Kindness Is Action
Actress & Activist Alexandra Billings Extols the Importance of Compassion
by Chael Needle
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Alexandra Billings knows how to light fires. On-screen, on a cabaret stage, or at an APLA benefit, she takes whatever matter that makes up stars—that molten, nebulous energy, roiling in a lifetime of sparks and explosions—and disperses it on earth to everyone. The flames are kindled by kindness.
When accepting a Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award in 2016, she spoke from the heart to the attendees at the gala dinner about being a survivor: “I look around and I see you all, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you’re here. And I have to say something to you: I think you look great! You look swell, really. It’s wonderful that you’re here, eating the chicken. It’s delightful. But I must tell you that we have to do more than sit and speak and talk to our neighbors and eat great food and put on fancy clothes. I come from a tribe of people that I lost, almost eighty-five percent of. They’re not here. And when I buried them, in the eighties and the early nineties, nobody wanted them. So we would tie my friends up in hospital sheets and leave them outside hospitals. We would put them inside people’s cars because they were ‘diseased’ and nobody wanted to take care of them. So we were the caretakers. We took care of each other. We were family. That’s what we did. And for all those people who are no longer here, who can no longer speak, who can no longer see you, that can no longer stand, walk, eat, dress up, and talk to their neighbors, I ask you, with everything that’s left in me: You must speak loudly, clearly, with distinction, with history, and, most of all, you must speak with kindness.”
In other interviews, Billings has extolled the power of the tribe as essential for survival. I asked her what the power of the tribe means for her.
“The power of who we are, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean the transgender community can be found in the fact of us. What I mean is, we’re still on the planet, and we have been since the beginning of time; since humanity began to discover itself and its own gender containers we’ve been around….We appear a lot in history, artistically—statues, painting, and writing….
“And I think that history reverberates. I don’t think it’s random. I think it’s very specific. What I mean is, when we first started to communicate, we began to draw on walls. ‘Here’s what I did today; I killed this animal, I brought it here and we ate it. Now we’re going to go to sleep. And I’m going to draw you these pictures.’ We did that because we needed desperately to leave a mark, because, otherwise, we could have grunted and groaned, and made sounds; and we did that, but we also needed to leave a mark. We needed someone, something, a record of ourselves. I believe the transgender tribe has done the same. There’s a great power in that.
“This is something that we forget a lot. We bypass who we used to be because we’re so concerned with who we are. If we forget who we were, then we don’t become who we’re supposed to be. We stay stagnant. That’s the reason there’s history,” she says about the ability to recollect and see what worked and what didn’t. That ability to recollect, she says, is “tied to our instinct. So, the power of our tribe lies in the history of us. We have got to pay attention to it, because we’re living in a political hotbed right now. I’ve been through revolutions. I lived through the AIDS plague. I remember this revolution very clearly. I know exactly [what’s happening]. I know the signs; I can smell it a mile away. I’m telling you, if we don’t pay attention to how we behave, we’re lost.”
Nurturing the tribe, or anyone, depends on another essential element. “In order to support other human beings you have to be present. I have a very, very good friend who has been positive for many many years and he never told anybody, ever….He’s in his fifties. I’m the first person he told. I’m going to say two maybe three months ago, he said, ‘Okay Alex, I think I’m ready to tell people.’ It was extraordinary—he hasn’t done it yet; he’s just sort of readying himself—but it was extraordinary for me to witness this fear and hesitation in this day and age of coming out, however you come out, genderwise or sexuality, religious, whatever the door is, you open it. I’m always going back to The Wizard of Oz, because everything’s about The Wizard of Oz, quite frankly,” she says, speaking this last part, this truism, quickly as a jokey aside. “You remember when Dorothy opens the door, when she first opens the door and it’s sort of slow at first? Then it picks up a little bit of speed. You see everything becomes Technicolor. Everything becomes alive, and fresh, and new. So I think if we’re going to help each other, if we’re going to support each other, if we’re going to nurture each other, we’ve got to be present. That means you got to speak what’s true, whether it’s about your HIV status, whether it’s about your gender politics, your religious convictions, your spiritual questions, whatever it is that you’re holding in; the only way we can support each other is if you are fully there, I think.”
