GLAAD talks to Brian Michael from OWN's Queen Sugar


We're excited to bring you this interview with Brian Michael, the talented actor who played "Toine" in tonight's episode of Queen Sugar on OWN. In the episode, "Caroling Dusk," Ralph Angel Bordelon has a run-in with police while he's digging in a dumpster looking for his son's doll that has been thrown away. One of the police officers who confronts him is Toine, Ralph's old friend from high school. Toine also happens to be a transgender man. 

You can watch the episode again next Wednesday at 9pm ET/PT on OWN, or on the Watch OWN App or OWN on Demand.

Brian, can you tell us a little about yourself? How long have you been training as an actor and where might we have seen you before Queen Sugar?

Firstly, I'd like to begin by expressing my gratitude to GLAAD for taking an interest in my story and my body of work. Also, for all the amazing work you have been doing to doing to raise awareness about trans people, and in my case, trans actors in TV and film.

I began training professionally as an actor 6 years ago, at the William Esper Studio under Terry Knickerbocker, but have been acting since childhood. I had a lot of energy and a big imagination growing up so performing was a huge outlet for me.

I fell in love with acting at a young age, it was the first places I experienced being able to be whomever I said I was without question. And where I learned that I can help people understand things I could not yet articulate.

I studied Theatre in college but ended up switching majors to Video & Film production in my sophomore year as I began to understand that I was transgender.

I took a break from acting while I figured myself out, but I never travelled too far from it. I spent several years after college teaching drama and filmmaking to teens. I'd find myself helping them set up their shots, but then linger in front of the camera or get really excited when they'd ask me to make a  cameo.

Then after living in New York for a few years, I decided to really commit to acting professionally.

So I started training at Esper Studio, learning about the industry in workshops, performing background work in film and TV until better opportunities arose, eventually becoming more active in independent productions and Off-Broadway, developing my comedic chops in  sketch and improv, etc.

Since then I've appeared in a number of commercials and TV shows including Girls, Blue Bloods, Person of Interest, and The Detour.

Your character, Toine, is someone Ralph has known since high school. What I loved about the scene is that Ralph already knows Toine is a transgender man. They were friends before Toine's transition, and Ralph has also seen Toine since he transitioned. The scene isn't written as a "big reveal" where Ralph finds out his old high school friend is "now a man." (A clichéd trope TV shows have used all too often.) Toine's relationship with Ralph is much more nuanced than that. How did you feel when you read the script?

I was so moved and honored; there aren't many acting roles about trans people, let alone trans men in TV and films. And I've found that often when things are written by people outside of the trans experience, they tend to focus on these common tropes: the painful disclosure, or the physical aspects of transition itself. The characters tend to be pre-transition or early in transition, and the storylines they are involved in are mainly focused on their transition and them seeking other people's acceptance or their non-trans love interest or family members' reaction.

But there is so much more to trans people's experiences than those moments. There's so much life after transition that has gone unexplored in TV and films, and as an artist, this is the part of my life and experience that I had been looking to explore in my work.

Toine and Ralph's relationship is much more reflective of the experiences I've had with long-time friends and I hadn't seen that on screen yet. I was excited at the thought of sharing this with people who may not know that they know trans people in their personal life.

I'm incredibly grateful to the writers on Queen Sugar and Ava DuVernay who took this approach and crafted this scene with such authenticity.

I loved that this scene was about gratitude and friendship, and that Toine being trans was just a part of their story, and not the focus. Instead, support and understanding was the focus of the scene!

My character got to do something that doesn't get to happen that much in life, thank someone who supported him unconditionally. Sometimes after transition, people can get cut off from the people and relationships they've had in the past for various reasons.

I think Toine believed he wouldn't see Ralph Angel again, and he never had the chance to thank him. I think Toine has always had this weight on his heart, so when this moment comes, he gets to reflect on this and can finally let his friend know how much he appreciated him. I thought that was so beautiful. Working on this scene inspired me to do this in my personal life. To reach out to a few of my oldest friends and thank them.

This is what I love about this show and its writing and direction. There is so much authenticity in each character. They all come from these under-explored backgrounds and every flaw is rooted in some very universal truth. In each episode these people are explored with such depth and nuance that it literally moves me.

