Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker on their new Amazon show, and what's ahead for 'Transparent'
Filmmakers Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker were both associate producers and trans consultants on Transparent’s freshman season. But early on, they had contemplated the possibility of a documentary series. Contemplate, no more: This Is Me will premiere on Amazon Prime Instant Video in July, and is currently available for viewing here on EW. Ahead, Ernst and Drucker—who, respectively, directed and co-produced the series—take a deep dive into its teachable moments, moving past the 101s, and the greater ties between it and Transparent.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This Is Me is very connected to Transparent. How did this short series come about?
RHYS ERNST: Zackary and I have been involved with Transparent since the pilot and we deal a lot with trans representation as well as other kind of issues and producorial things on the show, but one thing we’ve talked about since the early days was having a documentary series at some point, kind of treating Transparent as a jumping off point into a deeper discussion of certain trans issues. It was something we always kind of kicked around as a possibility.
ZACKARY DRUCKER: Many of the people featured in This Is Me are also featured in small roles on Transparent season 1. It was a way to investigate some of the lives and true stories behind the actors, the background, to reveal a more complex and authentic rendering of the trans community. Jill Soloway, who executive produced this series, is really invested in introducing trans media makers as well as actors and personalities and writers, etc. to Hollywood. So this was a way to give a voice to these types of folks behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera. A lot of the team behind the series were also gender nonconforming or trans individuals as well.
Can you speak to the issues covered in the series, and why pronouns, closets, and the other subjects, were things you wanted to explore?
DRUCKER: They’re all important issues in and of themselves. I think that sometimes the trans movement is perceived as a youth phenomenon or as something that’s new, but trans people have existed since the earliest known human civilization. I think the only way to show that is to represent diversity of ages and for us to learn from each other. So in This Is Me: Generations you see a younger person and then somebody who’s been in the community for a long time sort of dialoguing, sharing stories.
Jumping into one of the other topics, This Is Me: And My Sisters is one that I was really excited to get into because the issues in that episode, for instance, are that you have these three trans women who have great friends in real life. And already at the offset, what’s so unique about that is that there’s a history in the trans community, particularly with trans women, of not necessarily associating with each other in public. Kind of for fear of getting exposed or clocked and therefore being targeted, basically. The moment that we’re in, there’s really this extreme kind of civil rights crisis around violence against, particularly, trans women, and particularly trans women of color. It’s practically just a wave of genocidal almost violence, killings against trans women. So, on one hand you have this opportunity for trans women to come together and just create these wonderful friendships and teach each other and mentor and support each other, but also to combat that threat of violence by staying together, standing tall and being visible and how that kind of visibility is really a tool to push back against an oppressive culture.
What was your approach to these individual episodes? Were you thinking of it as being more about the person, or the subject?
ERNST: There’s so many different types of people who are part of [the trans] community, so it was really important to showcase a wide variety of different types of people, different types of experiences. But then these issues that we get into are kind of a roundup of a lot of contemporary issues that people sometimes hear a lot about. For instance, bathrooms is a really big contemporary issue right now—but then say misgendering or representing a genderqueer kind of spectrum of trans people is maybe something that gets less press. It felt like it was an important opportunity to represent a sort of range of issues, but also of people, and pairing the right people with those issues and then letting their stories kind of grow organically and kind of guide the pieces.
It seems like there are a lot of teachable moments in the series. Is that something you wanted to convey, through hearing the stories of these individuals?
ERNST: Personally, I have sort of mixed feelings about teachable moments in terms of my own work. I like to make a narrative that is based in character and storytelling and that maybe incidentally has some deeper issues alongside them, but I don’t really want to be making PSAs or kind of info-tainment or anything like that. My impulse comes from storytelling and filmmaking and humor and pathos and using those kind of things as well as cinematic language to bring people into these kinds of stories and lives. Then, [through] treating characters and people as three dimensional and as complex, their truths emerge. It wasn’t intended to be teaching material by any means.
For me, the series doesn’t read as a PSA. It just seems like there’s a lot to learn from it, especially for people who aren’t familiar with transgender stories.
