Alexandra Billings Won't Stay Quiet Anymore
KATHY: Yesterday, we talked with Jill Soloway, the creator of the show Transparent.
KATHY: By the way, If you haven’t heard that episode, you should go back and listen. It’s a complicated conversation. We talked about allegations of abuse by Jeffrey Tambor behind the scenes at Transparent. He’s since been fired from the show. But we also talked about the journey Jill has been on in discovering their gender identity and how their personal life has shaped the stories they tell on screen.
TOBIN: One thing that’s really great about later seasons of Transparent is how it starts to feature more trans actors playing trans characters...and that those characters have vivid and fascinating backstories. One standout is Davina, played by Alexandra Billings. Davina is like a mentor to Jeffrey Tambor’s character Maura. She’s is funny and patient, but also tough...probably because she’s seen it all.
DAVINA: Wouldn't it be great to just live in a house like this? Not to have to worry about how to pay the rent or getting kicked out just because you left an empty bottle of milk in the refrigerator? Or for not fucking somebody.
FRIEND 1: Or for not fucking him the right way.
FRIEND 2: Girl look, we all had to do things to survive.
DAVINA: As long as I can remember, I've had to do some kind of mental gymnastics to try to keep a roof over my head.
KATHY: Alexandra Billings has had a long career in theater and TV...in fact, back in 2005 she was one of the first openly trans actors to play a trans character on TV...the role was in a prequel to Romy and Michele that aired on ABC Family.
TOBIN: And this fall, she made her Broadway debut in a comedy called The Nap, which got amazing reviews. It’s about a champion snooker player--kind of like British pool. The play is goofy and fun...and Alexandra played a character named...wait for it...Waxy Bush.
KATHY: What a name!
TOBIN: So I got a chance to talk to her a couple months ago...just after the show opened on Broadway.
TOBIN: I want to know how it feels to be making your Broadway debut playing a one armed gangster named Waxy Bush.
ALEXANDRA: Well, how does it sound. That's exactly how it is.
ALEXANDRA: It's the greatest thing ever. I don't know how grateful I could possibly be. I mean and the role is so silly and it's so ridiculous. I literally get paid to go to the theater and act stupid for two hours.
ALEXANDRA: It's amazing. And then they give me money, I can't believe it.
ALEXANDRA: There are wacky characters but there's also at the center of it there's a really beautiful sort of sweet love story strangely and a snooker game. It's very difficult to explain and...and around this love story revolves these sort of wacky characters. So there is a lot of sort of grounded just comedy in it.
TOBIN: Well I did want to ask you like- the roles that I, that maybe people are most familiar with you from like things like transparent have like a more serious edge to them. Is it fun to explore this comedic side to get to play a character who is just funny?
ALEXANDRA: Well I’ve weirdly I've spent almost 40 years in theater and so I've been doing this kind of comedy for a very very very long time. You know it's strange because this particular comedy is a very strange animal. It's its own being, so I actually have not done this kind of comedy but I've been doing whacked out comedies, in fact. Jill Soloway, who's the director and the creator of Transparent, along with her sister Faith, and I did Chicago theater together back in 1920. And we- she was doing she and Faith were working with the Annoyance Theater Company, which is still there in Chicago. And they were doing a play called "Co-ed Prison Sluts." And I was three blocks away. We were all 12 years old. And I was three blocks away working for a theater company called Torso.
ALEXANDRA: And we were doing a play called "Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack."
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] They sound like real competing titles.
ALEXANDRA: And.., they were well they were late night things you know things that were filthy and disgusting and sold out nightly and ran for years that "Cannibal cheerleaders on crack." I mean bought me a house. I can't even tell you I was on that show for 100 years and then I went into "Shannon Daughtrey shoots a porno." But that's a whole other book. So I was doing cannibal cheerleaders. And Joe was doing coed prisons sluts. And one day Susan Messing who's an actress great actress and a teacher she was in Coed Prison Sluts and she left the show. And so Joe called me and said “Listen Susan is leaving prison sluts and we would love for you to step in” and I said “can't I can't. Sorry. Don't kill cheerleaders.” she said. I know that however coed prison slut starts at 8 and cannibal cheerleaders doesn't start till 11 and you're only in the first act and then you die. So you could do the first act, catch a cab go to the other side of town and do your gig.
