Monday 22 September 2014

Interview with Rebecca Root

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Rebecca Root, a talented British actress, voice, and speech teacher, stand-up comedian, playing the lead role in “Boy Meets Girl” - a recently commissioned sitcom for BBC2 about the relationship between a transgender female in her 40s and a cis-gender male in his… 20s. Hello Rebecca!
Rebecca: Hi Monika, thanks for the warm welcome!
Monika: We are closer and closer to the premiere date of “Boy Meets Girl”. Is your excitement growing?
Rebecca: Certainly! It’s hopefully going to make a bit of a splash. I hope the response will be as upbeat as the early signs have indicated. Having said that, we have a way to go yet – filming should commence in the new year and I don’t know when it will actually hit the screens.
Monika: Could you elaborate more on your role? What do you like about it?
Rebecca: Judy is in her 40s, she still lives at home with her Mum and has had a series of disappointing dates/relationships. Quite unexpectedly she meets this guy Leo in a bar and they hit it off. He’s much younger than her… but is actually very mature in his reaction when she breaks the news that she is transgender.
I like the part of Judy as she is warm, witty, and wise – at least, tries to be. Her heart’s in the right place and you feel for her as the relationship with Leo develops.
Monika: In March 2014, the film pilot was screened at the BBC Sitcom Showcase as part of the Salford Comedy Festival. What was the audience’s reaction?
Rebecca: Ah it was fabulous. I hadn’t seen the pilot before the screening and was really nervous. But the moment it began and I heard the first laughs I knew it was going to be OK. As the story unfolded the audience really was drawn in – there were sighs, laughs, and even a few tears…!

Taking a break in filming the pilot, Rebecca with
Harry Hepple, co-star of Boy Meets Girl.
Picture © 2014 Rebecca Root

Monika: How close to “real life” is your character?
Rebecca: I suppose the obvious similarity is that Judy and I are both trans. And in our 40s. And there are some other characteristics we share I guess, like the sense of humor and being romantic. But unlike Judy, I don’t live with my family although I do still flatshare in a rented apartment. And I rarely go on dates…
Monika: The role in “Boy Meets Girl” is not your debut. You can boast a considerable number of theatre and TV roles …
Rebecca: I trained at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London and graduated in 1990. So I’ve actually been working in the entertainment industry for quite a while although none of my roles has ever been as high profile as Judy! If Boy Meets Girl really takes off I’ll be one of those actors people call an “overnight success 25 years in the making”!
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Rebecca: Over the years there has been a range of roles from very positive to really cringe-worthy. Hilary Swank was awesome in Boys Don’t Cry and Tom Wilkinson in Normal (an HBO movie) was terrific. But apart from guest appearances by people like Adele Anderson and indeed myself to an extent, we’ve had to wait till Orange Is the New Black to see a trans actor in a major role.
I think Laverne Cox has done brilliantly to get the trans identity out there. Otherwise, it’s a shame that non-trans people get the big trans parts. It’s a rather contentious area frankly so I’m glad to be able at last to help redress the balance.
Monika: Apart from acting you perform in stand-up comedies? Could you say a few words about this aspect of your career?
Rebecca: Actually I haven’t been very active on the circuit for a year or two as I found my day job as a voice teacher drained my time and focus somewhat. But I love performing stand-up when I get the chance – it’s such an immediate environment to work in. You totally know where you stand!
Monika: Do you often tell transgender jokes?
Rebecca: One or two, if the mood is right. But I haven’t chosen to focus too much on trans issues. I like being funny first, trans second if you see what I mean?
Monika: Yes, of course. Is there anything like transgender art? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Rebecca: I do have a painting by a transgender artist which I bought at an exhibition of work by a group brought together by Gendered Intelligence last year. But I didn’t buy it because of the trans connection necessarily – I bought it because I loved the picture. I imagine there are trans artists out there, in the same way as there are trans writers, singers, and actors, but I don’t really know who they are. I’m not really into the “scene” I’m afraid.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Rebecca: I was 34. Probably the most difficult aspect of the process was simply making the decision to do it. I spent several years seeing all sorts of therapists and psychiatrists before coming to the conclusion that I had no option other than to transition. It was doing my head in, all that going round in circles. And I couldn’t live somewhere in between. I needed to be as fully female as I could.

