Lisa Donato’s heartwarming drama Gossamer Folds, produced by Yeardley Smith, played in competition at last week’s Bentonville Film Festival and will be available to stream for a limited time from this Thursday August 20th as part of the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival. Set in 1986 in the suburbs of Kansas City, the film centres on the unexpected freindship between between ten year-old Tate (Jackson Robert Scott) and his twenty something neighbour Gossamer (Alexandra Grey), who happens to be a trans woman, much to the discomfort of Tate’s prejudiced father. Grey’s compelling and emotionally resonant performance in the central role follows an impactful recurring turn as Melody Barnes on the sixth season of Empire. In 2016 Grey made a memorable appearance as a young trans woman calling a suicide hotline in season three of Transparent, going on to reprise the role for last year’s Musicale Finale. Her impressive roster of screen credits also includes a guest spot on How to Get Away with Murder with Viola Davis, portraying Marsha P. Johnson in the hit series Drunk History and playing Seville in Dustin Lance Black’s LGBTQ rights movement chronicle When We Rise. Earlier this month she appeared opposite Luke Evans and Daniel Brühl in The Alienist: Angel of Darkness and she can be seen on Netlix as one of the contributors to Sam Feder’s groundbreaking study of trans screen representation Disclosure.
Ahead of Gossamer Folds playing at Outfest this week, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Alexandra Grey about the experience of auditioning for the role, being homeless when she first arrived in Los Angeles to pursue her ambition of becoming a professional performer, her hope that her success will make it easier for the trans actors who follow her, why playing Melody on Empire is one of the highlights of her career so far and why she wants to see the return of Noah’s Arc to television screens.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on Gossamer Folds. Before we get onto the film itself I just wanted to ask how the performer in you first manifested itself. I know singing is a big passion for you as well as acting, so were you always singing growing up?
Alexandra Grey: “Yeah, for sure. I grew up in the church on the South Side of Chicago and music was definitely a huge part of my life, which I credit to my foster mothers. I grew up on foster care. They both had such a great variety of music from Gospel to pop and hip hop, and music was always a super big part of my upbringing. I did show choir in high school and doing all that stuck with me all these years and so naturally that became one of my biggest passions, to do music and also to act.”
When you moved to LA, I think one of your first jobs was on the movie I Do directed by Glen Gaylord who writes for The Queer Review as our senior film critic.
“That was actually the first project I ever worked on. I had just moved to Los Angeles and I was homeless, and I went on Craigslist, which back in the day was the casting website. I got cast through an ad on there to do background work on the very first day that I arrived in LA and I had no place to live. I’ll always remember that project because I felt like it was a sign from God that I was supposed to be here, because who gets an acting job on their first day?”
Tell us about the audition process for Gossamer Folds and why Gossamer was a role that you wanted to pursue.
“They sent over the audition to my manager and it was a long audition, about 10 pages. I was so excited about it because I really connected with the character and I hadn’t seen a lot of roles that were specifically written for Black trans women, it’s very rare to get those types of scripts. So it was really exciting to know that the character was written for someone specifically like me. I think maybe two days after I did the audition they got back to us and said ‘wow, we love her and we want to bring her in.’ So it was rather a quick process initially, but then there was a waiting period of not knowing if I would be the final choice, but in the end I was and that was so exciting. I just really wanted to play this character because so much about her is what I experience as a Black trans woman.”
I think it’s a great screenplay by Bridget Flanery and one of the scenes that really stood out for me, where I think the writing is great and your performances is very powerful, is when your character Gossamer says to Ethan Suplee’s character Jimbo, something like ‘None of you have any idea what I have to go through on a daily basis just to live my life and be myself.’ I imagine that must have been quite an emotional speech to deliver because it reflects the experience of so many LGBTQ+ people and especially Black trans women and trans women of colour.
“That was one of the scenes that was in the audition actually and that was the one where I had to just let go. I had so many emotions pent up because I hadn’t worked for maybe two and half years and so I was really depressed and I was really lost and wanted to give up, and at the time of that audition I just channeled all that pain into that particular scene. I remember feeling after I did the self-tape audition like I had gotten pregnant in that moment. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was like the moment of conception, honey, like wow, bitch! When I rewatched it I thought that scene was really powerful and I connected to it so much. I think we got that in maybe one or two takes when we actually filmed it because I had been waiting to say that and to speak my truth and I got to do that in that particular scene.”
I think it’s important to hear successful performers like yourself talk about those times like you mentioned when you hadn’t worked for a long time and that you almost felt like giving up. I think it’s inspiring to know about that, because to look at your resume now and see that you’ve acted opposite stars like Viola Davis and been in so many high profile shows, people might not realise that you’ve had those moments where you’ve struggled and questioned what you’re doing.
