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Sunday, July 12, 2020

“Usually, trans women are side characters”

Simone and Peter sit on a rooftop. Eve Lindley plays Simone in Dispatches from Elsewhere. She is one of the few trans actors to ever play a lead role in a TV series and one of the few to have a romance with a cis character. | AMC

The quiet power of Eve Lindley playing a romantic lead on AMC’s Dispatches From Elsewhere.

The very first time Eve Lindley was in a room with all of her costars on the AMC series Dispatches From Elsewhere was for a sexual harassment training seminar. She walked in, ready for her first lead role in anything ever, and found herself sitting with Jason Segel, with André Benjamin, with Sally Field.

First, she freaked out inside. Then, she had a different revelation.

“I was looking around at the cast, really feeling myself. I was, like, ‘I’m here. I’ve done the fittings. We just did the table read. This is going to be the best!’ And then I’m looking around, and I’m, like, ‘This is peculiar. There is no young, hot girl on this show. How are men going to watch this? No one is going to watch this! Who is the hot girl?’” she recalls.

“It took me a second, and then I was, like, ‘Oh my God. I’m the hot girl.’ I was not prepared for that.”

Dispatches From Elsewhere is just the 12th role Lindley has ever played on camera. That she’s playing a romantic lead is impressive in and of itself; that she brings so much presence and spark to the show is even more striking. Her role as the romantic female lead of a miniseries about four people drawn into a mysterious, surreal game playing out on the streets of Philadelphia could have felt undercooked, but she brings the character to vibrant life.

And Lindley’s presence on Dispatches From Elsewhere is hugely significant. Though her character, Simone, is not the series’ protagonist (that honor goes to Peter, played by Segel, who created the show and wrote and directed several episodes), she is his primary love interest. And because both Lindley and Simone are trans, she’s making history by default.

“Usually, trans women are side characters. I was a funny character actress, and I never had to think about being pretty on camera or being intimate on camera or kissing on camera,” she says. “It’s weird. I’ve never kissed on camera before. [I asked Jason] ‘What do we do? Do we just do it?’ And Jason was, like, ‘What?’ He’s kissed every A-List actress under the sun! Okay. Great. This is wonderful. No pressure.”

How Dispatches From Elsewhere captures the occasional alienation of transness

Simone beside a painting in an art museum. Jessica Kourkounis/AMC
Simone loves art, and it becomes a major part of her story.

Dispatches From Elsewhere, an anthological miniseries that will tell different stories with each season, begins its first season with characters in search of a purpose. Feeling lost in and isolated by modern life, they begin to come together via an elaborate “game,” with symbols that guide them deeper and deeper into an alternate reality overlaid atop our own.

The first four episodes of Dispatches From Elsewhere’s 10-episode debut season each take a close-up look at one of the four main characters. The second focuses on Lindley’s character, Simone, and opens with a sequence that captures something essential about the process of transition.

Simone makes her way down a long alley, only to stumble upon a Pride parade. She steps back from the parade, her voice caught in her throat. Someone hands her a loudspeaker to shout whatever truth she carries deep within her heart, but she bails, running back the way she came, away from the parade, truth left unspoken.

At the start of this sequence, the show’s most mysterious character — a Wizard of Oz-esque narrator played by Richard E. Grant, who might hold the secrets of the universe — invites viewers to imagine themselves as Simone. He later guides us through her childhood, as she’s assigned male at birth then transitions in adolescence (a journey that’s roughly similar to Lindley’s).

It is the first time the series directly acknowledges that Simone is trans, and it is also very nearly the last. It comes up only a handful of times in later episodes, largely in episode eight, when Simone and Peter go on a date. Simone’s identity is not particularly central to her story. She is not described in the terms that mainstream fiction typically uses to describe transness (“born in the wrong body,” “always knew she should be a girl,” etc.). Instead, Grant’s narrator offers this elegant metaphor: “She thought she had been invited to the party by mistake.”

It’s elegant because it feels, to me, specific to transness — to the idea that you showed up somewhere and realized all your expectations were wrong and you had prepared for a completely different event, but you had to pretend you knew exactly what you were doing all along.

Yet it also feels much more universal. We’ve all experienced moments where we felt out of space and time in our own lives, disconnected from some fundamental self who flits just out of view.

“I was so sure about this one thing, and it was always a no-brainer. I always knew it and advocated for it and pushed for it, and it was a hard thing and I had to wait until I was 18 to medically begin transitioning. And I think when you’re really sure about one thing about yourself, it’s possible to let [dealing with other personal issues] fall to the wayside,” Lindley says.

