It’s about time.
We’ve been tracking down director Rhys Ernst ever since we saw the world premiere of his debut feature film Adam at the Sundance Film Festival and then Frameline43. Based on Ariel Schrag’s controversial novel, the film follows the titular character played by Nick Alexander, over a summer he will not forget. When he discovers the underground queer community in New York, Adam falls hard for the beautiful Gillian (Bobbi Salvor Menuez), a young lesbian activist. When Adam poses as a trans man to get a date with Gillian, he sets off on a bizarre journey which raises tough questions about sexual attraction, the place of transgender people in society, and what it means to fall in love.
For Rhys Ernst, Adam represents the culmination of a career, and a personal work at that. As an out-transgender man, Ernst began his career directing short films before landing a long gig directing episodes of Transparent. Adam marks his first work after leaving the show, and his emergence as a powerful voice in queer cinema. After playing Sundance, it went to San Francisco’s awesome Frameline43. Adam comes to theatres in New York August 14 and Los Angeles August 23.
“Everything’s crazy right now!” Ernst squeals as he answers the phone. After chasing him from festival to festival, Queerty finally got some time to chat with Ernst himself about the film, and the future of trans cinema.
This is, I think, foremost a coming of age story. How did the novel come to you?
Well I actually didn’t read the novel. I remember hearing about it when it came out–I think in 2014. I think I had kind of an eyebrow raise when I heard about it. But I didn’t read it; I just moved on with my life. Then in 2017 I got the script in my inbox from the producers. I was kind of apprehensive, actually, but then when I read the script, I saw the movie in my mind. I was so surprised at how different it was from my initial impressions of the premise, and how subversive it was. It’s a tricky logline at a sensitive time.
I know the book was met with some criticism for that reason. Ariel, who wrote the book, also penned the script. What concerns did you bring to her?
You know, I have to say the script was already in pretty good condition when I read it. I was so taken with it. One thing was that it was quite long, and we had to cut it back, which is not unusual for something adapted from a novel. But that was a collaborative process of cutting things, adding things, changing things. I have to say, there wasn’t a big thing we had to change. It was a lot of little things. But I worked with Ariel to push it even further.
That shows. One thing that really struck me was the authenticity. Obviously, this is a personal subject for you. How much of this is fueled by your own experience?
That’s a good question. It’s a funny thing, because–sheer coincidence, I lived in the location and the era in which the film takes place.
Yeah, Bushwick. And this was a complete surprise. I didn’t know where it took place until I read the script. I was like oh my God, I lived in Bushwick. I went to that nightclub. I was at this thing… It was uncanny. It had so much overlap with my personal experience. It kind of is a very personal film for me, even though I didn’t write it. It made it feel kind of fated.
In terms of my own authenticity and perspective, a lot of that is just creating the world as completely as possible, drawing from my own experience, and bringing in a lot of queer and trans collaborators. For the production design and wardrobe, I used a lot of photos from my own personal archives, from a lot of places I went.
Some of my friends ended up being references for some of the characters. So it’s just an authentic recreation of the queer/trans community in Bushwick in 2006, which is very, very specific. I think about this quote from Renoir: “When you create a fiction, leave a window open and let some of the real world in.” I love that, and I think by bringing in contemporary queer and trans collaborators, there’s that real-world coming in. I also used non-professional actors. For example, Leo Sheng, who plays Ethan, it was his first role. Also, just in terms of perspective, as a director, there are hundreds of thousands of small decisions you make all the time in how you interpret and create this world. Little things, like putting the camera more to the left than to the right–you end up making statements about subjectivity and power dynamic and perspective. Just my subjectivity as a trans director is very much woven throughout.
What examples can you give?
There’s a scene in which there’s a trans lens on a cis gaze. It’s sort of how Adam looks at a trans guy’s chest. That example is very much resonant throughout. A lot of it is just invisible examples of perspective that people feel that they really wouldn’t be able to. I guess it’s in the DNA.
Leo Sheng (left) with Nick Alexander
You mention the cast, like Leo, who had never acted before. That is a radically ambitious thing to do: to use non-actors in your first film. The issue of representation is obviously something very prominent. One thing that I really admire about the film is that I wasn’t thinking about is that actor trans? Is that actor cis? It just seemed like everybody was right for the part. Was that a conscious choice: to do genderblind, background-blind casting? I know you’ve spoken about how you wanted everyone to be involved–that you wouldn’t be the only trans person on set.