TOBIN: Oh my God you did a Cynthia Nixon.
ALEXANDRA: I did that for, you know. And that's how I met Jill and faith.
TOBIN: Oh my gosh.
ALEXANDRA: And that's how Transparent sort of happened.
TOBIN: I see.
ALEXANDRA: Because they knew me from...
TOBIN: You were in the talent pool.
ALEXANDRA: I was in some pool. cesspool. I was in the cesspool.
TOBIN: I did want to ask you a question. Well so with Transparent which a lot of folks know you from there was a lot of amazing opportunities that have been provided through that show for trans actors and trans writers on the show. And to be totally honest I felt horrible for all that talent on the show when the allegations of abuse by Jeffrey Tambor came out and he exited the show. Especially because it involved two trans women. And so I wonder for you as someone on the show where there's been this incredible amount of opportunity and groundbreaking work and then for all of this to happen I imagine there was a lot of complicated feelings around that.
ALEXANDRA: You'd think so wouldn't you. It really was not complicated it was very clear to me. The last season with Transparent was going to be my last season for this very…Because of this. Because of Jeffrey's behavior and his attitude. I had every intention of walking in there and saying I'm not coming back I'll do this but then this is going to be the las-because they were talking about Season 10 season 11, you know and I just couldn't do it anymore because he was he was increasingly difficult to be around. So when this happened and when Van Barnes whose a friend of mine came out, Jeffrey's personal assistant and then when Trace Lysette who is also a very dear friend of mine came out who plays Shea on the show. It was very easy for me to say “yes they're absolutely right.” because people were going well it's opinion and I said no. Very clearly no it's not opinion. They're absolutely correct. I believe them even if I didn't see absolutely everything I can tell you without equivocation they are not lying. Jeffrey Tambor is lying. And I said that very clearly and I don't have a problem saying that for the rest of my life.
TOBIN: It seems like you’re saying it was somewhat an open secret on set that this was the situation.
ALEXANDRA: It was and it wasn't. This is the thing that I'm going to have to live with for the rest of my life. How complicit I was. And I only speak for myself, in allowing him to behave this way towards other humans on the set not just trans humans but specifically trans humans only because I myself am transgender and like you said we employed trans people more than at that time any other show and they were traumatized. All of us were because of him. And I did nothing. And so I take responsibility for that and that's something I have to live with. Which is why when this thing happened, I'll be damned if I'm going to be silent. It's not going to happen and I'll tell you something else I'm going to keep talking about this for the rest of his life. No matter what he does, where he goes, or how often he pretends this doesn't happen, until he admits it. For the rest of his life. Just so he's...knows and we're clear.
TOBIN: I think that's very clear.
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] Do you have a sense now if we're going to get more of you, then, in the next season?
ALEXANDRA: You know it's so up in the air right now and the stuff that I do know I can't really talk about. But I can tell you this -the ideas that are being batted around are so ingenious. They're unlike anything you've ever seen on television. But this is Jill Soloway. This is part of their brilliance. I mean they just...
ALEXANDRA: Jill is a master imagine-nator. That's my new word, imaginator. Write it down kids! I mean they have...the way they dream is just unparalleled.
ALEXANDRA: And so that's really...that's really the only thing I can tell you.
KATHY: We reached out to Jeffrey Tambor’s agent and publicist about the allegations of harassment during the production of Transparent -- they didn’t get back to us. But in interviews with the Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times, Jeffrey Tambor has said he was a “mean” and “difficult” colleague while on the show. He denies the allegations of more serious misconduct.
TOBIN: After the break, Alexandra Billings tells me about her evolving relationship with her parents...and why even though they aren’t alive anymore, she’s pretty sure her father got to see her on Broadway.
KATHY: Nancy will be back in a minute.
TOBIN: I read somewhere that you said that musical theater runs in your veins. And I wonder what was was there a performance that you saw that made you fall in love with musical theater.
ALEXANDRA: Well my father was a music teacher at Harbor College in Los Angeles and he was also the musical director at the L.A. Civic Light Opera House. So I've been around musical theater since I was five so there was never like one show that I saw that I went oh my god I no longer want to be an ice skater. Like I just I was raised by queers and musical theater like that was my whole thing because people it's so interesting when people talk about gay people you know they always talk gay people they frighten me. I'm the opposite. It's straight people that frighten me. Because I never I was never around a lot of them I was just around a lot of LGBT folk.
