As a society we’ve come a long way in terms of our attitudes to those in the LGBTQ+ community. We’ve progressed somewhat since the Kingdom of France became the first Western European country to decriminalise consensual homosexual acts in 1791. In the ensuing 228 years that have followed, many more countries have joined France in improving the rights of the LGBTQ+ folks but there is still a long way to go. There’s a lot of legal and societal gaps that render the community in-equal but this is especially true for transgender people. Deliberate mis-gendering and dead naming are still commonplace in the way calling a gay man the F word was some 30-40 years ago. Progress is on the horizon with activists leading the way. Arguably none more so than Jake Graff, a trans filmmaker and actor whose been a very vocal transgender rights activist. I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to him about this, his role in Collette and his debut feature film.
Your first feature film is in development at the moment. Firstly, congratulations!
Thank you very much.
What’s the film about?
It’s a very niche subject. It’s about a young trans man whose in a gay relationship and becomes pregnant. There’s been a media highlight on trans men who get pregnant with a documentary about it that’s storming the film festival circuit. In my upcoming film the trans man gets pregnant and his boyfriend rejects him, telling him that guys don’t get pregnant and “I was with you because I thought you were a man” and that he doesn’t want anything to do with him. In the mean time he calls his little old French catholic estranged mother in the south of France to say: “You kicked me out and I’m about to have a child and you’re never going to know this kid.” This little old French lady comes over from Provence, goes to see the ex-boyfriend who spurns them. The mother tells her son if he doesn’t want to have this child in London around his colleagues and his social circle then come with her to her secluded, Southern French village where they can raise the child together. From there it’s an odd couple story. They have a lot in common despite the fact she’s older, religious and straight and he’s younger, gay and transgender.
That sounds fascinating. There are certain narratives around the trans community but this story sounds rather unique. What inspired the idea?
My wife and I are on the quest to become parents through surrogacy at the moment and I know a lot of trans guys who recently had their own babies. It’s something I wouldn’t do but I thought it would be interesting to examine how it would feel to be that man going through society looking in on you. Obviously there’s been a lot of reporting around trans issues, trans people and fertility, trans people becoming parents and I just thought it would be interesting to take it away from the media sphere and make it a very real and humanly relatable story about a young man who really wants to become a parent but is coping with his own identity and reconciling his own gender identity with what’s going on inside him. It takes him to Provence with the rolling fields of sunflowers and lavender. I think it’s a stark contrast and hopefully will make for a beautiful movie with quite a weighty subject matter in the middle of it.
I personally can’t wait to see it. You’re currently in development, is that right?
Yeah we’re in development with the amazing team MisFits Entertainment who’ve just produced the double BAFTA nominated McQueen documentary McQueen. They are amazing and I’m working very closely with one of their producers Andee Ryder who is just a phenomenal producer. We are at draft four. We’re due to go to Toronto at the end of the month to the Inside Out film festival film finance forum. We’ll be going out to hopefully pitch to some big wigs and hopefully someone will turn around and say “We love it” and throw lots of money our way.
That would be wonderful to go in and go “Give me money, I have a really cool film idea”
Obviously this idea is so niche no one has seen anything like it before so either it’s going to wow them or they’re going to go “Yeah I’m afraid not.” Everyone is looking for fresh and unique content. It’s certainly different. Hopefully that’ll engage the financiers.
Touching on that one could argue there’s a definite lack of fresh ideas. It’s worth noting you’re one of the very few transgender filmmakers and thus setting something of an example for fellow trans creatives. How do you feel about your journey into the industry and how important is representation?
