Isis King on "With Love" and Trans Representation on the Small Screen
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and you're listening to The Takeaway.
It is the season for holiday romcoms. You know the ones that I'm talking about, those somewhat cheesy, feel-good flicks and TV series dominating streaming services like Netflix and channels like Lifetime and Hallmark. Take for example this new one called Holiday in Santa Fe, starring Mario Lopez of Saved By The Bell fame.
Belinda Sawyer: I heard that [unintelligible 00:00:34] was good in Santa Fe, but that movie was delicious.
Participant: Right. Lupe does a good job. Very up authentic.
Belinda Sawyer: Wasn't too spicy for you. Was it?
Participant: Oh, you got jokes, huh?
Belinda Sawyer from the Midwest when you're not working what do you like to do for fun?
Belinda Sawyer: To be honest I have a hard time balancing work and my personal life. I'm a bit of a workaholic, obviously, I'm in Santa Fe working the week of Christmas.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'll be honest at this time of year, I consume a lot of these shows and a lot of cookies. It's pretty hard to miss that in this genre, love is almost always heterosexual and pretty often, white.
This year there are several holiday romcoms hitting the small screen that feature LGBTQ+ characters. One of those new releases is the Amazon original series, With Love, which follows two siblings, Lily and Jorge, and the ups and downs of their romantic lives. Created and written by One Day at a Time’s Gloria Calderón Kellett in the series, LGBTQ+ love stories are featured for both Jorge and Jorge's cousin Sol Perez as played by actress Isis King.
Isis King: I've been pretty annoying. You're right, I don't know your life. You're a part of this amazing and bold generation and things are a lot different for you than when I was your age.
Participant: What were things like for you?
Isis King: Everything just wasn't as out and open as it is now. None of my friends were queer or at least weren't talking about it either, and I didn't see queer transness reflected anywhere around me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I spoke with Isis King about the new series and her career in Hollywood. She started by telling me a bit about her experiences as the first transgender contestant on America's Next Top Model.
Isis King: I think it's so interesting that all these years later Top Model continued to be, it keeps coming up, especially in the pandemic. It became one of the most-watched shows again. I'm just so thankful that I was never on the show because geez, it's been for me 14 years since I was in the background. I was homeless at the time and people like me don't get those type of opportunities and I always loved the show.
When I got that chance I just thought, wow, this never happened, I'll give it my all. I would've never thought that this many years later it would still have an impact and be a topic of conversation. For many people, it was a hindrance, but for me, because there was no other trans finalists, it took me longer to get to this point, but it was always a positive thing when people brought it up in terms of my story.
I'm just so grateful that I always stayed true to myself on the show and I'm so grateful that I never gave up. It took a long time to get here like I said because when I transferred over to acting right after the show, there were no real opportunities yet. I'm just so thankful to be a part of, I guess, that small group that continued to break down walls and make opportunities and I'm here now. [laughs]
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to stick on this for just a second because I think the point you just made about, on the one hand, it can be a bit scary. It's not like there is-- excuse, the word model, for you to make that choice. The very idea that there isn't a model and yet you're like, "Okay, I'm grabbing that. I'm doing that both feet jumping all the way in and giving it my best. " Yet also acknowledging that by doing so you then create the model.
You create the prototype, the possibility. Talk to me just for a second about the idea that representation matters, but also isn't absolutely determinative. Because you've managed to do things that you don't have a living model for, but you certainly truly have a dreamed imagination for.
Isis King: It definitely made it really scary. I was just talking about this in an interview, I feel like the past few years-- really around the time of the pandemic, I feel my career or right before When They See Us my career really start to make strides that I've always wanted them to be at. I think because I managed to keep myself public in my career people always assume that means, "Oh, you're good." When you don't really have those opportunities or when they're just starting to be creative, it is an interesting journey for me. I kept jobs in between and just whenever an opportunity came in the background I would just give it 110%.
It was weird because fame didn't come with fortune, but I had fame so I would be at work and people would secretly take pictures or ask for autographs. It is weird when they all know you or they root for you, but the opportunities are just not there for you yet. That really did for a long time mentally play with me because like you said, there was no one for me to look at as a model.
I didn't really know how to navigate versus say coming up now where they're always looking for new on the news to say, be a series regular or to have this campaign. I just had to, with the support of my tribe or I guess my support system just keep moving, and anytime I felt like, "Okay, my money's getting low or just following my dreams is too calm right now and I would get a job." That was always weird going into that, but I didn't want to be homeless again.
I come from a low-income family and I financially help my family sometimes. It's not like I can turn to my family or just relax or turn to a partner or any other form, I just strictly always depended on myself. I don't want to curse, but it really plays with your mind when you constantly have this burst of a moment, and then it's quiet. Because, opportunities for trans people, larger opportunities are just now starting to make their ways.
