The Queerty Interview

Emmy-nominee Vera Drew on the art of editing, lessons of Sacha Baron Cohen and irony poisoning

Vera Drew at the 2019 Creative Arts Emmys

At only 30 years old, Vera Drew already boasts a long and esteemed resume for her editorial and directorial work on TV series like I Love David, Alone Together and Who is America? for which she became one of the first–if not the first–out-transgender woman ever nominated for the Emmy for Best Editing. In addition to her mainstream work, Drew has also edited a number of music videos for artists like Russian Red and Boy in the Water, as well as written and starred in her own comedy talk show series, This American Drew.

Drew only came out as queer in the past couple of years, and came out as transgender even more recently. Now well into her transition, she agreed to chat with Queerty for a few minutes to discuss her career, her coming out, and life as a transgender woman in showbiz.

So your life seems rather busy at the moment. How are you feeling?

Oh my gosh, I mean, it is quite busy. Things actually have kind of died down a bit now that all the Emmy stuff is over. It’s kind of funny: the beginning of the year was very, very slow. Thankfully, that kind of gave me some time to focus on transition stuff exclusively. So it ended up being a blessing in disguise. But a couple months ago, things got pretty busy and it’s kind of stayed that way.

Busy is good though, especially in this business.

That is true.

Congratulations, though for scoring an Emmy nomination for Who is America? Now, you hadn’t come out as transgender while working on the show. But you were out as queer?

I was, yeah. I mean, it’s weird saying that I was out. I definitely talked about it a lot in public, though I don’t know if anybody on that show knew that I was. But yeah, about four years ago, I kind of just came out as queer. I think deep down I knew I was trans, but I had more work to do before I felt comfortable sharing that with people. And I don’t think I even really had the language for it four years ago. I had heard the word “transgender,” but I don’t know that I would have ever have thought what I had been experienced for a few decades was that. But yeah, pre-coming out as trans, I was just kind of out as queer, but it was part of the whole journey of deciding to transition.

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So I have to ask, Sacha Baron Cohen is someone who has taken heat for homophobia in the past, notably over his film Bruno. What was the atmosphere and attitude like while you were there?

Oh my gosh, prior to working with him—and working with him sealed the deal—I’ve always considered him a tremendous ally to the LGBTQ community. Especially considering he’s a straight, white guy from the UK. I grew up watching his stuff, and Bruno was obviously a very in your face character, and played with stereotypes. But for me, it never felt like it was punching down queer people. It always felt more like punching up at the people who were [oppressing us]. At the time he was making Da Ali G Show, gay marriage wasn’t even legal. It was not even on the table to a large degree. So yeah, I’ve heard those criticisms, but I’ve always firmly considered him on our side in that regard.

Ok.

I feel like Who is America as well, to me, it was never punching down by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, it was confronting toxic masculinity in a very direct way. All of those characters on that show are different types of that toxic masculinity. So my experience as a queer person, both as a fan of his and working on his stuff, was nothing but positive.

That’s terrific to hear. I realize this is a complicated question, and possibly a loaded one. What was your process like, and the reaction to, coming out as a queer, cisgender man, for you different from coming out as a straight, transgender woman?

I mean, night and day.

[Laughter]

And actually, I need to qualify it with this: I have a lot of really wonderful people in my life and I’m very grateful to be surrounded by very positive allies. But yeah, when I came out as generally queer, people were much more welcoming and accepting. The thing that was very frustrating about that early on: I never said I was a gay man when I came out. I eventually did. I had a web series that was about exploring my queerness. I kind of played into the idea of being a gay guy on it, but it was never something I identified with.

Alright.

It was literally what everybody called me. Even when I was in a space where I was still dating femmes. People would just assume it was ok to call me a gay guy. That was, very early on, one of the things [that made me think] my queerness has more to do with my identity than who I like to be intimate with. But by and large, straight women love queer men, so I was surrounded by a lot of cheerleaders.

That’s great.

But when I came out as a trans woman, I could never have really fathomed how much more difficult it actually would be. And I’m glad I didn’t know.

Yeah?

I probably would have stayed in the closet.

Oh lord.

But yeah, the early days were pretty tough. And you know, even now, you mention straight, transwoman. I don’t know what my sexual orientation is anymore.

Ah, apologies. I didn’t mean to mislabel.