Do you think the relationship between Ralph and Toine may explain why Ralph is so accepting of his son playing with dolls?

Definitely. Ralph Angel saw how damaging the pressure to conform was for Toine while they were growing up. I think he saw firsthand all the pain, frustration and anger that Toine experienced, and how unnecessary it was.

You know,  I believe Ralph Angel saw that Toine was happy when people just let him be himself and enjoy what he liked.

So Ralph Angel wants the same for his son. He wants to protect Blue in the same way that he protected Toine. I think Ralph Angel understands that people are who they are no matter how they dress or what toys they play with. Toine is Toine and Blue is Blue and he's going to love them and protect them no matter what. That is how deep and completely he loves his people!

I think I'm correct in saying that your prior roles on TV shows like Blue Bloods, Person of Interest, and The Detour were not written as transgender characters -- making you one of the few transgender actors who've been cast to play those types of parts. What made you decide to audition for this role on Queen Sugar, knowing that doing so would involve disclosing your gender history?

When I first started working as an actor, I wanted to get better and to learn how to use my experiences in my work so I accepted any role being offered. I knew that at some point I would want to explore my trans experience in my work but I wanted to make sure my self-understanding and skills were sharp enough to do justice to this deeply personal subject.

I also had concerns that disclosing my gender history, without establishing myself as a strong actor first, would exclude me from being considered for non-trans roles. I feel that because I began my career post-transition and am not "visibly trans," I had the privilege of choosing to disclose or not and I was able to go in for any role that fit my type.

I decided to stay focused on  becoming the best  actor I could be so that it would be too hard for me to be set aside. So I kept training so I that could figure out how to bring all experiences to my roles in a truthful way.

I found that some of my experiences were easier to work with than others and I would lean towards characters that were dealing with things like moving away from home, navigating dating, transitioning from young adulthood into straight up adulthood.

As I kept working, learning about myself, and resolving issues I would uncover in therapy, I became more comfortable with bringing my more challenging life experiences into my work , and I wanted to start exploring my trans experiences. I went looking for roles that would allow me to "paint" with parts of myself that I wasn't comfortable digging into or working with.

I knew that at some point, I would want to take on trans roles but there weren't many. I tried my hand at writing some shorts from my own experiences, but I found that I really wanted to just focus on acting so I searched a good trans role that I could explore.

But there weren't many trans roles on any of the TV and film projects that interested me the most. And the few roles that were written, were for trans women or being cast with non-trans actors that perhaps had a name in this business.

Fortunately, In the past five years there has been a huge shift in mainstream TV and film writing. Thanks to the work and advocacy that GLAAD has done alongside trans actors, advocates and activists, like  Laverne Cox, Tiq Milan, Janet Mock, Jen Richards, and Jill Soloway, there are more roles, and the roles are rooted in more reality and understanding.

It's also been really encouraging to see that independently produced films and series like Angelica Ross & Jen Richards' Her Story and Emmett Jack Lundberg's Brothers, written and starring trans artists, have found platforms to reach audiences with authentic representations of trans people featuring a wide array of narratives. These shows have created opportunities for better representation in mainstream media and I felt like it would only be a matter of time before the right role surfaced.

I had a few other good trans masculine roles come up that I auditioned for but didn't quite fit. When I saw the breakdown for Toine, I felt this was the role I was looking for. It was a dream come true in some many ways.

With my personal experiences and interests as well as my professional experience of having played police officers, I knew I was a perfect fit.  Once I learned I was for Queen Sugar, I knew this was everything I wanted in a project.

Queen Sugar has earned praise and attention for hiring all female directors and for striving for diversity both in front of and behind the camera. What was your experience like working on Queen Sugar?

It was amazing. It's an experience I wish every actor that's out here hustling can have at some point. Honestly, they treasure and value each other and there's just a lot of respect for everyone involved in the production.

It felt like family. Often when you're only working on-set, it can feel like you are a visitor, they made it feel like I was a member of the creative family.

A few hours after I learned I was cast, I was greeted by an email from Ava DuVernay herself welcoming me to the Queen Sugar family and wishing me well on the shoot. I literally could have cried. I came close. I definitely squealed and sent screenshots to my mama.