As a commencement speaker at a recent California State University, Long Beach, College of the Arts graduation ceremony, the recently named Most Distinguished Alum rallied the students to believe in themselves and follow their own paths—to speak what’s true. As the daughter of parents who were both teachers, perhaps it’s no surprise that she loves to engage others in dialogue, in the process of learning, whether it’s in a university classroom, at her local LGBT center, moderating a panel on transgender issues at the White House during the Obama years, or in her guest columns for The Huffington Post, speaking out against HB2 and Hillary Clinton’s misrepresentation of the Reagans’ involvement in the fight against AIDS, among other topics.
A few years ago, Billings was graduated from California State University, Long Beach, with an MFA. With her newly minted degree, she pursued a position in academe and expressed interest in teaching at her alma mater. However, the theatre arts department did not have a tenure line open. She was offered a year contract.
She was game. “I have been teaching now for almost thirty years,” she says, most notably the Viewpoints acting courses offered by the famed Steppenwolf Theatre, with whom she has worked since her Chicago days. “I really wanted a home and I really loved CSU. The students there are really extraordinary. I’ve taught in universities all across the country, and it’s a very special group of actors that come into the theater department.”
She accepted the appointment and then wanted to stay on. She fought for it. Thanks to her diligence and tenacity, and a supportive chair and colleagues, Joanne Gordon and Hugh O’Gorman, in particular, the department found the money to open a tenure line for her. As we spoke, she was busy preparing for the upcoming semester (two undergrad acting classes and one grad course).
When asked what she enjoys most about teaching, Billings pauses before replying: “Being the student. Because it really is what happens. I find that the longer I do this, the more I’m able to stand in awe of all the things I sort of don’t know. And it’s always reflected back in the hearts and the actions of this generation.”
This generation—the Millenials—have gotten a bad rap, she says, referencing the stereotypes that they are “lazy, self-centered, selfish.” “I don’t find that to be true at all, not at all. I find them to be imaginative and powerful and funny, intelligent and kind, and extremely compassionate. My being transgender isn’t an issue that they deal with. It’s a non-issue to them. It doesn’t exist for these people. This whole older generation—and I include Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives…[who] are coming down on this generation—I challenge them by saying, ‘You don’t know this generation. I do. I’m with them, all the time. I’m telling you, they are the ones who are going to go out and reshape what we have caused.’ Because Donald Trump is our fault, not theirs.
“That’s what I learn from them, constantly. I teach them art and they teach me life.”
Her core message that she tries to convey in her teaching is that “there is no line between your art and your life. If you bring your whole life into your art, you will have art in your life. I really try and hammer home that what they do on the stage—imagine and dream, and tell stories of other human beings, they can do off the stage.”
Billings has had a long career of imagining and dreaming and telling stories of other human beings. She has mined her own experiences for her one-woman autobiographical stage piece, Before I Disappear, and two theatrical cabarets, I’m Still Here, and, more recently, S/He and Me. She has also made two albums, Being Alive and The Story Goes On. Her life story was the subject of a PBS documentary, From Schoolboy to Showgirl, which garnered an Emmy nom in 2009.
Billings was introduced to musical theater at a young age (her father Robert Billings taught music at Harbor College in Los Angeles, and served as the musical director for the L.A. Civic Light Opera House for nearly two decades). Coming of age in Chicago, where she had moved with her newly remarried mother and brother, she did drag in the early eighties as Shanté. After years of theater work in Chicago, in Off-Broadway and touring productions; performing her nightclub act; collecting awards (five After Dark Awards, a Joseph Jefferson Award and the MAC Hanson Award for Best Cabaret Artist); and often working with her wife, director and writer Chrisanne Blankenship, Billings moved to L.A., where she found work in television and film. Recent credits include How to Get Away with Murder and the feature film, Valley of Bones.
Her current role on the Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody award-lavished Transparent, for which Billings won a SAG Award as part of the ensemble, has expanded her fan base. It’s easy to understand why. Billings brings to Davina her superb acting chops, infusing the character with a serenity and groundedness that makes it understandable why Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor, feels emboldened by the friendship and gravitates toward her. As a fan of the Amazon original series, I gravitated toward Davina, too, and I’m not alone.
“People are gravitating towards her I think because she represents a very specific kind of person, period, but certainly a very specific kind of trans person you rarely see [on television or in the movies],” Billings shares. Her past television acting turns, all of which, by the way, have been characters who are transgender, on shows like Grey’s Anatomy (on a GLAAD Award-winning episode), ER, and Nurses, among others, have been stellar, but they have been arguably a narrow view of transgender life, mining drama from issues associated with transgender women (health complications, transphobic parents) rather than from the characters of the women themselves.