I’ve tried on every identity at this point. I pretended to be a straight man for a good chunk of my life too. I’ve had many relationships with women in my life that I’d say that I loved. So now, I’m in a space where I, as a transwoman, sexual orientation aside, I’m trying to find my place in the queer community. There is a lack of representation even within the queer umbrella for transwomen.

Related: Meet Teddy Quinlivan, Chanel Beauty’s first openly transgender model

That’s true. So I guess, one thing I’m interested to know: when you come out as a transgender woman, how is the reaction different from coming out queer? Were the people who were supportive suddenly freaked out? Is it more difficult to talk about?

I think, for me, if you come out as, let’s say, pansexual, people generally, if they’re a good ally, will just be like congratulations. I think the difference, when you’re coming out as trans, is there are factors that come into play like changing your pronouns. In my case, I changed my name, my gender presentation, how I dress. Whereas coming out as a sexual orientation, people hear that, and then at worst, generally speaking, will generally put it in the back of their heads. That level of queerness is not something they’re directly seeing.

Ok.

For me, especially early on in my transition—and I’m still early on—I was trans as Hell.

[Laughter]

And people have to interact with me. Part of interacting with someone who is early in their transition is catching them up on pronouns. Catching them up on name changes. Generally, when I was first coming out, I did have a lot of friends who weren’t super familiar with those things about the trans community. I wasn’t really planning on being anybody’s ambassador to this community, but I quickly realized I’m the first trans person these people have ever met. They clearly just don’t know how to talk to us.

Sure.

And really, it’s super funny. If I get asked a question in that ballpark, generally my response is “You talk to us like normal people.” It’s really easy.

Good answer.

I’m a binary trans person. I identify as a woman, so people can just refer to me as a woman. Even allies from time to time will overthink things or slip up. Early on, the moment those training wheels came off, it was a lot more intense. It hit me all at once.

That’s understandable. You also mentioned coming out at work. Did you worry about how that would affect your work prospects?

No, not really. I mean, I work with some of the best allies I’ve ever met to be honest.

Wonderful.

I work a lot with Absolutely Productions, which is a pretty diverse company, even though we make stuff for 15-year-old boys. There was a certain degree—last year I got to direct four new shows. I wanted to direct my entire life. When I was six years old, people were calling me “he” but I knew I was a girl. I also knew, maybe with even more certainty, that I also wanted to write and direct. There was this point at the end of last year when I was finishing those shows, that I knew I was about to come out. I realized I was about to start a directing career, and about to give up a lot of privilege. There aren’t that many cisgender female directors, let alone transwomen. I was all too aware.

Right.

But my whole approach from the beginning with coming to terms with being trans was really wondering what I would want if nobody else’s opinion mattered. What I arrived at was pretty much where I’m at now, and where I’m headed. The next logical conclusion of that is people’s opinions don’t matter. It’s none of their business.

True.

I’ve also put my career first for a good chunk of my life. Maybe I should take a chance and do this, because I know I’ll be happier. To be honest, I’d say the exact opposite of what I feared is the reality. I don’t think being trans or coming out as trans has helped my career, but I do think it has opened up more doors.

Sure.

I was in a social media blackout for a few years and recently came back. Part of that was that I had young, queer, Tim & Eric fans who were reaching out to me, or who were telling me how much they loved I Love David. All these interviews I’ve been doing—I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of interviews with queer publications. So in a way, it has helped my career. It’s also helped just because I’m happier.

Certainly, yeah.

I can actually get my job done. People, when they used to work with me, there were times I was getting the job done. I’ve always been a hard worker. But I was also clearly miserable and sad and uncomfortable in my body. Impossible to talk to. Now the exact opposite is true.

That’s great.

I’m very much better at my job now that I’m out.

That’s so encouraging to hear. So during my research dive I happened on This American Drew which, itself, feels like something Sacha Baron Cohen could have made in that it derives humor from letting people expose their own ignorance. In other words, I don’t think Cohen makes fun of people, so much as he makes fun of reactions to people. For example, I don’t think Borat is making fun of Kazakhstani people, so much as he is making fun of people’s reactions to that character.

Yeah.

Your show feels the same way. Was that the aim?

I’d say partly. The main point of it early on was that I was doing a lot of editing, but not writing and directing, which is what I really wanted to do. So I really needed to get at the ground floor of something and get to work. I was still pretty early in coming out as queer, so a lot of the personal writing I was doing was about that. I wasn’t really writing screenplays. It just occurred to me that I can take my experience and do a heightened version of myself. I can fictionalize some things and pull reality here and there. There were a couple episodes where we were poking fun at people and getting them to dig their own grave.

Yeah.

Like we did one episode where I interviewed this woman who was a white supremacist and said some of the worst things I’ve ever heard a person say. But really, I just liked making absurdist, surreal, often times horror-influenced stuff. My favorite way to craft that is to use reality and paint the picture with real-life elements. I’ve learned a lot of that from growing up as a fan of Sacha and Jackass and all that stuff. I took all the ingredients it would take to make a prank show or reality comedy show and make this big sprawling narrative that was about exploring my queerness. It’s funny, the final episode I did was a drag episode, and really, my biggest regret, was that the series did not end with me coming out.

[Laughter]

I think it was a very gender-confirming episode even though my drag look was nightmarish.

[Laughter]

I was not pretty. I looked like some cross between Pennywise and Diane from Twin Peaks.

Oh lord.

And that episode did talk about gender. Back when I was presenting as male, if I did go buy makeup, the looks I would get were totally shocked. I wanted to talk about that with drag performers, basically. But once it was all done, I didn’t know what else I had to say in this realm. I think, deep down, all along, I was exploring my identity and queerness. I think I have that figured out now. I just have to start implementing it in my life.

That’s a great outlook. I loved the Halloween episode that was Twin Peaks themed.

Thank you.

Will you do another season, possibly after you’ve finished your transition?

I don’ t even know what that looks like, time-wise. I have my checklist of things I want, but I personally don’t like to think of a start and finish. A lot of where I have arrived was never initially about gender. It was a fundamental lack of understanding about myself. I was a comedy nerd growing up. I did improv when I was growing up. I always had comedy in my life, which saved my life completely. But it also really taught me how to mask things. I think, to a certain degree, I’d had a lot of irony poisoning.

What do you mean by irony poisoning?

I had a fundamental lack of sincerity in every aspect of my life.

Wow.

I had a very difficult time being authentic in any capacity. A lot of that had to do with my gender, but it was everything. So that is a process that has been going on for a while, and will probably continue to. But in answer to the question, I want to make more. I do. I have a plan for [another season] if I ever get to make it. The fact of the matter is I can’t self-fund it again.

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Ok.

It was a fun but expensive show to make. It was a labor of love and exactly what I needed at the time. But now the specific story I want to tell, if I do another season, I’d need somebody to give me a couple bucks to make it.

They have crowdfunding for that reason. Stranger things have happened.

That’s true. If anyone wants to give me money to make it, I’ll do it. It’s such a good—I don’t want to say the idea, because it is so good.

Marvelous that you’re excited about it. So in your experience, for those of us that are queer, but not necessarily trans, what is the most helpful thing we can do to make you feel safe and included and welcome to help you get along in the world?

That’s a hard question. I think it’s very simple. All of us inside—all the letters in the queer umbrella—have varying degrees of privilege. My privilege is very different from that of say, a black transwoman. I think trans allies within the queer community should just use their privilege to support [transgender people] and support them however they can. I feel like, specifically, gay men are pretty mainstream now.

Lord save us.

There’s plenty of homophobia out there in every institution, but a white gay man has more privilege than a transwoman. So use your privilege when you can, and speak up when you hear somebody say something sexist or transphobic. If somebody gets someone’s pronouns wrong, correct them. And educate yourself. Listen to people’s stories. One benefit I have is that I did spend a chunk of my life thinking I was a gay guy. So I feel like I learned a little bit about it. But gay men don’t necessarily know what the trans experience is unless they’ve talked to people. So the key is to talk to people and educate ourselves. And I have to do the same. I’m a white trans lady that lives in Hollywood and works in showbiz.

Which is very different than a woman of color living in, say, Alabama in a small town.

Yeah. So I also have to do the same and listen to other people’s stories and do what I can on my end.

So last question. What is it you love about editing? Or is it a means to an end?

It’s definitely not a means to an end. I love editing. I think for me, what’s satisfying is that it is the last draft of a script.

Ok.

The majority of the stuff I’ve worked on, right down to my web series, is always kind of reality-based. Generally, I think a lot of reality-based shows are working off of an outline or a plan. But when you put a fictional character inside the real world you’re going to get unpredictable results. And you’re going to get footage that needs to be pieced together to tell the story you want to tell. When I started working at Absolutely, I saw that immediately. I thought it was great, because I could write with Final Cut. I love that it’s when a project comes together, and really, when one is made or broke. It’s the make or break moment.

Check out a preview of This American Drew: