Theo Germaine began this year working as a barista at a coffee shop. Little did the nonbinary-transgender actor know at the time that a web series they’d shot last fall–titled Work in Progress—would become the second great role they’d own this year.
The first came in The Politician, the Ryan Murphy-produced Netflix series about high school politics run amok. In the show, Theo plays James, the main pollster and campaign guide for Ben Platt’s Peyton Hobart.
Germaine had already completed filming on The Politician when they learned that Work in Progress would undergo retooling as a television pilot. We caught it this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where we interviewed series stars Abby McEnany and Julia Sweeney, as well as director/co-creator Tim Mason about the show. Apparently one of Hollywood’s biggest queer players caught the show too–Lily Wachowski, who stepped in to produce a full season for Showtime. The show finally airs this December 8.
We met Germaine at the premiere of The Politician, where the two of us bonded over growing up queer in rural Illinois. Now, they’ve afforded us some time to chat about the debut of Work in Progress, and their breakout year.
You’re having quite a moment as we close out the year. What is day to day life like for you at the moment?
Oh gosh, it really depends. Any given day I could be filming. We’re working on Season 2 of The Politician. Or I am traveling. We filmed Work in Progress in August-September. I wrapped on the 20th of September, had two days off, and then went to New York for The Politician premiere. I’ve been traveling nonstop since then, gearing up for Season 2. Intermittently, I go back to Chicago for work-related stuff. I have to go back to LA next weekend. I’ve been going and going and going since July. I haven’t been in one place for more than a week since then.
Good problems to have.
They are! I’ve gotten a lot better at traveling. The big thing is trying to take care of myself.
So how did the role of Chris come to you? As I understand it, this was before you even booked The Politician.
Around the end of Summer 2018, before The Politician happened, my agent sent an email asking if I was interested in an audition. This came to me as a “ultra-low budget, SAG, indie web series that will film a couple days.”
I read the sides and thought it was really cool. It was a situation where I would be auditioning for a trans character, but it seemed really cool, and I was very excited that it was based in Chicago with all Chicago people. I did some research on Tim & Abby, and thought it was cool that they’d worked at Second City and done improv and were writing cool queer content. So I auditioned and was put on hold, then got an offer.
It was this tiny little thing at the time. Half the clothes I’m wearing in the pilot are mine. It was no budget. 15 days later I got an offer for The Politician. In a huge whirlwind, I moved to Los Angeles to start filming. Sometime in November, the production team emailed everybody [saying] “It didn’t work as a web series, so we made it a pilot.” So they started submitting to film festivals and we got into Sundance. It was really, really exciting. I watched it in the audience for the first time. When it was done, I was like oh f*ck, that was really good. I knew it would be a TV show, that someone would pick it up. I didn’t know who, but I knew. It felt really special. So that happened.
While we were at Sundance, they were like can you let us know on the DL what’s going on with ‘The Politician?’ So then we got picked up, and we had to do a whole bunch of negotiations so I could work on both projects at the same time.
It was a lot of am I going to be able to do this? I was so grateful. It all worked out. And I’m very tired and very happy because of all of this.
As you should be. The show really struck me as something I’d never seen on television before. If I’m being honest, I didn’t know who would be bold enough to put something so different and fresh out there.
Also that, yeah.
The subject of mental illness was something I really found moving and identified with, but that’s a hard sell.
It’s kind of hard, yeah.
When did you hear that Lily Wachowski was stepping in to produce for Showtime?
I’m trying to remember when I found out. It was sometime in the spring. I’d say I knew by May, and was like Oh. My. God. I was a tiny baby watching The Matrix. She’s legendary, and also just a super cool person.
She’s also a Chicago person.
So when you shot the pilot and found out you were going to series, did you talk to Tim & Abby about what your character arc would be?
I did know where my character would end up, and I did know a couple plot points from the second half of the show. So I knew where I was going, and we did do a table read before filming so I could see the whole trajectory. I like having all the material beforehand because I like to plot things out, but it’s also a fun challenge to make it fresh. I’m also playing a character based on a real person.
That made it challenging, especially since Abby is playing a character version of herself. So that was a weird, interesting challenge. The show is very candid. I had to provide the line between the character and a real person, and have it be to scale.
When you’re working with someone who isn’t just the lead actor, but is also the creator, the writer and it’s her life, is that intimidating? Is it surreal walking through beats of her own life?