“There was a time in my life where I told my representation, ‘Listen, here’s the deal. I’m not playing any more people in hospitals, so I’m not wearing any more hospital gowns. I’m not going to die anymore. I’m not going to be a prostitute or a drug dealer.’ After I said that, I didn’t work for about three years. There was nothing to do. There was no part.”
Transparent was a different story. Though the show has been criticized by some for casting a cisgender man (Tambor) as a transgender woman, the show’s creator Jill Soloway has sought to create a trans-inclusive space on set, within the cast, and behind the scenes, hiring writers, directors, and crew who are transgender or gender nonconforming. Soloway was more than receptive to Billings’s input about Davina. The part was “written beautifully. There certainly wasn’t a big conversation to have. I said, ‘Listen, if this is going to continue, I don’t want to get sick; I don’t want to be ill. I don’t mind being complicated and having problems,’” she said, very much aware that “problems” are par for the course on television. “‘But I want to be honest. This is how I dress, this is how I sound, this is what I look like, this is the way I speak. I would like that to be true in the show.’”
Soloway, says Billings, was completely committed to that vision. “You know what’s funny and sad is that it’s so revelatory. This is such an unfortunate conversation that we’re having because a trans person is acting in some [everyday] way, and I hate to use this word, but in some way we’re normalizing being transgender. That tends to shake up a lot of people,” she says about the attitude that wants to keep transgender indiviudals as part of “them” rather than a part of “us.” “You know, a little assimilation is fine. It really is. We can all meet in the center and then we can go away and go to our outer edges. It’s okay for us to meet occasionally, truly.”
What Transparent does right is that it avoids positioning the audience as tourists, as cisgender visitors to the lives of characters who happen to be transgender. The show is as much for the LGBTQ community as it is for the global community. By following Maura, who, by transitioning, suddenly has two families, an ex-wife and three children and a trans family, the show is able to challenge viewers’ assumptions about difference. Thanks to Maura Pfefferman’s bold and self-empowered move to be herself and to resist other people’s attempt to closet her, all of the other Pfeffermans begin to be more open about their own gender identity and past and present relationships that do not conform to a heteronormative template. They all become one big queer family. And the characters who are trans and the LGBTQ community members that Maura meets, though not without their own conflicts and issues, are the ones who provide a sense of stability for Maura, a counterpoint to the frenetic Pfeffermans.
Billings finds that liberating, as well. “I think what is life-changing for other trans folk, especially for the youth, is that they see trans people like Trace Lysette [who plays Shea], and myself, on TV and they know we’re trans actors but they also see the characters behaving in ways that are not necessarily overly irresponsible, that are fairly well adjusted, kind, compassionate human beings. They’re your neighbors or your friends, or your relatives. So the example is more about our own community than it is about this gigantic lesson that we’re trying to change cis people’s minds about something. That doesn’t really enter into the equation.”
Transparent has been a blessing for Billings. “Every year I get more and more grateful. To have something like this happen at this stage in my life is really extraordinary and so completely unexpected. Completely unexpected. Everyone that’s involved in the show is very much like-minded. We all can’t believe our luck….” Season 4 of the show has yet to start filming and is due next September.
It’s a bright spot on a horizon that has been looking bleak for many. Asked what she is most concerned about as we go forward in terms of protecting our health or protecting our communities, she says about our current political state, “I’m really concerned about the way that we’re handling this. I think that we need to be careful that we don’t become alarmist. The most important thing that we can do—and I mean this, if nothing gets in the article, put this in because this is really important to me—for humanity in this country, but also around the world, is to spread who we are and our love and compassion, and kindness to the people who disagree with us the most. What I’m witnessing right now is a real disdain for people who don’t agree with whatever it is we subscribe to. That not only creates distance and animosity, it creates a gulf [that] I don’t know that we will ever recover from. I’m far less worried about Donald Trump—you know, he’s a reality star for godssakes….It’s all smoke and mirrors. He’s P.T. Barnum. I couldn’t care less about this man. I’m far more concerned with how we’re receiving him than I am about him on the whole. We’ve got to get together because we’re splitting ourselves right down the middle.”
Did she have to go through a process, a learning curve, to become compassionate toward people who don’t agree with us?
