We’ve spent more than a year trying to get Alexandra Billings to sit down for an interview. It was worth the wait.
The trailblazing actress became one of the very few openly-trans performers with a successful Hollywood career when she began landing roles back in 2003. Early parts included guest spots on ER, Eli Stone, Grey’s Anatomy and Nurses, often playing a suffering transgender hospital patient. That all changed in 2014 when Billings landed the role of Divinia on Transparent, the groundbreaking Amazon series. Her career has flourished since with roles on Goliath and How to Get Away With Murder, as well as turns on the Broadway stage in The Nap and Wicked.
Billings’ latest role finds her joining one of television’s most iconic families in The Conners, airing Wednesday nights on ABC. In the show, Billings plays Robin, a transgender plastics factory manager, and the boss of Becky (Lecy Goranson) and Darlene (Sara Gilbert). Over the course of the season, she becomes a friend and mentor to the pair, and brings some of the show’s biggest laughs.
Originally from Schaumburg, Illinois, Billings also has gained notoriety for her fiery activism for queer rights causes. She’s also been forthright in discussing her own past, gender transition, struggles with substance abuse, and HIV+ status.
We quickly learned that Billings has no reluctance in speaking her mind–a quality we found both refreshing and fun as we sat down to talk about The Conners, her career, and the state of the LGBTQ community. The Conners airs on ABC Wednesday nights.
How did the role of Robin come to you?
I auditioned for it. They asked to see a tape. I’m trying to remember, it’s been such a long time ago. But they liked it and we hit it off.
Watching, I couldn’t help but think back to Disclosure.
You talked about doing all these hospital shows playing some trans person who is sick, dying or both. Robin is a far cry from that. She’s successful. She’s intelligent. She’s a leader. For you, as someone who has a long history in the biz, what does that say about how opportunities for trans performers—and trans characters—have changed?
Well the answer to your question is in your question—and it’s very astute. Things have changed. I got to a point where I told my manager I’m not going to wear anymore hospital gowns. And I literally didn’t work for almost three years.
Oh my gosh.
I kept saying “Hollywood is trying to kill me in some way or other.” I’m not going to let them do that. So now what seems to be happening—which I think is hilarious—I’m starting to get a lot of lawyers and judges—things like that. Which is great. Robin though, you’re right, is set apart from all those characters. She’s in charge, and her transness is secondary to who she is. She’s also flawed: she has a temper, she’s a little dry. I also got tired of playing the “magical trans” that comes into every situation and asks every single cis person “How are you doing? Are you ok?”
And that’s all I did for about two years. So I got tired of doing that too. The thing is, you don’t understand a community if you don’t go out and search for their identity. How are you supposed to write for someone you don’t know?
Now, there is a responsibility for us as well to allow ourselves to be seen. But that’s very difficult to do in a society that’s dangerous.
So we walk a fine line between needing the necessity of representation, and the fear of being discovered. And those are two very specific containers that trans people live in.
Absolutely. And I would argue those are also diametrically opposed to one another.
Well, yes, they are. One begets the other. As a young actor, the big question is how can I be in a film if I don’t have a SAG card? Without a SAG card, I can’t be in a major film. And it’s the same thing for a marginalized community: how are we supposed to be represented if we’re not represented? It’s a Catch-22. So when we say things are better, absolutely they are better. But we could have said that in the 70s as opposed to the 60s.
Better is relative.
Exactly. It doesn’t mean we are safe. Does it mean we are seen? No. Does it mean we are honored or allowed to blossom? Let me ask you: how many network TV shows do you know that star transpeople? And I don’t mean feature. I mean star, where the focus is a trans storyline played by a transgender person? Then ask yourself, how many storylines do you know that are white, heteronormative males that center on and focus around those people?
That says it all.
Every time I go any kind of awards show, I make a point of standing upright before things are about to happen. When people say sit down, there’s a commercial coming. And Glenn Close starts sitting down…
I wait for Glenn, then I stand up and look. And I make sure everyone sees my brown, transgender face. I look around that room and try and count how many out, trans faces I can see. Usually, I don’t get past 10.
