Brian Michael Smith is not only living his dream as a successful actor, but he’s also creating the mainstream trans masculine representation he didn’t see growing up in the 80s and 90s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Having already landed recurring spots on high profile dramas like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar and The L Word: Generation Q, Smith scored a trailblazing role as firefighter Paul Strickland on the Texas-set 9-1-1 spinoff co-created by Ryan Murphy, 9-1-1 Lone Star, alongside Liv Tyler and Rob Lowe, making history as US network television’s first out Black trans masculine series regular. Last year he was featured in Sam Feder’s groundbreaking documentary Disclosure, a survey of trans screen representation, and he was included in the inaugural top 20 list of actors from historically underrepresented communities by the Casting Society of America. He continues to make a difference to the lives of young LGBTQ+ folks with his advocacy work.
With 9-1-1 Lone Star back on Fox this month in its second season, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with Brian Michael Smith about how the series presents its diverse cast, the show’s writers being open to his input, the trans masculine representation he was first exposed to, and the daily feedback he receives from viewers who’ve been impacted by his work on the series.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: The first season began with Rob Lowe’s character, Owen, being charged with hiring a diverse team of firefighters, which of course resulted in a diverse range of television characters. What did you make of that approach?
Brian Michael Smith: “I thought it was a good way to establish what this show was going to be about right out of the gate, letting the audience know about that intentional recruiting, instead of just showing things how we wish they were without acknowledging that it takes effort to do it. The opening of the series was based on an actual experience that happened down in Texas where they had to get the Feds involved in making sure that discrimination practices weren’t happening when they were hiring firefighters, so that’s something taken from real life. We’re doing a show that’s broadcasting into the homes of people who may not necessarily live in the most diverse neighbourhoods and communities and this allows them to understand what happens when you discriminate, what kinds of people you leave out. It poses the question, what sort of assets do you cut off from these services that you need when you discriminate against people based on biases and beliefs that are based on prejudice or fear. What was really great was that during the interview process that we see on the show a lot of the things that other departments had considered liabilities about these people were actually their greatest assets, and it’s what makes them a great team. They’re folks who are typically overlooked and now they have this opportunity to shine by being exactly who they are and you see the benefits of that.”
When your character Paul was introduced to viewers in the pilot during that interview sequence you mention in that first conversation with Rob Lowe’s character, Owen, we immediately know that Paul is trans. It’s not something that was purposefully hidden by the writers to be dramatically revealed later either to us as viewers, or to the other characters, the kind of scenario we’ve seen play out on other TV shows and movies. What are your thoughts on how that was handled?
“I thought it was important to establish who he was early on and to then just let the audience get to know him beyond that. I thought that was a good technique. I think that whenever writing sensationalises or puts too much emphasis on disclosure it can be problematic and it sets people up for this false sense that trans people owe it to them to have these difficult conversations and they owe it to us to disclose and that having some sensationalised reaction is to be expected. I love that it was just taken right out so there was no big reveal, there was no big scandal, it was just like, this guy is a firefighter, he happens to be trans. It’s not something that he shied away from, it’s not something that his captain wants to shy away from and it doesn’t get in the way of him being able to do his job or fitting into the family of firefighters. So I thought establishing him right out of the gate and then just letting them go to work was a great approach. Then there’s that moment where he’s being a little more open and vulnerable with with Owen about his problematic skin as a result of his medication. Through that you see Paul’s able to connect with the captain who says, ‘Well, hey, I deal with skin issues as well and these are products that I use’. He’s essentially saying that the things that you might think make us so different often actually don’t, we have a lot more common than you might even think, and I’m going to treat you the same way that I treat any other guy. I think that was a beautiful thing to put on screen.”
Have there been times when you’ve been asked to contribute your thoughts, either on specific script details or about your character’s journey more generally in terms of his trans masculine experience?
“Yeah, something I appreciate a lot about the 9-1-1 Lone Star writing team is that they’ve been very open to my input throughout the entire process, even from when I auditioned. There was a part that was in the audition material that I felt wasn’t quite authentic, especially based on my understanding of the character and of his trans masculine experience, and I was able to make that adjustment in the room. The fact that I wasn’t told, ‘You have to say it just like this’ or ‘You have to stick to what we say’, let me know that this was going to be collaborative. Then after I was hired we had conversations about different aspects of Paul’s life, so they were talking to me about things that I had experienced and just my own understanding of trans representation in media, not just as someone who makes it, but as someone who’s been consuming it for years too, and then as someone who has worked with LGBT youth and trans youth. They asked me, ‘What are some things that we should address and what are some things that we don’t need to cover? What are some ways that trans masculine people haven’t really shown up on screen that we should speak to?’ So I was able to bring a lot of my input in terms of the character development and his trans masculine experience to the writers and they’ve been incorporating a lot of that into the script in ways that are really powerful.”
Again in that very first introduction to the character, Paul begins to walk away and is about to turn down the job offer, but Owen draws him back by saying that him being a firefighter as a trans man could really mean a lot to a young person, which I thought was particularly striking given the work that you do with LGBTQ+ youth.