“Absolutely. Remember I’m fifty-four years old. I’ve been on the planet for a long time. That took me a long time. I still haven’t really figured it out, but I do know, for me, [compassion and kindness] gets me out of my own fear and my own ego.
“When I was little, the bullies won. They beat me up and pushed me and hit me, and called me names, and sabotaged me. They won. I turned all of that inner anger to outer anger. I was a very angry twentysomething, and violent. What I realized was, I can disarm the bully and the enemy, if, in fact, that’s who they are, if I go toward them in a loving, kind way and ask them, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ Not, ‘What’s wrong?’ Not, ‘What do you believe?’ None of that stuff, because all that does is start debate. But really, truly asking, ‘How can I be of service to you?’
“Does it always work? Of course not. But that’s not the point. The point is, I’m no longer drawing lines in the sand and saying, ‘You stay over there, I’m going to stay over here. You believe that and I believe this.This is how we’re going to speak.’ It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t work in relationships and doesn’t work with humanity.”
Seroconverting to positive in 1985 and diagnosed with AIDS in 1995, Billings had to find her footing at first. How did she survive those first years physically, emotionally? What kept her going post-diagnosis?
“Oh, boy that’s a good question. I really believe that my wife saved my life. I was loved completely and fully,” she says about Chrisanne, whom she has known since high school drama club. “I had an incredible support system. I went out and I searched for stuff, support groups and information, and one thing or another.”
It started, however, with Chrisanne. “I remember when I was first diagnosed, I went into a terrible depression, which makes sense. I was lying on the bed curled up in a little ball. My wife came in and said, ‘Okay, look, here’s the thing. I totally get that you’re super-depressed and super-sad, certainly. But if you’re going to curl up in a ball and die, I can’t watch it. I can’t be around to watch it.’
“That really struck something in me because I thought, ‘She’s right,’ and not just her, but that would be true of anybody, everybody in my life. With the help of others, I just didn’t give up. I didn’t stop. I kept doing things. I felt like, ‘Look if my time is up and I’m going to go, then I’m going to go.’ I helped a lot of my friends die, a lot….I felt, ‘Well this is what’s happening right now. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. But it’s not going to happen with me just sitting around and doing nothing.’”
Being an active participant helped her thrive, as did learning to be kinder to herself and others. “Kindness is action. You have to do things. You can’t just be kind. You got to do something in order for that to be true.”
Were there moments that stick out for her where she kind of found her “kindness groove,” to say “Hey, this is working’”?
She laughs at my description: “My ‘kindness groove.’ That’s genius. I feel like that sort of happened, oh, I don’t know, probably fifteen-ish years ago,” she says, giving a nod to meditation and her students. “My students are some of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had. Just in the last fifteen years as I’ve been teaching more and more, they have allowed me [to grow] and said to me very clearly, ‘When you do this, when you say this, when you behave in this way, this moves us forward or this opens us up even farther.’ That’s when I went, ‘Okay, then we should keep doing that….That’s a really good idea. That’s what was changing me.’ They were changing me. I would leave and go, ‘Okay, I think I can actually apply this. Maybe I can actually try this myself.’”
I wondered if the younger generation, especially when she speaks to LGBT audiences, heed her lessons about the early AIDS epidemic—how she carries with her always those who were “systematically murdered.”
“Look, I think the younger generation hears as much as they want to hear and then they go out and they play. That’s what they should do. You can only talk to somebody for so long about the old days before they just become the boring old days. You come back to: I say what I say. I speak what’s true. If twenty percent of it penetrates, I’m good.”
Speaking of the disconnect with the old days, I mention that students in one of my writing classes had never seen West Side Story. I was agahast until I remembered it debuted sixty years ago.
“Listen, that happens to me all the time! I can’t tell you how many Liza Minnelli references I make in class, and people look at me like I’m insane and have to ask me, ‘Isn’t she the daughter of Dorothy?’ I just go: I can’t have this conversation with you, it just upsets me!”
“And it all comes back to Dorothy,” I quipped.
For more information about Alexandra Billings, log on to: www.alexandrabillings.com.
Post-production (digital styling) by Eve Harlowe Art & Photography (www.EveHarlowe.com). Hair by Louise Moon/GRID Agency; Makeup by Garret Troy Gervaise/GRID Agency. Special thanks to Apex Photo Studios: www.apexphotostudios.com.
Sean Black photographed Dita Von Teese for the December 2016 issue.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.