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Rise’s nonbinary actor Ellie Desautels talks tonight’s episode and improving trans representation

If you’ve been watching NBC’s Rise, you’ve seen that the high school theater troupe rehearsing Spring Awakening includes a trans character, Michael. Michael is played by Ellie Desautels, a nonbinary actor in real life.

Tonight’s Rise finds Michael at a post-game party for the football team. At one point, some of the jocks start bullying him by calling him Margaret.

Desautels spoke with Monsters and Critics by phone about tonight’s episode and their work on the show. Rise airs Tuesdays at 9PM on NBC.

M&C: How did you get this role on Rise?

Ellie Desautels: I got the audition through my management company, Shirley Grant Managements. I was drawn to it mostly because I knew the creators were looking for a trans actor.

So I really wanted it. I went in and auditioned, got a call back. They wanted me for the part and it was really exciting.

Michael (Ellie Desautels) rehearses Spring Awakening

M&C: Were you a fan of Spring Awakening before?

ED: I had heard of it but I had never heard any of the music and never seen the musical. So I was kind of a newbie when it comes to Spring Awakening.

Then once we started doing it, I loved the music. I was like, “Why didn’t I know about this before and why wasn’t I always listening to it?”

M&C: What have been your favorite songs to sing from Spring Awakening?

ED: I love singing Don’t Do Sadness. It’s a powerfully emotional song. I loved singing Totally F*cked because we get to, like, lose it. Those two are my favorites.

I think we all had a lot of fun with Totally F*cked and Don’t Do Sadness was really, for me personally, a great song to sing.

M&C: Do they have to be careful with the language on NBC?

ED: Yeah, I don’t know quite what they’re doing. I’ve only watched one through three. I don’t remember when we sang Totally F*cked in those episodes.

They didn’t bleep it but they just cut the song. I don’t know if they’re planning on doing that for the rest of the season. They did talk about how to censor it in a way that wasn’t going to be cheesy or shocking.

Michael (Ellie Desautel)’s musical moment in Rise

M&C: Was the scene at the party where the jocks bully you important to you?

ED: Oh yeah, absolutely. When I read that scene, I was obviously very bothered by it. I remember rehearsing it with my fiance and hearing Michael’s dead name out loud made me emotional.

I started crying because my character didn’t deserve to hear his dead name and have that thrown in his face again.

What was important to me about that scene was I did not want to play it like my character was  going to get beaten down by that, by being bullied or approached that way, aggressively.

Pregaming on the football field

So I made sure that he stood his ground, he stood up for himself, he stayed strong. He basically looked at those two guys like I don’t have time for you.

Because I don’t think that it’s productive to continue showing scenes like that with trans kids getting beaten down and upset, because I knew that trans youth would be watching and I wanted them to know that they could stand up for themselves. They don’t have to take crap like that

M&C: I’ve never heard the term “dead name” before. Is that how you refer to Margaret and the name a trans person had before their transition?

ED: That’s how some people refer to their birth names. A lot of people just refer to their birth names as birth names.

They’re not dead names because they don’t really see them as dead. It’s just part of their past.

But, in my experience playing Michael, I feel like that name is his dead name. I define that name as his dead name because I think that’s his relationship with it but it depends on other trans people’s relationships with their birth names.

They either call it a birth name or a dead name. Or another term, maybe past name. I haven’t heard that but people have varying relationships with their birth name. It’s just their experience with it.

If they really hate it, maybe they’ll call it their dead name.

Michael (Ellie Desautels) watches the game

M&C: Did you talk with Jason Katims about when in his life Michael transitioned?

ED: A little bit. The first phone call I had with him, he called me and he asked me about my experience being trans, and my family life.

He was very interested in me as he was beginning to write Michael’s story. And he did ask me in that phone conversation when I think that Michael figured it out.

Like, did he just figure it out in the pilot or did he figure out before? I was at liberty to decide that for the character and just to feel like what would be realistic. I’m pretty sure what I said was I think he figured it out before the pilot, off screen.

The pilot is the first you see of Michael beginning to socially transition. This is the start of his social transition but he already knew that he was trans before the pilot. That’s what I decided.

M&C: Would you mind sharing your experience when you transitioned?

ED: Yeah, I realized that I wasn’t a girl in college. I met my fiance on Tumblr and we figured our gender identities out together, and found the term to describe ourselves on Tumblr.

That’s where I got most of my information. When I found some terms, I started looking more things up and putting more research into things.

There was never a moment where I did not like being a girl. I identified as such and I didn’t feel like oh, this isn’t right.

I had one momentary thing in high school that I can get into in a bit, but when I found there were other terms to describe me, like nonbinary terms and terms under the nonbinary umbrella, I started realizing that fits me better.

Not that girl didn’t fit me, but this fits me much, much better. I think this is definitely what I am.

Ellie Desautels in Rise

It was a couple of years of college just figuring it out and finding the right term. My partner and I figured it out together, figured out our identities at the same time.

We went through it exactly at the same time, if you want to use the word transition, but it was more discovering who I was.

Socially transition wasn’t difficult. I just told my friends and people at school. I was like, “Yeah, this is me.”

