Jax Jackson made history this year when he became the first openly transgender actor to perform on stage with the Goodman Theatre. I first met Jax in 2008 when he starred as Greta in Hannah Free, a film I produced. Hannah Free starred Sharon Gless as Hannah, and Jackson played Greta. The film was written by Claudia Allen and directed by Wendy Jo Carlton, who also directed Jackson in her next film, Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together.
So I was excited when I found out Jackson, who moved to New York two years ago, would be in Chicago to perform in Teddy Ferrara at The Goodman Theatre. What follows is an email interview with Jackson.
Teddy Ferrara runs through March 3. See www.goodmantheatre.org/season/teddy-ferrara/ .
Windy City Times: Please tell us about your theatrical education, especially how it relates to what you are doing now in New York and Chicago?
Jax Jackson: I went to school here in Chicagoat The Theatre School at DePaul University, and got my BFA in acting. I'm intensely privileged to have this education, for many reasons. I had a supportive family that encouraged my pursuit of a career in the arts, I was able to learn and grow in a big urban environment where I could have a variety of experiences, and I got some of the best acting training that the Midwest has to offer. The program at DePaul offers a variety of methods for training the voice, body and mind to be flexible enough to create a variety of characters, and healthy enough to sustain a lifelong career in theater. Because of this training I am able to perform confidently onstage alongside actors who are much, much more experienced than I am and who have worked with more prestigious companies than I have ever dreamed of.
WCT: You played a lesbian in two feature films show in Chicago, Hannah Free and Jamie and Jesse Are Not Together. What were those experiences like?
Jax Jackson: I love Chicago. For both queer people and actors, there are huge and intersecting communities here full of loving, supportive people. It certainly isn't perfect, but I've noticed that in both the theater and the queer worlds there are critical conversations that are starting to happen around race, class, sexuality and gender. These are the kind of conversations that create space for films like Hannah Free and Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together to be made. Both films were funded in no small part by investors who wanted to see a film that reflected their experience and through Kickstarter [and IndieGoGo] campaigns. On set for both films, I felt a broad freedom to create knowing that we were so supported by the community. As for playing a lesbian, I identified as a lesbian for most of my high school years, so it wasn't too far to reach to find that in myself.
WCT: Previously you identified as a queer actor and used the pronoun she. What has changed for you over these past couple of years?
Jax Jackson: I'm still queer, still an actor. I prefer the pronouns he/him/his or they/them/their. I started hormone therapy, and am seeing a doctor at a clinic for the LGBTQ community in NYC who is understanding and knowledgeable about my identity and is working with me to personalize my treatments so that I transition slowly, which is my preference.
I don't want to just say that my gender has changed. That would be a rather boring couple of years if that were the only thing that happened! I think that going through the process of questioning gender has sparked a kind of internal revolution. I took for granted how many structures enforce a binary gender system. I'm not just talking about bathrooms and Barbies! When you don't fit in that binary you start to see just how ingrained it is, from schools to prisons, hospitals, yoga studios, retail clothing stores, movies and billboards, even my IMDB profile still says "Actress" on it because they gendered me when I got my first film role. When I began to comprehend how surrounded we are by this droning enforcement of "male OR female", I started to extend that thought to other privileged ways of existing. I began to understand just how much the systems that are built for binary-gendered people are also built for able-bodied people, white people, English-speaking people, straight people, monogamous relationships or what have you. I don't think that it's wise to work toward inclusion of marginalized identities into these false dichotomies, so I have found myself engaging in groups working toward building new structures founded on self-determination.
WCT: When did you start to think about issues of gender identity?
Jax Jackson: When we made Hannah Free, I identified as a queer and femme woman. I was also in a heterosexual relationship. It can be difficult to feel included in the queer community when you're invisible to it, so playing a queer role and working with an amazing cast and crew that mostly consisted of people in the community was incredibly affirming for me. This affirmation allowed me to reconnect to feelings I had put off when I was a genderfucking teenager in favor of pursuing acting, which, as I understood it at the time, was a profession that required one to be as normative as possible, like a blank canvas. All I have ever known for sure since I was a very small child is that I wanted to be an actor, and I was almost sure that coming out trans would be the end of my career. But as feelings of dysphoria that I had actively sought to shut down became harder to ignore, I finally had to ask myself the question: "Which is more important, being an actor or being myself?" And I found this to be a stupid question, because they're the same thing. So I started seeing a therapist to figure out the best way to come out to friends and family, and to make a decision about medical transition.
WCT: What was the process for you in finding out about Goodman's world premiere of Christopher Shinn's Teddy Ferrara?
Jax Jackson: A mutual friend of Chris Shinn and I saw a reading of the play in L.A. and called me up to ask how I knew Chris. I said I knew of his plays, but had never met him in person, and my friend said, "Really? Cause he wrote you in a show that's going to be at the Goodman." I worked harder on that audition than I've ever worked in my life. I did not want to give the Goodman any reason to cast a cisgender person in a transgender role!
WCT: This play takes a very complex look at sexuality and gender identity. Rather than a good vs. evil approach, it actually shows the nuances of characters, LGBT and straight. Did you have any hesitation in taking on this role?
Jax Jackson: At first I had to struggle with this being one of the first major theater productions that features a transgender man as a character, and he's not portrayed as the nicest most perfect most bestest guy ever. I was afraid that people would see this character and conclude that all transgender people are outrageous and aggressive. But I read the play and knew I wanted to be a part of it. I appreciate that the characters we'd normally see as victims or heroes have major flaws, and that those we would ordinarily think of as the villains of the piece have moments of truth and clarity. I think that if people come away thinking that people within the LGBTQ community are sometimes nasty to each other, well, there's some truth in that. If their conclusion is that all trans people are terrible all the time, then in my opinion, that's an irresponsible way of viewing a piece of theater and might have more to do with their own confirmation bias than it has to do with me or the character Chris Shinn wrote.
WCT: What is most demanding about doing this stage production? How does it compare to other plays and film work you have done?
Jax Jackson: If anything, this production may be the easiest time I've had acting yet. The Goodman takes such great care of its actors, and getting paid to act means I don't have to get distracted by a day job for a while. It's extremely freeing to focus in and be all about the play, the process, the role. It's a role that is very close to my experience, which has made for a very simple characterization process, but can sometimes be a challenge. Having to face my own flaws and recreate them every night is part of the job.
WCT: Do you have any projects coming up?
Jax Jackson: Yesthis summer in NYC I'll be in a musical, Lesbian Love Octagon, playing a trans man who was a member of a rather incestuous lesbian community prior to transition, and now struggles to find his identity within that world.
CAPTIONS #1 Jax Jackson as Jaq (seated) and Kelli Simpkins as Ellen in Teddy Ferrara. Courtesy of The Goodman Theatre.
#2 Liam Benzvi as Gabe, Patrick Clear as the school president, and Jax Jackson as Jaq in Teddy Ferrara. Courtesy of The Goodman Theatre