“When I wake up every day I feel so fortunate. When I look over my blessings and what I’ve been able to do, it’s just like, this is not what trans people are supposed to do, right? If we’re going based off of society, right? We’re not supposed to be in these types of spaces. I would have never imagined that I could be playing opposite Viola Davis, or playing opposite Taraji P. Henson or Terrence Howard, or playing opposite Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans. I never would have thought that I would get to do any of this. So I pinch myself every day and I think of the women who came before me like Laverne Cox and Alexandra Billings and Candis Cayne and Jazzmun. I’m sure they were only given a fraction of what I’ve been able to achieve. I only hope that by me standing in these spaces that I’m making that transition easier for the next trans artist who is going to come up and be an actor and be on the set and experience working with actors. I don’t take it for granted at all. What I learned while working on this movie from my co-star Sprague Grayden was to have grace and gratitude for every single day. Those two words have stuck with me since filming this movie.”
I love the friendship that’s at the heart of the film, and it’s kind of an unexpected one. It’s between your character, Gossamer, and her 10 year old new neighbour, Tate, played by Jackson Robert Scott who was Georgie in the recent It movies. Tell me about that friendship, what do they each get from it and what was it like creating that on screen relationship with Jackson?
“Well, I’m such a fan of his. I had I seen him in the It movies and I thought he was so adorable. Oh, my gosh his spirit is so infectious! We did a chemistry read and I really felt so connected to his spirit and his energy. When we got to Louisiana to shoot the film, we got there a little bit early so that we could hang out. By the end of the first week him and I were best friends. We were playing pool together and we were down at the restaurant at the hotel, just having a good time. We were good friends early on and so when we got to actually filming it was just magic. He’s already, at such a young age, such a professional actor. I had never worked with an actor who was that young before and so it was definitely a different experience, but such a positive one. It was just great.”
There’s a fun scene in the film where he’s pulling you around on his skateboard, what was that like to shoot?
“Well, that’s interesting that you say ‘fun’ because it was not that much fun to shoot! I am not the adventurous type, I like roller coasters but I definitely do not skateboard! We had a skateboard coach who I worked with and it was fun to be pulled along by the bicycle because I didn’t have to do anything, but then there’s a scene where I had to actually skateboard myself and I’m supposed to be like this pro about it. I don’t remember what I look like doing it, I probably look like a total reject! But Jackson had a lot of fun with it and he was a pro.”
No, you pulled it off. I think it fitted in with your character.
I love the way that Jackson’s character Tate looks up all the words he doesn’t understand in his dictionary, he doesn’t want anyone to tell him anything, he wants to find things out for himself. He doesn’t know the derogatory words that his father uses about Gossamer and it sort of speaks to the idea that prejudice and bigotry and fear of other people is something that is learned, and someone of his age is fully accepting of Goaasmer.
“Yes, that behaviour is absolutely learned, it’s not something that’s passed down genetically, people are taught to hate. So I think that it’s on the parents, who have the opportunity to influence their children, to teach them love. I can remember in my own family after I got disowned, my family tried to blame it on the children and said, ‘we can’t have you like that because of the kids’, and you know, ‘they’re gonna feel uncomfortable and weird.’ But no, that’s not true, because they all follow me on Instagram and they DM me and tell me how beautiful I am and tell me that they love watching me on the shows that I’m on. So it’s not the children at all, the children couldn’t care less, they want you to just do whatever you want to do, because I guarantee you that they’re going to do whatever they want to do. Like I say, I think that it falls on the parents and the adults to really teach love and just step out of their own way and ask themselves ‘how does your life affect my life?’ And when you look at it in the end, it doesn’t at all. Nothing that I do affects your life.”
I love Jen Richards, who was so wonderful in Tales of the City as the young Anna Madrigal, so it’s great to see her as Gossamer’s friend Diana in the film. Tell me about portraying that friendship with her.
“Well, Jen Richards and I, I like to say that we’re growing up in this business together. We were really good friends before, so to find out that she was coming was such a relief because I trust her and I know that she’s a brilliant actress. So we have that natural friendship in real life, despite us being so busy to the point where we don’t hang out often because we are always traveling for work. She’s always been such a huge advocate for me in wanting me to win and we’ve been in audition rooms together and we always read lines with each other, which is stuff that with cis actresses you don’t necessarily hear about it. We just were like, ‘hey, let’s do this together, we’re in this together, right?’ And so that was really beautiful. And I think in the film their friendship is pretty much the same. We’re talking about 1986 Kansas City, what it’s like to be two trans woman living in the Midwest of America at that time. They are very close, but at the same time there are some lessons there. Their friendship is really important though.”
As you say it’s 1986, and being a period film it makes you realise that sadly some things haven’t changed, like the attack on their trans friend. I think it was important to have that mentioned in the film as far as it relates to Gossamer’s own story.
“Yeah, definitely, it’s really important. I think with this film they took the approach of not wanting it to be so much about Gossamer’s pain, because I’m sure at that time things were so incredibly hard, much harder than they probably are today. But I think this film is more about giving a perspective of what the world can look like and what it should look like and what love should look like. But I love those moments where the stakes are high, where her friend does get attacked, because that’s a part of the reality of the experiences of trans women, especially trans women of colour and so we can’t ever forget about that because that’s something that we are still facing today. I think the number of trans people who’ve been murdered in 2020 just surpassed the total for last year, and it’s only been seven months, so it’s really important that people are aware of what’s going on, that there is a crisis going on in the trans community.”
