Sunday, 4 August 2013

Interview with Calpernia Addams

Monika: Today's interview is with Calpernia Addams, an American author, actress, musician, and a spokesperson and activist for transgender rights and issues. Hello Calpernia!
Calpernia: Hello, Monika!
Monika: Having so many talents you seem to be more focused on acting. Which film directors or movies are your inspirations?
Calpernia: Well, Frank Pierson was a legendary writer and director going back many decades who eventually came to direct the film about my life called "Soldier's Girl". He has been the most personally influential director in my life, and if you look back at his body of work, anyone would see why he is very inspiring to me as an artist.
On a deep and personal level, I am inspired by the films of Marilyn Monroe. I know it can be a cliché to say that one likes "Marilyn", but I do feel a deeper personal connection to her story as a woman and an artist after studying her life, films and myth-making process in depth. Living in Hollywood, I pass by the places she knew and went almost every day, so she is sort of in the air.
Strangely enough, I have always been very inspired by Cassandra Petersen's "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark" character and the work of cartoonist Charles Addams, as well. I have a dark side tempered by a sense of humor, which you'll find in both people's work. And Elvira's self-deprecating sexiness and slapstick comedy were always goals of mine.
Calpernia Le Heur Blue by Krista Benson.
Monika: Your role of Ingrid in Woman's Picture (2011) departs from the stereotype of a transgender actress playing a transgender woman…
Calpernia: In "Woman's Picture", Ingrid was a trans woman returning home to retrieve a cherished memento of her accepting grandmother from her un-accepting mother. I portrayed Ingrid as a fully transitioned person, completely comfortable in herself as female. Ingrid's main conflict was with her mother's intolerance.
Although I certainly didn't plan it this way, if you look at a listing of my film and television work on my IMDB page, you'll see the word "trans" in most of my projects. 
I began my career during the early years of the internet's widespread entry into the average family home, and America's awareness of trans people was only just beginning to blossom at the time that I came upon the scene.
I think that shaped the opportunities which came my way, and I was seen as an accessible and likable representation of the trans characters that outsiders were writing.
My business partner, trans director and writer Andrea James, and I created the short film "Casting Pearls" to depict some of those early experiences in Hollywood as an actress auditioning for trans roles. I think writers have progressed from portraying trans people as deviant killers to tragic victims and now they tend to write us as non-threatening comedic relief.
There are notable exceptions, of course, but I think one can see a similar progression in the opportunities for Black actors in Hollywood. I look forward to the next steps, where we are just normal participants, but only time will tell.

Monika: Some critics say that the contemporary movie industry does not provide too many opportunities for women to show their talents and stories that are more interesting for the female audience. Would you agree?
Calpernia: Women in Hollywood are still rarely allowed to "open" a movie, meaning that filmmakers are not confident that a film centered on a woman's story will recoup their investment by selling enough tickets. Of course, there are many examples of iconic female characters who buck this trend, but for the most part the money is invested in male-led stories and women are supporting characters or co-stars.
Comedic films are proving to be the main exception, and movies like "Bridesmaids" have inspired a new spate of female centered films currently in production, so hopefully more equality is on the horizon.
Calpernia by Jose Guzman.
Monika: What is your view on transgender stories which have been featured in films so far?
Calpernia: As I alluded to before, most trans characters have been prostitutes, punchlines, psychos or "poor tragic things". Andrea and I refer to these archetypes as "The Four P's".
I admit that we are a tiny minority overall. We are also a very diverse community of people comprised of all races and background. A "transgender story" can be that of a wealthy Black socialite, a tough White military pilot, a poor Asian prostitute, a single French parent, and yes there are criminals and malcontents alongside the strong and brave heroes in our community.
There are an infinite variety of stories to tell, but I wish we could see more positive portrays to balance out the almost universally negative, tragic and/or hyper eroticized characterizations of the past.
Monika: At the 2009 GLAAD Media Awards when you were accepting the award for "Transamerican Love Story" you had the emotional speech about how much you life had changed over the last ten years …
Calpernia: When I moved to Hollywood sometime around 2002, I was focused on acting. I have gained some success as a live singer with vintage Hollywood cabaret music from the 40's and 50's, Jazz, Traditional Music and some original Pop music as well. As I am no longer in my 20's, I face the same difficulty all actresses experience in finding roles that embrace my maturity.
But I will always be happy so long as I can perform artistically, whether on a cabaret stage or in front of a camera. I was recently featured as a singer in a commercial for Facebook's launch of their new software, and this Fall I was fortunate enough to be chosen as the face of OCC Makeup's Fall campaign in Sephora stores nationwide.

