Actor Brian Michael Smith, who appeared on OWN’s Queen Sugar last week, has come out publicly as transgender.
In Wednesday’s episode, “Caroling Dusk,” Smith played police officer Toine Wilkins, who has a run-in with lead character Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe). Wilkins confronts Bordelon, who is digging through a Dumpster in search of his son’s beloved doll.
“When I saw the breakdown for Toine, I felt this was the role I was looking for,” the 34-year-old Smith told GLAAD. “It was a dream come true in so many ways.”
Previously, Smith has only played cisgender male characters—on shows like Blue Bloods, Girls, Person of Interest, Gossip Girl and The Detour—making him one of the few trans actors hired to play cis roles.
“Because I began my career post-transition and am not ’visibly trans,’ I had the privilege of choosing to disclose or not and I was able to go in for any role that fit my type,” he says. “I knew that at some point I would want to explore my trans experience in my work, but I wanted to make sure my self-understanding and skills were sharp enough to do justice to this deeply personal subject.”
He found himself gravitating toward characters navigating other major life transitions—like dating, moving away from home, or leaving young adulthood.
“As I kept working, learning about myself, and resolving issues I would uncover in therapy, I became more comfortable with bringing my more challenging life experiences into my work, and I wanted to start exploring my trans experiences.”
Smith started searching for trans roles that might let him do that, but says “there weren’t many.” When he read the script for “Caroling Dusk,” he knew it was the opportunity he’d been waiting for.
In the scene, we learn Wilkins is trans, but there’s no big reveal: Bordelon knew him both before and after his transition, and the pair remain friends. It’s clear they haven’t spoken in a while, but Wilkins thanks Bordelon for his support.
“I loved that this scene was about gratitude and friendship, and that Toine being trans was just a part of their story, and not the focus,” said Smith. “Working on this scene inspired me to do this in my personal life. To reach out to a few of my oldest friends and thank them.”
It also shows how Ralph Angel is comfortable with his son playing with dolls. “Ralph Angel saw how damaging the pressure to conform was for Toine while they were growing up,” shares Michael. “I think he saw firsthand all the pain, frustration and anger that Toine experienced, and how unnecessary it was.”
Now that he’s out, he hopes to continue playing both trans and cisgender roles.
“I want to continue to take on any roles that resonate with me and that allow me to challenge myself as an artist and impact audiences,” Smith explained. “I’m happy that I am working at a time when there are roles like Toine being written. At a time when writers, producers have been open to the input of trans artists and advocates and are holding space for full and authentic trans narratives—and reaching out for trans actors for these parts.”
Smith has also booked an appearance on the Amazon comedy Red Oaks, which sees a 1980s college student enjoying a last hurrah before summer ends.
Queen Sugar, now in its second season, was created by Selma director Ava DuVernay. It follows the lives of the three Bordelon siblings after they inherit a sugarcane plantation from their late father.