Jen Richards on “Clarice” and the Complicated Trans Legacy of Buffalo Bill

The actress joins CBS' "Silence of the Lambs" sequel series for a three-episode arc.

Jen Richards is one of the most visible trans actors working in Hollywood today. In addition to being the Emmy-nominated writer-star of Her Story, she also co-produced the docuseries More Than T. Richards has appeared in a number of network and streaming series, including Nashville, Blindspot, and Better Things. She even played one of the most influential trans characters in literature, Anna Madrigal, for the standout flashback episode in Netflix’s 2019 Tales of the City revival.

Now Richards is back on our screens in Clarice, CBS’ Silence of the Lambs sequel series. For her three-episode arc, Richards plays Julia Lawson, a reluctant informant who gets wrapped up in Clarice’s (Rebecca Breeds) FBI investigation.

Richards spoke with NewNowNext about joining the cast of Clarice, dealing with Buffalo Bill’s complicated legacy, and what Olympia Dukakis and her portrayal of Anna Madrigal meant to her.

You and Olympia Dukakis both played Anna Madrigal. With her recent passing, what did Olympia mean to you?

Her performance looms so large in my mind. It loomed large in my mind on top of having grown up on Moonstruck and Steel Magnolias and loving her performances in those. But it’s one thing to watch a performance as an audience, and it’s something else to watch it when you’re studying it, when you have to embody the same character. So I paid particular attention to her in a way. I don’t know that I’d ever paid such particular attention to another actor’s performance. And I read her memoir, I read interviews with her, I watched as many performances as I can. She’s one of those actors where the more closely you look, the more you enjoy her, the more you respect and appreciate her as she truly is an actor’s actor. And then on top of that, she’s such a vibrant persona. She was just so full of life. And her whole background was so interesting — her time in Greece and growing up in New York, she has a life that, one you could emulate. She lived a long, full life. She’s incredible. She’s just incredible.

You told me at the Tales of the City red carpet how that night was your first time meeting her.

That was the only time we met because we were playing the same character. We were never on set at the same time. And because of her age and health, she was only doing half-days and she didn’t show up when she didn’t have to work. So the whole time I was working, I was hearing stories about her. It’s funny, she’s one of those actors. It wasn’t just other actors who would talk about her but the crew would talk about her because when she wasn’t filming, she was outside the studio having a cigarette, telling stories. She’s a broad. So yeah, we only met that night, and she was really just very kind, very warm, and very effusive. I’m really glad I had at least one chance to meet her.

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What did her portrayal of Anna Madrigal mean to you?

Anna Madrigal in particular, she was already an iconic character on the page. And then Olympia just brought it such rich life and infused it with so much and grounded it in a really profound way that when I was performing, I was trying to create something that was a blend of what was on the page and what Olympia had done. And I think that’s a credit to Olympia. Actually, I think it’s very similar to what Rebecca [Breeds] has to do in Clarice, where you have to make the performance your own. You’re not imitating another actor, but you also want to use that actor’s performance because it is so iconic, it’s a kind of touchstone. So you find these little moments that you make reference to. So in every scene, when I was doing Anna, I would do one line reading her facial expression that was pure Olympia, and then I just blended it with my own take on Anna.

Speaking of Clarice, what were your thoughts were when you first heard about the series?

I gotta say, I was actually excited. I remember when the first headline announcement came out, long before Rebecca was cast, I sent it to my agent and said, “I know I can’t do this part, but this is the kind of thing I would like to do. A tough, smart, ambitious woman in a male-dominated profession and who was using all of her skills.” It’s a great, compelling part. I’ve always loved Clarice Starling. So again, as a trans person, everything becomes a little bit complicated and a little bit nuanced. There are very few things that you can enjoy cleanly. But with Clarice, I was mostly just excited to see what they would do. And I know that Alex [Kurtzman] and Jenny [Lumet], the showrunners, are very well-informed, they’re very contemporary thinkers, they’re used to working, and particularly Alex, in the sci-fi space where they were already pushing some boundaries around gender and sexuality. So I had a little bit more faith. I did not anticipate that they would want to address this issue front-on.

