Hari Nef Is Transparent Season 2’s Breakout Star

Image: Courtesy of Amazon.
The second season of Transparent features some excellent guest stars. Cherry Jones plays a lesbian poet. Anjelica Huston appears as a romantic interest for Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor). Even Sia's elusive face makes an appearance. But Hari Nef, a 23-year-old actress and model (who happens to be trans), is the real standout. Nef plays Gittel, who we see in flashbacks at Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Research in 1930s Germany. While Maura's mother and grandmother want to travel to America, Gittel decides to stay behind. The world of tolerance cultivated by Hirschfeld (played by Bradley Whitford) is destroyed by the Nazis. Nef talked with Refinery29 about her Transparent experience. What was your first impression of the show, before you were involved?
"I was aware of it sort of peripherally. I know there was a show that had a trans protagonist. People were watching it and telling me it was good, and I was like, I don’t know. How am I going to feel about this? I’ve never seen a TV show that even went there before. I didn’t know what to expect, but then I watched the whole thing in two days. I was blown away." Was some of your resistance because the show has a cis actor playing a trans character?
"No. That wasn’t it at all. I never resisted watching the show specifically. With things in the media, like Caitlyn Jenner on Diane Sawyer and Laverne Cox on the cover of Time — my identity had never been implicated in a cultural moment like that as a trans woman. So people would text me things — pictures, 'Are you watching this?,' 'How do you feel about this?' I remember over the past year kind of clamming up. Like, why do I have to have an opinion about this? What does this have to do with me other than that I’m trans? Why do I have to care about this? In a way, I think I probably do have to care about it, but just because people were expecting me to, I was pushing back against it. "I watched Jeffery Tambor’s performance even before I knew I would be involved in the show, and I was like, well, that works. I don’t have any problems with it. Did it make me want to see more trans people playing trans roles, especially with Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette in the first season? Yeah, of course. Do I feel like this show sets a precedent that will and should allow trans people to tell their own stories — acting, directing, producing, writing? Yes. Would Jeffrey Tambor stand right next to me and say that trans people need to be portraying trans people? Yes. This is all true. However, Jeffrey Tambor kills this role, and it’s a role based on a real person, and Jill Soloway’s intimate understanding of the story she wanted to tell and the life she wanted to illuminate led to Jeffrey Tambor. I can’t think of anyone, trans or cis, who could play that role the way that Jeffrey Tambor plays that role."

How did you get involved?

"Jill approached me, actually. The funny story is, Jill’s sister, Faith, was my camp counselor when I was little. I went to this creative arts day camp called Charles River Creative Arts program in Dover, Mass. when I was a teenager, and Faith Soloway taught me acting and musical theater and improv. We stayed in touch over Facebook, and Faith kind of kept an eye on me after I moved to New York and when I was at Columbia. She kind of nudged Jill, I guess. So Jill started following me on Twitter and Instagram around the same time I started watching the show. Last spring I got an email from Jill out of the blue saying she was in New York and she was being honored at a gala, and her date bailed on her so would I like to be her date. I met up with Jill and we had an evening and we totally hit it off. Two months later, I got a phone call from Amazon, and they offered me this role that Jill had written for me." What were your thoughts on this role at first?
"I didn’t know that there were girls who were there [back then], not only existing, but, like, part of a community — and It Girls, even. There were girls with very similar bodies to mine, taking the same hormones I take, going out to the club... There were trans cabarets. It wasn’t necessarily the language of, 'I’m a trans woman. I was assigned male at birth and I identify as female, and I’m transgender.' It wasn’t really about that discourse. It was more just about, I’m a girl, I take these things... It’s wild to read about, and I highly encourage people to research this period." What do you think the importance of sharing the past is for this moment?
"I think people take history for granted. I’m sure there were so many conservative uncles at Thanksgiving tables a couple of weeks ago, being like, ‘Where did all these transgender people come from? Why is this just happening now? Why do we have to pay all this attention to it? I’d never seen a transgender person before.’ I could write a 50-page paper on this if I wanted to. The idea that your identity and your body has a history is something that I think most people on planet Earth take for granted... To know that there were trans people there and to see the life of one of these people represented, and what she went through, and how her experience is similar to contemporary experiences...creates a line from the present to the past that is sad in certain ways, but also affirming in other ways." What was your experience like, filming those scenes?
"I just focused on this girl who I was given this chance to portray. So many of the scenes were shot with so many other queer and trans people on set, both background artists and people working on the show. My experience in many ways is very similar to this girl’s experience, just in terms of her identity and the things she’s dealt with in regard to that."