“So then you get to the other side of this hurdle that you spent your whole life wishing for and hoping for, and it takes you a minute to even realize that you’re on the other side of it.”

In my own experience transitioning, I’ve often likened this process of going through transition and realizing you still have so much to work on to the effect of a thick rug. Before you come out, it’s possible to walk around on the rug and not be fully aware of the condition of the floor beneath it. Maybe a few spots feel saggy or uneven, but for the most part, the rug hides all sins.

Pull up the rug, however, and you’ll see all of the places where the floor is rotting away.

So it goes with gender dysphoria, the condition in which a person’s gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. When you’re in its throes, that disconnect is all you can see. The result can be that a whole bunch of other things, sometimes painful or long-buried feelings, are unearthed. But once you start to treat gender dysphoria (typically with hormones), your emotional experiences of the world become so much more potent and real.

Lindley likes that this awakening is at the center of Simone’s journey. Hers is not a story about transitioning. It’s a story about the messy work of fixing the floor after transition.

“Home is in you,” she says. “You always had the power to go back to Kansas, [like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz]. You just had to figure it out for yourself. This is my home. This body. So now that it’s been remodeled or whatever, what do I fill it with?”

Later, she adds, “The vast majority of what’s happening and what transition is, is actually in your head — the mental changes and the emotional changes. And the physical changes mirror what’s going on in your head.”

How Eve Lindley landed her breakthrough role

The gang meets at a diner. Jessica Kourkounis/AMC
Lindley stars with an all-star cast in Dispatches From Elsewhere, including Sally Field.

Segel didn’t have a real sense that he was making a momentous choice when he decided to write Simone as a trans woman. He initially wanted to create a central quartet of characters who were “diametrically opposed,” he says, and then work to build a sense of empathy and understanding in the audience for people with such radically different life experiences.

“Transitioning, both literally and as a metaphor, was important territory for me to cover. You make these decisions that you know are the right next step but are hugely important decisions,” Segel says. “A part of what we tend to think is that when we get to the other side of that decision, all of our problems are going to be solved. But we find out, ‘Oh, I took care of one thing and all of my other unresolved shit I brought with me.’”

And even if the choice to place a trans woman so close to the center of this story was at least somewhat schematic, once Segel actually auditioned opposite Lindley, he realized there was more depth to the character than he had initially conceived.

“She finished reading, and it was different than I had pictured the scene. I was about to give her notes, but then I started to realize that she was doing it better than I had pictured. And I said to Eve, ‘Simone is so much more complicated than I realized.’ And [Eve] said, without missing a beat, ‘She always is, Jason,’” he says with a laugh. “That was the moment where I was, like, ‘Oh, I found her.’”

Lindley remembers that audition as one where she was sure the show’s producers would be looking for anybody but her. She recalls waiting to be called in and seeing another of the small number of trans actresses who often go out for the same roles as Lindley exit the room.

“I was like, ‘Oh, fabulous, she’s getting it. She is this role. She is so pretty,’” Lindley says. “That was when I realized it was the romantic lead. So then I was, like, ‘This is different than anything I’ve ever gone in for before. They are going to want pretty girls. They are going to want passable pretty. They are not going to want interesting pretty.’”

Lindley began transitioning when she was 18, at the very least after her voice had dropped. She lists other trans actresses, actresses who began their transitions in early adolescence, before puberty had changed their bodies very much, as the sorts of performers she figured would be cast as Simone.

Lindley’s description of herself as “interesting pretty” is inaccurate to my eyes; I’d say she’s very passable pretty. “Passing,” or being able to blend in, as a trans person, with cis people of the same gender, is a fraught concept within trans spaces (I’ve written about it). Most of the trans woman actors who have become even somewhat successful — folks like Laverne Cox and Jamie Clayton — are able to pass to some degree. But Lindley also says she is misgendered every so often.

I know how misgendering feels and how “every so often” can feel like “every single day.” And our dynamic — the one where Lindley says, “Oh, I don’t pass,” and I assure her, “Sweetie, you absolutely do” — is a way that trans women boost each other up while running themselves down because if there is one thing I know to be true, it is that I do not pass and never will, and everybody is just being nice to me if they say “ma’am.” Lindley even recognized this trans lady conversational tendency in herself as we chatted.

“When I compare myself to cis women, I am usually fine. When I compare myself to trans women ... they are all fucking beautiful, like goddesses,” she says.

