Clarice showrunner, writer, and actress Jen Richards on addressing Buffalo Bill's transphobic legacy in upcoming episodes
When the movie adaptation of Silence of the Lambs was released in 1991, its portrayal of serial killer Buffalo Bill as a trans person inflicted great harm on the trans community. Thursday night's episode of Clarice, titled "Silence is Purgatory," addresses that transphobic legacy and aims to undo some of the damage caused by the character.
The creators of Clarice knew they were inheriting the transphobic legacy of Buffalo Bill when they decided to make the series, so they worked with Nick Adams at GLAAD to connect with some trans voices. Through Adams, showrunner Elizabeth Klaviter met actress and activist Jen Richards, who was then brought on as a consultant on how to address the trans community on the series. Richards was ultimately cast in the role of trans character Julia, who herself has been living with the transphobia caused by Buffalo Bill, and winds up helping Clarice (Rebecca Breeds) with a case. Before she stepped into the role, Richards worked with trans writer Eleanor Jean, who penned "Silence is Purgatory," to together address this harmful legacy.
Ahead of the story arc airing, EW gathered Klaviter, Richards, and Jean for an Around the Table discussion about Buffalo Bill's legacy and how they worked together to hopefully overturn it and inform others of its impact.
"If we think back to 1993, the transgender community was largely invisible and there weren't many stories that were being told about the transgender community," says Klaviter. "That meant that any portrayal of people who were trans had a weight to it and it informed the public's opinion of what it means to be trans." So when a character like Buffalo Bill popped up in an extremely popular movie as a trans person who is also a serial killer, doing horrific things to women, "it reinforced a stereotype that already existed that transgender women were people who coveted and wanted to harm women and were part of a misogynistic culture, rather than human beings with an authenticity who are moving through their lives with the same desires and needs as any other human being."
Indeed, Buffalo Bill was many people's introduction to trans people — though the narrative of the cross-dressing psycho killer actually dates further back to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Sleepaway Camp — so the idea that trans women were somehow dangerous or mentally unwell became the touchstone for those who didn't know anything else about the trans community.
For Richards, Buffalo Bill's legacy was part of her own transitioning story. "I told a colleague of mine that I was about to transition and...she looked at me kind of quizzically and replied, 'You mean like Buffalo Bill?'" explains the actress. "That was the only thing that came to mind when she heard 'trans.' That's not exactly what you want your friends to expect when you're going to transition." Richards adds that in that fraught, early period when you're trying to figure out who you are, not having any positive representations of trans people in the media to look to is deeply harmful too. "If you don't know any trans people in real life — which most people haven't, traditionally — all you can look to is media and it's hard not to reflect back to even yourself, like, Am I just insane?" she says. "I know I don't wanna kill anyone, but maybe there's something else there? It's difficult when you don't have any positive role models in the media and then other people's expectations are also informed by that same media."
Knowing they needed a writer with this shared experience to help execute Julia's story arc on Clarice, Klaviter brought in Jean after being struck by her impressive writing sample. For her part, Jean was initially skeptical that the show would be able to pull it off. "It's hard to get these issues right especially after they've been so ingrained for so many decades," she says. "It was my conversation with Elizabeth [Klaviter] that really sold me on it. It was very clear that the intention, and the work behind the intention, was to set this correctly in as true as possible a way, and that is not a superficial way."
Not unlike Richards, Jean had a similar experience of feeling alienated when she was coming out to friends and family and had those same thoughts of, "Am I sick? Am I dangerous?" because of the way she'd seen trans characters represented in pop culture, so this opportunity to correct those stereotypes was not one to be missed. "It was amazing that we were able to build this character to stand in as a proxy for the effects of this movie in real life," she says. Jean credits the team at Clarice for giving her the freedom to really write the character of Julia (Richards) and, in particular, a big speech she delivers to Clarice (Breeds), without stepping in and watering down her writing. "I didn't feel over-edited," she says, imaging the speech being cut down to one line. "They really gave me the space to write that and Jen brought it to life."
The impact of that speech isn't lost on Richards either. "Eleanor is having to address the entire complicated legacy of Silence of the Lambs, in a trans person's voice, in this monologue that has to shift our lead character in an irrevocable way that actually then leads to other storylines too," she says. "There's a lot on that speech!"
See that big speech and much more when "Silence is Purgatory" airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on CBS. Watch the Around the Table above.