Alexandra Billings grew up performing in Chicago and recently returned to make an appearance at the Steppenwolf gala. Theater credits in Illinois include The Bailiwick Theater, Light Opera Works and Court Theatre. She has won a Joseph Jefferson Award and five After Dark Awards, and was a artistic associate for About Face Theatre.
Now living in Hollywood, she has achieved even more success with a variety of television shows. Billings has played transgender characters on series such as ER, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey's Anatomy. This streak continues with the role of Davina on the current hit Amazon series Transparent.
Windy City Times: I first met you when you were in the live show Xena.
Alexandra Billings: Oh, lord. That was back in 1923!
WCT: You really gave it your all at the recent Steppenwolf gala. How was being in Chicago again?
AB: I was in town for 48 hours. I got in a plane, went to the hotel, ate, slept, did the gig and went home. I got to see Honey West, which was spectacular. She came to my hotel and we hung out for two hours. She is my best friend and has been for 20 years. She got nominated for a Jeff Award for Priscilla. She is the first trans person in the history of the Jeff Awards to receive a nomination. It is huge and no one is talking about it.
It makes me angry to see how things are minimized, even in the LGBT community. She has made theatrical history.
WCT: Honey was the first trans person to do that role.
AB: That is exactly right. There is a lot of stuff going on here that needs to be talked about.
WCT: Is the new season of Transparent in the can?
AB: Yes, it is shot. It is more of the same, but more… [Laughs]! It is bigger.
WCT: Will your onscreen friendship with Maura Pfefferman be explored more?
AB: They were looking at trans actors' contributions more closely on the show for season three. Season four has a lot more of Maura and I in it. There is more on Shea also. There have been suggestions that the trans actors be more visible.
Jill Soloway, who is a genius, took that to heart, and so did the rest of the writers.
WCT: How did you get on Transparent in the first place?
AB: Jill and her sister Kate, who is also an executive producer and writer on the show, and I all knew each other from Chicago. The Annoyance Theatre did a production called Co-Ed Prison Sluts, which was a huge hit. It ran for years. The Soloway sisters wrote the music and lyrics to it. I was doing a show called Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack for the Torso Theatre, which is no longer there.
The shows were running at the same time. This was when late night theater shows were hopping.
One time I was asked to fill in at the Annoyance show then jump into a cab to make it to my show later. I was young and did it for a week. That is how we got to know each other.
About four years ago Kate contacted me through Facebook and told me about their idea for a show. Nobody wanted to buy it because it was about a parent who was transitioning.
Amazon was interested but I thought that is the place that sells books!
I didn't think anyone would see the show, but knew if they made it then it would be brilliant. I went down to read with Jeffrey Tambor and we hit it off immediately. I knew it was a good idea when I walked into the room. It just happened before reading anything. We just looked at each other and knew it would go swell. I got the role, we did the pilot, and my life changed.
WCT: I have seen you at the awards shows. Do you get starstruck?
AB: Oh, my godare you kidding? That is all I do. I bring my phone and take pictures of people. I'm the idiot running up to people at the Emmy Awards and asking for pictures. I have no shame.
I am 55 years old. I have been living with AIDS for three decades. Every day is a gift. When I am living a Cinderella moment in a fairy tale, I don't take one single moment for granted.
WCT: You have a new show at the LGBT Center in LA coming out?
AB: Yes, it is called S/He & Me: A Theatrical Cabaret. It is a musical play about my marriage and my relationship with my wife, who I met in 1976. It parallels my parents' relationship when they were teenagers. It is about wha happens to these four characters. There is a little boy named Scott who is the catalyst to all of these relationships.
I wrote it and it is directed by Joanne Gordon. There is found music where we put in a bunch of Broadway show tunes. Within the text there is a lot of singing.
WCT: Would you ever write a book about your life?
AB: It is hard, Jerry. It is difficult for me to write something and not be very truthful. I don't know if I could be honest and not hurt a lot of feelings or at least bruise some people. I don't particularly want to do that in order to write a book. I have to think about it.
I am going to write a book, it just might not be an autobiography.
WCT: Do you have any music coming out?
AB: I suck in the studio. I feel I should leave that to Madonna. It is really a gift and a whole other thing that I don't understand. I don't have a pleasing voice where someone will just sit there and listen to it. I am loud. It takes up a lot of space, and is not always in tune.
I feel like I am a live performer. We tried to do a live album, but it felt stilted. I don't know if I will go back in the studio anytime soon.
WCT: Any thoughts on the current state of trans rights?
AB: I transitioned in 1980 when it was not only unheard of, but illegal. I got put in jail because I was wearing women's clothes in the streets of Chicago.
We live in a very different time now, but conversion therapy is very real. We are designated a mental illness in almost a dozen states. There are several jobs where I could still be fired. I was a victim of a hate crime in my own university in California. There is progress to be made.
I think things are better and can be better.
We have to concern ourselves with the younger generation. The trans younger community is killing themselves at astronomical rates. This is not just the bullying that is going on but the marginalization in the LGBT community. We have a lot of education and communication problems in our community.
I believe in order to clean up politically we need to clean up our own house first. We are not good at that unless something tragic happens. We can't wait for that to happen. There is a man in the White House right now who couldn't care less about us. If push came to shove then we would be the first to go.
We've got to congeal and be a tribe. We can't do that until we learn our own LGBT history. That goes back to my point about Honey West!
WCT: What do you think of Caitlyn Jenner?
AB: I feel she is in the best place she can be for what she knows. The best thing she can do for herself is take a vacation. She needs to stop for a minute. Anyone that goes through any transition, whether marriage to being single, having a job to unemployment, or whatever, if it is done on a large stage it turns into theatrics. It is not spiritual or truthful. It is not founded in any kind of reality. That is true of anyone, not just Caitlyn Jenner.
She is going through a massive change in her life on a global scale. I don't know how we expect her to act except for exactly how she is acting. She is not doing this in a spiritual way but instead a public way. I think she is a wonderful human being with her heart in the right place. She just needs to stop. She's got the money and the time. Get the hell out of Dodge and relax for a few minutes!
Visit AlexandraBillings.com for more information on Billings' projects. Transparent's fourth season is scheduled to be released sometime this fall.