When actor Theo Germaine first heard about the role of James Sullivan in Ryan Murphy’s The Politician, they were still working their day job: slinging lattes at a coffee shop in Chicago.
That was about a year ago, but it seems like it could’ve been a lifetime. Since then, the Illinois native—who is nonbinary and uses they/them and he/him pronouns—scored the part, relocated to Los Angeles three days later to starting filming, and made their major onscreen debut when the series hit Netflix on September 27.
A true Murphy production in scale, star power, and stylistic flair, The Politician follows Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a wealthy teen whose Machiavellian determination to become student body president of his posh high school leads him down a rocky, absurd path. Germaine’s character James is one half of Payton’s campaign management squad, alongside McAfee Westbrook (Laura Dreyfuss). Other cast members include Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange, Judith Light, Bette Midler, Zoey Deutch, and January Jones.
While The Politician’s producers were specifically searching for a trans masculine actor, Germaine says James being trans wasn’t really discussed. “I was like, This is cool,” they tell me over the phone from Los Angeles. “Maybe it’s going to come up [in the script]?”
Germaine prefers to play male characters, so the prospect of portraying James—a shrewd, blunt political strategist—was exciting. “Like, I don’t have to talk about how I hate my body or anything?” they recall thinking. “So many auditions that have trans content have been [that way] since I started acting and auditioning professionally. This was super refreshing.”
Another hallmark of The Politician’s overwhelming queer appeal is its characters’ total nonchalance toward gender fluidity and all-over-the-map sexual exploration. There’s drama, sure (it is Ryan Murphy, after all), but the show’s teen protagonists expend their emotional energy on crises over power plays, medical fake-outs, and sudden deaths—and less so on a gay kiss or gender-nonconforming love interest.
In between helping Payton find a running mate for his campaign and crunching the numbers on the likelihood of his win, James even gets a juicy romantic subplot. No spoilers, but it’s the kind of clandestine affair that’s usually reserved for cisgender and heterosexual characters. It also poses a major threat to the squeaky-clean optics of Payton’s campaign and creates a new layer of tension in his relationship with James, adding a more sinister dimension to James’ character—and insuring that his implicit transness remains the least of his worries.
But if playing James was a breath of fresh air for Germaine, the actor still believes society has “a long way to go” before casual, unnamed transness and sexual fluidity is the norm.
“I would love more television to just be like that—where [gender or sexual orientation] isn’t a big deal—but I also know it’s very important to specifically have queer content where issues with gender and sexuality are spoken about,” they add. “I don’t want it to be erased; I just want it to become one part of the thing that queer actors and trans actors get to do.”
Germaine’s acting background is in theater, and most of the parts they’ve landed were stage roles. Stepping into their first major onscreen gig was daunting, and Germaine is candid about how that made them feel: “I was so anxious while we were filming!” they say with a laugh. But the welcoming, supportive atmosphere on set helped ease that anxiety, and made Germaine feel more at home alongside seasoned film and TV acting pros.
Working with trans journalist and producer Janet Mock, who directed the third episode of Season 1, was particularly special for Germaine, who’s a big fan of Mock’s writing and television work. While it wasn’t Germaine’s first time acting with a trans director, it was revelatory nonetheless.
“There is a level of understanding there, and it’s really exciting,” they add, recalling the first time they’d ever auditioned for a trans director on a different project. “I remember going home after doing the audition and just crying, because I felt so comfortable being able to be vulnerable. I don’t know how to explain how it feels when you get to work with someone who just gets it.”
Germaine attributes “accepting every part of myself” to their newfound success, and they also make a point to mention that trans actors shouldn’t feel guilty or self-conscious about correcting castmates or crew members if they’re misgendered on set. The more comfortable trans people are in asserting their identity at work, Germaine says, the easier it becomes to find allies on set who can support them or jump in to do any necessary correcting, too. “The better you know yourself, and the better you can just say ’fuck it’—that has helped my auditions get better, helped me network better, helped me like myself better. The industry is still going to be really shitty toward [trans] people. But I want to help change it.”
Asked if they have a dream TV or film role, Germaine pauses before confessing that they’re a “huge geek” and have dreamed of taking on a character on Star Trek or another sci-fi or fantasy series. “I would love to play a badass android,” they add. “I’d love to do some stuff with magic—I’d love to be a demon or an angel. But it would also be cool to just be a lead. Trans people should get to be lead characters, you know?”
The Politician is currently streaming on Netflix.