When I was growing up in 1980s London, I didn’t see any representation whatsoever. I think people now, particularly young people, are very lucky because they’ve got things like YouTube and a massive community out on Facebook and other social media platforms. They can see themselves and they can find their community and others like them. When I was growing up and my wife whose also trans was growing up in Cardiff in the late 80s, neither of us ever saw ourselves on screen. That of course makes for a very lonely and isolating experience particularly during your formative years when you’re desperately looking for anyone to tell you it’s okay, you’re not alone out there. I wanted to act from a very young age because I was so uncomfortable within my own physicality and my own body I would never have put myself out there in any kind of performance related pursuits. As soon as I knew I was going to transition I thought I’m going to use that and I write the story of someone like myself who was in a lesbian relationship, who knew that they were really a man and transitioned.
I wrote my first film X-WHY and that was very important to me because I used my own transition and shot it over two years so it would be my own physical changes shown with what the fictional character was going through. X-WHY won several prizes. I wrote, produced, directed and played the lead. It was such an amazing thing to do. I had so many messages online from younger guys saying they’d never seen this sort of thing before. That was a good 8 years ago now. Trans men had never had that kind of representation and never really seen themselves on screen in any way. X-WHY was the start of it. When I saw the reaction from it I was buoyed on from that and the positivity and hope it gave out there. I carried on writing from there. I remember initially when I came out of drama school I was told not to be the out trans actor because it would hold me back and I might be pigeon-holed. All I found from being out and telling trans and LGBTQ+ stories, giving representation to marginalised and rarely seen characters on screen is positivity. People were so hungry for that content that it felt like it was my responsibility and something I knew would hopefully lead to quite an important legacy in the world. For me, that’s why I’ve been very lucky. I’ve made 7 short films so far and they’ve all been well received across the festival
circuits around the world. I try to be behind and in front of the camera as much as possible so I’ve got a broad idea how films are made from start to finish. Luckily, thus far, it’s all gone well. Hopefully that’ll carry through to my first feature film.
It’s great to hear the determination and the obvious passion you have for what you’re doing. Your filmography has been very focussed on trans representation and the LGBTQ+ community. Where do you feel that mainstream cinema as such could improve with their depictions of trans folks and other marginalised groups?
There needs to be more representation. I do feel there’s a slightly unrealistic expectation certainly from the trans community, seeing themselves out there as much as they like. There aren’t that many of us out there. Trans people account for about 1% of the population. We’re not everywhere. Statistically only 8% of people know a trans person. Most people won’t have met a trans person. We are few and far between. There needs to be a positive push so that more positive representation and our stories need to be out there. That doesn’t just go for trans people; that goes for gay people, lesbians who’ve historically seen a lot of erasure of their identities, trans men are very erased. In terms of cinematic representation, things have gotten better for people of colour in the last year which is amazing. Queer people of colour are starting to rise up particularly in America with films like Moonlight, Indya Moore on the cover of Elle USA as the first trans person to do so, Laverne Cox doing incredible things at the Met Gala. You realise there is that representation but film is such an important medium for making people feel like they have a place in the world.
When you’re lonely, you’re lost, you’re bereft and feel that you don’t belong anywhere a lot of people turn to film. If they don’t see themselves or some kind of incarnation of themselves in those films that they’re watching it does make you feel that there’s something very wrong with you and that you don’t actually matter in the mainstream. We have to aim to make mainstream stories more human and not just about being trans, being of colour or being gay.
I’m not trans but I get the need for representation. As a disabled woman in the LGTQ+ community, I scarcely see myself in film either. You were in the film Colette (2018). How did you feel when you got the role as Gaston Arman de Caillavet?
Euphoric. Honestly it was an incredible audition. Wash (Westmoreland, director of Colette) is one of the sweetest and most down to Earth guys ever. I sort of blundered into this audition. It was at the casting director’s house, her laptop had crashed: there was a lot going on. There was this very nice, quiet guy sitting on the sofa. I sat down and we read together. He asked me to do it again, we do it again and he says “Great, lovely take”. I clumsily asked how many films he’d done before. He very humbly told me he’d done a little film called Still Alice. Obviously I felt like a complete idiot because it was an Oscar nominated film which Julianne Moore won the Oscar for. I felt really stupid however I know myself well enough to know that had I’d walked into that room knowing who he was I probably would’ve flubbed that audition.