So are things better? Yeah. Are they good? No.
What can you tease for the rest of the season?
I can’t. I like my job. The only thing I can tell you is these writers are so hilarious. I was only supposed to do two, maybe three episodes. I ended up doing five. The reason is that they wrote this character so clear and funny for me and it was so much fun to be around each other that none of us wanted to go home. So they just kept writing. So I can’t tell you anything about the plot, but I can say they’ve allowed Robin to get funnier and funnier with each episode.
That’s encouraging. Hopefully, that means, if there’s season 4 we get more of her and more of you.
That’d be great. I don’t have the answer to that one.
Here’s hoping Sara Gilbert reads this.
She gets things done, for heaven’s sake.
Very capable lesbians: the world needs more of them.
So going back to this idea of you seeing more trans faces at the awards shows, what is it that Hollywood has come to understand about trans people that it didn’t before? So much has changed even in the last five years.
I don’t think Hollywood, in general, understands anyone but Hollywood. What’s happened is that trans people have gotten louder. Laverne Cox is not asked to walk into a room and become a shy, petite, flower. She knows what she wants to say, what she wants to do, and if nobody will help her, she’ll do it herself. Trace Lysette doesn’t walk into a meeting with cis white people and squirm. She knows what project she wants to get done. These trans artists understand who they are. What all of us have done collectively is say here’s what we’re not going to do. So Hollywood hasn’t come to the realization of “let’s be nice to trans people.” They’ve gone “we need a trans hooker, a trans guy dying of cancer, and a trans doctor. Let’s go talk to Laverne and Alex and Trace.”
What’s happened is we’ve just said “No, thank you.” So what Hollywood has had to do is say “Gee, they don’t want to play these roles. Why don’t we cast them as neighbors or just people?” Which is what we’ve been saying for the past 50 years.
Again, here’s the deal, and let me make this as universal as possible: you go through your life writing your own story. You have a path you are creating—physical, emotional, spiritual. Every now and then you come to a fork. Now, depending on what you believe, you’re guided or it’s fate or it’s science, but somehow or other, you take one of those paths. And sometimes you walk down that path, and it doesn’t go well.
So you have a choice. You can stop and do nothing and be paralyzed and frozen. That’s happened to me; it happens to all of us I presume. But then nothing gets done. Events continue on whether you’re there or not. Or you can rewrite the story. Everyone has this gift. You can do it. Every single human at one point or another makes that decision.
So all of us understand what it means to be marginalized. That’s what that is: stand frozen in fear of the journey, or create a new one. Everybody transitions. Everybody goes through this. So when you’re not being heard generation after generation, either you give up or get louder.
Makes perfect sense.
Look, I don’t want a seat at your table. I want my own table. So that’s what happens. I go into a room and I bring my table and my people and my chairs. And I make room, so you can either sit at my table and learn, or you can leave.
So when are you going to write a self-help book? I see a future for you.
No thank you.
You and Oprah, I see it. Motivational speaking. It’s there if you want it.
I love it.
So you’re a recurring character on network TV. Last year, before COVID, you headlined Wicked on Broadway. Where do you go from here?
Look, all of the stuff we’re talking about were accidents. I didn’t plan any of it. I’m just sitting here in my quilt drinking tea talking to you. The Wicked thing is hilarious. I was sitting around, the phone rang, it was my manager. And I’d never seen Wicked—I knew it was about witches that sang songs. So my manager calls and goes they want you for Wicked. And I’m thinking I’m too old. I thought they wanted me for a starring role. So I told my manager “First of all, I’m 58 years old. I can’t play those roles. And second, I can’t even think that high. They’d have to rewrite the score.” And I thought it was a community theatre that wanted to do it.
He goes, “Alex, the Broadway production of Wicked wants you in the show. There’s an old lady role in it. You’re fine.”
