Exclusive Interview: Yeardley Smith on producing heartwarming trans drama Gossamer Folds

Playing in the feature narrative competition at this week’s Bentonville Film Festival, Gossamer Folds is a heartwarming tale of an unlikely freindship between ten year-old Tate (It star Jackson Robert Scott) and his twenty -something neighbour Gossamer (Empire’s Alexandra Grey) who happens to be a trans woman. Set in the 1980s Midwest, the film is produced by Emmy-winning actor Yeardley Smith through the production and development company she co-founded in 2015, Paperclip Ltd. Best known as the voice of the iconic Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons for over three decades, Smith is a passionate LGBTQ+ ally who was presented with the National Leadership Award by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in 2019.

Her Broadway debut in 1983 saw her acting opposite Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close in a production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing directed by Mike Nichols, leading to movie roles in Maximum Overdrive, The Legend of Billie Jean and Heaven Help Us. Among her many other film and television credits are City Slickers, As Good As It Gets, The Mindy Project, The Big Bang Theory, Mad Men, Murphy Brown, Dharma and Greg, and Herman’s Head. In 2004 she performed her one-woman show More in New York and Los Angeles and published her first novel, I Lorelei, through HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2009.

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Yeardley Smith about why she wanted to get Gossamer Folds made, casting Alexandra Grey in the lead role, GLAAD’s pre-production input on the screenplay, her take on LGBTQ representation in The Simpsons and what she admires about her friend, Oscar-winning screenwriter and activist Dustin Lance Black.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: First of all, thank you for being such a fierce LGBTQ+ ally.

Yeardley Smith: “It’s a privilege”.

Before we go on to the film, could you talk a little bit about how the performer in you first manifested itself. I understand that there was some lip-syncing in a garage involved!

“I’m one of those people who really knew from the age of five or six what I wanted to be. There was probably about a year there when I thought that I wanted to be a ballet dancer because I loved my ballet teacher. But then she moved away to the UK and I got a new teacher and I was like ‘no, no, no’, I realized ‘Oh, my God this is a full time job and I’m only six!’ At that time there was a woman who used to gather up all the kids in our neighbourhood, of which there were many, and she had masses of costumes in her basement. She also had eight children of her own and so she would turn her little one car garage into a theatre every summer and she would dress us up and we would lip-sync to famous musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and The Sound of Music. The kids would sit on the floor of the garage and the parents would spill out into the alley behind and stand and watch this great epic we’d put on every weekend. And I do remember standing behind her many little curtains and being incredibly nervous and then when the curtain was pulled back and my knees were knocking and the light hit me, my knees stopped knocking and I sort of felt a sense of belonging, that this was where I needed to be. And what I didn’t really realise until I was very much a grown up was when I started doing school plays, when I was about 11, I remember that there was a great feeling of safety. One; because I was quite a ham and so I would get a great laugh from the audience on stage, and that’s incredibly powerful, but two; I remember that even if the play ended badly, like everybody dies or it has an incredibly sad arc to it, there was a feeling like you could prepare yourself for it. So it’s a little bit like being able to predict the future. And there was great safety in that because I am an incredible control freak. So knowing that you could prepare yourself for the worst was incredibly satisfying and empowering.”

Alexandra Grey as Gossamer and Jackson Robert Scott as Tate in Gossamer Folds.

Tell us about how the screenplay for Gossamer Folds came to you.

“Actually it came to me through an old friend of mine who was acquainted with the screenwriter Bridget Flanery. She had written the script quite some time ago, and I think it had been optioned by someone else for a while and then it was free and clear and my friend Adam Carl, who’s actually a producer on the film, said ‘I really loved it and I think maybe you might love it too.’ And it really was love at first read, which is unusual for me. I’m kind of really a hardass when it comes to almost everything! But I loved this unusual friendship. And I loved that both of these people who feel as though they don’t belong in their own families find each other and form a great bond, as most people who feel on the outside do when they find each other. I thought it was a story with such optimism and heart, and also a great lesson that hate is taught. Tate, the little boy, rejects his father’s knee-jerk reaction and obviously learned bigotry toward Gossamer. Tate says ‘nah, I’m not going to do that, she’s cool. She wants to be my friend. She kind of gets me. I can ask her anything.’ And they form this great friendship.”

Yes, it’s really beautiful relationship. I love the way Tate looks up all the words he doesn’t understand in his dictionary because he doesn’t want anyone to explain anything to him. And as you say he doesn’t know the derogatory words that his father uses to refer to Gossamer and it’s a good reminder of the fact that bigotry is learned, which is ultimately quite hopeful, I think.