Ava Benjamin Shorr is the cinematographer on Gossamer Folds, what does it mean to you to know that the person behind the camera happens to be trans?
“Yeah, I think that’s always comforting. When I worked on Transparent I’d say that was one of the most socially safe types of sets that I felt really, really safe on because there were so many trans folks behind the scenes and on set. I think that was something that is always very important. Ava and I just wrapped another show together earlier this year, but at the time of shooting Gossamer Folds it was the third project that we had worked on together. And so it was really nice to know that she was there behind the lens making sure that everything was working and bringing her creative genius to to the project.”
You mentioned Transparent, how do you feel about the way that the series ended with the musicale finale that you you were part of?
“I thought it was a beautiful end of the chapter and it was really special to shoot. We shot that over two months and it was nice to have everybody from pretty much all of the seasons there and to just go up in this big musical celebration number. I think the show deserved to be able to go out with a bang and not just end based off of controversy. They were able to say, ‘the trans community deserves to have an end to this story.’ It was a beautiful way to end it and it was great to sing and have that fellowship with everyone again.”
“Laverne Cox actually DM’d me on Instagram and asked if I would be a part of it and at that time I had just begun my career. At that point I think I’d done like six or so guest starring roles and so I felt really grateful to be included in that. I think that was at the point where we hadn’t started to see the shift in trans representation, but I think shortly after that is when we really started to see a new wave of trans people as series regulars, and Pose came along, and so many more opportunities. We shot that a few years ago and the response has been beautiful. I’ve talked to several casting directors since they’ve seen it and they were very moved by it. I’m hoping that that will now be reflected even more in the casting we start to see and in the roles that I get the opportunity to audition for, and I’m excited about the possibility of getting to audition for all types of roles.”
Something you have pinned on your Twitter account is you singing as Melody on Empire. Could you tell me about portraying Melody’s story and getting to sing that really powerful number.
“Empire is one of those shows I always dreamed of being on. When it first came out I wasn’t homeless, but I was very much still finding my way, and I hadn’t worked on television yet or anything. I wanted to be like the Jussie Smollett character, I wanted to be on stage and come out and do all this stuff. Funnily enough I had an audition with Lee Daniels back in 2015 and he was casting for his show Star. So I had an audition for that and I got to meet him, but I knew I didn’t get the role on Star at that point because he told me, but he said, ‘I’m going to find something else for you.’ And fast forward four years or so later he cast me as Melody Barnes on Empire. So six seasons in I got to be on Empire in a huge recurring role where I get to play this trans pop superstar who gets to sing at the American Music Awards and have this big coming out moment, it was such a dream come true to shoot that. That’s one of the highlights for me so far because music is something that I love and I always practice in my mirror singing on the Grammys, so to really get to do it on television was I think a huge moment for Black trans women. It was obviously a huge moment for me, in my own personal life, but for Black trans women to be represented in such a beautiful way on a show that is so diverse in that sense, I just feel in awe and I’ve been very fortunate.”
Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, play, musical, book, a piece of music, artwork or a person? Something or someone that has had an impact on you and resonated with you throughout the years? Or it could be something current that you really like that’s had an impact on you.
“Growing up Noah’s Arc was definitely the only representation that I had seen that was reflective of who I was. At the time I was a young Black kid presenting as male, and so Noah’s Arc for me was that particular show and I just think life is so beautiful in the way that I really connected with Darryl Stephens’s character, Noah, and then I also was like, ‘Damn, wait, the character Wade played by Jensen Atwood is so fine!’ And now they’re two of my closest friends, Darryl and I got to work on a project together when I moved to LA and I was still homeless at that time and he presented me with an award last year. It’s just these moments in my work and life where everything comes full circle, to have that show with those actors who I saw myself represented in and then to work with them both now as a trans woman is just amazing. So it’s Noah’s Arc for me. I did love RuPaul’s Drag Race when I was coming up as well. Now I get so inspired by watching Pose, all the girls on Pose are my friends, we have all come up in the business together and I’m so inspired watching their beautiful performances. I just I love watching those types of shows that reflect who I am.”
Did you have a chance to see the Noah’s Arc reunion episode yet?
“I was able to watch some of it, it was really beautiful, but I think someone needs to pick up the series, which I’m sure they are probably in talks to do. I think Netflix or somebody needs to pick it up and they need to resume it because it was so groundbreaking and monumental for queer Black folk. I think that now we need something like that more than ever because those stories need to be told. And I think they should have a trans character on there as well now who’s in the mix, and, hey, I’m available, just saying! I think it’s the perfect time now, people are realising that the power of the Black dollar has always been very valuable, but you have to give us those opportunities, you have to take a chance on our content and I think Netflix is doing that, and Amazon is starting to do that and I’m just excited to see more and more.”
Well, I’m sure Patrik-Ian Polk will read this and you’ll be cast in the return of Noah’s Arc when that happens!
“Yes, and you can take all the credit for it!”
By James Kleinmann
Gossamer Folds played in competition at this year’s Bentonville Film Festival and is available digitally from Thursday August 20th for 72 hours as part of the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival.