Exclusive Interview: HBO Max’s Genera+ion star Nava Mau “it’s important for queer & trans people to see that we are lovable & we have a lot of wisdom to offer”

Currently starring in HBO Max’s LGBTQ+ darkly comic drama series Genera+ion, created by Daniel and Zelda Barnz, Nava Mau is a mixed-race trans Latina filmmaker, actress, and cultural worker. She wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the compelling and moving short film Waking Hour, that premiered at LA’s Outfest Fusion in 2019 before playing at festivals around the world. A production fellow on Sam Feder’s groundbreaking Netflix documentary Disclosure, Nava has also produced the short films Sam’s Town and Lovebites. Outside her experience in the entertainment industry, she has worked in the fields of healing justice and culture change with community-based service providers, student organizations, and survivors of violence.

Ahead of the premiere of episode eight of Genera+ion this Thursday April 1st, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Nava Mau about her role on the series and being part of the evolution of trans representation on screen.

Haley Sanchez and Nava Mau in Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page / HBO Max.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the series, I really enjoyed the first eight episodes and it’s such a sweet and touching scene in episode eight with all of the high school friends giving their offerings to the baby, like a queer nativity.

Nava Mau: “Yes, I loved that moment too and the show really is about family and all the different ways that people find family. The storylines are so beautiful.”

What was the draw for you of being involved in Genera+ion?

“I was drawn to the relationship between my character Ana and her niece Greta. Even from the pilot, which was the scene that I auditioned with, I could tell that their relationship was special. I could tell that there was a history there and that both of them really needed each other. So that’s something that I was able to explore with Ana over the course of the season. It was also really cool to portray a character that is a parental figure, because I myself have never been a parental figure.”

Nava Mau. Photo credit Emila Quinton.

We know that the relationship between Ana and her sister Sela is strained, but we’re never explicitly told that the tension is because her sister has issues with Ana being trans and the first eight episodes don’t reference Ana’s gender identity, but I think all of that does come across in your performance.

“There’s no guarantee that what I am working with in my head is actually going to come across on screen, so it’s very heartening to hear that you did pick up on Ana’s humanity and her history even without it necessarily being explained in the dialogue.”

“That definitely was part of the distance between Ana and Sela, Greta’s mother. You’re right though, it’s not something that we ended up exploring on screen but that is something that I used in my performance and in conversations with Haley Sanchez who plays Greta, and with the series’ creators Daniel and Zelda Barnz, in building the backstory for this character. Ana is somebody who has faced a lot of rejection, and she has faced a lot of judgment in this conservative community that she lives in. That is where her power and her beauty and her grace comes from, because she has chosen to thrive despite that rejection and despite that judgment that she has faced, and I think that she does it with style and with flair.”

Haley Sanchez and Nava Mau in Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page / HBO Max.

I really like the relationship between Ana and Greta too. Greta is quite tightly wound isn’t she, especially after she’s spoken to her mother. She’s struggling to accept herself and that’s complicated by the fact she’s trying to meet her mother’s expectations. How does Ana want to help her?

“Ana really values self-determination and she encourages Greta to think for herself and to be bold in her expression of self. One thing that we see happen is that Greta’s mother is not thrilled about Greta’s choices in how she’s dressing. Out of all things, Ana is not tolerant of people policing other people’s style and dress, so she really encourages Greta to dress the way that she wants to and to see that as a form of self-expression, especially connected with her burgeoning sexual identity. It’s not just about style, it goes deeper than that, because what Greta is dealing with is figuring out where she fits in in the world and her relationship to others. Ana wants Greta to be bold and to not be so afraid of herself and of what the world may think, and to listen to her own intuition and what fulfills her own heart.”

Haley Sanchez in Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page / HBO Max.
Justice Smith, Haley Sanchez, and Chase Sui Wonders in Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page / HBO Max.