Yeah. I mean, I feel like in a lot of projects I’ve done the past several years–every time I do a project, I see it like an open door, and I can get trans people in. I just try to use it as an opportunity to bring folks in and challenge the expectations in terms of who’s coming in, and equalize things as much as possible. The film industry has a deeply embedded framework, so some of those things are harder to push against than others. For example, I had a trans actor playing a cis role. I just saw the actor, Jari Jones, is amazing. She read for a cis lesbian role, and I cast her immediately. I had more trans actors than I could even find roles for. There’s a huge community of trans actors in New York where I was casting. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. That’s more of a testament to the community than to me.
I love how you describe the story as one of subversion. There’s a scene where everyone weeps when a transgender woman is murdered because she didn’t tell a sex partner that she was trans. Several characters insist she shouldn’t have had to disclose that she was trans to a sex partner. But when Adam reveals that he’s impersonating a trans man, everyone is furious with him because he doesn’t disclose that he’s cisgender.
That’s a sly juxtaposition. Do you think those opposing sentiments illustrate a hypocrisy? Or is that larger question about Adam’s motives?
There are a couple different examples of disclosure and non-disclosure that happen in the movie in terms of someone’s trans or cis status. It does hold these examples up as a sort of a means to have a conversation. The take away for Adam, and the audience, is talking about when a trans person doesn’t disclose their status, and how that’s different from Adam not disclosing. What Adam learns is his privilege–that is really the difference, because it’s not a question of safety. The film points at a lot of gray area in terms of real-life and in terms of identity and slippages around identity. It gives a lot of complexity to the issues, because they are complicated issues. It’s interesting, because at a time where there’s an impulse toward black or white, all or nothing, all good or bad, there’s a rush to judgment. Adam resists that and says “things are complicated, and let’s talk about these things.” These are not examples of behavior of how one should act or a morality tale, but more of a thought experiment.
And there are not easy answers to many of those questions. When you’re working with themes of this level of complexity–the old saying of “Casting is 90% of directing” comes to mind…
Your leads are make-it-or-break-it in a film like this. How did you find Nicholas and Bobbi?
I think the world of this cast. They’re all amazing and wonderful. It’s such an ensemble, I don’t privilege one character over another. I have a lot of affection for every character in this movie. Ironically, the cis straight male character, Adam, was the hardest one to cast by far. That was a big search. We found Nicholas off the beaten path. He’s been doing theatre. He was just this unusual, sensitive, charming person who is a lot more emotionally intelligent than his character, and could embody a certain naivete in the character. I worked with great casting directors throughout the process. Once we found Nick, we moved on to the other parts.
What about Bobbi then? I know Bobbi has recently come out as non-binary, and they remind me of a young Julianne Moore: quite extraordinary.
Bobbi was someone I was familiar with because they had been on I love Dick and Transparent. They just jumped into my mind at a certain point when I was looking at young actresses. I had a strong feeling it was going to be Bobbi even before we met [with them]. I wasn’t trying to cast based on physical attributes, but the character is a redhead in the book. It’s one of those things that becomes a clue. Hair color isn’t important in casting, but it helped remind me of Bobbi, and that was it. Our first conversation about the film and the role was at such an interesting level because Bobbi is in the queer community themself, and is really very savvy about these issues. They brought a really interesting perspective to the character, one which is integral.
It’s such an interesting time for queer creators. We’re at a tipping point where we need to wonder, what will the future look like?
For you, having come from Transparent which is a show that has been both lauded and attacked very hotly by members of the trans community, and now that we have shows like Pose and films like Adam…now that we have an influx of trans actors, writers directors…what will the future look like? How will history judge a show like Transparent which had a cis-male playing a trans woman in the lead?
What I hope it looks like is just more and more and more, and that no one thing is proliferated. The queer and trans world is incredibly diverse and complex: the opposite of a monolith, and evolving constantly. I would like to see more of more: more diverse trans stories, more trans-masculine stories, more non-binary stories, more trans people of color. I also want to see trans characters who are incidentally trans, and that’s not the biggest part of the story. I want to see challenging trans stories that are pushing boundaries of the trans-genre–like a horror movie from a trans perspective. In particular, that genre has really denigrated trans people. We just need more. We need a trans Love, Simon. We need things that are affirmational and things that are challenging. I think we’re just at the beginning.
I guess that doesn’t get at the issue of queer cinema. That’s a different trajectory because it’s been around much longer. But trans media, from a trans perspective, is still in the early days, and there’s still such a smallish group of trans writers and directors. It’s growing, but we have a long way to go. 10 years from now it’s going to be really different. Hopefully we won’t be living under authoritarian rule and a dumpster fire from Hell.
I do have to wonder. Most days.
You have to wonder sometimes!
But I hope we’re still going in a positive direction with media. Hopefully we’ll see more and more diverse stuff.
Let me ask you a complicated question. On the subject of trans cinema–I suppose at this point we can say that is a genre–I think everybody agrees that if you are doing a story about trans people, you need trans people involved. That’s just common sense at this point. But when it comes to casting, things get a bit more complicated.