Rebecca in her dressing room at Wimbledon Studios,
where the pilot of Boy Meets Girl was filmed.
Picture © 2014 Rebecca Root

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Rebecca: There was a trans girl who won Big Brother in 2004 I think, called Nadia Almada. She was such a bubbly character who won the nation’s hearts and minds. Although I’d already begun my transition by then it helped to have someone else out there who was in the public eye.
My other role models have been April Ashley, Jan Morris, and Eddie Izzard, who although he is not out and out trans still demonstrates a wonderful sense of ease in his gender expression.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Rebecca: Not being able to talk to my grandmother for fear of her rejecting me. She was in her 90s and held some rather old-fashioned opinions about modern society and so on, and so although we had always been close I decided not to tell her about becoming Rebecca. I later regretted this as I felt she never met the real me, and never saw me finally happy as she died a couple of years after I came out to the rest of the world.
I think you have to let people make their own minds up about you. Don’t impose your fears on them – they might surprise you and actually be cool about it. I’ll never know that about my grandmother – I wish I could have trusted her to be OK.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in British society?
Rebecca: Well, I think transgender people of all identities – male, female, somewhere in between – really are becoming more and more visible and accepted in society aren’t we? So it’s a good time to be yourself, who you feel you truly are. Trans, genderqueer, non-binary, whatever.
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?
Rebecca: As I mentioned before, I’m not really very well up on “the scene”… but the more I engage with groups like Gendered Intelligence and All About Trans (who got the Trans Comedy Award off the ground in the first place which led to the development of Boy Meets Girl), and the more I meet with other people from the “T” part of the LGBT community the more I learn about the wonderful range of gender expressions and sexual identities in the world. Being the T in LGBT hasn’t negated my own experience and I’ve actually found a good place to be, socially, under that umbrella.

Rebecca at MediaCity UK, Salford, where
the pilot of Boy Meets Girl was screened.
Picture © 2014 Rebecca Root

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Rebecca: I’m not an especially political animal although I do actively support my local MP (Lynne Featherstone). It has crossed my mind that I might be in a position to make a difference in people’s lives in the future so I wouldn’t rule out going into politics at some point in my life.
Monika: You are the only transgender woman working as a voice and speech specialist in the UK today. What are the recent trends in transgender voice adaptation?
Rebecca: Well as far as I know I am – there may be someone who prefers not to identify as trans also working in this field… But yes, certainly, my own gender identity does provide me with an insight into the needs of the trans population.
Most of my private clients are transwomen since the hormones taken by transmen tend to do the job for them. I tend to maintain a small client list although the work is in demand.
Having said that I have noticed that people are increasingly not worrying about how they sound. They just don’t care what others think. Personally, I used to care a great deal about matching my voice to my gender presentation, but now I am less anxious about it. I still get “sirred” a bit on the phone and it bothers me WAY less today than it did ten years ago. Perhaps that’s just a part of getting old!
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Rebecca: If you mean romantic love then it’s absolutely zero. I don’t date. I’m not on any dating websites. The only people who hit on me are people I don’t fancy. I never meet singles at parties (in fact I don’t really go to many parties, oh dear I sound quite dull don’t I?!). But that’s not to say I wouldn’t like to. One day perhaps I will meet someone. Till then I’m quite happy being single.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Rebecca: Oh yes I’d like to do that one day. Very much. I’ve always loved writing – it’s one of the things that drew me to stand-up comedy. And I’m a sometime poet as well. I think I’ll wait to see what happens once Boy Meets Girl is out though. That would be the hook to get the book sold I think.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Rebecca: I’m developing a one-woman theatre piece I made recently called Eleutheria (Greek for “freedom”) in which I chart my journey of gender expression. I performed it at an international arts and education conference in London this summer and the response was fabulously positive. It was only a short piece so the next step is to build it into something longer for the fringe and festival circuit next year.

Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Rebecca: Well, of course, I’d say the same to transgender men as well as to transwomen. First of all, to quote Douglas Adams, don’t panic. You’re not alone. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last. Take comfort in the history of our population and how much it has changed for the better over the past 20 or so years.
Be yourself. Try to find a calm acceptance of who you feel yourself to be. Once you have established that identity clearly in your mind (and if you are like me it might take some time – that’s OK, it’s not a race) then you’ll find that what other people think or say about you really doesn’t matter. Then you can do something about the physical side of things if you feel the need to. Some folk do move quickly on this, and others may find their circumstances hold them back a bit for whatever reason, but my main point is that once your inner turmoil is assuaged then the outward changes can follow quite naturally.
Finally, I recommend smiling. Smile at your reflection at least once a day. That way you’ll guarantee at least one smile that day. It also makes you emotionally more open and a smile is a great way to break down barriers. 
Monika: Rebecca, thank you for the interview, and fingers crossed for your acting career!
Rebecca: Thank you very much, Monika, it’s been a pleasure.

The main photo credit: © 2014 by Steve Lawton
All the photos: courtesy of Rebecca Root.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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