When actress, singer, author, teacher and activist Alexandra Billings last spoke with The Queer Review in early 2020, she was making history on Broadway in Wicked as the first trans actor to portray Madame Morrible. It was a role that she returned to once theatreland reopened last year. Now, she’s lighting up our screens in Prime Video’s sci-fi epic, The Peripheral, opposite Chloë Grace Moretz. Based on the novel by The New York Times bestselling author William Gibson, Billings makes her impactful entrance in the series as the magnetic and playfully intimidating Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer in the sixth episode. Her previous screen work includes playing Davina on the groundbreaking SAG and Emmy award-winning Transparent, going on to both star in and produce the series’ Musicale Finale. She’s also appeared in shows such as The Conners, Never Have I Ever, Diary of a Female President, Goliath, How to Get Away with Murder, E.R., Nurses, and a GLAAD award-winning episode of Grey’s Anatomy. She starred in Romy and Michelle: A New Beginning, marking one of the first times a trans actress played a trans character in the history of television. PBS aired the Emmy-nominated documentary about her, From Schoolboy to Showgirl: The Alexandra Billings Story, in 2009 and earlier this year she published her memoir, This Time For Me.
With the first seven episodes of The Peripheral now streaming on Prime Video, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with Alexandra Billings about Inspector Lowbeer’s distinctive look, how she found her character’s voice, her experience of writing This Time For Me, and how she came to cover Carly Simon’s Let The River Run from Working Girl.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: The Peripheral is such a compelling piece of scifi, is this a genre that you’re usually drawn to as a viewer?
Alexandra Billings: “I’ve always loved science fiction. I’m a science fiction freak! I’m also a horror freak. I love investigative shows and I’m also a big Sherlock Holmes fan. This put all of those things together. The books are just phenomenal. Gibson is a genius. The fact that a TV show was going to be made of this extremely complex world fascinated me. I thought the way that they were able to make this story linear and to whittle it down to basically being about chosen and blood family being what matters most was extraordinary. The writing is out of this world, it’s absolutely breathtaking. It’s just gorgeous. So that combination drew me to the project.”
Tell me about your approach to playing Inspector Lowbeer and what she was like to inhabit as a character.
“I am a trained actor, so don’t try this at home! Here’s the thing, I’m a really good mimic and I have a pretty good ear, but I’m not the greatest at dialects. So the big worry for me was the accent. I wanted her to sound a very particular way, I didn’t want her to sound like everybody else in the show. I’m also a singer, so I had a sound in my head, but I didn’t know what that was. I was watching Mary Poppins—we love the Julie Andrews—and she’s got this line, “Close your mouth please Michael, we are not a codfish”, and I went, ‘That’s it, I’ve found her!’ So that was the sound, that sort of Julie Andrews in between light upper crust and cockney weird thing she’s adopted. Once I found Lowbeer’s sound, her intellect, her intelligence, and her wit all fell into place. It all made perfect sense to me strangely. So I worked a very different way with Lowbeer than I have with any other character I’ve played. Mary Poppins, who knew?!”
What do you make of the way that she presents herself to the world and did you have any input into the look?
“The designers on this show are truly brilliant, they’re so imaginative. I live in Long Beach, California and I go to a hair salon there called Salon Benders. It’s a very particular kind of hair salon, specifically designed for LGBTQ people and even more specifically for trans people. When people transition the way you look, especially your hair, matters; the length of it and how it’s cut. Going into a public place for the first, second, or third time as a trans person can also be triggering. This place, because it’s queer-owned, trans-owned and trans-run, is a very welcoming, kind, safe space to be fabulous in.”
“Weirdly, a week before I auditioned for this role, I went to the hair salon. Jessie, who owns Salon Benders said, ‘I’m going to do something completely different’. So she cut it real short and then put this white streak in the front of my head like the Madeline Kahn thing in Young Frankenstein. I was like, ‘I love it!’ When I got the role in The Peripheral, I turned to the producers and said, ‘I can take all this out and calm myself down’, but they were like, ‘No, no, no, that’s one of the things we loved. We love that this can be some kind of signature’. Then the hair stylists took this streak and sort of bent it and made it part of who Lowbeer is. From there, they added this futuristic Sherlock Holmes look. They gave her a little cane, a Sherlock Holmesy hat, a jaunty little feather. She looks like somebody you recognize that’s sort of hip and also like something from the future that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever! It’s fascinating what they did. I did nothing though, I just want to be clear. I sat there like an idiot! This was all the designers.”
I love how playful she is while also being very intimidating. There’s a great moment where that poor young guy comes in to pour some tea for her and his hands are quaking. There’s something about playing a powerful person where you can sometimes rely on the way other people react to you isn’t there?