“That moment was very moving for me and something that I connected to on a very deep level because that is exactly how I feel about the job that I’m doing as Brian, as an actor. I know what it’s like to grow up and not see a future for myself where I could be the person that I wanted to be, whether that was being physically the man that I feel like I am, or even just to be able to act, because in my head I thought, there’s no trans men actors and I won’t be able to do this. That’s just how it resonated with me personally. Then working with young people and seeing how important it is for them to have a real person that they can associate with living their lives, it makes a world of a difference in terms of how they view themselves and their values and what they think is possible. So when I was playing the character and weighing the decision that’s exactly why he would turn around, because he knows how important it would be for him as a young person growing up to see a hero. You know, firefighters are some of the most revered people in American history, they’re always looked at as heroes, as they should be, so to see an out trans man being a firefighter is so important, it’s something that’s crucial to Paul and it’s important to me as an actor playing this heroic firefighter on a TV show knowing that somewhere some child who thinks that they are the only person like them, and they don’t see a future for themselves, can see that and have hope.”
It’s a beautiful thing to see and really important as you say. Season two has just started airing on Fox and the first episode got off to a very dramatic start with that vintage tank on the rampage across the city, a very exciting opening!
“Yeah, wasn’t it?!”
What are you looking forward to exploring with your character this season?
“In the first season Paul was kind of feeling out Austin. When he came in he wasn’t sure what to expect and slowly but surely we saw him starting to open up and connect more with his new team, feeling a sense of family with them. Something that was really exciting about reading the scripts for season two was just seeing how the dynamics have shifted, because in addition to spending more time with each other on the job, we’re spending more time with each other outside of the job because we’re quarantined together, so that’s been really cool. Also it’s been great just getting to know more about Paul’s backstory and his actual family. I’m a fan of the original 9-1-1 series, so of course the crossover is something that I’m beyond thrilled about! I can’t wait for the audience to see what we’ve cooked up there because it felt like we were working on war film! I mean they pull out all the stops on these shows, they really do. So season two is going be bigger in terms of the action but also we get these big emotional moments too where each character gets to shine and we get to know them on a much deeper level. I’m excited for the audience to see who we are.”
In season two we see everyone wearing masks and talking about social distancing and quarantining, so the season is very much set in the present day in the midst of the pandemic. Has it made much of a difference to you as an actor working under the new conditions?
“Oh yeah, a lot is very different in this season in terms of how we navigate the Covid protocols. I love it because I feel safe and I’m grateful that I’m able to go back to work, so on one hand it’s great and I will do whatever it takes to keep us working and to keep everybody healthy. Obviously you’re not able to socialise as much as we did on the first season or have as many people involved in scenes because they don’t want to have too many background actors or guest stars. In some ways though it’s kind of been helpful because that limits the amount of people on set, so we don’t always all show up on the rescues in season two and you get to see different group dynamics play out. You see what it’s like when it’s just Judd, Paul, and Mateo on a call, or what it’s like when TK and Marjan are working on something together, so that’s been really cool to see shakeout and to have some positive things shifting because of Covid safety regulations.”
TK, whom you mentioned, is a gay character on the series played by Ronen Rubinstein. Going back to the representation, I think we often see the LGBTQ+ letters separated out both on and off screen, so it’s great to see these characters interact together for instance when TK and his boyfriend Carlos played by Rafael Silva take Paul out to a club saying they don’t discriminate against your character because he’s straight!
“Yeah, it’s reflective of the world that we’re living in. You’re not going to get all of the same kinds of people all the time and if you do I feel like someone is holding back a part of themselves in order to fit in. So I love this show because it gives everyone the freedom to just be truly who they are, and then by proxy I feel like it gives the audience permission to be exactly who they are, and to see that there’s a place for them and to know that you don’t have to cut off parts of yourself in order to fit in in this world. I love that message very much.”
How would you like to see trans representation on screen progress from where we are now?
“I just want to see more. I mean, there are all kinds of people from the trans experience. I want to see more trans masculine people, I want to see more disabled trans people, more neurodiverse trans people, I want to see more non-binary people. There are all different kinds of trans people in the world and we should see all different kinds of trans people on screen.”
Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+ who has made an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Thinking back, from early on in terms of representation that made a difference to me, it would be the photographer Loren Cameron, he’s a trans man, and I remember coming across some of his images when I was first discovering that trans people even existed and then, oh my gosh, that there were trans men. He would take these self-portraits and he was just so empowered and fully embodied and it gave me this feeling of possibility and of a future for myself in which I could be fully actualized. That definitely had a deep impact on me, seeing these images of his trans masculine body, and it was like, ‘Okay, I can be myself and I can be what I pictured in my head when I was little.”
Have you had any feedback from people who’ve seen you on the show and been impacted by your work on it?
“Every day I get a DM or a message from someone, whether they’re trans or they’re cis, just talking about what my work on the show as an actor and my work in terms of advocacy has meant for them; whether they’re seeing themselves reflected and feeling emboldened to come out, or they’re asking questions because they’re afraid and they feel by themselves and they just want to have some virtual support, or just want to know how I navigated something; or if it’s a parent who had been afraid for their child because they didn’t know if their child was going to be safe or that their child could successfully live a full adulthood being who they really truly are and feeling inspired because of what I’ve been able to do with this role on this show. So to go from feeling for such a long time that I was alone in the world and that there was nobody for me, to knowing that I am there for somebody else now, it is just an absolute honour.”
By James Kleinmann