Broadway-Bound Alexandra Billings: “Transparent” Opened a Portal, “Pose” Pushed Through It

Also: Is "The Village Voice" really dead?

A veteran of Chicago theater and someone well known for playing the recurring role of Davina on Transparent, Alexandra Billings has come to Broadway as the irreverently named, malapropic gangster Waxy Bush in The Nap, a dark and zany comedy by British author Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors). I talked to Alexandra about her exciting career developments and opinions.

Hello, Alex. Please tell me about your part in The Nap.

She is a middle-aged, transgender woman who lost her arm in a car accident and she’s sort of a mobster.

Will you have your arm tied behind your back?

They have built me this rubber glove—a half opera glove—that looks like a prosthetic arm. I’m like a Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck kind of look.

So it’s a wacky comedy?

It is. It’s very funny, very silly. We look completely insane, like the center of a clown car, beautifully insane. The cast, it’s just crazy. The funny people are aplenty. It’s one act, so you’re in, you’re out, and it’s great. Richard Bean has outdone himself.

Is your character portrayed sympathetically at all or is she purely bad?

I’m not real crazy about playing villains, which I don’t do because I’m transgender and I’ve done that and don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to do someone who’s sick or dying or crazy or murdering somebody. But because it’s a comedy, it lifts any foundation of reality. And it seems like I’m a killer, but the end is quite a twist.

Sounds interesting. Meanwhile, tell me about developments in your role on Transparent.

I play Davina. I was the best friend of Maura (Jeffrey Tambor). All I know now is Davina has moved into the Pfefferman house, and that’s where we left last season. Your guess is as good as mine as to what will happen [with Tambor no longer in the show]. But as Maura’s best friend, I was a go-between between Maura’s cis world and the trans world—a role I got a little tired of playing. I was the bridge.

Donna Ward/Getty
From left: Our Lady J, Zackary Drucker, Alexandra Billings, and Trace Lysette at the BUILD Series, 2017.

Why did you get tired of playing that?

I think we’re in a new place now. Transparent opened a portal and Pose has pushed through it in a way that’s extraordinary. In Kathryn Hahn’s new series, Mrs. Fletcher, Jen Richards plays a trans character, and Candis Cayne is still working. It’s a different time now. We can do other things now, other than asking people how they’re doing. “How are you?” I don’t care how you’re doing! You can handle yourself. I’m not gonna walk around asking that of every cis gender person any more.

Or every trans person either. Did you work with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company?

I am not a company member, but I‘ve done three, four shows with Tina Landau, and I started teaching with them in 1996 or ‘97.

Greg Doherty/Getty

Did you go to acting school before that?

I started acting when I was about 10. My father was a musical director for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. He was also a music teacher at Los Angeles Harbor College. Every summer, he’d put on college musicals. When my parents divorced, I’d come back and spend summers with my dad and hang around with all the gays. There’s a lot of heteronormativity in our play, The Nap. It’s great. A lot of straight actors. So there’s a lot of educational opportunities. We were having a conversation about heteronormative people and LGBT people, and I said, “I’ve been around queers since I was 10. They don’t make me nervous. Straight people make me nervous.”

That’s a little like that John Waters movie, Female Trouble. “The world of heterosexuals is a sick and boring life.” Kidding.

We’re the ones that make the divas and the legends, we’re the ones that make things chic. They look to us to dress them, make them up, and put them together so they can go out—they look to us for advice—and in American history, they do that and then throw us in a broom closet and lock the door. “You can dress me up, but you can’t go to the ball!” We’re tired of that now. We’re taking our culture by both hands—with a lot of grace, compassion, and hopefully empathy—and we’re giving it back to ourselves.

Getty Images for National Breast Cancer Coalition
Alexandra Billings performs onstage at National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund’s 17th Annual Les Girls Cabaret, 2017.

One of the reasons I did this play is that Peppermint [Head Over Heels] and Kate Bornstein [Straight White Men] and I are the first three trans people on Broadway playing trans characters. [Author’s note: Straight White Men’s Ty Defoe is also trans. And Peppermint actually plays a non-binary character. But yes, Broadway is experiencing a trans boom. In fact, understudying Billings—as well as cis actor Johanna Day in the same play—is trans star Bianca Leigh, who was in Hurricane Bianca.] That’s extraordinary and extremely sad. We need to look at our own sense of self and not only who we were, but who we are, because that informs who we are becoming.

Do you identify as lesbian or bisexual?

