In January 2020, Transparent actor Alexandra Billings will make history as the first openly trans actor to star in Wicked.
She will play Madame Morrible, a leading role in the Stephen Schwartz’s musical that transports audiences to the world of Oz and asks them to rediscover the story of The Wizard of Oz. Speaking to GAY TIMES as the news of her historic casting is announced, Alexandra revealed that this tale has been part of her life since she was a kid – making it quite the full circle moment.
“I saw The Wizard of Oz and my life did change because it’s about the everyman’s journey,” she explains. “It’s about owning your own power and chosen family. It’s about traversing the dark into the light and knowing there are gifts in both.” And while it has personal significance, the Transparent actor knows that her visibility as “the brown trans lady in the show” will begin conversations for audience members and families, giving trans youth somebody “to point at and look at”.
“I’m not just the first to do whatever, the conversation is now opening in a way that is brand new,” Alexandra explains. “Everyone who comes to see Wicked, so grandparents, uncles, cousins and kids that are seven through to 90. In the cab or uber or train home, somebody is going to have to have a conversation about the brown trans lady in the show. That’s extraordinary and that surpasses my ego, that surpasses the role, that surpasses the show itself.
I’m not talking about making a political statement but opening a dialogue with people who most likely would not have the chance to speak.”
Here we speak to Alexandra about the rise of trans representation within the acting world, her continuing obsession with The Wizard of Oz, and why her making history by joining the cast of Wicked isn’t a chapter in her life she thought she’d be around to see.
How has the reaction been to your historic Wicked casting?
How long do you have? (Laughs) It really has been unlike anything that’s ever happened to me, and I’ve had a lot of things happen in my life. It was like a snowball effect. It just got bigger and bigger, wider and wider. People I’ve not heard from since I was in grade school were contacting me. It was extraordinary!
Did you know when you accepted the role that you’d be making history?
No I really didn’t think about it. I was so shocked and overwhelmed. I kept thinking that this was going to be some colossal joke. For about two months as we sat on the news, I didn’t think it was going to happen as it was insane. It couldn’t possibly be true!
Why did you think it couldn’t be true?
Because I’m supposed to be dead. Look at my life… I was diagnosed with AIDS at a time when there was no HIV medication. I lived through that plague for 20 years and doctors still don’t know how. If I go to a new doctor, they look at my chart and ask how I’m alive. This is my favourite thing they always said “It’s going to be your diet. What are you eating?” I was also a heroin abuser, abusing opiates, cocaine and alcohol. I OD’d more times than you have digits. The fact that I’m standing on two feet is extraordinary enough. I’m 57 years old, approaching 60, and this kind of opportunity presents itself. I’m not just the first to do whatever, the conversation is now opening in a way that is brand new. Everyone who comes to see Wicked, so grandparents, uncles, cousins and kids that are seven through to 90. In the cab or uber or train home, somebody is going to have to have a conversation about the brown trans lady in the show. That’s extraordinary and that surpasses my ego, that surpasses the role, that surpasses the show itself. I’m not talking about making a political statement but opening a dialogue with people who most likely would not have the chance to speak.
How did conversations about you joining the cast first begin?
I was sitting in my house and the phone rang, it was my manager and he said, ‘Hey, the people of Wicked want to know if you’ll be in their show.’ I said, ‘What?!’ He said it again. In my head, what I thought was a little production of Wicked somewhere and thought it’d be small and fun. And… this is a terrible thing to say but I’ve never actually seen the show. I know, I’m a horrible person and I’ve seen it since. I think they’ll take away my transgender card. Anyway, I said back to my manager that I think I’m too old for the show and these people in the show are in their 20s. His reply, “There’s an old lady role!” He then said it was on Broadway and so they took me to the hospital from shock – and then I said yes!
A global company like Wicked wanting to bring trans representation into their blockbuster mainstream show feels like progress – would you agree?
I think you’re absolutely right because we did not seek this out. Somebody in that show, or a group of people, wanted it. That was the germination of the decision. It would never even occur to me. I went along with the right and said, ‘Please don’t let me fuck up this show. Please. Please.’ That’s my mantra to myself.
Plus it’s a testament to you as an actor, your authenticity and you talent. That’s what Wicked will have seen and wanted to celebrate.
I appreciate that and it’s very kind. And there’s so many trans people breaking barriers down and crashing this glass ceiling. Brian Michaels, MJ Rodriguez. The opportunities are crazy. I remember 15 or 20 years ago having this conversation with a casting director after I’d just come to Hollywood about this crazy idea that was a sitcom with trans people. She said, ‘Oh no, no, we already have RuPaul’s Drag Race so we don’t need another one’. I remember thinking that we can have more than one queer show, maybe? Times have certainly changed.
I know some people of trans experience love the term trans actor, others prefer actor. A lot of your press around this moment said trans actor – how do you feel about that label?