A couple of weeks later Wash messaged me on Facebook – just to show the humility and down to Earth nature of this man – to tell me that I got the part. I looked at it and thought, “Wow this is the stuff of dreams.” I had a whole scene and I knew it was going to be with Dominic West. Reading Kiera Knightley’s part, it doesn’t get better than that. Sadly it was on the back burner for seven months. I thought that it would end up like another Danish Girl and left for years but no. I got another message from Wash saying we’re back on and looking forward to working with you. I was absolutely ecstatic.
How did you find taking on the role?
I researched into who de Caillavet was and his work. Wash and I discussed who he was. It’s not a huge role. As Wash sweetly pointed out he’s one of the only people apart from Colette herself who stands up to Willy (played by Dominic West). He was quite an exciting part. I’ve never been in such a part with the magnitude of that set. There were 500 Hungarian extras all walking around in the middle of Budapest, with everyone in period piece costumes. I have to say I didn’t realise how daunting it could be to sit next to Kiera Knightley whilst arguing with Dominic West in the scene until she came on set. Of course I prepared, I knew my lines as any good actor should, I was aware of who Gaston was. I’m half French so I went and read Colette’s work from a young age. I was one of the most French things in the cast and crew of Colette which was quite cool. The real life Colette was an absolute heroine to the French people and one of the most prolific authors. To know and have learnt more about her and the fact that she was outwardly bisexual and proudly so. She was very much a trail blazer. Just to be able to work with that cast and crew was incredible.
There’s quite a challenging of gender norms in the film. In 2019 when we’re supposedly more progressive, how important is it to still have films that challenge gender norms?
I’m all for anything that breaks down prejudice, bigotry and all these gender roles we’ve created for ourselves that causes so many problems and so much transphobia and causes silly beliefs that “Boys should wear blue and girls should wear pink.” Up until around a century ago it was men who wore pink, high heels and had long hair. There’s been a very weird flip the other way round and as a result there’s so much prejudice, discrimination and judgement out there which is a great shame.
When you look at the character Denise Gough plays in Colette called Missy/Uncle Max. He was a trail blazer. He would walk down the streets in male attire as a female bodied person which was illegal in 1910/1920s France. They were taking their own lives and safety into their hands every day and yet they were just living their truth. To know that people like Uncle Max and Colette were doing this some 120 years ago is very important because there’s so much nonsense in the media about trans being a new trend or a fad or a result of exposure by the children to YouTube and deviancy and so forth. It’s really important to know, much as I knew when I was a child in the 80s with no outward external influences that I was a man even though no one would listen to me I knew that’s what I was. It’s amazing to know that there were people like Colette and Uncle Max living some 100 years ago living that truth often at risk to their lives. It’s absolutely right to see their stories. It’s even more important in period films because it shows we trans people have been around throughout time.
Correct me if I’m wrong: your character was a cisgendered man as far as we’re aware?
Yes, absolutely. Bear in mind that back then there wouldn’t have been hormones and surgeries as there are now for trans folks. Denise Gough’s portrayal of Uncle Max was very accurate. She looks similar to Uncle Max because there wouldn’t have been hormones. As much as I, since my medical transition, look very much male a trans person back then would not have looked like that. They wouldn’t have had a beard or a moustache because they wouldn’t have had injectable testosterone as I do. Again, it’s very accurate. My character Gaston de Caillavet wouldn’t have been quite a moustachioed and bearded had he’d been trans.
I’m glad to clear that up. We’re living in a time where cisgendered folks are getting trans roles in movies, tv etc. Do you feel having played de Caillavet and had your experience with the film industry that that’ll enable trans actors to get roles much like their cisgendered counterparts?