“I agree, every single person has an opportunity to change that trajectory and to reject these unbelievably horrible, loathsome, uninformed, ignorant notions and preconceived conceptions that people have about people who are different than them.”

Jackson Robert Scott as Tate in Gossamer Folds.

I love how that friendship at the heart of the film is portrayed by Jackson Robert Scott and Alexandra Grey. How did you come to cast her in the role of Gossamer?

“I really think that Alexandra is poised to be a huge star. When we sent out the casting notice we only considered trans actresses and Alexandra was one of the first three tapes that I saw audition, and she was so far and away the best and gave the most extraordinary performance. As an actress, I can say that putting yourself on tape for an audition, basically acting in a vacuum, is one of the least ideal scenarios to be able to generate a lot of emotion, and to give a complete performance, because it’s so one-sided, but Alexandra nailed it. Right from the get-go, she became the one to beat and nobody even came close. There is this thinking that you can’t cast somebody during the first five days that you watch tapes, you might miss something down the line, but I don’t roll that way, that’s not how I fly. She so got it and I had tears in my eyes watching it. She auditioned with the scene where she says to Jimbo, ‘why is it so hard for everybody to grasp the fact that my name is Gossamer, that I’m a woman? What’s the fucking problem?’ I’ll never forget it.”

That’s a very powerful scene and speech in the film. It’s great to see her doing so well in her career with her recurring role in Empire and she appeared on The Alienist recently too.

“Yes, I’m so pleased and proud. I really want this film to reach a much larger audience. We’re very gratified to be accepted into so many festivals, but of course the dream is that it gets a sale and that people around the world are able to see the film and appreciate Alexandra’s performance, really everyone’s performances, but she’s just a shining star for me.”

There’s another beautiful friendship in the film involving one of my favorites, Jen Richards, who I loved in Tales of the City as the young Anna Madgrigal. She plays Gossamer’s friend Diana in Gossamer Folds.

“Jen is wonderful and she came to us because she’s friends with our director Lisa Donato. I think they were roommates way back in the day. Jen was so gracious and so generous. We made this film on a shoestring and Jen Richards was just a consummate professional and just really classy and beautiful and extraordinary and I love her, I’m a huge fan myself.”

And people need to follow her on Twitter.

“Yes, she’s so funny isn’t she! And takes no prisoners. I so love that about her.”

And how did Ava Benjamin Shorr a brilliant cinematographer who happens to be trans come on board as the film’s director of photography? Was that Lisa’s decision?

“Yeah, it was Lisa’s decision. At Paperclip when we were looking for a director, we cast not a huge net, you know, we went out to a number of trans directors and also other queer directors like Lisa. Because I loved the screenplay I said we should do it and I didn’t want to wait for somebody to come along and help us finance it, so Paperclip financed it all ourselves. That meant that we could really put the pedal to the metal and go into production as soon as possible. So when you sort of start the race that fast, scheduling in some ways becomes even more complicated. Show business is on the one hand, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m not doing anything, I’m free for the next six weeks’, or ‘No, I don’t have any time for the next six months.’ So Lisa was always in the mix. And I’m a firm believer that if you proceed with passion and integrity success will follow, and that includes the right people showing up for the job. In terms of our crew we really wanted to include women and people of colour and people from the LGBTQ community and Ava was certainly a huge get, her work is so beautiful. Again, when you’re on a shoestring there are logistical challenges, but Ava was such a gift and so calm and so ready, and it was an absolute delight to have her.”

Ethan Suplee as Jimbo and Alexandra Grey as Gossamer in Gossamer Folds.

I know Alexandra enjoyed working with Ava, I think she’s worked with her at least three times now on different projects.

“You know we were actually inspired by an article in Variety put out by GLAAD called ‘5050by2020’ and it had to do with representing trans actors and people behind the scenes in a more full and accurate way. And it was so serendipitous because that article came out two weeks after I had read Gossamer Folds. I’d said ‘I think we should do this’, and then we sort of set the wheels in motion. And then this headline, this cover story, lands on our desk, and we’re like, ‘What? That just seems like Kismet.’ So we actually called Nick Adams, who is the media liaison for trans issues at GLAAD and he very kindly said ‘yes, I would be delighted to meet with you’. Because, you know, I’m a straight white woman, my other executive producers are straight white men and we’re doing a story about an African American trans woman in 1986. While I believe that if you have a beating heart you will respond to this story and it doesn’t matter when it takes place or geographically where it takes place, but we never want to purport to be the smartest people in the room and so there are things that we just wanted to make sure about and to be taught about what we didn’t know. And Nick Adams was just lovely and also pulled no punches. He said, ‘here are the things that you need to look out for.’ There wasn’t anything glaring because the script was in quite good shape, but it was interesting. He said, ‘God, there’s a lot of transgender and LGBTQ slurs in this film’, and we said ‘indeed there are’, and we actually ended up taking out about 75% of them. We didn’t need every single one in order to get the point across. Like we were saying, hate is learned. So it doesn’t make it really any easier to hear, but at least you can hear it less often.”