“Things like that don’t work unless the actors around you are immersed in the world as well. So I would have had to work much harder had I not been surrounded by these master actors. You could see their insides shaking when I entered the room, so I didn’t have to do anything which was really great for me. I’m usually very animated and I gesture a lot, but for Lowbeer I made a decision to be very still and do very little. All the actors around me reacted every time I passed them, there was a shift in the whole room just by Lowbeer being present, that was them.”
When we first meet Lowbeer she’s taking her constitutional walk.
“On the White Cliffs of Dover!”
Yes, I love that establishing shot of the cliffs, it’s almost like a drum roll for your character’s introduction!
“It’s really incredible, isn’t it? Speaking of Julie Andrews, a couple of times I had to do The Sound of Music spin. I was on the cliffs of Dover, so how can you not do the spin?! It was pretty great.”
Lowbeer’s there with her robot Beatrice, played by Anjli Mohindra. What are the dynamics there, they’re almost a double act aren’t they?
“I got so lucky with this shoot, because this is not always true, but every single human involved was a winner. We got along so well that we spent most of our time laughing and acting like idiots. Our director Vincenzo Natali would have to go, ‘Can you shut up? We have to do this shot. Will you people calm down!’ We were having so much fun, especially the two of us. We really, truly, deeply spiritually enjoyed each other. It was a real joy.”
You have some great moments in the series with Chloë Grace Moretz, what was she like as a scene partner?
“Chloë is one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve worked with in I don’t know how long. Not just as an actor, but as a human being. I’ll never forget this. We were filming a scene all day. It was 100 degrees or more in New York and we were in a mausoleum, surrounded by brick and mortar, so it was like being in a hot box in the middle of the desert. I was in all tweed, Chloë was in a full black pleather catsuit. We were shvitzing like crazy filming the scene over and over again all day, which you have to do. Finally, towards the end of the day, one of the writers or producers came up to the two of us and said to Chloë, ‘We’re going to add a little speech here’. They gave her 10 brand new lines that she’d never heard before and she looked at it on her phone, put it down and then said the speech perfectly, word for word, five or six times in a row. And not just spoke it, she was in the centre of it, she was with me, we were partners in this thing. She didn’t exclude me. Her ability to receive information and to stay present in her joy and her gratefulness is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
Last time we spoke you were working on your memoir, This Time For Me. What was that experience like, reflecting back over your life, shaping it into a book, and then putting it out into the world?
“Oh, it was a nightmare! All kinds of wonderful people kept telling me as I was writing it that it was going to be so cathartic. They’d say, ‘You’re going to be so excited. You’re going to be so refreshed!’ I was writing it weeping and shattered as I was reliving my trauma thinking, when is it cathartic? When does that happen? Now I finally understand what they were saying because the catharsis is happening now that I’m talking about it. As I talk about all these things in my life that I’ve been through, I realize that I’m not reliving them, I’ve survived them, I’ve learned from them. I now realize that there are people in my life that are great gifts and great guides because of them. So now that catharsis makes sense to me, but not when I was writing it. I’ll never do that again. I wanted to jump out of the window four or five times. But later, being able to look at it through a specific lens, that’s when you’re able to go, ‘Oh, I see where the healing is’.”
You voiced the audiobook too didn’t you?
“I did. Parts of it were difficult. Anytime I have to go back to the 1980s and 90s when the AIDS plague happened is always going be difficult. That’s never easy. People are often like, ‘Well, that was so long ago’. Not to me it wasn’t. Having been through the quarantine and COVID, I think there’s now a whole generation of queer people who survived the AIDS plague that can point to this time and say, ‘Do you remember what you felt like when you couldn’t leave your house? Multiply that by 100 and then imagine that the government was pretending everything was fine’. That’s almost what it was like to survive the plague. So when I did the audiobook, reading that part was difficult, but the rest of it was fun.”
You mentioned earlier that you’re a singer and I have to tell you, something that really uplifts me is your version of Let The River Run, which I sometimes listen to a few times in a row when I need to.
“That’s lovely, I’m glad. That’s one of my favourite songs. My wife actually gave me that song years and years ago. I’d never heard it before and I was singing somewhere in Chicago and she said, ‘I heard this song from this movie called Working Girl and you need it’. So she’s the one that brought that into my life. I’m glad you like that song, that means a lot.”
By James Kleinmann
Alexandra Billings stars in The Peripheral, streaming now on Prime Video, with new episodes launching each Friday. Her memoir, This Time For Me is available now. Listen to her cover of Let the River Run on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music.