ERNST: Well, one thing that I like to do is treat the audience as if they’re already kind of at the table—they’re already a part of the conversation. They don’t need the 101 explanation. It’s as if bringing a stranger to the table to sit down with these people who are already acting as peers or friends and opening up and just sharing their stories. So there’s not really layers of exposition or anything like that. I liked skipping the 101 and going to to the 201 or 301 or 401 and treating the audience with intelligence. What we’ve seen, for instance, with Transparent is that’s completely worked. I think there’s been a fear previously, and currently still in the industry, that these kind of topics are too complicated or people can’t handle this yet. But I think if you actually just treat people as if they’re already in this movement, they’re already alongside this movement, and just let them enter the conversation midstream, it’s actually more effective.
Speaking of Transparent, Jill Soloway, of course, is the creator, a writer, and executive producer on the show, and her Wifey TV is a producer on This Is Me. How was she involved in the latter process?
ERNST: Jill’s just an incredible leader and she’s really, really, really collaborative. She loves mentoring people and she really does help people up through the ranks. She’s been a great mentor to me as a director and I really trust her vision and her expertise and feedback, so she really kind of helped shepherd the project in an emotional sense, in terms of a sense of vision. I believe [for] Wifey, her production company/web platform, it was one of their first big efforts toward original content, so being under the banner of that was really great because they really championed sort of feminist perspectives and perspectives that are not generally trumpeted as much. She likes to talk a lot about privileging the other and I think that that’s certainly at the heart of This Is Me.
You’ll be back working with Jill on Transparent season 2 as well. What can you tell us about the upcoming season?
ERNST: This season is going to be really exciting and very unprecedented in terms of what’s been on television in the past. I have conversations with my friends where I’m like, “I wish I could tell you what’s going to happen this season because it’s so exciting and unbelievable.” It’s just going to basically knock your socks off. That probably sounds like what everybody says but it really is so exciting. I can’t wait for the world to see it.
How is it going to be unprecedented?
DRUCKER: Well, I think culturally we’ve been sort of on repeat with the transition narrative. We’ve never seen trans people sort of transcend that first step, which we dealt with in season 1. In season 2, we get to find out who Maura is.
ERNST: Season 1 was a lot about the possibility of who these people are, and setting up this world. It really raises the question of where did they come from, where are they going, what’s going to happen next? I think that we’re kind of at that precipice right now with season 2, about really getting into a whole, deeper larger world. In terms of everything from more and more and more of this family and Judaism and queerness and transness and hard luck and heartbreak. There’s really quite a lot that’s going to be happening, so it’s really exciting.
There’s definitely a ways to go as far as the presence of trans stories in the media, but shows like Transparent and Orange Is The New Black have certainly helped with that conversation and allowing people to surpass the 101, like you mentioned earlier.
ERNST: There’s just so many different ways of life and experiences in the trans community that if anything it’s just exciting because it means there’s a very rich future ahead of us with what kinds of stories we can tell because there’s just so much underneath the surface. We’ve just barely scratched the surface at this point. For instance, the episode about public misgendering features two genderqueer identified people, Mel and Petey, and their little episode spawned this idea of there’s so much more here. What about the Mel and Petey show? These people are so authentically comfortable with who they are and yet they’re genderqueer and yet they’re kind of in the middle of the gender spectrum, but they’re not focused on that. They’re living this kind of rich, funny, interesting, irreverent daily existence that almost has nothing to do with gender, but yet this is so present.
With more to explore, is there the potential for This Is Me part 2?
ERNST: It’s something I hadn’t considered at first, but people have been asking me and I would certainly love to do more. There’s so much more that we could get into. There’s just such a plethora of different experiences and issues. You could talk about this stuff all day, basically. It’s kind of endlessly fascinating. It’s endlessly rich and diverse and complicated. It’s all unfolding right now. Everything with the trans civil rights movement is really just happening in front of our eyes as we speak, so there’s just so much to wax on about it. I’d love to do more. We’ll see if that’s a possibility.