So I said “I’ll do it.” And I had no clue who Madam Morrible was. It was a complete accident.
But that’s showbiz. I think it’s accidents all the time. You’re in the right place at the right time, you get an opportunity to move forward.
I guess that’s right.
Unless you’re somebody’s kid, of course. I’m not going to throw shade.
That’s true. And can I tell you this about the show?
When I was 10, before VCRs and Netflix there were five channels. If you missed something on TV, you were sh*t out of luck. But, we had tape recorders that you could put cassettes in. And The Wizard of Oz—think about this: it literally is the queer journey. It’s the everyman traveling down the road collecting chosen family, and in the end, everything you need, you already have. That’s every LGBTQ person on the planet. Every person on the planet, really.
So one year I recorded The Wizard of Oz on four cassette tapes, which I still have. And I listened to them going to bed every night. I can tell you every inflection, every note of that film. Fast forward to a year ago, I’m standing backstage in my costume for the curtain call. And there are waves of love coming over the footlights from that audience. I’ve never heard a sound like that before.
It’s extraordinary. And I’m thinking I’m standing in the middle of my own fantastic journey as one of the players in that fantastic journey.
That is amazing.
During the run of that show, I got more messages from trans kids than I’ve ever gotten in my life from all over the world. From Korea, from Australia, from the Bahamas, from Alaska—from trans children six, seven, eight years old—writing me to say I can be in Wicked now!
Then they would come to the show. They’d write me, and I would invite them into my dressing room. It was extraordinary. One night I was talking to a 10-year-old trans girl and her mother, who is probably 20 years younger than I am. This child is young enough to be my grandchild. And we were just talking about representation…
Imagine being a 10-year old trans child. And you’re in the dressing room of Broadway show with a 58-year-old trans woman of color who is married, happy, joyful and free. What do you think? You think I don’t have to kill myself. I don’t have to put up with the bullying. I don’t have to listen to the voices that tell me to stop, because I’m looking at my future.
The gratitude you must have looking out over those footlights, or meeting a young fan like that must be immense.
You’re right. I told the mother: “I want you to listen to me. I would have sold my soul to have my mother treat me the way you treat your daughter. So this meeting is as healing for me as it is for you.”
I have been very blessed in my life, but when I say I’m sitting under a quilt drinking tea, I am. I’m just stumbling through life. And every now and then the hand of The Divine reaches down and says “Alex, step into the light.” And I find myself in situations where I’m saying I can’t believe this is happening.
You say healing for you. How is it healing?
That’s a great question. I was talking to the mother, telling her about my mother and she…oh God…
She turned to me and she took my hand. She said, “I want you to know that your mother loved you the best way she could with what she knew.”
Oh my lord.
As a queer person, to have someone step over a generational line and say “You were loved.” That’s worth everything.
That’s a beautiful story. You got me choked up.
I’ve had to go back and look at my life. And I’ve realized I’m a fortunate, blessed, human being. Terrible things have happened in my life, but not more terrible than anyone else. I don’t live in shame anymore.
You know, you’re someone who has been a huge advocate—and I’d add, I can’t agree more—of mentorship from elder LGBTQ folk to the young queers. How do we best go about that? Why does the community need that?
Those are really good questions. When I was a kid in Schaumberg, IL I used to dress up and put on make-up and run around in my mother’s clothes. When I was 15 or 16 years old I’d had enough. I thought I was making everyone miserable and decided it would be better to just go. So I went to my mother’s medicine cabinet and got a bunch of pills. I went to the bedroom. And it was a Friday afternoon around 3 o’clock. And I turned the TV on, because I had to have the TV on when I killed myself. How tragic is that?
I turned on the TV, and Phil Donahue comes on. And he’s talking to three beautiful, gorgeous, joyful women. They looked like the happiest strippers I’d ever seen. The audience was asking them the strangest questions. One they asked was “Which bathroom do you use?”