Oh I love it, I think it’s important and matters. I believe I was born transgender, I think it’s genetic. There are other trans people in my family tree, so it’s hereditary. That’s also a medical fact. I think right now, it doesn’t always need to be true forever and ever, but right now it’s important for me to live –and I love comfortably and peacefully – in the container of being transgender. It’s so other trans youth have something to point at and look at.
Carrying on from that, do you think about those young trans/ gender nonconforming kids that will see you in this role and what that will do for them?
The only thing I hope for, truly, is that there is dialogue to be had, there are conversations to be started. However they might begin or whatever their tonality, the fact that the conversation is happening is my hope. That’s my prayer.
I am surprised it’s taken over 15 years of Wicked being on Broadway for this casting to happen – but what a time to do it in the current political climate.
I think it’s about damn time! I applaud Wicked as I stand on a platform and applaud these humans not just for coming up with this particular opportunity, but for changing the dialogue once again. Somebody has got to do it. In every moment and revolution, there has to be a human with the megaphone. Somebody has to do it and be the dreamer. I try because I’ve been around to see a lot of stuff happen in our movement. I was there at the beginning of ACT UP. I try to remember that human – and this is important for us as queer people – we are spiritual beings have a human experience. All we can do is the best we know that we have already been taught. If we unlearn these things that we’ve been taught that are true, and we make ourselves available to learn what is new for us, change will come. But it takes one person!
Do you ever suffer with imposter syndrome in your art?
I like to think of it as second-guessing myself. I do walk into every room as a teacher, a student, an actor, a writer, an activist thinking to myself that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Of course I do that! I never think of myself as fooling other people or people are looking at me and I’m not that thing. I think that if I sit at a table and you cast me as your guide, I will do that. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not casting you in the same role. We can both be teachers and both be students, but who is to say who is the imposter. I don’t suffer from that, I just try to quiet the second-guessing voices. Y’know, fear is gasoline. If fear didn’t ignite me, I’d be sitting here in this amazing marriage with this amazing career I had right now.
Susan Hilferty’s costumes for Wicked have won every major award. Are you ready to rock the camp and brilliance of those Madame Morrible costumes?
Please! Please! Please! When I first tried on these things, because they’re not really costumes but houses that you’re wearing, I hired a trainer. I had to. They’re huge. I literally am like Rocky getting ready to go into battle for this show.
New York has made history with its first leading trans actor on Broadway, leading non-binary actor in a lead role, and yourself with Wicked. Did you foresee a time where this level of representation would come?
I assumed it would be true. I really did. I didn’t think it would happen to me, but I assumed because I believe and have faith in humanity. I knew as badly we’d be treated for so many centuries in this country, eventually the pendulum would swing. I remember after the AIDS crisis that there was a shift, not just in the heteronormative but our own, and once I saw that shift of caring between all of us in LGBTQ people, I knew we’d branch out and be stronger. I knew we’d be part of society, I just don’t want us to concentrate on a simulation. I don’t want us to lose out individuality, I don’t us to lose our community, our tribe, our customs. I don’t want us to lose our voice. I don’t want us to blend into the background because we spend so much time being ridiculed for being different. I want to make sure we keep our queerness out front and centre. It doesn’t have to be our every conversation, but it is who we are.
And finally, what are you most looking forward to about joining the cast of Wicked?
The money. I’m kidding! What if that was my answer. So…. most likely before you were born, there were three channels on the television. A movie came on and you missed it, you missed it. There was no streaming or anything so you had to stay home. Once a year, they would stream The Wizard of Oz. I saw it when I was four or five and come from a musical theatre background as my father was a conductor and worked at the opera house. I have been around queer people and theatre literally all my life. I saw The Wizard of Oz and my life did change because it’s about the everyman’s journey. It’s about owning your own power and chosen family. It’s about traversing the dark into the light and knowing there are gifts in both. So I’d watch this movie and I realised that if I took my tape recorder, I could tape the movie and have it with me always. So I did. I listened to that every single night until I was in my 20s. I know every breath, inflection, note and piece and frame. I can do that entire movie for you, literally. This image and movie and character manifest themselves very powerfully in me. Imagine just for a second that you get this call and a bunch of people say, ‘Hey, we have this great idea, how would you every night like to come into a theatre, get all dressed up and look beautiful, and live in Oz?’ That’s what I’m looking forward to. Every. Day.
It’s almost like it was meant to be…
It’s extraordinary, really. When this movie came out, Wicked wasn’t even an idea. This story has been living in me for five decades. If you don’t believe in God, that’s fine. If you don’t believe in anything, you have to look at this story and say that something else is at play here. And the really great thing is that I’ve finally found an ending to my autobiography.
Photography Aaron Jay Young
Words William J Connolly
Photography Assistant Joshua Bade
Alexandra joins the Broadway company of Wicked, beginning 20 January, 2020. More information can be found here.