu. Originally auditioning for the role of Adira, the franchise’s first non-binary character that went to newcomer Blu del Barrio, Kurtzman and Paradise were so impressed by his take that they molded Gray specifically for Alexander.

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“Playing Gray really has reassured a lot of my own self-confidence, and really boosted that belief and faith that I have in myself. Because I think I do tend to feel a lot of imposter syndrome,” Alexander tells ET. I think that’s sort of the conundrum of a lot of other trans actors — and just anyone in general experiences this to some extent. But especially trans actors because there are so few opportunities for us that when we finally do get those opportunities, it feels kind of alienating. It feels like we shouldn’t be there because it feels sort of unexpected that we are finally getting included in ways that we weren’t before.”

He adds, “For pretty much the entire history of the film industry, trans people have been sort of a taboo topic or something that was presented as negative. So I think I really have grown a lot since joining Star Trek and realizing my worth and being uplifted by the amazing cast and crew and people around me. And recognizing that I do have a place in this amazing, wonderful franchise and this universe that it’s just so cool to be a part of. I’m really grateful for that experience.”

With the latest episode of Discovery now streaming on CBS All Access, ET spoke with Alexander about how he came to the role of Gray, how playing the character has impacted his own personal growth and what he’s doing to advocate for trans equality.

ET: You made your acting debut on The OA. How do you think you’ve grown since getting that first job?

Ian Alexander: The OA was my first-ever TV, film, professional experience. I really have grown so much as an actor and also just as a person since then. I really didn’t intend on choosing acting as my career when I was younger, but once it became an option to me, I realized this is something I’m extremely passionate about. I’ve always loved storytelling. I’ve always loved performing. At the end of the day, I’ve always really loved making other people happy because it makes me really happy. So the fact that just by existing, and being myself, and being out and proud, and visible on a show like Star Trek, and just showing the world you can be trans and you can be happy and successful is so meaningful to me. I really am proud of myself for how much I have grown since The OA because I’m a much more confident, self-assured person now. I really am excited to see how much further I grow in the next few years.

How did your experience playing Buck, a transgender character, on The OA, which has its own following, prepare you for Star Trek: Discovery and the fan base that surrounds it?

I think The OA and Star Trek have similar, very passionate fan bases — people that really, deeply connect to the storylines and the characters. I am just so honored and so grateful to be a part of The OA family. Even though it is over now, there still is that impact that it’s had on so many people internationally. I mean, there are fans all over the globe. So anywhere I go it’s amazing to hear how I have helped impact someone’s life. They say like, “Hey, like, my kids, or, my nephew, et cetera, love you.” Hearing stuff like that is really awesome because I know that there’s a lot of trans kids out there that never really saw themselves onscreen. And maybe my character was the first time that they felt seen. So I’m sure that’s going to be the same for Star Trek as well. People have not really seen trans people, especially not a trans masculine person in a mainstream show as huge and immensely worldwide popular as Star Trek. So I’m very, very excited for that impact that these characters — my character, Gray, and Blu del Barrio’s character, Adira — will have on the world, especially for trans teenagers and trans people in general.

How did Star Trek: Discovery and this character come to you?

I believe the writers, Alex [Kurtzman] and Michelle [Paradise], had seen my work on The OA, so The OA has really just influenced my life and my career a lot. They were really interested in bringing me in to read for a character. I actually originally auditioned for the part of Adira and yes, I strongly believe Blu is the perfect person for that role. I am so happy that they cast Blu. They loved my energy, they loved my personality and my own take that I brought to the character, so they said, “You’re not right for Adira, but we’re going to take this character and we’re going to change their name to Gray and you can play Gray. You can be Adira’s partner in crime.” And I was like, “Wait, you mean, I’ll get to play a character that’s friends with another trans person on the show? That’s amazing,” which has never happened to me before. I’ve never had the opportunity until Star Trek to work with another trans actor. I’m really, really happy that they gave us that opportunity.

So it sounds like this was a bit similar to your experience with The OA, where they were molding the character to you and your experience?

I would say, yeah. I would say definitely similarly to The OA, the character was sort of shaped to me as the person, sort of influenced by me. I would say that with Buck Vu they already had the vision of someone who was Asian American and trans male in their heads. So they were looking for that specific person, and they found me. I don’t know if it was the same for Star Trek. I don’t know if they had that [in their heads]. 

What can you tell us about Gray? What drew you to this character?

Gray is a brilliant young Trill. He’s very optimistic, just full of love and light and compassion, and he’s really everybody’s hype man. He really brings a lot of positivity and uplifts Adira when they need a confidence boost. Because Adira’s brilliant, but they are not necessarily the most confident person. Gray’s there to sort of remind them of their worth and remind them how smart and brilliant they are. I am really, really excited to be playing Gray because he’s just such a cool character. And also, it’s so nice to see a trans person exist onscreen without necessarily needing to exclaim to the world, “I’m trans.”

How has playing him informed your own personal journey and your own personal growth? Has there been anything that has been illuminating for you as an actor?

Let me think about that, that’s a beautiful question. I think playing Gray really has reassured a lot of my own self-confidence, and really boosted that belief and faith that I have in myself. Because I think I do tend to feel a lot of imposter syndrome. I think that’s sort of the conundrum of a lot of other trans actors — and just anyone in general experiences this to some extent. But especially trans actors because there are so few opportunities for us that when we finally do get those opportunities, it feels kind of alienating. It feels like we shouldn’t be there because it feels sort of unexpected that we are finally getting included in ways that we weren’t before. For pretty much the entire history of the film industry, trans people have been sort of a taboo topic or something that was presented as negative. So I think I really have grown a lot since joining Star Trek and realizing my worth and being uplifted by the amazing cast and crew and people around me. And recognizing that I do have a place in this amazing, wonderful franchise and this universe that it’s just so cool to be a part of. I’m really grateful for that experience.

In terms of writing your character and bringing authenticity to the story, did you have to educate the writers at all about the trans experience? 

I definitely have not had to do any education. Thankfully, Michelle and Alex, they really know [what they’re doing] and are doing the work. I think it’s really important for any cis person that is writing a trans character and bringing a trans story that they consult with people that are actually going through that lived experience. I think they’ve done a great job with that.

When I spoke with Blu last week, they spoke very highly of how Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp, who broke barriers for LGBTQ+ representation on the show, and how they welcomed them into the fray. How have they helped you in guiding you through this experience?

Anthony and Wilson have really just been from Day 1 our biggest allies on set and our biggest supporters as well. They instantly took me and Blu under their wings. Same with Sonequa [Martin-Green]. Back when we were allowed to go outside and meet with people, they’d invite us out to lunch and things like that. Like, just talking to us off set and making sure that we felt welcomed and comfortable because it is really intimidating to fly out to a new city that you’ve never been to and to be surrounded by all these people you’ve never met. They really helped us feel included and we really are so grateful for the strong connection that we have now. They’re such amazing people.

Between them and Blu, have you all created a queer family on set? What is it like to be on this ride together?

Absolutely. I think we really have. It’s so funny because it sort of mirrors the relationship dynamics that we have in the show as well. So it’s amazing that we also, off set, have this mentor-mentee, older generation of queer-younger generation of queer dynamic and relationship. It’s so nice to be around other LGBT people and feel at ease and to know that you are safe and fully understood and respected. It’s so important to have that. I’ve been really, really grateful for that family that we have.

What can you tell us about Gray’s journey this season?

Without going into anything that is spoilery, I’m going to tread very carefully here. I’m excited for everyone to see how Gray’s story develops, how his connection with Adira strengthens and grows over time. That connection that they have truly is special. The future of Gray is… There’s a lot of exciting things coming up, especially as Gray’s story progresses into season 4, which I am currently filming for. I am allowed to talk about that. I can mention Gray is coming back to season 4, you can put that in there. Gray is going to be coming back throughout the end of season 3 and then also through season 4 as well.

You’re the first out transgender Asian American actor in Hollywood. What does that mean to you personally? 

I’m honored and grateful to have the privilege of being able to be one of the first out Asian American trans actors on television. I’m excited because I think there’s a big difference in the past few years. So many more trans actors, so many more casting calls that are just open and gender diverse. A lot more storylines that are becoming more gender inclusive for non-binary people as well. So I’m really, really excited to keep seeing progress. And also maybe eventually be able to one day work on a set that is like, there’s trans people behind the camera and in front of the camera. And I’m not just one of one, or one of two.

You’re also an advocate for transgender equality and mental health for LGBTQ+ youth. What do you want people to know and what are you hoping for? 

I really am hoping that I can use my platform to uplift the voices of people that haven’t been heard as much — people who are Black, people who are Indigenous, people who are disabled, people who are incarcerated, people who are houseless. All of those matters of racial justice and housing, accessibility, health care, accessibility, all those things are really important to me. Because at the end of the day, I really care about people. I really have a compassion for every single human being and for animals as well. I’m a very empathetic person and I hope that people are uplifted and inspired and empowered by the things that I say and the content that I put out there online. I really want to encourage trans people to not wait around for someone to give them permission to create something. I want them to just go for it and to make whatever video you want to make. Make whatever show you want to make. Make whatever short film on your iPhone with some friends. Do whatever to make your story visible and to put yourself out there. Don’t wait around for someone to give you permission.

Have you heard from your fellow actors in the trans community after your casting was announced? Or what has that kind of response been like for you?

I recently have started to connect with a larger group of trans masculine and non-binary actors, which has been healing because it felt isolating being in this industry for five years now to really only know of other trans actors, but not really know them. Blu was really the first person that I created such a strong friendship with that I was like, “I want to know other trans actors intimately. I want to know what’s going on in their lives. I want to know about them as people and not just what they’re acting in.” So yes, recently there’s this community that we’ve been developing amongst other trans masculine actors. I’s been so helpful to know we’re all together. There’s so much of us actually that it’s ridiculous that we’re not all actively working right now because we all deserve the same opportunities. So many other actors were just ecstatic. They’re like, “Yes, yes! Trans people in space, yes.” I got so many ecstatic messages from other people that were like, “I saw you on national news yesterday. Like, what’s up?” I got a lot of texts like that, that were like, “I literally saw you on my mom’s TV.” That was cool to see all of that excitement and support because I am equally as excited.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery drop Thursdays on CBS All Access. 

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