On film and television we are so used to seeing that makeover scene where girls are given a glamorous dress to wear and lots of makeup, but Ana picks out a plaid shirt for her, so it’s almost a little underwhelming but in a cool way, because it’s authentic to who Greta is and Ana sees that.

“Yes, and that shirt was in Greta’s closet so clearly Greta had acquired it somehow and maybe wanted to wear it, but for whatever reason still didn’t feel comfortable wearing it out. I think that a lot of people will be able to relate to having the urge to try something new for themselves, but not necessarily feeling ready until they find the courage to do so, or somebody else gives them the courage to do so. It comes down to the emotional meaning of that scene in that moment for those characters. When I watched that back, and especially the scene after that where Greta is running down the stairs and there’s this tracking shot of her hand running along the rail, I definitely felt the impact of Ana and Greta’s relationship in that moment.”

Nava Mau in Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page / HBO Max.

You shot the pilot in 2019, but the the rest of the season was filmed under the exceptional circumstances we all find ourselves in with the Covid protocols in place, what was that experience like?

“It was definitely challenging to adjust to working on a set with all the Covid protocols. It made it a little harder to find that kind of jovial spirit that I think a lot of us look for on a set. I have been so impressed with how everyone in the cast and on the crew has found a way to still connect and communicate with one another, and still find ways to enjoy themselves and celebrate each other. I think we figured it out. After working with people for five months you really do start to look forward to seeing them, even when you’re waking up at 3am for your very early call time! I did get to the point where I was like, oh my God, I can’t wait to see Annette my makeup artist, because especially during a pandemic when we have been unable to spend time with people in person, it felt really special to be able to do that as part of this project. Even though we had to wear masks and everything, it was very special to get to spend time with people.”

Justice Smith, Haley Sanchez, and Chase Sui Wonders in Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page / HBO Max.

In the fifth episode Greta brings home Riley played by Chase Sui Wonders and Chester played by Justice Smith and it’s great to see your character interacting with them all, what did you enjoy about those scenes?

“It was exciting because it was the first time that Ana was meeting Chester and Riley, and I think they were the first of Greta’s friends that Ana had ever met because there had been this estrangement between Ana and Greta’s mother. It was really fun and what I was working with in my head the whole time was that this is Ana’s dream come true. All Ana’s ever wanted is to have a family home that is safe and welcoming for herself and for others and it’s not something that she has ever really had. That she and Greta were able to create that felt really special and those scenes really bring out some interesting dynamics between the characters.”

“We get to see Ana be very playful, she’ll play jokes on people and try to trick people in a fun way. That scene between her and Riley where it’s not even always clear exactly what she’s doing was fun. Ana’s just trying to mess with Riley and by extension mess with Greta, but it ends up being a way to gain their trust by bringing their guard down to let them know that they don’t need to worry about Ana judging them and they don’t need to worry about her trying to control their whereabouts. I think that’s a huge departure from Sela’s style of parenting, and also Riley’s parents. So that was the gift that I was hoping to give to these kids from Ana, the gift of freedom.”

Nava Mau. Photo credit Guerrilla Davis.

When I was a teenager there wasn’t anything like this on television. What would it have meant for you growing up to have seen a show like Genera+ion with the kind of diversity of queer characters it depicts? Or was there something you watched when you were younger that made you feel seen?

“It’s hard for me to pinpoint an example of a trans Latina woman being represented on screen. I actually can’t think of very many, and certainly not from when I was growing up. There was an absence and an invisibility of representations of this kind of experience. When I was growing up, when trans people were represented in film and television, often it was because they were the butt of a joke. They were sex workers that had experienced some kind of brutal violence, often being killed on screen, or having been killed as part of the narrative. And that was kind of it. There wasn’t really any further exploration or depiction of what trans people’s lives are actually like. I think that that definitely sent a coded message to me and to all people, that trans people are disposable and that we are not central figures in anybody’s life, which is just not the truth.”

