To say Jen Richards was nervous to play a young Anna Madrigal is an understatement.
Richards, the Emmy-nominated writer-star of Her Story, also co-produced the docuseries More Than T. She is one of the most visible trans actors working today, having appeared in shows like Nashville, Blindspot, and Better Things.
Her latest role is in the Netflix limited series Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City playing a young Anna Madrigal, the character originally brought to life on screen by Olympia Dukakis.
Richards appears in the eighth episode of the series, a flashback focusing on Anna’s arrival in San Francisco in the ’60s and her life before becoming landlady of 28 Barbary Lane. It also depicts the historic Compton’s Cafeteria Riots of 1966, and even while filming the episode, Richards knew it would be “something special.”
“It felt like lightning in a bottle, but that doesn’t mean it will translate to screen, but clearly it has, which makes me really, really happy,” Richards told NewNowNext at the Tales of the City New York premiere.
She recalls how she “vaguely remembered” when the original Tales of the City miniseries premiered on PBS in 1993. Once she landed the part in the revival she re-watched it and then re-read the books—but was still afraid to take on one of the most iconic trans characters in pop culture.
“Right after I got the part, I had this moment of, ’I can’t do this.’ It’s fucking Olympia Dukakis,” Richards explains. “The script [for the episode] was written so well I told [director and producer] Alan [Poul] I’m not sure if I’m good enough for this. Thankfully he sent Laura Linney to me and she worked with until I felt very confident coming in. She changed everything for me. She gave me a crash course on how she approaches a script and how she approaches a character.”
Richards realized that she was not playing Dukakis, they were just playing the same character: “I don’t have to imitate Olympia, but I had to take ownership of it in order to liberate myself of all of that.” She also notes that she met Dukakis for the first time the night of the New York premiere.
Richards admits that one concern Poul had was that Dukakis’ voice is so much lower than hers, “so I had to figure out how to lower my voice,” she says with a laugh. “The trans woman had to figure out how to lower her voice!”
When the idea of a spinoff series focused on the young Anna Madrigal is pitched to Richards, her eyes light up. “Your lips to Netflix’s ears,” she responds. “I cannot think of anything I’d like more than to work with all of these people again.”