Thursday 2 September 2021

Interview with Erika Dapkewicz

Monika: Today I have invited a special guest. Erika Dapkewicz is an inspirational woman. She is an American film editor, writer, musician, and composer, known for Vivo (2021), Lilo and Stitch (2002), and Puss in Boots (2011). In addition, her YouTube vlog Miss Mako attracted 150 thousand subscribers. Hello Erika! Thank you for accepting my invitation!
Erika: Thank you Monika for reaching out and asking me to be a part of your blog.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Erika: Oh gosh… let’s see… I currently live in Los Angeles. I am a Transgender Woman and started my physical transition back in 2014. I have two kids. Both are in their early 20’s and live outside California. I live with my Cis-Girlfriend. I am a Professional Film Editor. Composer. Musician. Writer. Indie Director.
I have a band called, “Imaginarius”. And I also have a YouTube Channel listed under my internet handle, “Miss Mako”. I’m a member of the Academy Of Arts And Sciences (Academy Awards - Oscars) and I serve on the Animation Executive Committee. I am a member of ACE (American Cinema Editors). As well as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers).
Monika: Your YouTube vlog attracted almost 150 thousand subscribers. What inspired you to create the Miss Mako persona?
Erika: Oh, that’s a story from a long long time ago. When I was little and suffering from gender dysphoria… I was transfixed by fantasy stories of men transforming into women.I used to write stories and draw comics of this when I was a little kid and kept doing it when I became a teenager. It was when the internet came around in the mid-1990s that I found a website called The Transformation Graphics & Story Archive. It was the first time I found similar people like myself doing some of the same stories and art. To not use my real name at the time I picked the handle of MAKO (after my love of sharks).
Everyone had a handle then. I started to gain a bit of an underground following. I was pushing myself to do these stories in different mediums. So I started to do my own animated shorts. Comics. Live-action shorts culminating in a live-action feature called, “Paradox Alice”. I was asked to start my own YouTube Channel and I did so in 2006. I also started to do my own Vlogs and you can see me pre and post-transition on those.
Over the years… more and more people followed me. And many suffering from gender dysphoria from around the world and sharing their stories with me. I changed my handle to MISS MAKO after I transitioned. I don’t nearly post much on the channel anymore. As again… I’m trying to have a better balance of being able to enjoy life as much as I can now.

"Looking at myself in the mirror and being shocked
that there is a happy and cute girl staring back at me
is euphoric."

Monika: You are a woman of many talents but I would like to start by focusing on your main profession, which is film editing. How did you start working for the movie industry? 
Erika: After I graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 1993, I took some Film Editing and Cinematography courses at UCLA. I worked at a Post Production House called, “P.O.P.” in Santa Monica for a year in their tape vault and kept sending resumes out to various studios and meeting up for interviews.
I ended up being hired at Walt Disney Feature Animation after, “The Lion King” came out. They started me as a Utility Production Assistant on the film, “Pocahontas”. I worked in every department for two weeks at a time and really got a crash course on how to make an Animated Film. I helped to finish that movie and then rolled into the Editorial Department on the movie, “Mulan”. I moved to the Disney Animation Studio out in Florida to help make that movie and over the next few years quickly rose from being an Apprentice Editor to an Associate Editor on the movie, “Lilo & Stitch”.
Then I moved back to Los Angeles and left Disney to become a Lead Editor for 13+ years working on various Animated Movies at DreamWorks. Then made “Vivo” with Lin-Manuel Miranda over at Sony Pictures for close to 4 years, and today I have found myself back at Disney again working on a new Animated Film after being away for over 18 years.
Monika: Wooow! What an impressive career! I must have watched most of your work. However, Vivo (2021) is the first feature movie you have made where your credit was under ERIKA. What was the feeling?
Erika: I’m not going to lie… I cried. I felt so many emotions when I saw my female name up on the big screen when we were mixing the movie on the Sony Studios Lot. And then I cried again when I saw my name when Vivo was released and I was with some of my Trans friends. The tears were happy tears.
Monika: In addition, you are a member of the band called Imaginarius...
Erika: Yes. I am one of 3 members. Nikki and Elliot are the other two. I’ve known them most of my life and we click extremely well together. They were also extremely supportive of me when I came out. I’ve been in various bands since I was a teenager.
And I’m often the main songwriter. Many of my songs actually have focused on my gender dysphoria and even coming out. We produce our own material. It’s available to stream on such platforms as Spotify. Apple Music. Amazon and YouTube.

"I’m very self-conscious about the way I look as it
has to do with living most of my life with gender