The fact that we have to watch this awful thing happen to Gittel and the fact this kind of thing is still happening today makes the tragedies of today seem less random and less ephemeral. It’s the same shit.

Hari Nef
How so?
"If you’re trans you’re trans. Having to make huge decisions about your life because you identify as something different from what you were assigned at birth is the trans condition. When I’m given this scene where she has to look at this visa and think about her life in America — I have never had to be in that exact scenario — but I know how she feels. I know what it’s like to not be able to do things that other people can do or as easily as other people can do them because I’m trans, and that’s what she had to go through. That’s something that only a trans actor can have when playing a trans role. There were lines in scenes that Michaela Watkins [who plays Gittel's mother] improv’d, and at one point, she improv’d something that a loved one had literally said to me before, word for word." What was it, if you don't mind me asking?
"I don’t want to say — an argument about other people having to bear the consequences of me having this identity. She said it, and I heard her say it, I had a memory, and I acted. When you’re a trans person playing a trans role, you have a very special perspective." Did working on the show change your understanding of the Holocaust?
"I grew up just hearing about the Jews, the millions of Jews that died. I didn’t think about what kind of Jews. The awfulness of it blotted out any perspective on the individual experiences of these millions and millions of people who died, and the millions more people who died who weren’t Jewish... I just didn’t realize the breadth of Nazi hatred. I didn’t realize how organized it was, and how first they came for the queer and trans people and then one by one, intersection by intersection, they came for [different groups of] people. It’s this giant tragedy, but the giant-ness of that tragedy has reverberated throughout the past century in different ways for different intersections of people. I think it’s really important to look specifically at the persecution of queer and trans people — not over any other tragedy in the Holocaust — but it’s important that gets its moment, because we can feel the reverberations of that erasure, those deaths, the loss of that research. The fact that we have to watch this awful thing happen to Gittel and the fact this kind of thing is still happening today makes the tragedies of today seem less random and less ephemeral. It’s the same shit."

You're also a model. Is there a difference in the way the
fashion and entertainment worlds approach trans stories?
"Everybody’s taking baby steps. Unfortunately, white, cisgender, straight men own everything in both of those industries... You have these amazing creative people like Jill Soloway and Alessandro Michele at Gucci being like, 'I want to do this, and I want to start a conversation about gender, and I want to do something different, and I want to do something that feels authentic.' You have these visionaries, but who’s giving the green light? I’m not saying that every job I lose I lose because I’m trans. That’s not true at all. I’ve been really well supported. However, am I looking around at any major fashion campaigns and seeing trans people? Not really. Am I looking around at any major Hollywood films and seeing trans people leading them? Not really. TV shows? Not really. New York, London theater? Not really. These are things that keep me up at night sometimes and make me feel discouraged and make me prepare for the worst. I think month by month, year by year, option by option, one person takes a risk and another person feels more comfortable taking a risk. However it’s going to work out, I think things are getting better, at least in this small section of the universe. "Do I think things are getting better for trans women in general? Not really. We’re up to 30 trans people getting murdered, all over the world, this year. Mostly Black trans women, trans women that don’t have opportunities like I do or a lot of these other people do. That’s an issue. These white trans girl problems that I have in my little acting, modeling, casting world are distant cousins of awful things that exist in the legislature, in the health care system, that don’t protect trans people from discrimination and continue to condone the stigmatization of trans bodies. It’s all part of a larger conversation of generating awareness, acceptance, and consequences."

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