TOBIN: Did your dad encourage you to go into the performing arts?
ALEXANDRA: He...yes-ish. I mean you know he was like this is what I do. So I assumed this is what you would do but please don't do it for the love of Pete. Like be a be a doctor, be an accountant. Wash windows do anything because he knows how hard the life is. I mean I'm a teacher now and I told my students that don't do this. Don't. Stop.
TOBIN: It's funny. I. So I went to music school that was like my training and I had so many teachers also say like if you can imagine yourself doing anything else do that thing.
ALEXANDRA: It's true.
TOBIN: I remember at the time being like that's so mean and unnecessary. And now, having gotten out of music school...
ALEXANDRA: It makes perfect sense.
TOBIN: That's exactly right.
ALEXANDRA: That's actually really smart if you think of if there's anything else you think you wanted- because this has to be the only thing. It has to engulf you in it, it takes you in its arms and it doesn't let go. If that's not true, do the other thing.
TOBIN: When did you realize that it engulfed you?
ALEXANDRA: I've just always known it I've never done I have no other skills. How tragic is that. I really don't know how to do. It's true I don't know how to do anything except play the drums which I'm going to do later.
TOBIN: Yeah, yeah we'll get to that.
ALEXANDRA: I play the drums really well and but I don't know how to do anything else because I never... you know even when I was going to go to college. I was like why am I going...? I need to go act. And that's what I did.
ALEXANDRA: And you know and I did “Co-ed Prison Sluts,” “Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack.” And my career soared!
TOBIN: I want to go back to your dad who you mentioned who was a music teacher. Were you close with your parents growing up? What was that relationship like?
ALEXANDRA: I was but remember I was transgender at a time when that word- first of all didn't exist and we we couldn't find each other the trans community. We were either drag queens or we were complete outcasts and by outcasts I mean by the gays and lesbians too which is still somewhat true to be perfectly honest. But it was really true back in the 1970s and 80s so when I first came out as a what we called at that time a preoperative transsexual so clinical isn't it? oh my God. It's very descriptive. We don't need all that information do we. But when that happened then my parents both needed to leave and they said we can't because they didn't know any better. No none of us knew. And I actually strangely understood that I was like OK I get it because they would say well you can visit us but you can't dress like that. And it was really my decision. I said Well then I can't come here because I'm not going to do that anymore. They're just clothes. So I don't know why it bothers you so much. But it does. So you let me know when it doesn't. And that was about five or six years later.
TOBIN: I see. And them sort of not having- well not anyone having the language but especially not your parents having the language to understand what you were going through. Did you being a performer actually give them some of that language to understand you? because your dad sort of understood the arts?
ALEXANDRA: I don't think that that helped at all. You know they were children of the 50s. These are these are men and women who choose gender specificity was drilled into their heads. Men behave this way women behave that way and that's it. That's all they know. That's why all these old people that are running the country are losing their minds, right? Because they're all grandfathers and grandmothers that were raised in the 50s. They don't understand us it doesn't. We're not on their radar. It doesn't make any sense to them. People keep saying how terrible they are and I don't think they're terrible people I think they're just byproducts of their generation. Do you know? I'm not saying I'm not making excuses for them but I am saying it's a waste of time for us to be so angry at somebody who turned out exactly the way they were supposed to. It doesn't make any sense. Well you're not supposed to be that. And they're like Well yeah I am and then you go well! maybe that why are we angry- let's put our energies into something that's going to make some difference.
ALEXANDRA: Talk to the younger generation like you. You're the people we should be talking to. Not, you know Donald Trump and all of his grand followers you know all the old people. Doesn't make any sense they're not really going to be votable in the next 10 years anyway.
TOBIN: Yeah. Were you able to have better conversations with your parents as your relationship evolved?
ALEXANDRA: Well remember again we didn't have vocabulary so we didn't -there were no conversations. There was no PFLAG. There was no -there was nothing. So we- all of us thought we were the only ones going through this as well until I found my tribe. My trans brothers and sisters were the ones that helped me. That said you don't have to do any of this and they will come around. Give them time. And they did.
ALEXANDRA: And they did. I just stopped. I just said we can't do this. I'm not going to argue who I am with you. I'm not going to debate it. It's not debatable. It's not a phase. If it was a phase I'll call you when it's over. But that didn't happen for years and years.
