GLAAD talks to Marquise Vilson about his role on "Law & Order: SVU"

In "Service," tonight's episode of Law & Order: SVU on NBC, Benson and the SVU team search for a soldier accused of sexual assault. They identify the suspect and two witnesses. One witness refuses to break the military's code of silence and won't testify. Sergeant Jim Preston, played by out trans actor Marquise Vilsón, is the other witness. He is also reluctant to testify, but for a different reason - he's a transgender man. And while that fact is in his military record, the people he serves with on a daily basis don't know his gender history. If he testifies, everyone will know, and he says that given the administration's current stance on trans military service, he might lose his career. Ultimately, Jim puts his career, his friendships, and his safety on the line to focus on his duty to serve - he testifies and puts a rapist in jail. In response, his fellow soldiers salute him in solidarity and respect. Law & Order: SVU airs on Wednesdays at 9:00 ET / 8:00 CT. If you missed "Service," you can watch it on or Hulu!

GLAAD is excited to chat with Marquise Vilsón about this episode and his career as an out trans actor.

Marquise, how did you find your passion for acting; when did you decide to become an actor?
Performing is something I have always had a knack for. As a kid, I was always in some sort of performing arts program, either as a dancer or with painting or drawing, as well as a personal interest in music as a rap artist. While I didn’t have the experience of acting in plays or in theater, I personally believe most of my acting experience and skill comes from being involved with the underground ballroom community. I’ve been a part of the ballroom scene since 1995, so being able to stay in character is something I’ve been doing for over two decades while participating in competitions. Had it not been for my experience and knowledge of ballroom culture, I’m not sure my acting career would even exist. For many years, ballroom has been my stage and my audience. And I must pay my respects to my community.

Like most kids growing up I would watch TV and movies and think that acting would be an amazing career, but I also never saw someone who was going through what I was going through on-screen, so I never thought it was even something that was a possibility. I decided to take a leap of faith though when I saw a role available in a web series called “Skin Deep The Series," produced and directed by David Summers. That very first project sparked something in me and I guess you can say “I was bit by the acting bug”. Then I heard about a new play MCC Theater was producing called Charm. The play explores intergenerational friendships and relationships between people of trans experience. Being cast and doing the play off-Broadway last fall introduced me to Bernie Telsey, casting director of Charm and artistic director of MCC Theater who encouraged me and offered me tremendous support and guidance. During the run of the show, I met so many incredible people including the incomparable actress and activist Sara Ramirez who came to the show several times and brought large groups of people with her. This is how I met and signed with my manager, which led to also signing with an agent. It was like everything was coming together – people were coming into my life and telling me that now was the time to move back to my hometown of New York and pursue acting full-time.

Last fall, GLAAD worked with the Casting Society of America (CSA) to help set up an open call for transgender actors to be seen by casting directors. I understand the casting director for Law & Order: SVU first saw you at the NYC open call and this played a part in you getting the audition for the role of Jim Preston.
First, I have to say thank you to the Casting Society of America, SAG-AFTRA, Actor’s Equity, GLAAD, and all of the other organizations that are a part of CSA’s Diversity Initiative. The very idea that there was an open call for people of trans experience and gender non-conforming people was amazing. This type of casting needs to exist in this business to provide authenticity, and this on-going initiative by CSA and its partners is really important.

When I heard that the Casting Society of America announced an open call, I had just finished Charm and signed with my manager and was meeting with agents. I was fortunate enough to get one of the appointments – among the casting directors volunteering to run the open call was Jenny Ravitz from Law & Order: SVU. At that time Law and Order: SVU and the Jonathan Strauss casting company were also doing a little early leg work looking for Jim Preston. That open call got me an audition for this episode. In fact, when they first reached out, they had me audition for a role that was similar - that of solider in another show they work on. So, I had no idea I was auditioning for a trans role. Eventually I read with the director, and when they sent over the script I was so blown away by the character they'd created in Jim Preston, I had to take the part. I am grateful to the whole team, the writers, director, producers and especially the casting team for all of the work they put into the episode but also into the process of how they cast the role. Not just because I was fortunate enough to book it, but every step of the way they were so thoughtful in the way they were telling this story.