And I thought I didn’t know strippers had a separate bathroom. And as the questions were going on, I realized these women were trans. And we didn’t even have the word yet—they were called transsexuals. And as they answered these questions with great aplomb and wit, I thought there I am. I don’t need these pills. These women are having the time of their lives. I want to do that.
So when you ask about the necessity of mentorship, my answer is survival. Our community will not be able to continue if we cannot honor what we were, so we can honor who we are becoming. We cannot do that if we don’t have people around us lifting us up as we travel down the Yellow Brick Road. So the necessity of mentorship is the theme of survival. And let me say this to every single LGBTQ individual 40 years or older…
You have a responsibility. This is your job. That’s why you’re here. If you’re over 40 you’ve already lived through a viral plague. This is your second one.
And there’s no reason in the world for you to waste time feeling sorry for yourself when there are hundreds and hundreds of LGBTQ youth who need your voice. Get. Up.
That’s it exactly. And most of us didn’t have that. Because of closets and AIDS, I wonder if younger generations understand the community evolution. This came up when I talked to Kate Bornstein—I’m not sure younger generations understand that someone like Marsha P. Johnson could be gay and trans and a drag queen. There was not a gulf between those terms then. And I see people fight about this now. It’s like, aren’t there better things to fight over?
You’re proclaiming my friend. I’m so glad you said that. You know, I said to Kate once: “Let’s talk about identity.” And she just said “Oh, f*ck off.”
And I was like, really? And she said “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I’m a queer, gay, guy, girl, trans, man woman. And I don’t care anymore.” And my wife will tell you that—my white, cis, female-presenting wife. If you ask her how she identifies, she’ll say “Don’t we have more important things to talk about?”
That’s it exactly.
This is why I love Kate. The idea that—the lines aren’t blurry, there are no lines. Which is why Kate was like “F*ck off. I’m not having this conversation.” Humanity needs to get to a point where it concentrates on how we treat each other, how we behave, how we can make the planet better, on how all of us can live together and still be individuals.
Thank you. That’s it. So last question. In researching this interview, I ran across a story about you doing a duet with Bea Arthur at your cabaret show which culminated in her whispering to you “I’m so drunk I could fart.”
Which is fantastic. Is that the epitome of showbiz weirdness? Or does it get weirder?
It’s the epitome of my weird showbiz. If you ask any of my friends, they’ll tell you “That sh*t happens to Alexandra all the time.” My life is bizarre. I’ll tell you a Liza Minnelli story…
Oh wow, please.
So I go to this red carpet at the GLAAD awards. This is years ago when I first got to town. I had never been on a red carpet before and I had no idea what I was doing. I had no money, so I had like $1.50. So I go to Target and get this tragic maroon spaghetti strap cocktail dress. And I looked ridiculous.
I’m good with make-up, so my face looked OK. But then I go into my closet and pull out my wig in a bag. And I plop it on my head and go to the red carpet. So, we were in the holding area. I’m with my tragic dress that looks like a party hat. And there’s this tiny lady in a corner, dressing this big black cloak, black sunglasses and red c*cksucker lips.
And I say to my manager “Who is that?” So he goes over and takes a peek, and says “You’re not going to believe this. It’s Liza Minnelli.” I said “No, it must be a drag queen.” Then the handler says very loudly, “Miss Minnelli.” And she threw off the cloak. The hood came off. The glasses flew. She grew about ten feet and was wearing this bell-bottomed sequin bead pantsuit with a large scarf hanging off her neck like Isadora Duncan. It was as if someone had put a hose of energy up her ass.
And she walked the red carpet and people screamed. And I thought to myself that is how you do it. This is how you do it in the business. You conserve, and when it’s time to go, you bring every single piece of you. It was extraordinary.
Anything else you want to add?
Yes. I want you to know I get McRib updates from McDonald’s. Twice a year, they have specials. They’re having one right now. So that’s what I have to say.
I’ll…make a note of that.
Don’t laugh at your mother. I’m just trying to help.
The Conners airs Wednesday nights on ABC.