British transgender activist and director Jake Graf granted us an email interview about his short film Headspace. Here’s how he describes the film: “Headspace gives a rare and intimate glimpse into the trials and tribulations faced by trans folk on a daily basis.”
The film’s all trans cast includes activist and model Munroe Bergdorf, model, singer and star of US reality show ‘Strut’, Laith Ashley, Youtuber and fitness model Kieran Moloney, Captain Hannah Winterbourne of the British Army, and writer and director Jake Graf.
First, watch the film.
Q and A with Jake Graf
Q: I see from your website and your Twitter feed that you’ve been an activist on transgender issues for a long time. Your Twitter profile says you are, “Trying to elicit positive change through film.” Could you give us a bit of history about what you’ve done before you created Headspace?
A: I have been writing and directing for about 9 years now. I never went to film school, instead falling into filmmaking through a love of storytelling, something I enjoyed and had a talent for from an early age. My teens and early twenties were a really difficult time, as I struggled with my trans identity, but the moment I made the decision to transition I knew that I wanted to write about it. This later became my first screenplay, ‘XWHY’, which was a very personal and cathartic story. I cast myself as the lead and used my own transition to depict the physical changes of the fictional trans man in the film. It was a surprise success, which spurred me on to write my next films, Brace, Chance, Dawn, and Dusk.
Q: In the U.S., we have several far right state legislatures trying to enact laws called “bathroom bills.” These laws would prevent people from using bathrooms that match their gender identification. Public restrooms/dressing rooms are the problem two of your characters face in Headspace. Your film is supremely relevant in the U.S. right now. How did you come up with the idea for the film?
A: Speaking to my trans friends, it helped when we swapped stories of our day to day challenges, and those uncomfortable experiences that most people never understand. I realised that we probably all go through similar things that cis gender people might never fully comprehend. I think I really made the film for the community, to show that we’re not alone out there and all go through difficult and testing moments, but Headspace has clearly resonated far beyond that, which is great! I think it really does give a very personal insight into what it is to be trans in 2017.
Q: In addition to the bathroom issue, characters in Headspace deal with problems related to using the phone, with going to the doctor, and with simply walking safely down the street. How did you decide to feature these issues for trans people, and what important issues did you leave out?
A: When I picked the cast, the stories that they depict on screen were pretty much those that cause them the most problems on a daily basis. Kieran says he asks a friend to go and scout out the toilets when they get to a bar, to check that they’re useable for him; Laith never changes in the gym changing room, to avoid any uncomfortable situations; Munroe often gets insults and threatening behaviour when simply walking down the street: Hannah, also my partner, struggles every time she’s on the phone because her voice is so deep. For me, the ‘intimate health’ check ups are what I truly dread!
These do seem to be some of the most common issues that affect transgender folk day to day, so they were a fairly obvious choice. I didn’t want to go too dark and feature a trans person actually being attacked or beaten. That’s clearly the worst possible scenario and I know that within the community we are all more than aware that this is all too often a reality.
Q: In Headspace you use all transgender actors, including yourself. There’s a lot of controversy in the U.S. about actors who are not trans playing transgender characters. What’s your opinion on that practice?
A: I am very proud that I was able to cast all trans actors for Headspace, as the film is very dependent on its authenticity. I think that had I not cast trans, the film would have fallen flat! Also, as a trans writer and director, I think that I owed it to the community to cast trans actors.
I had a small part in last year’s The Danish Girl, and so was very much aware of the furor surrounding the casting of Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe. I was also fortunate enough to be invited to The White House and meet the cast and crew of Transparent, including the wonderful Jeffrey Tambor, another cis actor who also plays a trans woman.
I have mixed feelings on this subject. I do believe that trans actors should be given more opportunities and possibly called on to audition first, but there is also the financial pull of an established actor to consider when pitching a project. Whilst several of Transparent’s stars such as Trace Lysette and Alexandra Billings are starting to gain big star status, there are still few if any trans actors able to command budgets of $20/$30 million dollars, as Eddie did in The Danish Girl. When that day comes, those actors will be the obvious choice, of course!
I do also feel that acting is acting: it’s a very dangerous road to go down when you only allow trans actors to play trans roles. Does that therefore mean that only cis actors may play cis roles, and only gay actors gay roles? For me, it will always be a case of casting the best person for the part. If that person were a talented trans actor, then even better!
Q: You have an impressive list of credits on IMDB as an actor, writer, director and producer. What would you like to do next? What’s your dream project?
A: Well, I would certainly like to make the leap from short to feature film in the next year or so, but in the meantime I am just about to write a drama pilot that I aim to pitch to Netflix or Amazon. We’ll see who shows interest! I think as an absolute dream project, it would be to get a starring role in a really cool, edgy and long running drama series on TV. One of my favourites is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, so if they were ever looking, I would be off like a shot!
Thanks, Jake, for being willing to answer a few questions for the Old Ain’t Dead readers. And thanks for the work that you do! It’s important and it makes a difference.