I had been dying to work with Ava since I saw Selma at a SAG-AFTRA screening and talkback. Her storytelling, the issues and stories she calls attention to and her own personal drive to tell these important stories, to carve out her place in the industry and to bring others with her, inspires me on the deepest level. I have emails going back to 2015 to my reps expressing that I wanted to work with her and on Queen Sugar. So for this moment to come, to receive a welcome from her directly felt like I manifested a miracle.

Ava wasn't on set when I was filming but her presence was everywhere. She values everyone that she works with and you can feel it. There was this care and trust that permeated the entire cast and crew. It was just so empowering to see so many women and women of color literally running the show and the community vibe.

There was a lot of care and joy on that set. The cast and crew love what they are doing and they have a lot of love for each other and I felt like as soon as I got there they extended the same love to me.

The director, Amanda Marsalis, came to introduce herself to me while I was in hair and makeup to discuss Toine and get my input on the scene. It was very meaningful to know that my input on this personal character and moment was valued.

She was everything I wanted in a director. She was open, clear in her vision and she knew how to get the best from everyone on the set. There was this sense of trust she engendered everyone.

There was a lot of vulnerability for my character in this scene and I felt totally safe to go there with Amanda and Kofi.

Kofi was an incredible scene partner. He's a genuine person and a giving actor. We met only a few hours before filming yet it felt like I had known him for while. The heart that makes Ralph Angel so engaging in the show comes from Kofi. He's full of love, for other people and for his craft and it shows in the way he works, in what he's done with his character.

Now that you've played "Toine" on Queen Sugar, do you have any concerns that you're going to be typecast….as a police officer or firefighter – I mean you have played quite a few of those roles.

Ha! No, Toine is a pretty well-rounded character to me, there is a lot to him I feel like being a cop is just one part of who he is, just like his trans history is another part. There is a lot to explore with him and I'd love to develop him further.

I've played many police officers in my TV career so far. It was kind of strategic, I love police and crime shows like Law & Order and Third Watch and it was a goal of mine to book a regular role on one at some point in my career, so what better way to prepare than taking on smaller roles.

I like that the police roles I've done have allowed me to be different kinds of people who happen to be cops. I've come to understand their motivations, what can go on day-to-day and so I feel like I'd have a lot of authenticity to bring to the part.

Outside of TV, I've played a wide range of characters and been able to explore different aspects of my experiences and interests.

What's next for you? I assume like all trans actors, you want to be considered for ALL roles going forward, just like you were before tonight's episode aired. Will you also be looking for an opportunity to play more transgender characters?

Currently, I am working on an Off-Broadway play, that will premiere in August at 59E59 Theater. The play, A Real Boy, is written by Stephen Kaplan and directed by Audrey Alford.

It's an allegorical play that tells the story of two puppets who adopt a human child. When the young boy starts growing strings, his kindergarten teacher takes it upon herself to save him.

I was drawn to it because it very cleverly explores life for those on the fringes of society and the tensions that arise when others try to fix their "problems. "  It will generate conversations about love, family and conventionality that I feel is important right now.

I'm very grateful that I've had the opportunity to play both trans and non-trans characters so far in my career. I want to continue to take on any roles that resonate with me and that allow me to challenge myself as an artist and impact audiences.

I'm happy that I am working at a time when there are roles like Toine being written. At a time when writers, producers have been open to the input of trans artists and advocates and are holding space for full and authentic trans narratives - and reaching out for trans actors for these parts.

There was a fear that playing trans characters and being more visible would limit the kinds of roles I can do but, since this experience, taking on such a complex and resonate character and what I was able to create with this amazing cast & crew, I feel like the door is open wider.

Thank you for talking to us, Brian. We're so happy that you've gotten this opportunity to portray an authentic, well-written trans character. And we can't wait to see you in all types of roles in the future.

Follow Brian on Twitter to keep up with all of his upcoming projects.

Check out this video by GLAAD and Screencrush featuring more transgender actors talking about their experiences working in Hollywood!

Learn more about what it means to be transgender and how you can be an ally to transgender people.

GLAAD talks to Brian Michael from OWN's Queen Sugar | GLAAD

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