Yeah. I think sometimes the show gets very intimate. These people are into each other, but they also have issues. At times, I felt a bit stressed or emotional. I don’t even know how Abby must feel, because this is partially her life. Like I said before, it was a challenge to figure out how to ride the line. It was a lot of listening and asking a lot of questions. Especially with Abby, I paid attention to how she was doing, and how her character felt about stuff. Also, sometimes it wasn’t just asking about the character, it was asking about what the story was based on.
I also was playing a trans character that was based on a real trans person. That’s not something that’s happened much. So it felt like newish territory.
Trailblazing. That’s awesome. So what additional insight did Abby give you into your character?
The one thing was that she talked to me about was how she met the person Chris is based on. They’re no longer dating. She did talk about how they are friends now.
You have sex scenes, both in this show and in The Politician.
In fact, in Work in Progress, they remind me of a few I’ve had.
Right?! It’s so real. It’s like arrgh!
There is some of that, for sure. I talk to so many actors about the awkwardness of doing love scenes, how technical and involved and decidedly unsexy they are to stage. All of this is to ask, as someone who identifies as trans-nonbinary, does that make the scenes more uncomfortable? Are you more self-concussions that way?
You know, I actually think that I was less nervous about doing Work in Progress than I was for The Politician. I was a little more seasoned, and also, Lily directed the sex scene from Episode 3.
Oh wow, ok.
It was a very small closed set. I was in familiar territory. Abby was nervous, and if someone else is nervous, I put my big boy pants on. I’m like, I’m going to take care of you, if that makes sense.
I like to help other people not be nervous. And I’ve also done an indie film that is making the festival rounds. I essentially play somebody’s sub.
The movie gets kinky at times. I wasn’t nervous doing that either. It feels better with so many queer people around you, and when a transwoman is directing you, and making sure you’re ok. In the writing, they said they didn’t want it to be glamorous, they wanted it to be awkward and real.
That comes off. It’s not titillating or exploitative.
It’s not. It’s just, we’re doing it. “Don’t turn the lights on.” That’s real.
Yes. Now, before we get to far from this, I have to ask. Lily Wachowski is someone I would love to chat with. What is Lily like as a director?
Well, technically credit goes to Tim for directing the episode. But Lily was around a lot as an advisor. She directed the intimacy stuff as a safety, because she & Abby are friends. Sometimes, we’d be filming a scene, and she’d have a camera thrown over her shoulder and would be filming.
Oh my gosh.
It was so cool. She just wanted to make sure everyone was doing ok. She’s probably the most experienced person with film on the set. She’s nice, warm, an amazing presence on set. Whenever she was there, I was so excited. We talked about how she’d taken a step back from filmmaking and she went and studied painting.
She studied art because she wanted to do something else. So that was really exciting. I love when artists dip into something else. She also said she was really into making art and content outside the binary. I think it’s maybe why this show was of interest to her. We had a lot of really good conversations. I think she’s amazing.
She has really cool tattoos.
I’m so thankful I got to work with her.
So you have one hit show already. You have another about to come out. Are you getting more offers right now? Are you being offered cis roles? Trans roles?
Right now I’m pretty occupied. Work in Progress and The Politician are my two main things. I’m still going on auditions, and I have to turn a lot of stuff down, mostly because of schedule conflicts. I don’t really know what I can say yes to, but I have goals. I’m in a huge period of transition in regards to building a larger team. I don’t even have a manager yet.
But my agents are so amazing. I’m trying to think what I want to go after, and making connections, networking. I really want to get into film acting. I want to play trans characters, but I also really want to play characters like James, where he’s just a “he.” I want to dip into lots of different kinds of content. I’m doing a lot of writing and doing some directing shadowing since I want to direct. I’m trying to get into modeling because I like that. I’m teaching myself to DJ. I’m just trying to diversify my skills.
When do we find out about Season 2 of Work in Progress? Too soon to know?
Well we only have Season 1, but everyone in Chicago is wants to get to Season 2. So we don’t know. It would be pretty cool for the show to have life. I’ve actually only seen the first episode.
What about The Politician?
I don’t think I’m allowed to say anything about The Politician.
I had a feeling.
I can say filming has been amazing so far. Everyone in the cast is like oh my God. The scripts are amazing, and everyone is really excited. It’s juicy.
Work in Progress debuts on Showtime December 8.