M&C: So you identify as nonbinary?

ED: I identify as nonbinary. Gender queer and terms like that, I also identify as trans masculine which to me means I feel mostly masculine, but not that that is my gender.

I feel at my core I am agender so I feel like I’m pretty much nothing but nonbinary sums it up.

M&C: Is your fiance nonbinary also?

ED: Yes.

Ellie Desautels and the Rise gang

M&C: What was the incident in high school you wanted to talk about?

ED: It’s something that I just recently found is very much a part of my trans story. When I was in high school, I was briefly watching Degrassi. This is maybe in 2010.

They had a transgender character on that show named Adam who I vividly remember not having a good experience being trans, figuring out how to socially be a trans guy in high school.

He struggled a lot and it was not an easy thing for other people to accept and he did not have a good time.

I also don’t recall them ever really using the word transgender in the episodes I watched. Recently I rewatched the episode that made me feel not so good and they did mention the word trans.

I want to give credit to the people who made Derassi. For TV in that time, it was the best representation you could have asked for. It reflected many trans teens’ experience and started much-needed conversations.

So when I was in high school and identifying as a girl, I felt a very strong connection to this character. I didn’t know why because I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was feeling.

Ellie Desautels with the theater kids on Rise

I remember being in the car with my mom talking about it. I was really kind of panicked and I didn’t feel good.

I said, “I think I’m a boy.” But then I just pushed it back in. I didn’t let that out of me. I just felt what was happening was not real, what I was feeling.

I just thought oh, I’m just really connecting with this character and I’m kind of empathizing him. Maybe that’s what’s happening. I’m feeling what he’s feeling and it’s not really my feelings.

Just this summer, I’m talking to Jason about a lot of things and this memory came up again. I realized that that was the first moment I felt my trans self coming out.

Because DeGrassi did not provide the words or the positive representation of a trans person, it scared me. I figured oh, that will be a bad experience if these feelings are real.

So I pushed it back. What’s sad to think about is I will never know that person. But I am grateful for the way that I did figure out that I’m trans because I am who I am today .

I had never realized in all my research in college, I did my senior thesis on trans representation. During all of that I never realized that I was actually personally affected by inaccurate trans representation on TV.

M&C: When you say you’ll never know that person, you mean the person who could have come out earlier?

ED: Yeah, I’ll never know the person who was trying to show themself. I wouldn’t say coming out but I will never know the person I almost discovered myself to be.

For me as an empath, seeing that episode, even though the end seemed like a step forward to the character, it was kind of a big stop for me.

I almost discovered my true self and I had pushed it all back in because what the character went through was really scary in that episode. I empathized with him so I just blamed it on my empathy and never revisited those feelings again, because I just couldn’t wrap my head around being a boy.

Michael (Ellie Desautels) in the dressing room

M&C: What was the experience watching that episode again now?

ED: It was a lot for me. I guess I really blocked out the memory of seeing it when I was 15, because rewatching it I didn’t realize it was all one episode.

Rewatching it, I realize why I didn’t continue watching DeGrassi after that because it just really was a very frightening experience for the character.

He was really fighting very, very hard to be himself through the whole episode. At the end, it seemed like a really cathartic ending, but it was hard for me to watch it back.

I just didn’t realize how much I pushed those memories away and locked them up.

I do just want to give the creators the credit. It was the best that you could ask for. They pushed conversations that we need to talk about about trans kids.

A lot of the time trans kids do fight that way, do have that experience that the character had.

M&C: How long have you been acting?

ED: I think for as long as I can remember, I’ve been a performer. I’ve always liked to perform and put on shows. I did a lot of theater when I was very young. I did a theater camp, but it was always just a hobby.

I did some in high school but it wasn’t until college, towards the end of my second year of college that I realized I want to actually pursue this.

I went to college for music because I thought I had to go to college with a major. I didn’t know you could go in undeclared.

It wasn’t until college that I started actually training in acting. I think that in 2016 is when I got involved with my management company and started auditions. A year and a half later, I got Rise.

M&C: Where did you go to school?

ED: I went to Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY and I just graduated last year in May.

M&C: What else is coming up for Michael?

ED: You see Michael deals with some transphobic peers. After that, you see him flourish in the theater and you also see him rekindling a friendship that has fallen through the cracks.

You will be able to see him help his friend who is actually going through a sad situation. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but he finds his role with her as needing to be a very supportive, available friend.

It blossoms into something really, really beautiful.

M&C: Will we meet Michael’s parents?

ED: Not in season one. It just kind of focuses on him in school and his relationships in high school.

M&C: How has it been since Rise premiered?

ED: Really awesome. I’ve had so many people reaching out telling me that having a nonbinary actor on TV is so awesome for them, that they are so happy to see themselves on mainstream TV.

A few people who aren’t out living their truths as trans people have said that having Michael is going to make it a lot easier for them. That’s been really humbling and amazing.

Fred Topel has been a journalist since 1999. Over the decades he’s written for About.com, Hollywood.com, CraveOnline, Rotten Tomatoes and Slashfilm. Fred brings Monsters and... read more

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