Alexandra Billings has been a working actress since the 1980s. While her early work was on the Chicago stage—from drag shows at the Baton Show Lounge to dramatic work at Steppenwolf—she got her first big break playing a trans character in Romy and Michelle: In The Beginning, ABC’s 2005 made-for-TV movie prequel of the hit film. (The part was notable as it was only the second time a trans actress had played a trans role on American television.)
Billings followed up wit parts on Karen Sisco, ER, Eli Stone, and Grey’s Anatomy. But it’s her role as Maura’s best friend, Davina, on Transparent that’s helped make her a fixture in Hollywood. And it’s helped her advocate on behalf of trans actors and the community as a whole.
This month Billings also appears in the new thriller Valley of Bones, starring Autumn Reeser (The O.C.), Mark Margolis (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad), and Rhys Coiro (Entourage).
She plays Kimberly, a North Dakota rancher who helps Anna (Reeser), a paleontologist searching for a fossil while dodging a drug cartel and repairing her relationship with her 10-year-old son.
“I really love the role because she’s completely different than anything I’ve ever done,” Billings tells NewNowNext. “She’s a rancher who lives out in the wilderness. I don’t know the first thing about that—you put me out in the wilderness and all I do is wander around looking for a Marriott.”
But the role was also attractive, Billing says, because it “had nothing to do with my with being transgender.” It’s never brought up that Kimberly is trans—she just simply is.
“There’s not a lot of representation out for us as trans people, and certainly not for trans people of color, who are always either dying or asking cis people for help,” Billings says. “And none of those things were true in this movie. And the story itself, I thought, was really good. The script is really well-written.”
Given Hollywood’s history with the trans community, Billings is a pro at handling situations that are less than ideal: In 2015, she and Candis Cayne both found themselves auditioning for a degrading transgender role on Curb Your Enthusiasm—a scene which had a trans woman tired of waiting for the women’s room opt to use the men’s bathroom, instead.
“You’re standing at the urinal and our star comes in—and comedy ensues!’” Billings mimes sarcastically. “It was horrifying. Candis and I were standing there reading the script with a room full of trans people and we turned to each other and went, ’I’m not doing this.’ Candis said ’What do we do?’ And I said ‘First we call our representatives and we say we’re not doing this’ and then we go in there and we tell them why we’re not doing it and why they should cut the scene.”
The two made their case—Billings says Curb creator and star Larry David was “actually very nice,” but the show’s producers “looked at us like we were crazy.”
Coming back for its ninth season October 1, Curb Your Enthusiasm is still an acclaimed hit, and a feather in any actor’s cap. But the scene was too damaging for Billings to swallow her pride.
“It was lethal,” she says. “It puts us back about 50 years, and returns us to being the butt of jokes. This is how the trans youth suicide rate goes up, because they don’t see themselves represented properly. So you say ’No.’ You freaking say no.”
The episode eventually aired, and the role of the trans woman, Billings said, was played by “an actor who dressed up in drag.”
That things have slowly been improving for trans performers is actually frustrating: People believe because there’s an Emmy-winning series about a woman transitioning late in life, and Laverne Cox is basically a household name, that there’s somehow “enough” or even “too many” trans narratives. Billings likens it to how the mainstream reacted to gay culture at the turn of the last century.
“I’m 55 years old and I transitioned in 1980. I’ve seen many a revolution—and I’m thrilled that we’re headed in the direction that we’re headed,” she says. “But we have to remember that we are also up against a government who not only doesn’t see us but doesn’t support us. It’s not that they’re out to get us, it’s that we don’t exist—we’re unimportant. And that trickles down into our art, because art is a reflection of our life.”
Billings recounts how a friend wrote a pilot with a trans lead and was shopping it around. “They got the same thing from all of the networks—‘Well, we have Transparent; we’ve already told this story.’ As if there’s just one trans narrative.”
Luckily, Transparent will be providing a new narrative in Season 4, which arrives on Amazon September 22, one that delves into Davina’s past.
“Davina’s storyline is much more prominent,” Billings reveals. “You get a look at a real trans character who is played by a trans person. It comes from the truth, meaning my life, and also the life of our trans staff writer, Our Lady J.” Without spoiling anything, she adds that the storyline is “much more fleshed-out” that typical trans narratives.
Billings credits her success in Hollywood to persistence, something she says is vital for the future of trans visibility, equality, and understanding.
“You cannot be detoured,” she insists. “Giving up is cowardice. Your strength, your divine spark, lies in your ability to keep breaking through. It’s about the intent—so success, for me, is about if we crowd them with the truth, they can’t help but listen. But we have to crowd them. They can’t ignore us if we’re standing in front of them.”
Valley Of Bones is in theaters now. Transparent returns to Amazon on September 22.