Yeah. I think that we need more stories for us. There’s a real feeling in the trans community that only trans actors should play trans characters but what you’ve also got to remember is that it is a film industry and it is a business. Budgets have to be taken into consideration and big names on posters will create buzz and get bums on seats and create an appeal. Unfortunately at the moment there are no transgender actors who have that financial pull. I would much rather see a trans story out there on a broad scale such as The Danish Girl or Colette where those stories are being told regardless of whether or not its a trans actor playing that role or not. I’m very lucky in that I can play cisgendered roles. I have what’s known as passing privilege but there’s a flip side to it as well. Quite often when I go to audition for trans roles I’m told I don’t look trans enough which is weird. I think actors should be able to play any role. Simply for authenticity I think it’s great to have a trans actor in a trans role but I think at the moment there aren’t enough trans actors who can pull the budget of a £15/20 million. Whilst we’re working towards that then it’s amazing to have directors like Wash Westmoreland who gave a nice, meaty part to myself so we can have a chance to be on that set, gain that experience and have those amazing parts on our CVs. We’re working our way to having a profile and maybe at some point we can command those budgets. Bear in mind that the trans movement is very recent. It’s only been in the past few years where there’s been very visible trans shown and a real focus on trans issues. It will be baby steps but we’re working towards an exciting time where we’ll have a really, really big trans actor who’ll be able to command an amazingly big budget and there won’t be any excuse for a production company or a studio to not be able to give them that part.
It can be quite similar for other marginalised groups.
We’ve moved past the point where blackface is a practice and we’ve moved past the point where white people play Egyptian roles. We’ve gone way beyond all that but with something like transgender roles you have to bear in mind that the vast majority of audiences who are cisgendered won’t care if a trans role is being played by a trans person or a cis person so long as they’re hopefully learning something, so long as it’s authentic and it feels real and genuine.
The trans community obviously care very much because to us it does very much feel like we need to be given those roles, we need to be given that leg up and we need to be given that much needed visibility. I just feel like we’re at a point where if trans actors can play cis, a gay actor can play straight and a straight actor can play gay then I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world. We are all actors. We want to be given that challenge and those great roles. I think we will start to see more positive discrimination where trans actors and gay actors are given first dibs on those trans/gay roles but there’s still a whole world of cisgendered actors who are also working very hard to be able to get those great roles. It is a difficult subject and I do understand why there is so much anger and debate over it.
You’ve been quite successful. What advice would you give to fellow trans folks and other people from marginalised groups who want to get into the film industry?
Jen Richards, another trans person in the industry, did what I did. She wanted to put herself out there as an actor and a writer so she did. She quite literally picked up a pen or went to her laptop and wrote something. I get asked this question a lot. I quite simply said I wanted to tell this story so I’m going to. If you’ve got a film in you splurge it out, get it on the table, get some people together to help. There’s so many Facebook groups and a lot of young & old people out there who want to tell a story but are stuck on how to do it. Through the wonder of social media it’s easy to connect with those people nowadays. If you want to be an actor go to your local Am-Dram acting group. If you want to tell a story and you’re passionate enough about it then write it. If you can’t write, find a writer who’ll write it and you’ll do that together. If you want to act in it too make a point of saying “I want to play that part”, get someone to direct so you can do that. It’s what I did: I had a story, I wrote it down, I co-produced, I directed, acted and that was the starting point. It’s starting from nothing and building your way up. So often I meet trans people who say “I don’t believe I can” or “I don’t have the opportunity.” Obviously growing up as trans you are made to feel quite often like you’re not really worthy. You’re told so often you’re not who you know yourself to be. It can have a very negative effect on your self esteem which can carry into adulthood so you have these talented people who don’t have the nerve or the self belief to put themselves out there and make something. There’s a huge girth of trans talent who’ve simply not been given that opportunity or that self belief to actually go out and do things. I’d say if you want to go out and do it, do it. You can spend all your life making excuses like “I don’t know if I can” or “I think it’ll fail” then you’ll just end up old, having never followed your dream which, to me, is a terrible idea.
Colette is available on Digital, Blu-Ray and DVD now.