TOBIN: Yeah did they...Well do you mind if I ask are they still around.
ALEXANDRA: They're not. My mother. This is a- my whole life is a strange story but this is a strange story. So my parents got divorced when I was I don't know six or seven years old. They both married other people. My father married two other people. My mother married one. All of them either passed away or they divorced. My father lived in L.A. My mother lived in Chicago. My mother retired moved to L.A. they re-met after 30 plus years, fell back in love and decided to get remarried.
TOBIN: No way.
ALEXANDRA: So they called me. Wait, it's not the end of the story. So they called me and they said listen and I married my best friend who is a cis gender female. And so my mother called me and she said listen I'm going to remarry your father, how do you feel about that? And I said Who am I to tell anybody about who you love please have at it. So they went on a pre honeymoon before they had the ceremony. And they went to Santa Fe I think. And my mother, both of them were very heavy drinkers, my mother came into the living room one afternoon, while they were there they were there for about a week and she said I feel so strange and she was sort of slurring my dad thought oh she's been drinking and she had a cold and she took a couple of Sudafed or something. So we thought OK she drank and then she took those- go lay down -she laid down had a massive stroke and died. I'll tell you why I'm telling you this terrible story a year to the week of my mother's death, my father had a massive heart attack and died. So neither of them got sick for a long time. In fact they didn't even get very old they were 62 and 65 respectively when they passed away. Here's why I tell you that story. It's a great lesson in living your life right now. If you're waiting for something. If you're waiting for something to heal or you're waiting to get over something or get past something or you're waiting for someone else to do something that you expect them to do, you are wasting time. And that relationship they finally found each other after all these years. They were finally together. They were finally happy. They had all of this money. And then they were snatched off the planet. They weren't sick they weren't. So you got to think about this, literally picked up by the hand of the universe and snatched off the planet, right before the third act of their life was to begin. So that is always a mirror, a reflection for me. Whatever you want to do do it.
TOBIN: Yeah. Wow what a story.
ALEXANDRA: Isn't that something?
TOBIN: That's crazy.
ALEXANDRA: That's huge isn't it. Shall we play the drums now?
TOBIN: Well I guess I mean just because I'm curious, like, did they get to see you perform.
ALEXANDRA: They did. They did. My father...I did a production of Gypsy. Speaking of Gypsy did I played rose in Gypsy. Years and years and years ago. I was way too young but I played it anyway, because somebody asked me to, and my father got to see me in that. And that was great because he had never sort of seen me star in a production of anything. And my mother lived to see me in my first show at the Steppenwolf Theater which is an award winning theater in Chicago. They didn't get to see the TV success. They didn't get to see me on Broadway. They haven't seen that but I feel like you know I know we hear this a lot that they're always with us but the strangest thing happened on opening night. I was standing, taking my bow, and I was looking out at the audience. And I'm telling you without equivocation I saw my father in the third row standing up and applauding. So I know they were with me.
TOBIN: Has that ever happened for you before.
ALEXANDRA: No never never. Not that clearly, never.
TOBIN: And in that moment how did you process seeing your father.
ALEXANDRA: I felt like well of course! that's exactly- I was like well sure that makes perfect sense. I wasn't freaked out. I wasn't frightened I just went yes. That makes perfect sense. Of course he's there. And of course he's in the third row.
TOBIN: That's lovely. Well thank you so much for making time to talk to me.
ALEXANDRA: Thank you my friend. What a beautiful afternoon.
TOBIN: This was a joy.
ALEXANDRA: Let's go have pizza.
TOBIN: I'll give up my no bread thing.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah forget that. Forget it.
[CREDITS MUSIC STARTS]
KATHY: That was actor and activist Alexandra Billings . She most recently appeared on Broadway in The Nap.
TOBIN: Alright, credits time!
TOBIN: Matt Collette and Matt Frassica!
KATHY: Production fellow…
TOBIN: Temi Fagbenle!
KATHY: Sound designer…
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
TOBIN: Jenny Lawton!
KATHY: Executive producer…
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: Wait do you really play the drums?
ALEXANDRA: I don't. But do you want me to anyway.
TOBIN: I would just -at a certain point I was like, “Is it a bit? Is it not a bit?”
ALEXANDRA: You don't know. We don't know. You'll never know until we try!
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] Amazing.