“Trans people are very important to those who love us and our families, in our workplaces, and in our communities. So it feels really meaningful to me that through Ana we get to see a trans character who is loved and we get to see her share her love with so many other people. In the second block of this season, we do get to see Ana meet more of the characters and in a way I think that Ana’s role on the show is similar to why this series can play such an important role in the audience’s life, because it’s important for queer and trans people, and for all people, to see that we are lovable, we have a lot of wisdom to offer, and that ultimately we can we can coexist and we can celebrate the glory of life together. I hope that people keep tuning in and keep getting to know these characters because all of them have such rich backstories that have only just begun to be explored.”

Nava Mau on the set on her short film Waking Hour.

You wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the short film Waking Hour which premiered at Outfest FUSION before going on to other film festivals. What did you take away from the experience of making that film?

“That was really my first offering to the world of film and I couldn’t have made it any other way than the way that I made it. I’m so grateful that that was my entry into this world because I have something to look back to in terms of fulfillment creatively, and the kinds of narratives that are possible for me as a trans storyteller. Making Waking Hour was something that I had to do, because that story was rattling around in my soul and it was begging to reach other people, so I had to listen to that. It was such a blessing to work with people who believed in the story of this young trans woman navigating disclosure and navigating consent. I learned so much about what it means to be honest and vulnerable on camera and behind the scenes.”

WAKING HOUR (a short film by Nava Mau)

“My hope in making that short film was that people would see a part of themselves in Sofia, and also in Isaac, and maybe the driver. I wanted to bring characters together in a way that felt authentic and it’s been so rewarding to get responses from people saying that it did speak to them, and that they did see themselves reflected in that story. All I ever hope to do is to play characters and create characters that make people recognize parts of themselves within them.”

Nava Mau. Photo credit Guerrilla Davis.

After you wrapped on Waking Hour you were a production fellow on Sam Feder’s groundbreaking documentary Disclosure, what was that set like to be on and what did you learn about filmmaking from watching Sam in action?

“Working on the set of Disclosure was a monumental experience for me because it was my first time working on a set of that magnitude, and how lucky for me that I got to learn about how a set functions, surrounded by trans people on a diverse set and on a set where the process of creation was meant to extend respect and grace to everybody working on the project. So it really set the standard for me in what I hope for in my work environments. I think that Disclosure is something that has already changed the world. I believe that it is a benchmark, it’s a landmark, in what trans people have collectively and individually been fighting for for centuries. It was such an honor to be a part of that and I learned so much from Sam Feder. He works with such intention and he never allows himself to think that his work is done, which can be an impossible standard to meet, but it makes his work excellent. He’s always thinking about his impact on set through his work. I think that is reflected in what people ended up being able to see in the documentary, but also in the fact that for so many people on the crew, the experience of working with Sam changed us. I’m always so grateful to Sam Feder.”

Angelica Ross and Christian Ochoa in Her Story. (Photo credit Tamea A. / photobytamea.com / HerStoryShow.com)

Finally, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“I often think about this web series called Her Story that was created by Jen Richards and Laura Zak, with Angelica Ross about five years ago. I had never seen a narrative on film or television that gave such grace and and nuance to trans women. When I watched Her Story I felt like perhaps I could find a place in the world for myself, and specifically, it inspired me to believe that I could act, that I could write, that I could direct, and that I could produce. It gave me something to aspire to. I really connected with the characters and I really cared about them and I wanted the best for them. It’s just not something that I had ever seen be afforded to trans women on screen before. Her Story was groundbreaking, both in my life, but also in terms of shifting the cultural landscape of this industry. I always think back to Her Story, and I am always sending gratitude to everybody who was involved in creating that web series which people should definitely check out if they haven’t seen it.”

By James Kleinmann

Episodes one to seven of Genera+ion are streaming on HBO Max now. Episode eight premieres on Thursday April 1st 2021. Watch the first episode for free.

Generation | Official Trailer | HBO Max
Generation | Official Poster | HBO Max

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