I remember reading how you said when you first started coming out as trans, someone responded, “Oh, like Buffalo Bill?”

Yeah, that was a story that I shared in Disclosure. It was actually a colleague of mine prior to my coming out to Hollywood. I worked in classical music for many years, and I had finally accepted the fact that I was trans. I was starting to figure out, how do I transition and not lose my job and not lose this whole life that I built for myself? And I told one friend, I remember we were at a concert together, and I told her that I was thinking of transitioning. She just looked at me quizzically and said, “You mean like Buffalo Bill?” It was just like her only reference point. She’s a very worldly, educated woman, but that was the only portrayal she could think of when it came to trans people, so that was all she knew. She didn’t know any trans people in real life. So I thought, Lord, how many people are going to have that same impression? That’s their only touchstone. And that’s, to say the least, a little troubling, a little worrying that the only framework for someone to understand this very big aspect of your identity is a psychopathic serial murderer.

Brooke Palmer

That movie came out almost 30 years ago. Do you think trans people who come out today are still dealing with the legacy of Buffalo Bill?

I doubt it. I think it’s part of a more complicated legacy that includes Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Sleepaway Camp, where there were a good 50 years worth of movies that tended to show gender-varied characters as deranged and potentially murderous. And then those depictions kind of softened post-Silence of the Lambs. I think there are now enough trans people out in the world and people know trans people that that’s no longer a touchstone. Nonetheless, if you want a reason to be skeptical or to dislike trans people, that certainly gives you some more ammunition. Certainly on an unconscious level, I think it informs people’s perspectives of trans people. But I think where it probably does the most damage is the way that those of us who are trans and grew up on that movie, the way that we internalized those kinds of images. That’s really where it does the most damage.

You were originally brought on as a consultant on Clarice. How did that lead to acting on the series?

That was all Elizabeth Klaviter, our head writer. Nick [Adams from GLAAD] had heard about this project — Nick and I are very old friends, we’ve worked together a lot before. I sometimes consult on projects that want to do trans representation, and he told me about the project. He told me that he really trusted Alex and Jenny and Elizabeth and that they were really trying to do this right, and I trust Nick. So I was intrigued. I came on board. They had already hired a trans writer to write the first episode that my character, Julia, appears in. But it was a three-episode arc, and Elizabeth in particular wanted a trans woman to help kind of oversee the whole thing — to see all the storylines as they play out, look out for any red flags or pitfalls, help with the casting, help with the press, just kind of oversee the whole thing beyond just having the one writer on the one episode. So I signed on to do that, and then fairly early in the process, Elizabeth came to me one day and said, “Hey, what if we just wrote this part for you?” And I was like, “Great!”

All the advocacy I do behind the scenes for trans representation in particular on the front of getting trans actors jobs and opportunities, I kind of do for the next generation. I don’t really expect it to benefit me. And so I thought they’re going to hire a younger, prettier trans girl, and I was thrilled for that. I want them to get work. So anytime someone throws me a bone, I’m thrilled to pick it up and gnaw on it for a bit.

How would you describe Julia? What was it like playing her?

It’s wonderful for so many reasons, but primarily for the generosity of the showrunners, that they gave this story, a three-episode arc, which is rare for the kind of traditional trans guest star. Well, really, for the marginalized identity guest star. Traditionally in network television, you have a marginalized identity come on for one episode and they help your main protagonist have some kind of moral awakening and lesson — learn something, develop a little bit more empathy or compassion — and then you forget about them. And I’ve done those kinds of parts before. I don’t object to it; it’s good work and it’s an important part of the protagonist’s story. But for this right from the start, we want to do more than that. We want to give her a whole arc; we want to give her a purpose that isn’t directly related to her being trans. We want to involve her in the main storyline in some really exciting ways. And that was just such a rare and delightful opportunity. Right from the first day in the writers’ room, what I started talking about is, “If we’re going to have three episodes with her, I want to give her an emotional arc, too. I want to see that Julia is a different person at the end of these three episodes than she is at the start.” And again, to Elizabeth’s credit and to all the writers’ credit, they were wholly invested in that.

