Sometimes getting woke is as important as being schooled—certainly for the protagonists of the film A Kid Like Jake.
Jim Parsons and Claire Danes play Brooklyn parents Greg and Alex, whose 4-year-old son, Jake (Leo James Davis), loves wearing dresses and playing with dolls. While Jake’s gender-bending is fine around the house, it presents a problem as they try to place the child in a private school and makes them question whether they should actually exploit the child’s “difference” to get an edge, since diversity is prized among admissions officials according to preschool director Judy (Octavia Spencer), or be private about it.
Directed by Silas Howard and written by Daniel Pearle (who adapted Jake from his own play of the same name), the film was co-produced by Jim Parsons and his husband Todd Spiewak. Howard made his feature debut co-directing, writing, and starring with Harry Dodge in the scrappy 2001 indie feature, By Hook Or By Crook, about a pair of literal gender outlaws. More recently, he’s been directing episodes of TV shows including The Fosters (from co-creator Peter Paige of Queer As Folk fame), Transparent, This Is Us, and Ryan Murphy’s upcoming Pose.
Here Howard dishes on making the film, working with child actor Davis—who is non-conforming offscreen as well—and bringing transgender stories to screens.
Do you have a parental gene and want to have kids?
I really don’t. I think because I had teenage parents I feel like we raised each other. But I’m very parental about my friends. With my godsons, I have two, I’m very attached. But I’m happy to have no kids. A lot of queer people made this film—queer, parentless people.
Jim originally optioned the play?
Yeah, it was his production company that brought me in. Daniel had done a path of adapting the play into a screenplay, and Claire became attached, and I gave a visual presentation and some script changes I thought would be good to make if I got brought on. It was a great organic collaboration, making minor adjuctements with Daniel, we got Octavia, and raised financing.
Did you feel bad making Claire cry in some scenes, since she’s always in hysterics or trauma in Homeland?
[Laughs] What was nice was there was levity. I was protective of her not having to go there too soon. When we read through the script together, Claire and Jim and Daniel and I, we spoke about not going too hot too fast. We’re going to get to this terrible fight, but let’s keep track that this is a good fight, where it starts to crack. But she’s a powerhouse with emotions, she can just go there.
Did Jim josh it up between takes?
Yes, without compromising his character. And he does so much with that dialogue, with a little look, an eye dart. Everyone in this cast uses every second they have. The chemistry and joy and his humor, it was a light hearted set and when there were heavy scenes we had a great vibe and team for that.
Last year, The New York Times published an article about James Leo Davis, who plays Jake and likes to wear dresses in real life. What can you tell us about him and what’s going on in his life since the film?
We intentionally don’t focus the camera on Jake in that traditional close-up way, and because of that we didn’t have to cast a “star” kid, but I did want a kid who loves dresses. I didn’t want to put a boy in a dress who doesn’t love it. I want to feel that joy. I reached out to his parents and met up and got to see his fabulous wardrobe, all these amazing dresses, and Leo’s been that way since age two. His parents felt this story was dear to them, and they support Leo dressing how he wants. They live in Brooklyn and a liberal supportive environment, but they actually had pushback from one of their schools and now are in this conversation trying to enact policy to protect children who aren’t conforming to male or female gender. I was blown away because, wow, you do think representation can have this impact immediately. We want to see the parent figuring it out and get it together. It’s hard with kids to know what’s the right age. Our Leo, his parents were so on board and it was giving support to their real-life struggle to make change as well.
Although you aren’t involved with the upcoming final season of Transparent, what are your feelings about how it all went down?
A lot of heartbreak. I love the team and show and am protective of the legacy of what the team has done, so I want to see them be able to continue doing their work.
Where do you feel we are today as far as gender fluidity and transgender identity being addressed in media, on a scale of 1-10?
I think in terms of really supporting each other through it, we still have a ways to go. In this country there’s a whole line of products, and we’ve been messaged since day one, of how to be a man and a woman. This is what you smell like, look like, there’s a lot of keeping each other in check around these gender roles, and there’s still a lot of fear about non-conforming. I think people are ready for a change, loosening up those confines and expectations.