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Zelda Williams: Dead of Summer transgender reveal discussed

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Freeform/Tyler Shields

On Tuesday night, a bunch of camp counselors kicked off what’s sure to be a wet, hot, bloody summer.

In Freeform’s new horror drama Dead of Summer, teenagers serve as bunk leaders — and possible murder victims, or at least murder witnesses — at Camp Stillwater, which is oozing supernatural historic forces. The series promises to offer up twist after surprise after revelation, and a notable one arrived at the end of first episode: The cool, mysterious, loner counselor Drew (Zelda Williams) took off his shirt when he was by himself, and underneath was a restrictive bra.

And just like that, the small-screen world got a little more diverse. Yes, Drew is a transgender man, and he represents another progressive step for a TV show — especially one set in 1989 — at a time when the medium is starting to reflect multi-dimensional transgender characters (Orange is the New Black, Transparent). You’ll learn a bit of Drew’s backstory in episode 4, but right here, the producers shed some on the origin of the character.

“Someone who is very, very close to me is going through this,” Edward Kitsis, who created the show with fellow Once Upon A Time producers Adam Horowitz and Ian Goldberg, tells EW. “What that did was it opened my eyes, and it opened us to a world that we really realized we didn’t know much about. And as we watched this person about to go through it, it opened our eyes and we realized the world doesn’t understand this. Because we thought we did and we didn’t. And in today’s world, this is a show about identity and this is something that is important. We wanted to have a show where people got the strength to be who they wanted to be. And in 1989, we thought that this story is still relevant then as it is today.”

Of course, the late-80s represent an even more challenging era for transgender men and women. “It was a different time and it’s hard enough to grow up and find who you are, but to have to do it in a world where who you are is something that other people aren’t probably accepting is probably a very painful thing,” says Horowitz. “But we also felt like we could explore and show how strong someone could be to be true to themselves. It would be a powerful message to send.”

The casting of the character was something the producers say they didn’t take lightly. “It was an obviously interesting role to cast for various reasons,” says Kitsis, who notes that both transgender and cisgender actors were auditioned, and that Dead of Summer has a GLAAD adviser. “And it was a difficult role to cast because the nature of what the role was, in that we had to have someone who played both pre-transition and on the step to transition. We looked at a lot of actors.”

Williams (House of D, Teen Wolf) wanted to make sure that the character was handled appropriately. “They understood what I did, which is the transgender community does deserve to have this story told,” says Williams, who is the daughter of Robin, noting that she was especially interested in telling the story of a male-identifying transgender individual, whose portrayals on TV are less common than those of transgender women.

Viewers didn’t see much of Drew in the first episode, and he will be an elusive, guarded enigma for now (while attracting the romantic attention of another counselor, the out-and-proud Blair, played by Mark Indelicato). “[Zelda] found this way to make the character breathe and alive in scenes where he’s just a presence,” says Horowitz, “and she created a sense of magnetism where you’re like, ‘Who is this person, why are they there, and what are they about?'”

Williams shares a few influences that went into shaping the character. “Eddie and Adam were like, ‘Go back and rewatch The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink. He’s meant to be the cool guy in 1980s films,'” she tells EW. “It’s Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You. He’s trying so hard not to care at times, but most of the time it actually kind of works. It seems like he doesn’t care what other people think.”

The secret that Drew hides is not what you think, and his “intense” story will be unspooled in his flashback story on July 19. “We learn why Drew is so guarded and it is not just solely for the obvious reasons,” hints Kitsis. “Drew has a guard up as a protection to being hurt, and we’re going to find out why.”

And the writers have been finding the right balance in shaping Drew’s identity, according to Williams. “My favorite part about what they did with Drew is at no point do I ever say, explicitly, that I’m transgender, because I don’t have to,” she adds. “My character is existing and living his life the way he wants to, and the way he’s always wanted to.”

Just like the rest of Stillwater’s counselors, he probably wasn’t planning on bleeding trees and haunted water, but here’s to a Summer to remember.