Especially for people like me, especially for people of color trans women of color. It was interesting to come keep myself afloat, but I always had this feeling that whenever I would have that moment where should I give up on this career? Should I just give up? Then I would hear someone say, "I moved to America to follow my dreams in a transition and after I saw your story or I felt alone or I felt suicidal and I saw your story it helped me realize I'm not alone and to not give up."
It seemed for me throughout my 14-year career, whenever I would have that moment where I would get super depressed or super isolated, like, "What am I doing? Why am I going through this again? What's my point? What's my purpose?" I would always get one of those messages. I feel like that was, God or the universe just telling me I am on the right path and to just keep going. That I'm impacting and helping so many people after me and sometimes I think I don't realize how big of an impact.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering about the connection between that story, your story, your lived experience, and the character that you're playing in the new romantic comedy series With Love?
Isis King: I would say this is the most like me character, I have ever read. When I saw that Sol had the support of their family, of their friends, Sol has a career which we've only seen a handful of times. When I say handful, I mean probably a few.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Like, two?
Isis King: Yes. They have a career, they're finding love. They have family and friends. Number one, even the family support we don't ever see that, but family and a career and love? I'm just so thankful because I feel like, yes, we have stories. We have detrimental things that happen to us, some of us. Transitioning is a journey, but we also deserve to see the happiness that comes in our lives because we do have it.
I have trans friends and we sit around and crack jokes and have fun. Our lives are not perfect, but we are silly and goofy and lighthearted and I'm clumsy and ditzy and I deserve to see that because we are not all I said before. We are not all like super alone and sensual that's nice, but it's so easy to fetishize the trans experience. We are also normal people too. We are fully realized people and that's what I love about Sol. I get to see a trans character be fully realized, loved by their family and friends and have a career with no trauma, just living their life.
Then they decide if they want love and you see the conflict of do I want this? That's even refreshing because usually our storylines are based around oh we're the object. In this case, Sol is like, "Do I want this?" It's nice to see a trans person be the one in control of do I want love? Do I want this? I have it all. I have family and friends and I have an amazing career as an oncologist. Do I even want love?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love that. I was reflecting on my girl my friend Raquel Willis who has so many times said to me I just want to tell some happy trans stories. I just want to tell some stories about us that are about joy. As you were saying about silliness, about humanity and not she was like, "Sometimes the trauma and everything being about our trauma is just too much."
Isis King: Exactly. It's hard. I remember one time I was filming something and then another trans murder had just happened. Even to post or talk about it's so exhausting and scary. I just think I love Cameron Diaz as my favorite rom-com. I've always thought to myself I want to make a project like Cameron Diaz. Every time I see her in a rom-com which is most of her movies she's happy, light and in my head I was always like, "I want to be like that."
Although my character isn't super bubbly like Cameron, I feel like a lot of the time that's my personality. I'm just excited to see a character where you see Sol with their friends and they're like-- I feel my character of everyone on the show is probably the one you get to see in the most different scenarios. You see Sol with their family, but you also see Sol with their friends solo, so you get to see how they're completely different.
Then you get to see Sol at work and Sol possibly with of love partner. I'm just excited especially with the friends who are played by EJ Johnson and Kayla Allen, they are hilarious. It was nice to see to be able to laugh on set. To crack jokes and then, cracking jokes on the way Sol dresses because Sol starts out really conservative and you see their style change or evolve with the relationship.
It's just fun seeing a trans person just getting dressed for a date and the friends are clowning their outfit, and they're trying to decide what to wear. That's everyday life for so many people. Many rom coms you see that montage moment. Why can't we have that? Go on a date and it's no plot twist. It's not a dark moment. It's just nice, light, sweet, and beautiful. Those are not things that you're used to hearing when talking about a trans character or a trans storyline and that's what we get to have for this.
I'm just so grateful because there were also queer people in the writer's room helping to create this story. I feel even with one of the conversations I had with my friends I was just like. "Wow, you can tell a queer person wrote this. This is exactly how we talk." It was nice. I think not only for trans people to see but for non-trans people to see a trans character as a normal person. You never know when you will meet someone trans and although it's a large order to say this, media do educate so many of us in this world.
Instead of watching, "That's a man. That's a man." Instead of watching something like that you can watch something like With Love where it's all different types of stories, not just queer stories on the show. You'll see this queer storyline, it's so beautiful and kind and hopefully will open up your mind about meet and trans people around you and your first thought or reaction to it. Seeing something like this versus something that tears down a trans person and that's the only thing you see so you think that's okay.
I'm just grateful and I want to continue to make stories that no matter what the backstory of the character is, us fully realized and developed as people because we are people and we deserve to live. We deserve to have the same opportunities and we deserve to be looked at.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Isis King, star of this in part of this incredible ensemble of the new Amazon original series With Love. Isis, thank you for joining us and for sharing with us.
Isis King: Thank you. Happy holidays.
[00:15:31] [END OF AUDIO]
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