I don’t think this is a spoiler to say, but Julia starts from a place where she’s kind of stealth. She doesn’t want people to know she’s trans. She kind of — we talked about this in terms of costume and hair and makeup as well — I wanted to start her off kind of hidden, like, “Don’t look at me, basically. Let me just keep my head down, do my job, don’t pay attention to me.” Over the course of the three episodes, she puts herself out there in order to help other people. And then it makes her a little bit more open about herself, a little bit more confident. And we get to track that journey for her, which is an actor’s dream.

Brooke Palmer

There’s a scene where you confront Clarice, and you talk about Buffalo Bill. That seemed very personal. It felt like a real speech that someone would say about Silence of the Lambs and the Buffalo Bill portrayal. Did you help write that?

Well, I’ll take the credit for doing a performance that makes you think that’s just a real speech, but the real credit goes to Eleanor Jean, who wrote that episode. She’s a trans woman and a fantastic writer and just a wonderful person who was also a writer on the HBO show Mrs. Fletcher, which I was on. So she had written for me before and already knew my voice a little bit. So she wrote that speech, and boy, to be told that, “Okay, here’s your moment. You have to write this monologue where you’re going to speak basically for all trans people in ways that they’ve been hurt by this movie, this legacy, but you have to put it in the voice of a character, make it personal, make it direct, and have it be part of Clarice’s own emotional journey and awakening to her complicity in these complicated legacies…” I think Eleanor Jean hit it out of the park.

It does seem like you’re giving a voice to the voiceless. What threw me was hearing the word transexual in the scene. Was there a conversation around that in the writers’ room?

There was definitely some discussion about that. To use “transgender” would have been ahistorical. At that time, transexual would have been the word that had been used. So that’s one of those complicated calls you have to make. Do we use language that might throw some people and take them out of the moment, or do we use language that is ahistorical and not actually accurate? I was very emphatic that I think we should use transexual. Personally, I like the word “transexual.” I identify as a transexual. It’s a very specific word. It has a very specific connotation. Traditionally it has meant someone who undergoes some kind of medical intervention to transition, whereas “transgender” has traditionally been more of an umbrella word that can include people who don’t medically transition, nonbinary folks. It’s a much broader term. But transexual is very specific. It’s what my experience is, and I think it’s what’s Julia’s experience is and it would have been the accurate term at that time.

You don’t hear that word very often these days.

Yeah, there was backlash against the word, I think, for a number of reasons. I think because “sex” is in it. It always becomes kind of a weird thing. And then I think when a newer generation of trans people came out, and they were trying to create their own language that separated themselves from what had come before them, which is something every generation does, “transexual” fell out of favor. But I’m an old-school transexual, and I’m proud of it.

Brooke Palmer/CBS

At the end of the episode, Julia is deadnamed. What’s going through Julia’s head when that happens?

That was an uncomfortable moment to play. Deadnaming is something, it’s hard. For me, it’s been over a decade since I transitioned, so my deadname just sounds like someone else’s name, but I’m always aware of it. It just has a certain kind of juice and it can be weaponized. We talked through that moment in a few different ways. I don’t think that was the original idea. We just knew that Joe wanted to let Julia know, “I know your story. I know that you’re trans and I can use that against you,” so we were looking for different ways to do it. And I don’t remember if it was my idea or Eleanor’s idea, but we came up with the idea of intentionally deadnaming and then acting as if it was a slip, “Oh no, I called you Julia.” Because it’s the kind of thing that if Julia were to tell that to someone else, it might be hard to believe, like, “Oh, did you? No, you didn’t do that.” But for trans people, we know, and that was him letting me know that he knows who I am and he can use that against me. So I thought that was a really clever, subtle, but really pointed way of getting to Julia in that moment.

Can you tease what’s next for Julia?

What comes next is the consequence of her deciding to help out Clarice. I don’t want to spoil it. She becomes very involved in the case. She works with all the FBI agents that we see on the screen. And like I said earlier, it helps her on her own journey, which is really exciting to see.

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