Shakina Nayfack has starred in two autobiographical rock musicals, and played the role of the Statue of Liberty in Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty. She is also the founding artistic director of Musical Theater Factory, and the first transgender woman to receive a Lilly Award.
Nayfack will have a new addition to her long list of accomplishments this July, when she debuts her role as the new character Lola, in Hulu's series Difficult People.
Nayfack spoke with Windy City Times about her new role, her own life experiences and the transgender community's continuing struggle for equality.
Windy City Times: Lola seems like a breath of fresh air. We finally have a transgender character that's strong and confrontational, not victimized and mistreated.
Shakina Nayfack: Well I know that [the writers] Julie Klausner and Scott King wanted to create a character that was just as difficult as everyone and the show, and they wanted someone who was strong and offensivebut offensive in all the right ways.
WCT: You've talked about your mother being a strong woman, did she influence the creation of Lola at all?
SN: Huh, I guess in a roundabout way you could say she did. Because my Mom instilled in me a lot of my values in social justice, and Lola has a really inflated and problematic idea of social justice. She's really like an aggravated and enflamed version of me.
WCT: Your own life has had a lot of challenges. You had a tough time in high school with some less-than-accepting guys. And in 2002, you were attacked.
SN: Yeah, I consider myself a survivor. I've survived a lot of things. I've survived discrimination, bullying, assault, sexual violenceand most importantly, survived my own impulse to self-destruct.
That's were I found a lot of my righteous anger.
WCT: Switching topics, there have been some recent anti-transgender laws being passed in the country, most notably in North Carolina.
SN: Yeah, I'm actually in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign to take my show down to North Carolina.
I have a new show called Manifest Pussy. It's basically a combination of my two previous shows. I'm building this new show to take it down there, and piss in all the wrong bathrooms.
WCT: Do you think more transgender actors and characters will start being casted in popular shows, like Difficult People?
SN: Yeah. Right now, trans visibility is sort of on trend. But [there's] a really interesting balance that were trying to find. We want more representation, but we want to get away from these overly sympathetic portrayals of trans people. We also have an increase in violence and discriminationand sanctioned discriminationagainst trans people in everyday life. It's this really precarious thing, we get this visibility but we're also seeing this rise in hate crime.
The stories that we're telling need to shift to include trans stories by trans people, not just the fantasies of what non-trans people think trans people are going through. Because people find coming-out stories, stories of abuse, stories of sex work and violence, really compelling and sympathetic. We get focused on tropes that aren't actually reflective of the wide range of trans experiences.
WCT: What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
SN: Like, every cliche just flew through my head [laughs], but the biggest thing is, just never stop working on your craft and make sure you're honoring your body as the vessel of your work. And make sure you're making art with people you love.
WCT: How about to young trans people?
SN: I would also say honor your body as your vessel, and don't take any shit. [Laughs]
WCT: What's the most fun you've ever had with a role?
SN: I don't want to give any spoilers away, but there was a scene in Difficult People where, in the writer's room, they came up with a list of one-liner responses that Lola might have. And instead of choosing one, they just put all six in the script and it was really fun to try them out.
WCT: Your rock musicals One Woman Show and Post-Op seem like they could have helped you step into Lola's shoes.
SN: Yeah, you know, those are my stories, they're autobiographic. So really the character was just a performative version of me.
But I think as a performance artist in general, I've always worked to be proud on stage in my skin. Even if I had to challenge my own issues to get there. And Lola gives no fucks, but Shakina is still working through her own security. I have learned to give less fucks, and that has informed the way I approach Lola.
WCT: You put a lot of thought into choosing the name "Shakina," didn't you?
SN: Absolutely, yeah. it comes from the Hebrew word Shekinah. I'd been searching for a name since I was very young, and it just clicked for me one day.
It refers to the in-dwelling feminine presence of the divine spirit.
WCT: In Manuel vs the Statue of Liberty, you play the Statue of Liberty. How meaningful is that to you?
SN: I mean, that was so huge, you know? Because she's an American icon, and she represents the source of hope for so many people coming to this country, including my great grandparents who came to Russia and started a family in Chicago.
Border-crossing has always been an essential component and the art I like to make.
WCT: What was it like growing up in Southern California?
SN: Well you know, Jacob, the mid-to-late '90s were pretty brutal in Orange County. I grew up in a really conservative area, and I came out really youngas gay at the time. To a lot of people, gay still equated AIDS and there was not a lot of understanding or vocabularycertainly around trans identities.
I tried to start a club, which eventually caused riots on my campus and got me kicked out of school.
WCT: What do you do to relax?
SN: I'm still honestly learning how to relax and what that really means, but I think I like making a cup of tea and reading. I love swimming. I meditate, stretch, do yoga. Those kind of things.
I'm a creature of movement, and I usually feel better when I'm moving.
Season two of "Difficult People" premieres Tuesday, July 12. Interested persons can donate to her "Manifest Pussy" campaign at youcaring.com/manifestpussy . For more information on Shakina Nayfack, check out Shakina.nyc .