Oh, Michael, I don’t know. I’m 56 years old. I’ve been living with the AIDS virus for over 30 years. I married my best friend [Chrisanne Blankenship], whom I’ve known for 42 years. She happens to be a cisgender female. This is going to sound new agey, but I don’t think about those containers any more. It doesn’t interest me. I love who I love, and I love and am devoted to the funniest, most intelligent, sexiest person I’ve ever known.

Do you have children or want to?

Oh, god, no. I’m far too selfish. It’s all about me, darling.

Me too! I’m glad we’re both smart enough to realize that.

I would never do that. We barely have cats.

Then you’re not a lesbian. [Laughs]

That’s it, isn’t it?

Have you ever played cis characters?

Yes, in the theater. I came to Hollywood and then all they cast me in are trans roles, which is fine. I think it’s important we have representation. When I came to Hollywood, there were five of us—like me and Candis. I did ER in… um, 1920, I don’t remember, it was a long time ago, and there were none of us. My manager said, “I don’t know that we can get a career going. It’s such a fluke.” And now, having a transgender friend is like having a nice car. You must have that!

Jim Spellman/WireImage

But trans actors don’t even get to play trans roles sometimes. Look at that whole Scarlett Johansson debacle. [She dropped out of playing Dante “Tex” Gill in the movie Rub and Tug after controversy saying a trans man should play the part.]

There are people who still believe that their usually white, mostly male, but female, too, privilege—and I’m speaking of Miss Johansson—outweighs the necessity of the few. It sometimes takes a hard lesson. And that can happen in any business, but Hollywood is ego-driven and based on image, not heart-space driven. It’s a hard lesson, but hopefully she’s learned it. If they were any kind of storytellers, they’d cast Chaz Bono in the role. Not only does he look exactly like him [Tex], but he’s a wonderful actor. I’ve spoken to him several times about this. “Why don’t you do this?”

They might argue that he’s not a big enough name.

If we’re gonna go by that argument, half the movies in Hollywood wouldn’t have been made. So you surround them with big stars.

I know. Few had heard of Timothée Chalamet before Call Me By Your Name.

Exactly, and it was beautifully acted, and a hit.

The other thing is, they say they need a star to play trans roles, but they usually don’t give trans actors the opportunities to become stars, so it’s a catch-22. Anyway, Alex, you’re helping change things, so thank you. See you on Broadway. I’ll be waiting by the stage door.

That makes me very happy.
 
 

Rich, Fortunate Souls Populate Fashion Week

Mike Pont/WireImage
The Blonds’ fashion show at NYFW, 2018.

Speaking of people locking us in broom closets: The Blonds’ “Disney Villains” show for Fashion Week had the design duo in peak form, trotting out wicked women dressed in sparkles, fluff, and studs, sizzling up the runway with their nails and menace. In honoring everyone from Maleficent to Ursula, there were several trans models, as well as Paris Hilton and little Desmond Napoles, and, as always, Phillipe Blonde opened the show in stunning drag, his crown totally earned. At one point, I turned to the woman next to me and said, “They should bring out Asia Argento for the finale.” “She’d clear the room,” she laughed.

The ‘70s came back at the book party for Richard Bernstein Starmaker: Andy Warhol’s Cover Artist, about Interview magazine’s late art director Richard Bernstein, by Mauricio and Roger Padilha (published by Rizzoli). The Public Arts bash was bedecked with a red carpet, Studio 54-type banquettes, and big blowups of Warhol, Liza, Grace Jones, Divine, and others. They had everything but bowls of coke! That anyone could find!

On Saturday, the fabulous Marco Marco was using trans divas like Candis Cayne and Dominique Jackson as runway models, and at the same time, Chulo underwear had a benefit event for Puerto Rican relief at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and used Pose’s Lee Soulja as host and the stunning Caridad de la Luz (AKA La Bruja) as a spoken word artist, decrying the patronizing racism of Trump and his roll of paper towels.

Later that night, I joined Milk, Hector Extravaganza, and Kevin Aviance in judging Susanne Bartsch’s Belladonna “Look Ball” at Sony Hall, and helped grant Marilyn Monster—a Marilyn Monroe impersonator in glitter, complete with facial mask—the $1000 prize. She was fab, even though she fell at one point, making us judges wonder how she had imbibed anything with that mask on.

In related news: I hear that a show called Fame Is a Drag, in which two celebrity “frenemies” will dress up and engage in a karaoke showdown with the help of drag queens, is making the rounds.

Birdies are also telling me that there may be new life for my beloved Village Voice. Yes, a style magazine co-owner is looking into buying it. So remember all those RIPs I wrote and was quoted in just the other day? Well, as a non-Disney villainess, I urge you to ignore them at once!

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto