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THE EDUCATION OF HELEN SHAVER: From playing a lesbian to trans
by Amy Matheny
2001-10-03

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The Education of Max Bickford is a new drama series on CBS this fall. Its star-studded cast, Oscar winners Richard Dreyfus, Marcia Gay Harden, and the powerful Regina Taylor, includes Helen Shaver, the actress who swept us in the lesbian drama, Desert Hearts. This fall, Helen Shaver plays Erica, the first ongoing transgendered character on a network television series. Many episodes of drama and comedy series have used trans characters, but never before have audiences seen the same trans character week after week. Erica, formerly Steve, is television history in the making. I spoke with Helen in New York. She had just returned from the West Coast.

HS: I've been on the West Coast mixing this film, Due East, which I directed with Cybill Shepherd and Kate Capshaw and Robert Forrester. It's a beautiful film. It really is.

AM: What's it about?

HS: It's about a small town in South Carolina. The kind of town everyone wants to get out of, and everyone gets stuck in. The

Helen Shaver

central character is a 16-year-old girl whose mother is dead and whose father is a lovable guy, but not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.

AM: good one ( laughing )

HS: And she is. She is extraordinary. And her first sexual encounter with a boy, she gets pregnant. And the night that the child is conceived, that they first make love, the boy is killed in a motorcycle accident. And there she is, this brilliant girl, very much a loner, and a motherless child. In the town there is Kate Capshaw's character. She was the Homecoming Queen and she married the King, and now she is a real drunk, because he has left her for his secretary

AM: I love Kate Capshaw.

HS: I think that this is the greatest performance that she has ever given. She and this young girl form a bond. And Cybill Shepherd plays Nell, this fabulous broad who likes to drink and smoke and gamble and likes men.

AM: How was it working with Cybill?

HS: Cybill was wild! ( laughing ) She's fabulous, you know? She is an extraordinary woman. What a talent this woman is! And she is this extraordinary energy and force of nature. And when that camera turns on, she just is brilliant! She is really fun to work with.

AM: Are you from the South?

HS: No, I'm not. But this is the second film I've directed that is in the South. I'm from Canada originally. I'm from a small town, and I understand those kinds of sensibilities.

AM: It's seductive, isn't it? Small southern towns. There is something that holds you there. It's very hard to be released from its wings around you.

HS: It's very womb-like. Like the whole world is there. But isn't it fascinating how our perception of the world changes? On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the whole world was in New York.

AM: We were originally scheduled to record this interview the morning of Sept. 11. You are filming the new series in New York?

HS: Yes. I had flown in here the day before. And I had actually set this interview for that morning. I got up and got my coffee, and my place in New York is in the Village, a block from St. Vincent's. I turned on the TV, and there the fire was burning in the first tower and then I watched as the second plane hit. Sirens were screaming by and the streets were becoming chaotic, and I wondered what on earth I was doing in New York while my child was on the West Coast. ( Pause ) Like every other person in New York and North America, my heart broke as I realized our illusion of safety was being destroyed.

AM: Forever gone.

HS: Yes. Forever gone. But I was back at my home in California this past week, and I was sitting by the ocean with my husband. And everything has changed. Nothing will ever be the same. Except as I sat there, I watched the birds practice formation flying getting ready for winter. And I watched the water and the tide going in and out, and I saw the leaves starting to turn, and I said to myself as I held his hand, "Everything has changed except some things remain the same. There are some truths, there are some rhythms, there are some promises that will never change because they are the rhythms of this life, which is greater than anything terrorists can attack."

AM: I know everyone will be excited to have you on television this year. Many of our listeners, of course, remember you from Desert Hearts.

HS: Well I hope so. ( laughing )

AM: How have you felt about being a lesbian icon since appearing in Desert Hearts?

HS: It's the greatest! About a year after it came out, GLAAD ( Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ) was doing a Woman of the Year award, and we ( co-star Patricia Charbonneau and I ) were to be the surprise guests. And we came out from the back of the audience while a scene ( of the film ) was playing. And this room full of beautiful women stood up applauding. A standing ovation! And I was so moved by it. And then, it went on and on, to where I could not take it personally anymore. And I realized, viscerally realized at that moment, that I had been a part of telling a story that had been so important to a group of people's lives.

AM: Did you have reservations back then about playing a lesbian and the stigma attached to gay roles?

HS: Not at all. I mean, I was told that I should. But it was the best role I had read. It was a great script. How I see the world is, love is where you find it, and love is how you make it. I … I don't get it. I don't get that it is still an issue. That anybody should have anything negative to say about whom you love or I love. It was pointed out to me, pretty clearly by my representation, that it is one thing to do a "peeping tom" sexual object movie with two women together. But this was a love story about real people and that that would really upset a bunch of people. And that I would be typecast, and blah, blah, blah, blah. And I said, "You gotta be kidding me? That can't be true! And if it is true, then why would I want to work with those people anyway? It's a great script, and I want to tell this story." People, afterward, said, "It's so courageous of you!" And I would be embarrassed, because you have to be afraid to do something for it to be courageous.

AM: And you were not afraid but excited?

HS: I was excited. I thought it was a beautiful, beautiful story. And the same with this ( The Education of Max Bickford ) . I have the experience of Desert Hearts. I know my picture is on a few refrigerators. When I was in Jake's Women on Broadway with Alan Alda, there were some beautiful women waiting at the stage door for me. Not really Omar Sharif's with roses, but my stage door Joanie's, we called them. ( Laughing ) I think it is fabulous!

AM: How about now? Any reservations when you were offered the part of Erica, a transgendered woman?

HS: No. Human behavior has always intrigued me. I think they make great bookends...Desert Hearts and Max Bickford.

AM: It keeps you pioneering the way.

