GLAAD chats with Ellie Desautels from NBC's 'Rise' about trans representation on TV

We're excited to bring you this interview with Ellie Desautels, who plays Michael on the new NBC drama Rise. Michael is a transgender high school student who joins the theater department's production of Spring Awakening. When the series starts, Michael is already socially transitioned at school, using his new name and he/him pronouns. The role Michael plays in the musical within the series is a male part. Rise is created by Jason Katims who brought us Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, along with Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller, and Flody Suarez. Check it out on Tuesdays at 9:00pm ET / 8:00pm CT on NBC, or wherever you catch NBC's streaming content.

When you first read the Rise script, what drew you to play Michael?
Well, while I found the script for the pilot amazing, my desire to play Michael didn't derive from the script. The plot was interesting and gripping, and of course the character description for Michael resonated with me deeply, but what ultimately made me want to play Michael was knowing that the creators were auditioning transgender actors and wanted to ensure that Michael’s story was portrayed authentically. It was so exciting to think that I could be actively involved in improving trans representation on TV, considering it is my other passion. That I could act and improve trans representation at the same time? It certainly felt like the job for me.

You and the character you play are both part of the trans community. Michael is a trans boy while you identify as non-binary. How did you approach playing Michael?
I identify as non-binary and I also strongly identify as trans-masculine, which to me means that I have a strong connection to my masculinity. My trans experience had a big influence in the development of Michael. I was also inspired by trans teens I had the pleasure of speaking with through Facebook. But I can only ever know my own experience. I can't replicate someone else's. I feel that Michael and I coexist in the same trans experience, but we use different terms to label it. Plus, Michael is more than his gender identity, and our high school experiences are pretty similar! I was once a teenager doing high school drama, and I was a teenager who loved to sing. So a lot of Michael came from who I am as a person and from my teenage human experience. But he's much more practical than I am. That part of him is inspired by my fiancé.

What was the audition process like?
It all happened at Telsey & Co. Have to give them a shoutout for their gender neutral bathrooms! The first audition was easy with one person and a camera. I prepared a bit of a song to sing and I had to prepare a monologue they provided. The next day I was told I would have a callback the following week. I was told the producers and the director would be in the room, and I purposely decided not to look any of them up so I could treat it like all my other auditions and not create unnecessary pressure for myself. It was my first ever professional callback.

So I walked in to a room full of the bright faces of artistic people. I felt comfortable and I just performed a different song for them, the same monologue, and they all looked moved. It was a great callback. I almost got on a train home when my manager called me saying they wanted to hear me sing again. I was shocked, but I went back and sang for them again and they looked just as moved. I thanked them and went home. I'm still not sure why they wanted to hear me a second time.

The next day was agony! That morning, my managers said something like "They loved you. Nothing's official, but it's looking good. Just have to wait to hear," and all day it was like that. "It looks good!" Me texting them every hour "Any word??" Just getting responses like "Nothing yet!" and "It's looking really good!" All day until 9:30 at night, just as I was starting rehearsal as music director with my college a cappella group. My manager, Mel, called and they said "Guess what?" and I silently went into a hallway and I think I said something like "No f*cking way" and Mel told me I got the part and I must have said "Are you serious?" or something because my a cappella group heard and started screaming. So I went outside and Mel congratulated me and I just started crying. I called my mom and we sobbed and then I called my fiancé and continued crying. I went back to rehearsal and it took like ten minutes to stop crying. It was an unbelievable experience.

This is your first broadcast network show, which is exciting. And on a show created by Jason Katims who executive produced Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. What was it like working with Jason Katims and the cast?
It was quite a life-changing experience to act in scenes with or alongside such well-known actors as Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez, and Auli'i Cravalho, but it became normal very quickly. Not only was I working with the cast, I formed relationships and great friendships with many of them and everyone casually accepted the fact that I'm trans.

Working with Jason Katims was a dream. From the very beginning, Jason valued my thoughts and input on Michael's story and how to best represent him. After the pilot, just as he was beginning to write the rest of season one, Jason reached out to me and we had a long phone discussion. He wanted to learn about my life as a trans person, wanted to know the nuances of my identity, what I experience daily, and also my thoughts about Michael and where I thought his story could go. After that I reached out to him a few more times whenever I thought of more important things to tell him and he always made time for me. He was consistently open to learning more and always wanted to listen to me. He valued me and my thoughts and always assured me it was because he wanted to tell Michael's story the right way. He gained my complete trust. I have always felt safe with Jason and I knew Michael was safe in his hands, too.

TV and films roles are typically gendered. How do you choose which roles you want to pursue? What's your experience been with casting directors and at auditions?
Right now I go for whatever roles I'm comfortable with. Roles I feel comfortable playing and those I find interesting. At the moment, I feel most comfortable going out for the few non-binary roles that are offered and trans-masculine roles. But that could change in the future. I don't ever want to limit myself in my craft, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone helps me grow as an actor. But sometimes I need to allow myself comfort in order to flourish as a human.

So far I've only had good experiences with auditions and casting directors, but I've heard other stories from trans women and trans-feminine people about their not-so-good experiences. Many of them were weren't considered for transgender roles because they "don't look trans enough." That idea, that trans characters need to look a certain way, rules out many trans artists. It also devalues us as people by saying trans people must "look trans." Some transgender people are recognizably trans – others aren't. We need roles written for everyone – and casting directors should then know how to cast those roles accordingly.

In the premiere episode of Rise, the drama teacher asks your character which name he wants to use. What was it like to play that scene?
That scene was huge for me for a few reasons. The first being that it was my first ever professional scene, the second that it was with Josh Radnor (and at that point I was still star-struck), and the third being that it was a major moment for my character. Looking back on it, I realize that scene was the start of my career and it was also the beginning of making a difference in the lives of transgender youth. It's a very empowering scene and I hope it gives trans kids confidence in themselves. When we were done shooting that scene, Rosie Perez came to me to tell me that my work was beautiful. I don't think she knows how much that meant to me.

As part of the trans community, what do you hope viewers take away from your character and storyline on Rise?
You'll see as the season continues that what Jason, the writers, and I did with Michael was depict a transgender teen whose life is more than being transgender. Michael's story isn't about him figuring out he's trans or his transition. When the show starts, his parents know and he's already attending school as Michael. Part of Michael's story is about the obstacles that real trans youth face, but Jason and the writers also put Michael in situations that any teen can relate to. So, I hope that Michael and his storyline can be a reminder to the viewers that we as trans people are not defined by our gender identities and our lives don't revolve around being trans 24/7. We are human and experience life in all its complexities, just like everyone else.

What type of representation of non-binary characters would you like to see in future films and TV shows? And would you like to play a non-binary character in the future?
The future is vast and full of potential for amazing, accurate, positive representation of non-binary folk. I'm grateful that I have this platform to speak out as a non-binary person who was assigned female at birth. But I want to see just as much time - or more - given to non-binary people who are assigned male at birth. They experience so much more transphobia and negative reactions in this world. Show me a non-binary parent, a non-binary teacher, non-binary superheroes and couples, and show me a non-binary person running their own business. Show me eccentric non-binary folk and modest non-binary folk. Non-binary people of color. Non-binary people with curves. I want to see it all! All these kinds of non-binary people, and more, exist in the world. Who wouldn't want to tell all of their interesting stories? And of course I want to play a non-binary character. I want to play many in the future! But I need people to start creating more, and I need networks to hire non-binary writers to create them.

Photo Credits: NBC/Virginia Sherwood