Trans Actor Leo Sheng Talks “Adam” Backlash and His Onscreen Bromance

"When I was on set it felt like people involved with the film had this understanding that this was a really big queer moment."

Leo Sheng was preparing for his first year of grad school when he received an Instagram message from a casting agency asking if he’d like to be considered for a role as a transgender male. Sheng, who was born in China and raised in a small town outside Ann Arbor, Mich., had documented his transition on Instagram and through a series of Huffington Post articles, so he figured “why not” and soon found himself reading the script for the new film Adam and eventually landing his first onscreen gig.

In the coming-of-age dramedy, adapted by Ariel Schrag from her 2014 novel and directed by Transparent producer Rhys Ernst, a cis male teen, Adam (Nicholas Alexander), spends his 2006 summer break in Manhattan with his older queer sister, Casey (Margaret Qualley), and her roommates June (Chloë Levine), and Ethan (Sheng), the latter of whom becomes something of a close friend and straight older brother figure to Adam. But when Ethan, whom Adam does not realize is a transgender male, learns that Adam has fallen in love with a lesbian, Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), who mistook him for a trans male and continued the relationship under that deceptive guise, things get ugly for everyone involved.

While the film boasts a diverse cast of queer and transgender actors, and has garnered mostly positive reviews since it debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, an online campaign has called for audiences to boycott it. Sheng, currently filming his role as social worker Micah Lee in the upcoming L Word reboot, The L Word: Generation Q, spoke with NewNowNext about Adam, the controversy surrounding it, and meeting Mindy Kaling.

Were you familiar with the book when you received the invitation to audition for Adam?

I was not. I didn’t know anything about the book until the audition process started. I bought it online and read some of it, but then focused on the screenplay. I really like the script version they came up with a lot, and its adaptation of Ethan.

I read that you and Rhys came up with a backstory for Ethan.

I don’t know how much of the backstory is visible. Some of the things we talked about, like Ethan’s relationship to his family and possibly having a younger brother, which made this idea of a mentorship or older sibling role come really easily to him, and maybe there’s a bit of sadness because he doesn’t have the best relationship with his family. I thought about that a lot. Ethan is this guy who is grounded in a way and working through his own issues, but he’s calm about it. Maybe seeing Adam as this new kid, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and really oblivious, Ethan feels it is a chance to make a friend and be an older brother. So I hope people see there’s more to him.

Leo Sheng as Ethan and Nicholas Alexander as Adam in Adam.
Wolfe Releasing
Leo Sheng as Ethan and Nicholas Alexander as Adam in Adam.

Ethan is a bit of a straight bro. How much of Ethan is you?

I don’t see him as a bro. I guess at that time period, in 2006, he’s pretty binary and identifies as—and is—a man, so we see that in the way he dresses. He’s a very stylish guy and up with the clothing trends, which is interesting. In my experience as a trans guy, he’s wanting to fit in with what’s current for other guys, but now in my journey I’m okay with standing out a bit. I identify as queer. At that point, though, when we filmed it, I identified as a straight trans guy, so if it came across as him being more heterosexual it could have been me!

Especially early on in my transition, I often felt the need to prove my masculinity to other trans guys—to prove I was masculine enough to be trans, which is really sad and was an unfortunate reality of mine at that point. Now I’m more comfortable in my gender and queerness, and probably seem a lot different from when I played Ethan in 2017. And I think Ethan really is lonely. We see him hung up on his ex-girlfriend. At this point in my life, I’m okay with where I’m at, but he’s stuck somewhere. But I do like this element of friendship between two young men still trying to figure life out. I can relate to that.

Have you ever known someone in Adam’s situation?

I’ve never known anyone in Adam’s shoes, but I do know a lot of cisgender straight people who have been through this journey of learning about queerness and trying to be better and more inclusive in their language and overall perspective of the world.

The issue of disclosure of one’s biological gender comes up in the film, both for Adam and for trans individuals. How do you feel about it?

That came up at Sundance, I believe, and with trans folks, in my experience, it’s typically about safety. We’re living in a really dangerous time, especially for black and Latin American trans women, so I have a little trouble comparing the disclosure of the two. With Adam it’s still disclosure, but he’s extremely privileged and has a lot of power in the world. He has a responsibility to say something. He’s a teenager, and it’s not an excuse, but teens make impulsive decisions, and he made one he didn’t know how to get out of, unfortunately. With trans folks, it’s usually about safety and security, so I would say trans folks don’t necessarily have a responsibility to disclose.

At least one of the people calling for a boycott of the film is a transgender background actor who claims they were misgendered on set. Another says someone threw bleach on them due to inadequate security on the shoot. Did you see anything like this happen?

Ethan’s scenes were almost all done with just me or with Adam, so I didn’t have a lot of interaction with background actors. I didn’t see or hear anything about someone throwing bleach. I would never want to invalidate someone’s experience, so although I didn’t see or hear anything about it, I’m not in a position to tell someone their experience was false or that it didn’t happen. I will say that when I was on set it felt like people involved with the film—cast and crew who were and were not trans—had this understanding that this was a really big queer moment.

How do you feel about the negative reactions from people who haven’t seen Adam yet, especially those who felt the novel was problematic?

I’m not going to tell folks to see the film if they already made up their minds. I think Rhys said at Outfest that people are worried about our representation not being positive or progressive and have already made up their minds about that, and I’m not going to try to change their minds. But Adam was changed so much from the book, and I hope those who do see it can reconcile that. Again, I respect the ability to share critiques, worries, and concerns, because we do live in a time when trans representation is so sparse and important when it does happen.

What is Adam’s lesson?

It’s called Adam and it’s about Adam, but it’s also about Ethan and Casey and Gillian. It’s about how we see ourselves. Sometimes we get in weird situations—I hope not the same as Adam. But it’s unfortunately about making really big mistakes that affect a lot of people and what it means to be yourself and proud of who you are.

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You’re currently shooting The L Word: Generation Q. You said in a HuffPo piece that Max was the first time you saw a transman transitioning in media, though Max takes a ribbing in Adam! Will Daniela Sea show up in the reboot?

I think you need to go through the PR team. I know very little about who is and isn’t coming back.

You play Micah Lee, an adjunct professor.

Yeah, he is a social worker and his life is bigger than his trans identity. It’s a privilege for him to pass [as male], but we’ll see a lot more of his life. I’m excited about that.

What’s your dream role? Is there anyone, real or imagined, you’d love to portray?

I would love to be in a fun action movie, maybe a Marvel movie.

Have you met Chella Man? Are you excited to see him on DC’s Titans?

I have not met him, but I think that’s an amazing opportunity.

So Chella Man can handle the DC Universe, and you can get in on Marvel.

Sure! I grew up watching X-Men and really enjoyed The Avengers, so anything with the Avengers would be cool.

Your first movie was part of the Sundance Film Festival, and you were there. How was the experience? Lots of celebrity spotting?

Oh, my god, I met Mindy Kaling! She was probably like, Who is this person? But she was very sweet, and it was right after Amazon picked up Late Night, and we were all doing photos in the same place. It was amazing. And I saw Daniel Radcliffe get in a car.

Adam opens theatrically in New York City on August 14 and in Los Angeles on August 23 before expanding to other cities.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.