Thursday, 7 May 2015

Interview with Bianca Leigh


Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Bianca Leigh, an American actress, writer, and singer. Hello Bianca!
Bianca: Witam, Monika!
Monika: “She’s got Bette Davis eyes, Joan Crawford facial expressions, Faye Dunaway angst, Norma Shearer hauteur, and Marlene Dietrich cross-sexual appeal.” Who is that woman?☺
Bianca: A press agent’s dream! LOL That woman is me on-stage, chewing the scenery. The off-stage me is much more sedate. A little boring, even.
Photo by Maya Guez.
Monika: It has been almost 10 years since your film debut as Mary Ellen in the groundbreaking film Trans America with Felicity Huffman (2005). How do you find this role now?
Bianca: Mary Ellen is still amazing. She’s a wonderful foil for Bree, who’s just begun her transition. Bree is awkward and unsure, while Mary Ellen has been her authentic self for many years. She has persevered and thrived; she’s completely comfortable in her own skin. She’s got a great sense of humour, a big heart, and loves an occasional glass of white wine.
I had the best time doing Transamerica. Everyone involved believed in the project so strongly. It was a dream job. Felicity was especially generous, showing me how to work with the camera - I had done mostly theatre before then. Felicity also read her lines to me from off-camera during my shots. Stars rarely do that. She’s a real actress, and salt-of-the-earth.
Monika: Then you appeared in two movies: Redirecting Eddie (2008) and The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek (2010) …
Bianca: Yes. ‘Battle’ was great because I got to work with Dirty Martini and Wendy Jo Cohen. Dirty and I played streetwalkers plying our trade under a bridge in some godforsaken part of Brooklyn. We had a blast! You know almost immediately when the people involved on a project are trans allies, and when you are the gag. In Redirecting Eddie, I was the gag.
Photo by Jeff Eason for Next Magazine.
Monika: Your acting career has not flourished since then, though you have intelligence, talent and looks, all the necessary features to become a great Hollywood actress...
Bianca: I was hoping to get more film and television work after Transamerica, but the parts really weren’t there. No agent wanted a trans client at that time, not matter how much they admired your work. Things are much different now. 
Monika: It seems that your talent is more recognized and respected by theatre, just to mention your brilliant performances in “Cornbury: The Queen's Governor” and “The Lily's Revenge”…
Bianca: Yes, I work all the time in the ‘downtown’ theatre here in New York. In that respect, I’d have to say that my career has flourished. I love it - so many gifted artists who advance the art form in brilliant ways. I have several life-long colleagues and collaborators, like Taylor Mac and Tim Cusack, that I work with again and again. 
Monika: In addition, you wrote and starred in your biographic solo plays: “A Night at the Tombs” and “Busted”. What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Bianca: I’m not sure. I just think of myself as an actress with a trans history; an actress who has faced closed doors in Hollywood and some dry spells in New York because of that trans history. So I decided to write my own show. I’d like to think there is art in what I wrote and performed, but my initial motivation was to make work for myself.
Performing A Night at the Tombs at Bowery Poetry Club.
Photo by New York Times.
Monika: Is transgender art becoming more prominent these days?
Bianca: Yes. I see trans rockers, writers, composers, directors and producers. We have always been here, but we seem to be getting more attention.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Bianca: I love Transparent. My pal Laverne Cox is doing wonderful work both as an actress and a public speaker. She’s on fire! And having Janet Mock host her own show on MSNBC? Wow! I love when a script ‘touches’ on trans issues but doesn’t focus solely on them. Bury those tired old tropes!
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Bianca: I am going to Edinburgh this August with the wonderful Paul Lucas and his verbatim theatre piece Trans Scripts. It’s based upon over seventy interviews Paul did with trans and intersex people from around the world. We are trying to present a broader range of trans stories, told in our own words. The creative team is incredible, and the production will feature an international cast.
I’m also going to be in a new web series in the fall titled Last Call, by my buddy Mike Dreyden.
Things are going well (knock on wood). I just signed with a new agency and they have already submitted me for several projects. And I have just been cast in an episode of Law & Order as psychiatrist Dr. Rachel Sandow!
Photo by Michael Wakefield.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Bianca: It’s a bit maddening here. One the one hand, trans women are making major strides politically and culturally; we are breaking barriers in government, medicine, business ,and the arts, but at the same time, our lives are still considered so disposable, especially trans women of color. TWOC are being murdered - it’s deplorable.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Bianca: I was young. I’ve been living as a woman for over thirty years. It’s hard to say how difficult it was. Of course, I faced hatred and derision at times, but I’d already faced that as an effeminate boy. It was so much easier to face adversity as my true self.
The first year was awkward, but as I got it together, I was just so happy to live my life as female that I was on pink cloud much of the time. I was also pretty, and people were much easier on the pretty girls. It was like a get-out-of-jail card. Don’t get me wrong - I still faced plenty of scorn, but, luckily, it wasn’t a constant.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Bianca: Yes. Tula (Caroline Cossey) was my inspiration. I got to meet her and she was so beautiful and gracious. Many of the ballroom beauties here in New York offered me friendship and guidance and got me through those early years.
Backstage selfie at the Stonewall Inn.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Bianca: My friend-for-life Roz Blumenstein - she went from teenage trans girl on the streets to sober social worker.
Carmen Xtravaganza was the great beauty of my generation. She was always so kind to me in the bad old days. I think Laverne is stepping up to the plate with such aplomb - she really hits it out of the park every time. I’m also a great fan of Janet Mock.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Bianca: Telling my mother. She went ballistic. But back then, no one knew how things would open up. She really thought I would live in some hovel on the fringe of everything. I’d never cried so hard in my life. We are very close now, and have been for many years. It takes time.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Bianca: I think of Gay Men and Lesbians as my family. I can’t speak of the political expediency of us all being in the same boat, but those that seek to harm us would certainly not hesitate put us all on the same truck and banish us all to the same desert island. If trans is a spectrum, then there are gay men and lesbians on that spectrum.
There are also trans men and trans women with a homosexual orientation. We are too intermeshed to be completely separate, in my book. I have been a part of a larger queer community since the beginning, and I am not going to stop now.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Bianca: I tend to express my political beliefs in my writing. I am rarely actually on the front lines. Those people are amazing. Yes, we can be effective politically. Look at my dear friend Melissa Sklarz - just named Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation Board of Directors Co-Chair. Melissa has been fighting the good fight for years.
Photo by Maya Guez.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Bianca: I love women with great style, and I appreciate a beautifully made garment. Trends bore me. Break the rules, but do it with finesse. I prefer classic American sportswear like Ralph Lauren. A great sweater or jacket, jeans and a fab bag. Don’t forget the Jackie O sunglasses.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Bianca: Ah, love! I’ve known grand passion - not so much true love. Lots of highs and lows, certainly. I’ve seen my trans sisters in healthy, long-term relationships. It’s out there - but it IS a challenge.
The dance between trans women and trans attracted men with a fear of scorn goes on… It makes a lot of us bitter, and many girls demand recompense for discretion. It’s a vicious cycle. To be so desired and yet such a source of shame can be soul-crushing.
I went out with a guy last year who seemed completely cool with his trans attraction. It soon became clear that he really wasn’t so comfortable. Apparently trans women were fine, but only as side pieces. Of course, he claimed that all trans women he dates eventually become weepy or hostile, making HIS life more difficult.
I have several trans attracted male friends who are secure in their sexuality. They are open and honest about their trans attraction and are proud to be in relationships with their amazing girlfriends. These guys are inspirations. They give me hope. Trans attracted men are between ten and twenty years behind trans people in terms of self-acceptance. Hopefully, they will catch up soon. I was always into bodice-ripping, blind passion, but it’s getting old - and so am I! Passion is glorious, but it fades; it’s the mutually-respectful, kind and generous partnerships that last.
Performing at Cherry's on the Bay,
Fire Island.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Bianca: I’m a story teller, and have written and performed many short sketches of important times in my life. I’ve never really thought about a full memoir, but you never know…
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls dreaming about such a career as yours?
Bianca: Being pretty is not enough. You have to know your craft. Too many girls take an acting class or two and they think they are going to be the next Laverne Cox. Laverne has a theatre degree. She trained for years, and did many plays and indie films before she blew up. When the time came, Ms. Cox was ready. Be ready.
Monika: Bianca, thank you for the interview!
Bianca: ProszÄ™ bardzo, Monika!

All the photos: courtesy of Bianca Leigh.
The main photo credits: Ted Ely.

Done on 7 May 2015

© 2015 - Monika 

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