Monika: You were accepted as a new member of the Academy 2 years ago. Did you have a chance to be on the red carpet already?
Erika: Only during the “Welcoming New Academy Members” party in Hollywood. COVID has prevented a lot of big social gatherings. And I tend to shy away from big award presentations unless I myself am nominated. The last night I walked the red carpets; had to take pictures and talk to the press was when I was nominated for Puss In Boots. I was so uncomfortable wearing a suit and tie as this was happening in 2012 and pre-transition for me.
I’ll be 100% honest. I’m nervous because Vivo has the chance for me to be nominated again… and I could potentially be doing the same thing… but as a woman this time. So trying to find the right dresses and shoes is probably gonna raise my anxiety levels.
Monika: I must say that I watch the Oscar gala every year. I love it so much, especially the fabulous dresses of actresses and other guests. It must be a challenge to find a proper dress when you are surrounded by such fashionable ladies. :)
Erika: Absolutely. I’m a behind-the-camera lady. I’m not big on always being in front of it. Most Trans Women that the world can see out of Hollywood are in front of the camera. They love it. Know how to work the camera and are beautiful.
I’m very self-conscious about the way I look as it has to do with living most of my life with gender dysphoria. I’m much happier with just how I feel as a woman rather than how I look in public. And it’s been a challenge to adapt to a world where the way I look as a woman is often judged daily. I was surprised at how much people around me started to comment more on my looks and clothes than what I could do as a human. As a man… it was the opposite. It was never about how I looked and was more about what I could do. And it’s made me realize how women are without a doubt much more objectified than men.
With that being said… I’ll be honest. There’s almost nothing more affirming and exciting than trying on a dress that shows off my curves and fits just right. Looking at myself in the mirror and being shocked that there is a happy and cute girl staring back at me is euphoric. I still to this day shock myself from time to time when I see my own reflection. It normally takes me a couple seconds to register, “Is that really me?”
Monika: Ciswomen playing transwomen, men playing transwomen, transwomen playing transwomen only if they are lucky. Am I right to describe the standard approach in Hollywood?
Erika: I think that is the perception. Not to say some of these Cis People were bad at the parts they played. Because some were amazing. But I can understand the frustration from Trans Actors and Actresses about this topic. I heard a story once which is not cool. But I heard that Trans Actresses were not getting a role for a Trans Woman in a show because they “looked too much like a Cis Woman”. And the Casting Directors wanted someone who looked more like a male dressing up as a woman. So this way of casting Trans Characters does come across as Transphobic and Sexist even here in Hollywood.
Things are getting better… but I still have yet to see any studio really take a bigger chance on Trans Characters in major motion pictures. They tend to only exist on TV Shows these days.

"I still to this day shock myself from time to time when
I see my own reflection. It normally takes me a couple
seconds to register, “Is that really me?”"

Monika: Do you think it is possible in the nearest future to see a big-budget animated movie with a transgender character in the leading role?
Erika: Absolutely. I’ve even pitched these myself. But I can tell… as much as the major studios are inclusive to their hiring practices and employees… they are still very apprehensive to greenlight a big-budget animated feature with a lead trans character. They look at their target audiences and realize half of their income comes from people in the world who tend to be Anti-LGBTQ. Especially Trans. And I often hear from these same groups that they don’t like how “woke” Hollywood is becoming and how they have an agenda to brainwash their children. That’s hard to hear coming from parents who often instill their personal beliefs and ways they want their children to live conditionally. I think they say “hate” is often learned.
Monika: It is very likely that Vivo will be nominated for the Academy Award and you may get the Oscar in the end. So immediately you might be in the spotlight, and you will become an inspiration for many transwomen. Are you ready for this burden or challenge?
Erika: I don’t know if it’s really a burden or challenge. My aim is to just live my life and be a positive example of what it can be to be a happy and successful Trans Woman living amongst a sea of Cis People. And if that helps inspire both Trans and Cis People… then that’s just icing on the cake for me. I have had Cis People confess to me that they re-evaluated their lives by being inspired by me. They made hard changes to help make their lives better in the bigger scheme of things.
A lot of people tend to become comfortable and complacent in their own lives. And it’s been very wonderful to see/hear both Trans and Cis People come to me and let me know I was a major reason why they moved forward with changes of their own. So I think I might be doing something right there :)
Monika: When we transition, we put all our previous achievements at stake. Were you afraid about how your transition would be perceived by the movie industry and how it might influence your illustrious career?
Erika: It was a very big concern of mine. I came about to my family and close friends in 2014 and to the public in early 2015. This was before Caitlin Jenner came out in May 2015. So coming out as Transgender was still very taboo and the majority of the people around me scratched their heads and didn’t even really know what the word “Transgender” even was. In fact… almost everyone thought I had cancer due to the way I was physically looking so different.
I felt no one would want to work with me again and I could be blacklisted in Hollywood. Luckily that didn’t happen and Jeffrey Katzenberg and the people running DreamWorks worked closely with me during my coming out.
News in Hollywood flies fast. And before I knew it… people all around Hollywood were calling me up asking me, “Is it true?” I turned down several offers from producers wanting to do documentaries of my transition. I felt it was such a private thing and I was having a lot of personal difficulties with family and friends that I didn’t want anyone to be exposed to any more pain and grief.

"I felt no one would want to work with me again and I
could be blacklisted in Hollywood. Luckily that didn’t

It was still awkward as that first year of my physical transition had me looking like some kind of male/female hybrid. I remember always being stared at like a Zoo Animal when I would walk across the studio campus. I knew people were talking about me. Saying nice and not-so-nice things about me. I luckily had friends and allies defending me when people would talk bad about me in those situations.
I do remember a few Cis-Women were very vocal and didn’t want me speaking on women’s film panels as I was told “You are not a real woman!”. Even though I was asked to speak about my experiences as a Trans Women on those panels.
It’s gotten easier over time cause everyone nowadays just sees me and treats me as a woman. Every new person I meet and work with often has no idea I’m even Trans unless it gets brought up. I will always be coming out to someone for the rest of my life. I’ve had people look at my credits and get confused about my first name. That’s when it usually gets brought up. And I have to explain my journey as they always look like a deer in headlights when the realization comes over them, “OMG… I never knew you were Trans!”
And far as influencing my career… I think I’ve become a much more empathetic person because of being Transgender. My journey and experiences have definitely helped shape how I make movies today. There’s no doubt I felt a connection to the character of Gabi in Vivo. And I put a lot of me into the character. Especially as she has that musical anthem many of us Trans Women can get behind, “I bounce to the beat of my own drum.“


All the photos: courtesy of Erika Dapkewicz.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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