HS: I was talking to this guy, Nick, and he said "Well Helen, I'm really glad you did this. Because when you did Desert Hearts, I was a young lesbian, and now you're doing this, and I'm a transgendered man." And I said, "Well, far out! You and I are making the same journey here." ( Laughing )

AM: How did you prepare to play a trans woman?

HS: I have a really good friend who is a trans woman who went male-to-female in her late teens/early 20s. I never knew her before transition. I met her shortly after. But we've been friends for like 15 years. I mean, I don't know what it's actually like to have lived every moment of her life or anybody's life. I can only imagine. One day when I was getting ready to do the pilot, I was sitting in the bathtub, and I was thinking a lot about the character and the whole experience, and I touched myself, and I thought I have always loved my body, my femininity, the femaleness of my body. And I thought, "What would it be like if I felt exactly as I do, only … except when I touch myself, there was a male body?" How weird would that be? And then, how if after years, I changed my reality and the first time I touched myself in a bathtub ( I had ) a female body. How absolutely remarkable! What a moment! What a journey! What a freedom! What a truth!

So, without being heavy handed about it, that's what I've been trying to bring to the role, that truth.

AM: Your character and the entire show seem to be exploring gender. The Education of Max Bickford is set in an all-women's college with an African-American woman ( Taylor ) as president of the college, and yet it is told through the eyes of a male. Will gender continue to be a constant thread for the entire show?

HS: I think gender, and it is gender, not sexuality, though sexuality can play into gender, it is that fact that gender is a continuum, you know? It isn't a black-and-white situation. It's not just the extremes. Within all of us is the whole spectrum, right? It's one of the things that attracted me to the show.

AM: Tell us about Erica.

HS: Well Erica, ( big warm laugh ) God. Erica, until 18 months ago, was a man named Steve. And she had lived her life as a man, a heterosexual man apparently. She was married as a man. And she overachieved a lot academically and also athletically trying to deal with, I think, denial, which was really a part of her life for a long time. And I believe she had accomplished everything in her life as Steve, that she felt would make her happy and comfortable. And still ( she ) would come to this truth that she was not being seen as what she was, which was a woman. She just got to a point where she needed to express herself and take the risk, so that the world could see her, the way she saw herself. I think that we've all experienced what it is like to be perceived, other than how we perceive ourselves. This ( transition ) became an overwhelming need for her to move forward in her development as a human being.

AM: You said, as Steve, she was married. Will her sexuality be explored with a love interest? And do you know if it will be a man or woman?

HS: I know that her sexuality will be explored. I don't know all the in's and out's. I'm not privy to all of that. I'm just the actress in this case. ( Laughing ) But I have heard that in the next few episodes, we are finishing episode six now, that my ex-wife will show up and we will deal with all that that brings up. And apparently, … uh … some kind of … little dating thing is going to happen. And I … I didn't really ask which gender. ( Big full laugh )

AM: Through Max Bickford, audiences will have the chance to watch a journey of acceptance. Is it daunting to play a character that much of CBS' mainstream audience will not understand?

HS: Well I guess if I looked at it like that, I'd be in big trouble. ( huge laugh ) I would be daunted! I wouldn't be going in there and getting in front of the camera. ( Laughing )

AM: You are a trailblazer, and this is the first time this type of character has appeared on network television.

HS: OK. Here's the truth. I think it is very important what is said and what is done with the character. I try to be mindful and the writers are certainly very mindful of developing her not as a stereotypical character, but as a human being going through her particular struggles, which happen to include an event that most people are not familiar with. It's like in the '50s, if you'd asked someone in Ohio if there was a gay teacher in their school, they would have said no. They would have had such a narrow-minded view of what a gay man would look like. There was such a cultural denial that anybody was gay! And I believe that society sees a transgendered woman as a man in a dress. And TV, up til now, has supported this view. A narrow-minded view of a transgendered person on sweeps' weeks begging for a sex change like in 1976 when Robert Reed played that role.

AM: And it just happened last year on Just Shoot Me. Trans characters are used as a joke or gimmick.

HS: It's funny or it's tragic or it's perversely interesting and then they are gone. So what CBS has done, and what I get to live out on a daily basis, is a character that is not that. That is not stereotypical. This is a high functioning, full woman who passes as a woman. No one is stopping and saying "Oh god! Is that a man or woman?" She is like many transgendered people who are all around us and pass very easily. And I think that that is the kind of awareness that is being increased. I think it's terrific!

AM: Tell me about this fabulous cast acting with you each week.

HS: It is pretty delicious! Acting with Richard ( Dreyfus ) … It's … boy … It's like loving to dance the Tango and being a good Tango dancer yourself. Most people you dance with are OK or they are not any good. And then, you hit somebody who is a really good partner. And that's how it feels with Richard. Marcia Gay is just an extraordinary talent and a really cool woman!

AM: One of my favorites for years. I saw her on Broadway in Angels in America.

HS: She's a great actress, and she's got this wonderful attitude. And Regina is extraordinary and beautiful and gifted. An incredible playwright and great actress. On the show, there is not the anxiety of people who want to be accomplished or want to be recognized. We all just come to it with our craft in hand and with a real appetite to do the work.

The Education of Max Bickford airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on CBS. Don't miss it...it is history in the making.

This interview with Helen Shaver is taken from the Sunday, Oct. 7 edition of Life Outside, a radio show produced by Aware Talk Radio and Windy City Radio. It airs 10 p.m. on WCKG, 105.9 FM. The Oct. 7 show will also include a feature on LGBT characters in the mainstream media.

Following Life Outside, at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, Windy City Radio will have its special Emmy Awards Show, with special guests, awards news, and an interview with Michael Wilke from the Commercial Closet about GLBT images in advertising. Guest co-host will be Jim Bennett.


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