This is just a thing trans women do. But it’s also a thing cis women do, and I would wager that if you are an actress, someone whose literal career involves looking a certain way and having your appearance measured against other women in your field, the urge to compare yourself to others only intensifies. The gap between the person you are and the person you’re perceived to be is something trans women maybe understand on a visceral level, thanks to dysphoria, but everybody else understands it at least a little bit.

However unwittingly, that’s what Segel tapped into with the character of Simone, who starts out as someone who is uncertain of herself and her place in the world and becomes someone who falls in love, builds a life that makes her happy, and comes to realize her true potential. These are all emotions Lindley plays beautifully.

And though Lindley says Dispatches From Elsewhere’s scripts were smarter than most she’s read about trans characters — she says she had very few notes for Segel about how the series should portray Simone — she was still able to bring her expertise with the lived trans experience when it came time to film the show.

“There were just these little sorts of moments that didn’t feel right, like in flashback they had Simone as like ‘Simon,’” she says, referring to a frequent fictional trope that sees trans women choose feminized versions of their male names and which rarely happens in real life. “Simone is a very creative girl! When she opened up this part of the world or when she opened up the opportunity to be able to choose a name, she would not simply add an ‘e’ to the name that she already had.”

What comes next for a trans actor is always an open question

Simone and Peter lean against a brick wall. AMC
The romance between Peter and Simone ends up being one of the main story threads in Dispatches From Elsewhere.

Throughout our conversation — which transpired over an hour-and-a-half at a coffee shop near Vox Media’s lower Manhattan offices in early February, back when Dispatches From Elsewhere was about to debut, before it was an Emmy hopeful, and before Covid-19 quarantines — Lindley frequently worries that she is saying too little and too much.

This is the first time she has ever been interviewed for a profile. All of the other interviews she’s done for the show have been alongside its other stars, and she feels at once the burden of being The Trans Actress but also a desire to not be so pigeonholed as to be written about as The Trans Actress.

“Suddenly, everyone’s asking me how I feel about things. I’m frankly very shocked that anyone gives a crap about how I feel or what I think,” she says. “But also nothing has happened yet. This show could tank, and I could go back to normal, and that would be great. I still had a really amazing summer [working on the show]. But it would also be really cool if it, like, did the other thing.” And she laughs.

But I like to believe Lindley’s fear that this chapter of her life is already over is unfounded. Dispatches wasn’t a huge hit, but it received solid critical notices, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that will become better known once it arrives on streaming platforms.

As our conversation winds down, I ask her what kinds of roles and characters she would like to play in the future, and she says she wants to do more stunts.

“I once had a dream ...” Lindley starts, before bursting into laughter. “A very vivid dream. I was flying in St. Louis. I just knew it was St. Louis in the dream. I was flying, but [in an arc that wasn’t] straight. There was a lot of getting somewhere and then being pulled back. I’ve always clung to that dream and been, like, ‘That’s me filming something in St. Louis where I’m like on a harness flying.’ I hope that I get to fly in St. Louis at some point.”

I hope she makes it to St. Louis. But it’s easy to see why she might be pessimistic. Even if Dispatches From Elsewhere results in a highly deserved Emmy nomination for her performance, she’s going to head back out into an audition field where she is put up for the same handful of parts afforded to trans actresses in hopes that she might be cast in one. (She has yet to land another since the show ended.)

Even if she’s awarded a part written for a cis actress, there will surely be a discussion after she’s cast as to whether the part should be rewritten to be explicitly trans. And there is every chance that Dispatches From Elsewhere will mark the sole time she ever gets to play a romantic lead, at least with a cis guy.

But there’s a way Dispatches From Elsewhere comes alive when Lindley is on-screen that makes me think her worries are misplaced. She has a star quality to her, even pulling apart a croissant at a coffeeshop in a too-big sweater. And I believe that star quality will make a lasting impression on the tiny fraction of the American population that watched the show when it was airing and with the larger number of viewers it will find when it inevitably hits Netflix.

But it’s not hard to achieve some sort of new career milestone and assume that it’s a peak, not a stepping stone. This is especially true for anybody in a creative field, where the next paycheck is never assured, and it’s true, I think, for those of us who also feel the hidden ghost of some other life waiting to suck us back down into its maw. I hope that in writing this, I didn’t reduce Lindley to The Trans Actress, but I also know how hard it is to escape that framing. If anyone can, it will be her.

“[My transness] is a part of me, but there are so many other parts,” Lindley says. “I feel like a lot of us are pretty desperate for people to see the other parts because the other parts are kind of more interesting or make us who we really are, as opposed to this genetic disposition.”


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