There is the push, because there are wonderful trans actors out there, to cast a trans actor for the role. At the same time however, does that mean trans actors can’t play cis characters also? Because if trans actors can play cis characters, can’t cis actors also play trans characters? Is that fair? Is that a double standard?
This is a really thorny question. For starters, trans actors should be able to play all roles.
What I think is underneath the issue, and the problem of cis actors playing trans roles–it’s twofold. One is that it has been preventing trans actors from getting any access to any role. It wasn’t like cis actors were playing trans roles and trans actors were playing cis roles and everything was fine for trans actors. There was no access for trans actors at all.
So it became an issue about equity and access. Also, underneath that, is the implicit idea that trans people are just putting on a costume to trick someone. If you have Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club, there’s the idea that trans women aren’t real women, for example. If someone were to make a biopic of me, and they cast some woman to play me, I’d be pissed!
So these are well-founded arguments. But in the future, if trans actors have total access, and there’s equity for trans actors, it won’t matter so much for a cis person to play a trans role, for example, before transition. Certainly, for the short term, we’re still grappling with the basics of trans acceptance. It’s early. Where we are culturally, and where we are in terms of political imperatives, trans people need access. Trans stories need trans people to have access and push back against a long legacy of harmful and negative and misrepresentative media.
Absolutely. When you point out in your example that you shouldn’t cast a woman as a trans man: that is something, with so many of the trans actors, writers, directors, artists I’ve spoken to, they really stress. If you’re casting a woman, cast a woman. Period. Being trans isn’t trying to fool someone about your gender.
Yeah. Here’s the thing. We’ve had too many transition stories. Even a cis gaze has been sort of stuck on that: the question of before and after, in a sort of prurient way. Those kinds of stories bring up the difficult casting issue. There are things you can do: have a trans actor wear makeup for before transition. Or have them wear a wig. The problem, in these cases, is the transition narrative. It’s kind of like the coming out story that queer people are sick of. Once we’re not telling transition stories all the time, this question won’t be so central. If it’s not a transition story, why would you have a person of opposite gender play the role? It’s nonsensical.
Well, and that is the reason some people continue to attack Transparent. Even though that show is just a few years old, a lot has changed in the past five or seven years in terms of the approach to casting and storytelling.
Who knows how that will be regarded in another five or ten years? You, having worked on the show, what do you think?
It’s interesting, so much has changed since the show first began. The decisions that were made in about late 2013 when the pilot was being put together were coming from a different perspective than now in 2019. It’s been six years, and that’s not a lifetime, but God, for trans representation, it’s been quite revolutionary. The conversation and the ideas and everything that has happened: it’s a lot, and that can’t be understated. I did feel at a certain point that were we to start fresh from the beginning, we would have made different decisions. And I felt like that during the show.
It felt like the decision of the time. It was the thinking of the time. I also felt that casting decision was not my own, personally. I joined the project, the team on that show, in order to bring in as much trans perspective as possible, and to bring as many trans people in as possible. So while it had its flaws, it was one of the early examples of “let’s hire a bunch of trans people.” Let’s have trans actors, let’s have trans writers, trans producers. We had trans people in every different department, and that’s what I was focused on. That, and supporting the trans storylines to shepherd them. I don’t know how it will be perceived in 10 years, but it was amazing to be a part of, and something I’m proud of. That show launched a lot of trans people’s careers. That can’t be understated.
Totally. People like you, obviously. Actors like Alexandria Billings, who now work all the time. And I don’t know that we can get a show like Pose, which is even more revolutionary… Certainly from a business perspective–and this is a business, which we sometimes forget–I don’t know that you can get a show like Pose without getting Transparent first. History will judge.
Yeah. Totally. I kind of want to skip to the end and see what happens.
I think we all do.
I think we’re still in the middle of the beginning. Not even in the middle.
Lord save us. Hopefully, we have a future where people are hired based on their abilities across the board, no matter who you are.
So what’s next for you?
Well, I’ve been writing this screenplay, it’s a middle-aged trans guy buddy comedy called Cactus. I’m really excited about it; I took it to the Sundance Lab earlier this year. I’m feeling really excited about that. I’m also developing an episodic project that is kind of secret. I’m working with my sister, actually.
I’ve been developing a lot of new things and getting ready to send them out into the world, and sort of riding that rollercoaster. I’m excited to just be a part of the trans film community, and to put other people around me. I really feel like that’s something that is happening and growing. I intend to support other trans filmmakers and help other people find their way in. I’m excited about what’s next.
Adam opens in New York cinemas August 14 and in Los Angeles August 23. A national rollout will follow.