Yeardley Smith with HRC’s Chad Griffin in 2019.

Yes, hearing the kind of words that fortunately we don’t hear people use very often anymore just once or twice towards the beginning of the film is quite jarring. And, of course there’s the transphobic attack on Gossmer and Diana’s friend that’s happened as well. So that idea of what she’s up against is certainly there anyway. It’s interesting to hear the kind of input that Nick and GLAAD had because I do get frustrated with some films where there is some poorly handled LGBTQ representation and I just think GLAAD is there and they’re very willing for people to get in touch with them.

“Exactly, with open arms! One of the things that Nick Adams didn’t love was Carmen who was attacked being in bed all beat up and there was a lot of discussion about that scene and whether or not to keep it in because he felt it was so tropey. But we felt, this is 1986 and it’s obviously still happening and trans women of colour are killed every single day in this country and around the world. And for us, we felt that it was one more thing to get Gossamer out the door on her journey, living her full life going to New York. There’s that incredibly powerful scene after Gossamer goes with Diana to see Carmen in bed, and then she drives home and she sits outside her house and she has a full on breakdown of basically she can’t fucking take it anymore. And it doesn’t even need any words from Alexandra, she brings so much anguish to that moment. So we felt as though the pieces all fit together and I think after Nick saw the film when it was finished he really loved it and we were so relieved and again incredibly grateful for his guidance before we had even shot a frame of film.”

It’s interesting to hear that it was a dialogue with Nick and it’s not just like ‘you must remove that aspect’, and as you say there was a compelling reason to keep that scene in which is distressing but worked well in the in the film I think as far as Gossimer’s motivation. As well as producing, you play Phyllis in the film. She’s a bit cold isn’t she, but not unreasonable.

“Oh, she’s so awful!”

Well, this child is being brought into her workplace and probably standing on the wedding dresses, but yes she doesn’t have that much empathy does she. Less likeable characters are probably quite fun to play though I imagine?

“Yes, they are always great fun to play! I guess some actresses and actors are worried and are like ‘Oh, God, what if you don’t like me?’ I don’t really care about that. Gossamer was our third film that we’ve shot and I’ve been in two of them, but it really is these little drive-by parts and I sort of feel like they’re my little Hitchcock moments where it’s just like ‘Oh, there’s Yeardley, there’s she is, and then she’s gone!’ So for me it’s great fun and it’s sort of just a little wink and a nod. I always joke, ‘well, I had to but my way  into the this!’ And it is great fun to sort of look down your nose at somebody who is hoping that you’ll be much nicer than you are. It reminds me of some relatives that I have!”

There are some stunning sequences with fireflies and there’s an original song featured in the movie and on the end credits by Sarah McLachlan called Fireslies, how did that come about?

“Our amazing composer Aaron Zigman said, ‘we should have a prominent theme song’ and he mentioned that he happened to be great friends with Sarah McLachlan. We’re all huge fans, but that was one of Lisa’s dreams. Lisa had a particularly deep connection to her growing up, not that they’d met, but she really loved her music, and she also felt that Sarah McLachlan as an advocate of the community would have a really visceral connection to the story. Aaron said, ‘Let me send her the film.’ Not in a million years did we think that this would happen, but she watched a rough cut and she loved it. And literally in a few days she delivered this song, Fireflies, and we were just like jaws to the ground. It goes back to what I really believe, that if you proceed with passion and integrity the right people show up and all kinds of magic happens. The moment that you deviate from your True North things start to unravel at the core level.”

“Sometimes it’s hard because there are people who don’t agree or think something is not financially the best decision. And at the end of the day I think you have to decide whether or not you care about that. And much to my business manager’s consternation, I don’t. I feel like if you follow your heart and you continue to try to do the right thing, ultimately, you come up with a product, with a piece of beautiful art that is memorable and really stays with people. The moment that you deviate from that mandate, it’s really interesting, people can tell. They may not be able to articulate it in that way but audiences are smart in every aspect. I have a quite successful True Crime podcast that I co-host called Small Town Dicks and I edit it on paper and then we have two editors who put it into ProTools. Part of my mandate when I edit is that nobody is giving you their full attention when they are listening to a podcast. They’re probably doing something else; walking the dog, going for their morning walk, driving, whatever it is. And so the job is to make sure that the story makes sense and that everything is easy to follow so that if they actually miss something, they want to go back that 15 seconds. And people are smart. You know, if you deliver a podcast that doesn’t sound really clean in terms of sound quality, that doesn’t stay the course and actually answer the description of what you say your podcast is about, people will turn away.