When you read the script for "Service," how did you feel about this storyline for Sergeant Preston? Did it resonant for you since you also served in the military?
The storyline was similar to my own experience in some ways, but not completely. I served in the military in 2001. While I hadn't yet medically transitioned, I was already living as a man prior to joining. The conversation of trans folks in the military was nonexistent at that time. Instead, the focus was on "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" and as we all know, that policy was specific to sexual orientation and not gender identity/expression. So, there was more of an assumption about my sexuality and not much understanding around my gender identity and expression.

The story of Jim Preston, for me, is one that I believe needs to be told. With the current administration's stated goal of banning people of trans experience from the military, the conversation needs much more media attention and a greater understanding of what it means for the trans people who are serving our country. I was really impressed with the Law & Order creative team, particularly the writers, for their ability to really see the situation through Jim’s eyes. Taking on this role, I had to do my homework by speaking with people of trans experience who are presently in the service to get a sense of what they are actually going through now. Under the current administration, there seems to be a signficant change for them in the way they are being treated.

As part of the trans community, what do you hope viewers take away from your character and storyline in tonight's episode?
What I hope people receive is someone who is human. Jim Preston might be a transgender man, yes but he is also a soldier, a friend, and a good person. There’s a lot fear and misinformation when it comes to trans folks. Having more images in media of trans folks can help create a shift in the way that people view us, which is helpful. There will be people watching this episode who have never met someone like Jim Preston and may have had preconceived notions about someone like him. Following this episode, they may actually see him for who he is and not what they believe him to be.

You are a working actor with representation. Congratulations! Have you had conversations with your agent and manager about what type of roles you want to play? Are you hoping to play non-trans roles as well as characters that are trans?
Thank you. I am beyond grateful for my team at 1022m management as well as Clear Talent Group agency. We have had many conversations about my career and the kinds of roles I would like to take on. For me, I am not limiting myself at all and my team from day one has been supportive and encouraging of that. I have played both non-trans and trans-specific roles. I see myself as an artist, a creative, and an actor. I have a lot of lived life experience, and I believe all of it can be useful in my line of work, just as my having trans experience is. It’s important that I am seen fully.

Is there anything you'd like casting directors to know about trans actors who are out there looking for work?
I would like them to know we exist, and we deserve a chance to be in the room. When these casting directors have auditions, I would love for them to open up their options as to who they have to come into the room. Include trans men for roles where you’re looking for men and trans women for roles where you’re looking for women. You have no idea who might come into that room and embody the energy that you, along with directors and producers are looking for.

Trans-specific roles are not the only roles we can play. There’s so much more to people of trans experience then their perceived "transness," stories that go deep, way beyond the surface. Opening up their pool of actors and being more inclusive with the language can be a huge benefit to casting directors. I truly appreciate the casting directors who have already started to do this in their breakdowns and I hope many more will follow their example. 

What would be your dream role? 
My dream role would be a lead love interest who’s a total bad boy. Someone who’s seen as too bad to be good. That kind of role and energy is completely opposite of who I am, but it’s partly the reason I would love to play that kind of character. I want roles that really challenge me and push me to the next level.

Have you got projects coming up that we can look forward to seeing you in?
Yes, I do. I recently finished working with director/producer Peter Hedges and executive producer Brad Simpson on a feature film entitled Ben is Back starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, which should be out this summer. I’m working on two other projects now, so this isn’t the last time you will see or hear from Marquise Vilsón.

Thank you for talking to us, Marquise. We can't wait to see you in all types of roles in the future.

Check out out a clip of Marquise in "Service" below and follow Marquise on Instagram 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.