Cowboy Bebop actor Mason Alexander Park on how Netflix series reimagines Gren as nonbinary
The story of Gren in Cowboy Bebop is written on their rings.
According to Mason Alexander Park, the actor of stage and screen who plays the anime character in Netflix's new live-action series, David Bowie was a major influence. Gren was originally described to Park as "the Bowie-esque embodiment of 22nd-century of handsome and seductive beauty."
"Bowie was a really specific fixture for our brain when creating a new design for Gren," they tell EW in an interview.
That influence manifested in various Easter eggs adorning Park's costumes, one of which came with a pair of starry rings. Park, who identifies as nonbinary, sports a tattoo on their hands that reads "they/them," the actor's preferred pronouns. This, it seems, inspired the crew.
"They took the Blackstar alphabet from Bowie's final album and they created these custom-made rings that say 'they/them,'" Park explains. "If you don't know that album front to back, you wouldn't catch it."
It's a small detail but one that speaks to this new version of Gren Netflix subscribers will meet in live-action form come Friday, when Cowboy Bebop premieres. While many in the LGBTQ community have interpreted the character from the anime as nonbinary or trans over the years, showrunner André Nemec overhauled the character's backstory to make Gren officially nonbinary in the live-action series, with help from Park.
"Gren does not have a good history of becoming a nonbinary character. [It's] dark and didn't feel like the story that I thought was important to tell," Nemec explains. "I never wanted Cowboy Bebop to be a picture of a dystopian future. I wanted it to be nostalgic, but also hopeful. People, I believe, always find their ground, and a way to excel — to live in a better world. A person being nonbinary isn't a discussion. It's just a fact."
Gren of the anime, which premiered in Japan in 1998, was a war veteran sent to prison after being tried as a spy. Once in jail, Gren was given an experimental drug that elevated their estrogen levels and caused them to grow breasts. Gren would later come to work in the Blue Crow jazz club and embrace their new gender identity, which they described as "I am both [man and woman], but I am neither."
Park says Nemec and series director Michael Katleman wanted to "avoid trans trauma or anything involving the body being Gren's defining narrative." This intrigued Park, who remembers watching the original anime after it debuted in the United States on Adult Swim in 2001.
"I think everybody approached the reimagining of this character as an opportunity to right some blunders that were just a product of their time or a product of misinformation," Park says. "You can see in the anime that Gren's whole character arc is so heavily influenced by The Crying Game, which to today's audiences doesn't necessarily hold up as the most positive or well-handled trans storytelling."
Viewers of the anime learn of Gren's identity through a shower scene in which Faye Valentine, a bounty hunter played by Daniella Pineda in live-action, confronts them at gunpoint, fearing they are an enemy. She looks on, shaking and stunned, at Gren's breasts. This particular moment was something Nemec and Katleman did not want to adapt.
"In the context of the original piece, Gren had been experimented on and their body dysmorphia exists because of this series of events. [That] was a huge plot point that doesn't necessarily work well If you have a trans body performing it, nor does it really work well if you have any body performing it if you're trying to tell a story that isn't really rooted in trans trauma," Park remarks.
Park also confirms there was "some reimagining [of Gren's history] that took place." The anime saw Gren hunting down Vicious, a hitman for the Red Dragon crime syndicate and Gren's old comrade in the war, after they learn it was him who landed them in jail. Park says this relationship was tweaked to be more "subtle" in the live-action version. "Gren witnesses Vicious committing a really dreadful atrocity against one of their closest friends. It really does create this protectiveness that now exists and the reason that Gren now carries two guns with them at all times."
Gren's history is lightly touched upon in the first season of Cowboy Bebop, which only happened because of the hiatus that hit the production in New Zealand. John Cho, who stars as Spike Spiegel, one of the three main space bounty hunters at the center of the show, tore his ACL while filming in October 2019. Production was shut down for several months as the actor underwent surgery and rehab. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic was delaying many live-action productions around the world.
During this time, Nemec and the writers started working on scripts for season 2. "I was auditioning with season 2 material, which was the original plan to introduce Gren into the story," Park reveals. "With all the downtime, they got a big head start on season 2 material. I guess they realized it might be fun to try to fit Gren into season 1." The goal is to now "flesh out" Gren's backstory more in a potential second season. (Netflix has yet to announce a season 2 in development.)
"I think that there is a very longterm plan for how they want to reveal Gren's inner workings and, and really make them a main player down the line," Park adds.
The actor laughs when they think of how they "owe John Cho a lot because of that injury." It allowed Park to become much more involved with shaping the character in season 1. It was also the first time they helped design the costumes for a role.
Jane Holland, the show's costume designer who helped conceive Park's Bowie look, spent a couple hours with the actor over Zoom discussing everything from silhouettes to designers in order to make Park comfortable in their body. Park's favorite look as Gren is glimpsed in the show's opening title sequence, which Netflix released online ahead of the series premiere.
"I have this red blousey turtleneck and black slit skirt, which was our version of the original Gren costume [in the anime], that red button-up that they wear with the suit," Park says. It's a look that came together last minute, but one that they feel pride with how it came together. It also perfectly exudes who this new iteration of Gren is.
"It nods to the original, but it also is definitely way more gender playful than the traditional suit," Park says. "It's fun to see that twist on it."