ABC Family's The Fosters already stands out as one of television's most inclusive and popular shows, featuring an ethnically diverse cast and centered around a family being raised by a same-sex couple. Now with the introduction of transgender teen Cole this season, the show has set the bar even higher.
Teen actor Tom Phelan portrays the young trans character, who is part of a group home for girls that main character Callie finds herself in after running away from her foster family. Unfortunately, Cole's story is similar to that of many transgender youth, who are often rejected from their homes and forced to survive on the streets. Tom spoke with GLAAD about the hardest scene to film, and what's next for Cole.
So how did you first hear about the role of Cole on The Fosters?
Well, my mom told me that they were looking for a transgender actor to play a transgender part on The Fosters and she asked me if I wanted to audition. I had just come back from a week long camping trip - and I was sunburnt and it was crazy - and I said I would love to and I went in and it was just the easiest process in the universe. It was such happenstance and just the craziest coincidence that it actually worked out. It was amazing.
Have there been any scenes that you thought were particularly difficult to film or particularly fun to film?
All of them were fun to film, but one that was really hard to film was there was a scene where Cole had tried to go into the men's bathroom. He had gotten into a scuffle with one of the other men in the line and he went back to the group home. They started yelling at him and berating him for trying to use the men's bathroom and it was a really tough scene to do, just having Cole constantly be misgendered and berated with these kind of transphobic and hurtful remarks. It was a tough place to go emotionally. But everyone on the set was super kind and supportive. And after we shot the scene, I was crying a little, of course, and everyone hugged me and it was a really really lovely environment to work in.
You've also been engaging with some of the show's fans on Tumblr. What has the reaction from viewers been like to your storyline?
By and large, really positive! I've had a lot of kids say to me, like, thank you so much for representing our community, it's really incredible. And Tumblr's a really great platform because I feel like I can hold myself accountable for the fact that I am clearly at an advantage here because of my race and my status as an AFAB (assigned female at birth) person. I feel like it's a really interesting platform to interact with people on. And of course I've had people misgender me and ask me about my transition status. I've tried to respond to them respectfully and teach them the error of their ways. But there are always going to be those people.
What can viewers expect to see from Cole and his storyline for the remainder of the season?
Well Cole has been pretty angry and pretty aggressive for the storyline that we've seen of him so far, and I've had a lot of people be angry at him because he kind of intercepted the main heterosexual couple on the show. [This has caused a lot] of uproar from fans. In this next episode you see a really different side of Cole. A more tender side. You get to see some of his backstory and it's really, really wonderful to kind of get to show that different side of him.
What do you hope that the audience is going to take away from Cole's story and is there anything you'd like to say to the show's fans?
I think the audience should just take away that transgender people exist, we're here, and we are not going away. And I really would love for people to kind of take away a sense that they need to educate themselves on these issues and be more respectful of the community. And to the show's fans, I'd just like to say thank you so much for the amazing response. And honestly, we have the best fans ever. They're so passionate and so respectful and so lovely. Really just awesome.
Check out Cole's story on The Fosters, Mondays at 9 p.m. ET / 8 p.m. CT on ABC Family.