I’m glad you mentioned Small Time Dicks because I was just about to bring it up. But I think that’s so true, and I like listening to podcasts that make me completely stop what I’m doing and give them my undivided attention.

“Exactly! One of our producers, Gary Scott, says one of the most salient things about podcasts, that the most important minute is the next minute. It’s because you want to make sure that even if your audience has to press pause because they’ve reached their destination in their car, or whatever the case may be, they’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get back and hear what happens!'”

Homer’s Phobia. Fox.

As we’re The Queer Review I wondered what your take is on how The Simpsons has covered LGBTQ themes over the years. I know way back in 1997 there was the Homer’s Phobia episode that got the Emmy and the GLAAD award and an Annie as well, and then there have been others since like There’s Something About Marrying and Three Gays of the Condo for instance. Have you had any input as an LGBTQ ally?

“At The Simpsons I could go to the writers’ room, but everybody sort of stays in their lane in that regard. Where I have input is really very specifically on my character Lisa Simpson. If on the very rare occasion I have to say something or do something that I feel is out of character I will always speak up and I might not win the fight, but I always fight the battles. I also really object to people being incredibly mean to Lisa and her having no recourse for that. It hurts my heart. But in terms of the LGBTQ representation on the show I actually think that we’ve done a pretty good job. I would say Homer probably represents the uninformed portion of society who doesn’t know what life is like for LGBTQ people. You could probably argue that Homer had never met a gay person before John Waters came on the show, or if he’d met a gay person he didn’t know that he had, and so Homer kind of represents let’s just say the majority of the world. I do appreciate that they bring on characters who are willing and eager to help educate Homer in really the most empathetic way without pulling any punches, so you kind of get the balance of both experiences. To get the award from GLAAD of course is a significant stamp of approval and you know, I feel like on the other hand, we always say when people are like, ‘well, what about addressing this issue or that issue?’ At the end of the day we are a cartoon, and even if the cartoon is written for grownups and not for children, we’re entertainment, we’re not an activist show. But when we have an opportunity to deal with current events and social issues like LGBTQ experiences, I feel like we do a pretty good job and and what I can say is that our heart is absolutely in the right place and the desire to represent those experiences accurately and with passion is ever-present.”

The Trevor Project’s Annual Benefit “Trevor Live”. December 2011.

Lastly, do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, play, book or piece of music, or perhaps a person; something or someone that’s had a significant impact on you?

“I’m actually friends with Dustin Lance Black and he’s the one who really galvanised my advocacy for the LGBTQ community when Proposition 8 passed in California. I had just produced a film that he wrote and directed, and he said ‘we have to overturn this’ and I said, ‘Oh, absolutely.’ So he introduced me to Chad Griffin, before Chad was head of HRC, the Human Rights Campaign. I’m a huge admirer of Lance’s he’s such an incredibly well-spoken activist and he is so smart. He grew up Mormon, and I remember when he would travel to the Mormon church and meet with the bishops there and he had a huge effect on them and got them to by and large reverse their position on LGBTQ+ issues. At least now they’ll accept openly gay members. I love Lance and I love his film Milk. I find it is so eloquent and of course it’s such a gut-wrenching, horrible part of our history.”

“You know, it’s an interesting question, James, because one of the things that I loved about Gossamer Folds was that I was drawn to this unusual friendship and for me it was – and, Oh, by the way, one of the characters happens to be trans – I wasn’t actually looking for a transgender story. And I liked that while it spoke to Gossamer’s struggle, and what it meant for her to live day to day, it wasn’t a total downer. In fact, it ends with great optimism, not without struggle, but with victory. And I felt that was so important. For me, I feel like LGBTQ+ issues and people are so much a part of the fabric of my life and what I believe is worth fighting for that I guess it being a story about being gay or trans or queer is always, in many ways, sort of incidental to me. I’m much more interested in, who are you? And how are you going to tell me the story? And what’s your life like? Because I believe everybody has a story and I love all of them.”

Gossamer Folds is available at the Bentonville Film Festival website for 24 hours starting Thursday August 13th at 12:00AM CT with a Live Q&A on Friday August 14th from 3:00-3:30PM CT.

For more details and to purchase a ticket head to the Bentonville website.

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