Monika: Which movie or role was the real stepping stone for your acting career? Was it “Transamerica” (2005)?
Calpernia: "Transamerica" was an incredibly opportunity to me to become friends with star Felicity Huffman. My onscreen time was brief, but Felicity worked with Andrea and I for months researching her character, and during that time we became friends. She gave me some very good advice, which has led indirectly to several other jobs in Hollywood for me.
The most impactful work I ever had in Hollywood never actually made it to the screen: My friend Jane Fonda brought me in to work with her on the comedy "Monster In Law", and although my scenes were cut, working on the film got me into the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG), which is the actors' union. Getting membership is difficult, so I will always remember my experience hanging out with a Hollywood legend (Jane), the other star (Jennifer Lopez) and learning a lot about the process of film-making.
Starring in my own show on MTV's LOGO network ("Transamerican Love Story") did much to get me out into the mainstream as a television personality, as well. I am so grateful for that opportunity.
Calpernia Addams Presents: UNREAL
at Hamburger Mary's (by Matthew McPeck).
Monika: You have been quite a prolific artist: cabaret show, songs, film productions and scripts. What is your favourite artist field?
Calpernia: Right now, I'm enjoying live performance the most. As a child, I performed traditional music with my family on Violin and other instruments, and currently I do live shows in Cabaret, Traditional Music and even tour with my friend, cult superstar and singer/songwriter Patrick Wolf.
Monika: Have you got any new projects in the pipeline?
Calpernia: My campaign for OCC Makeup's Fall collection in Sephora stores nationwide will debut soon. I am scheduled to tour for the launches in New York, LA and other major cities, where I will also sing at the after parties.
I will be doing a cruise this Fall, and I am scheduled to record an acoustic Traditional Music album in London this year.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? Did it have any impact on your job situation?
Calpernia: I always had a feminine soul, but was forced to suppress myself throughout my youth. I finally began social transition in my early 20's, after I left my years as a military Combat Medic in the Navy Hospital Corps to become a stage performer. I began medical and legal transition in my mid-to-late 20's.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Calpernia: The first transsexual women I ever saw were showgirls in a very large, popular gay theatre and nightclub. I saw them combining a positive environment for transition with my love of performance, so I set it as my goal to join their show, which I soon did.
Calpernia by Jose Guzman.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Calpernia: I was used to the cruelty and lack of acceptance from the world, since I had always been a feminine, sensitive outsider. But being harshly rejected by my family upon revealing my intention to transition was the most difficult experience. They are resigned to my transition now, but they still do not understand it nor do they respect it.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Calpernia: Society reflects Hollywood, and vice versa. Trans women have always been erotically alluring as a "secret sin" for heterosexual males, but were only discussed as loathsome aberrations publicly, if discussed at all.
Nowadays, we are on that timeline progressing from alluring monsters to tragic figures to tolerable clowns. Many heterosexual, cisgendered young women are happy to have "tranny club friends" (as they might call them) but internally these non-trans women judge their trans friends harshly and do not consider them as equals to be included in other aspects of their own "normal" lives. Heterosexual, cisgendered males still find trans women intensely erotic, and will spend copious amounts of time guiltily searching out pornography featuring trans women online, but publicly they have only laughter and "repulsion" for trans women.
The best route for trans women to have a normal life on a mundane daily basis still seems to be simply living a quiet, stealthy life and blending in, so as to avoid the question altogether.
As for me, I am used to the slings and arrows of an unkind world, so I live openly about my history without making it the central focus of my life. In my daily, personal life it almost never comes up and I am simply a girl-next-door going about my life shopping, eating and enjoying the day.
Calpernia Addams Presents: UNREAL
at Hamburger Mary's by Jeffery Bowman.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Calpernia: We tend to make heroes of media celebrities these days, but the true activist heroes like Harvey Milk would be found in work by people like my friend Andrea James, whose tireless work on the website has provided good information to millions upon millions of trans visitors over many years.
People like Professor Lynn Conway not only did far-reaching work with her co-invention of the technology behind the microchip, but she maintains an excellent compendium of some of the finest examples of trans successes in the world.
I've personally found a small few of the people mentioned in her large collection to be "idols with feet of clay", so I suggest anyone do their own research on a particular person before idolizing them too much, but the majority of people listed there are true heroes.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Calpernia: I did most of my social activism work surrounding the fight for justice after my boyfriend was murdered in 1999. That story is told in the movie "Soldier's Girl", and I write about it more on my website. Andrea and I produced and acted in the first all-trans cast of Eve Ensler's play "The Vagina Monologues", which raises money and awareness to fight violence against women and girls. I have continued to do work with Eve on that front, performing at the New Orleans Superdome to raise money for women affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Nowadays, I favor more personal work. I raise money every month for causes from Leukemia to animal shelters to children's schools through hosting Charity Bingo. I have visited many trans youth groups and I speak at major colleges and universities on various trans topics as well.
I also hope that simply by being visible, it might help change someone's opinions or inspire a trans person looking to see someone out there who is living a useful, happy life.

Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live until the day when a transgender lady could become the US President?
Calpernia: Eventually, yes, but in my lifetime probably not. There are many trans people in lower-level politics already, and President Obama has brought some trans people like Amanda Simpson into his cabinet. But so far we haven't even had a female President or an out gay President, so I imagine it will be another few generations before we will see a serious trans candidate.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Calpernia: Finding relationships is a challenge for everyone, and especially so in appearance- and prestige-obsessed Hollywood. Being trans further complicates the search, almost impossibly so, it can seem sometimes. I am very fortunate right now to be in a committed, loving relationship with a wonderful, intelligent man. We've been together for almost two years now. He works in the corporate business world, so I am keeping him out of the spotlight. As I have seen with all-to-tragic results, society can be terribly unkind to those who love us.
Flying Calpernia.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Calpernia: I was raised in a harshly fundamentalist Christian home, and taught to believe that vanity was a terrible sin. The women in my life wore no makeup, did not dye their hair and flashy fashion was discouraged. It was only after I began performing on stage that I discovered a lifetime of pent-up love for glamorous vintage fashion, especially from the 40's and 1950's.
On stage, I wear mostly custom made designs by my friends in Beverly Hills or other costume makers, as well as some clothes I sewed myself. I prefer Chanel and Dior accessories, reproductions of vintage gowns worn by Marilyn, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and other Golden Age stars, and I exclusively wear imported L'Heure Bleue Eau d'Parfum by Guerlain on stage.
In real life, as I go about my day, I favor no makeup, peasant blouses, tights, cowgirl clothing (my Southern roots), country clothing and a dab of L'Heure Bleue Extrait d'Parfum on my wrists and neck.
If one were to review my red carpet photos beginning upon my arrival in Hollywood over a decade ago, there are many, many terribly outfits and bad hairstyles, ha ha. It has been a long process for this simple country girl to shed the religious guilt surrounding fashion and learn what looks good on me. It's only now, a little older and wiser, that I have begun to understand how to maximize my gifts and downplay my flaws to best effect.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Calpernia: I wrote a book called "Mark 947", about growing up in a religious fundamentalist cult and then joining the military. The book ends with my tragic relationship with PFC Barry Winchell. I have learned much since I wrote that book, so someday I would like to edit and re-release it. I'm due for another book, about my Hollywood adventures!
Monika: What would you recommend to aspiring transgender actresses, dreaming about such a career as yours?
Calpernia: I've actually written a long essay about this, which can be found here: how-to-become-an-actress-if-youre-trans. The world is opening its eyes to our contributions, so there is no time like the present to pursue your muse!
Monika: Calpernia, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Calpernia: Thank you!

All the photos: courtesy of Calpernia Addams.
Done on 4 August 2013
© 2013 - Monika 

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