TV

“The OA” Isn’t Just Netflix’s New Surprise Bingewatch—It Presents Us With A Fascinating Trans Character

Ian Alexander plays Buck Vu on the new Netflix series.

If you haven’t started streaming it, The OA is the latest Netflix series burning up the Internet.

Dropped on Friday, the show follows Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling), a young woman who’s returned to her family after disappearing seven years prior.

Looking to reconnect with those she left behind in captivity, Prairie gathers a group of misfits to hatch a plan. One of her compatriots is Buck Vu, a transgender teen who’s been turning to the local drug dealer—another of the cadre—for his testosterone.

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Full disclosure: I’m only three episodes into The OA, so I’m not certain where things are headed. But, judging from fan and critical response, Marling and Batmanglij do right by Buck.

Created by Marling and Zal Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice, East), the show doesn’t shy away from positive and negative reactions to Buck’s identity, especially from his family. But he’s a nuanced character, not a token representation for the sake of “diversity.” (He might also be the first Asian trans character in a mainstream television series.)

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Ian Alexander, who plays Buck, is transgender in real life, too—a nice change of pace from Hollywood’s usual approach of casting cis people in trans roles.

Raised in a conservative Mormon family, he faced rejection by his parents, who tried to force him into conversion therapy.
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“I remember particularly being obsessed with FtM transition videos,” Alexander told Affinity of his earliest inklings about his identity. “I didn’t connect with it personally yet, but I still remember tucking my long hair into a hat and taking a few ’boy’ pictures.”

If he looks familiar, that’s because the high schooler became something of a viral sensation in May, when he clapped back at transphobic UCLA students.

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“I was frustrated, but decided to use humor rather than waste my energy on people who clearly don’t understand what they’re against,” he told Buzzfeed at the time.

Alexander answered an open call for a young Asian trans actor that circulated on Tumblr, and the scored the part.

Ironically, Marling says they were told the role was impossible to cast.

She told Vulture:

“We’d always written the character as a 14-year-old transgender FTM Asian-American, and when we gave our casting director Avy Kaufman that description, she said, “We might not be able to find this person, so what are you flexible on?” We told her we weren’t flexible, so she finally took to the internet and posted some casting notices on various trans chat rooms and groups, and audition tapes came flooding in.

Ian was among them, he had shot his with his iPhone in his bathroom and uploaded it all without his parents knowing. Out of nowhere, his parents get a phone call that Netflix wants to cast their son! They’re like, “What?”

His tape was brilliant.

He told us, “I’m having a really hard time in school, because I wanted to act but it’s not like the plays that are done in high school have roles that describe a person like me. You can’t imagine what it was like to go online and see a posting for a Netflix show that describes me.”

We got really lucky.

Comparisons to Stranger Things are easy: They’re both Netflix shows about mysterious abductees who fall in with a group of young men. But while Stranger Things’ queer factor is pretty much subtext, The OA puts it out front and center.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery