It’s a brave thing, to be in front of a camera. The idea of the device adding weight is only as true in the eye of the beholder, as are anxiety and vulnerability. As a performer, you have the audience in mind, sure, but also those on the set: the director, the crew, the other actors, etc. It’s almost like you’re performing at twice the capacity you were expecting to, all at the mercy of expressing the illusion of movement, and a white lie of honesty.
Alone, all of that would be more than enough for any person to handle.
Add being a trans individual on top.
There’s this awful stigma that follows people identifying as trans, one that surely makes employment opportunities difficult, especially on camera. Creatively speaking, for many years, the “best” roles for them were reserved as stereotype gimmicks, as that was the “understood” depiction of this group in society. Of course, those making the depictions happen could’ve decided to change suit anytime. For whatever reason, whatever prejudiced reason, that was the way it was.
Finally, however, we’re starting to catch up a bit.
Sophie White, a local filmmaker and actress, has landed a performing role on Chicago Med, one that we look forward to in an upcoming episode on October 16. While it’s taken some time for her to break through to the front of the lens, the feeling must be that of relief and some level of victory earned, for years of hard work behind the scenes.
I asked her a series of questions about the show, her work, media representation and inclusion, and how New Orleans treats the LGBTQ community now – for better and/or worse.
The more there is to film, the more work there should be for everyone:
Bill Arceneaux: How did you land a part on Chicago Med?
Sophie White: I got an email from my agent Kate Adair with New Orleans Model and Talent Youth at 7 p.m. asking if I wanted to do a tape audition for Chicago Med. The kicker was it was due the next day a 10 o’clock. Of course, I took it, but didn’t really have time to prepare. I taped the audition and remember thinking it wasn’t my best work, because I felt rushed. We submitted it and like most auditions, I moved on.
BA: What are your feelings regarding trans representation and inclusion in media?
SW: I love that we are finally getting represented with people like Laverne Cox and Trace Lysette. We are getting known but still have a long way to go. But hopefully that will come with time. Currently we don’t have any big box office draws that are transgender actors/actresses. Hopefully that will change in the near future. At least we are seeing celebrities, such as Caitlyn Jenner, Chaz Bono, and the Wachowski sisters, Lilly and Lana in the media.
BA: What are the best ways to combat harmful and negative portrayals?
SW: The best way to combat harmful and negative portrayals is for people to get to know us. We are just like any other person who wants to do their best and be seen as who we are, not a stereotype, trope or butt of a joke. When I first thought of transitioning, I considered moving. But I realized that I would not help my community by disappearing and popping up as Sophie in another city. People need to get to know transgender people. Many transgender people go into a stealth mode because the world can be so vicious. Many transgender people are killed every year because of who they are. I have been lucky that I haven’t lost any family or friends by coming out. Although some relatives have only been very lukewarm to me.
Also, I hope people can start to understand what we have been through to get to where we are. Many of us have lost friends, families and even their lives just being themselves. I wish people could have gender dysphoria for a day to get a glimpse of what it’s like. The biggest problem is explaining it. There is a meme that explains it the best, where there is an giant book thousands of pages thick, like the dictionary at the public library that’s two feet thick, the caption says this is what gender dysphoria feels like and then there is a small book maybe a 100 pages thick next to it with the caption that says this is what I can tell you about it. You hear every now and then about the rash of transgender people lately. I don’t think the number of people who are transgender has changed. It’s just many of us have quite hiding it. We have been here since the dawn of time and will be here until the end. There are so many instances where societies have embraced transgender people as special. Such as the American Indians because we see the world differently than most others. So, get used to it. We are here to stay. And some of us are proud to be transgender.
BA: What has your experience been behind the camera up until this point?
SW: I got into movies through a bad investment. My brother was looking for funding for a new local tv station and talked me and my cousin into helping. After a bad breakup and eventual bankrupting, the business by the owner. I had a lot of gear and I decided to learn how to use the gear instead of fire selling it. I also started cam-oping for a local TV station. While I tried to get a couple of shows off the ground. Eventually, I worked my way to Director of Photography and then producer. I don’t do that much camera work anymore because the screens have gotten smaller and smaller. I’ve produced numerous movies, including several with John Schneider (“Bo Duke” from The Dukes of Hazzard, Superman’s dad from Smallville, and Jim Cryer from The Have’s and Have Not’s).
Several years ago, about 8 to 10 I decided to act so I could justify dressing as a female. My first audition I got an 8-page part. The movie was never released but after it, I decided I wasn’t ready to come out. In 2017 I won the International Screen Writers Association award, New Orleans writer of the year. During the festival, I pitched a movie called Hummingbird that is loosely based on my story dealing with suicide to a producer friend. He loved it and said we should shoot 10 minutes of it and use that to find funding. I told him I could find half the money if he could find the other half. Two weeks before shooting we lost half of the funding. I asked everyone involved if they were on board to shoot it no matter what. They all agreed to make it. So, we stripped away everything that wasn’t essential. One thing was to call in favors from a couple of great actors like Lance Nichols and John Schneider. Also, I decided to play the lead because it was just a proof of concept. They could always change me out if they felt I couldn’t do the part.
After we finished the shoot, I was with another filmmaker who asked what I was working on. I happened to have some of the footage with me and showed him a few of the scenes. He was blown away with the acting and asked if he could tell a friend of his about what he saw. I agreed and a few days later I meet with Kate Adair she signed me as an actor. Hummingbird has never been finished. It still hurts my heart thinking about what happened next. One of the transgender consultants on the film was supposed to work the last day of shooting but had some problems. Two weeks after we finished shooting, she committed suicide. This ripped the heart out of the project. And now it lingers in a box waiting on completion of post-production. I wish I would have picked up on the clues that she was that bad off. However, Hummingbird has sent me on a journey of a lifetime and for that I am grateful. I have only been really acting since last year. I think my DP work has helped with numerous things such as being on set, an idea of what camera is seeing, and breaking down scripts to name a few.
BA: Do you see New Orleans as a true home for LGBTQ people, or do episodes of discrimination and prejudice plague the area even in 2019 (if so, what would you attribute the positive or negative to)?
SW: New Orleans is somewhat transgender friendly but there are still areas where I would be very uncomfortable being myself. The great thing about New Orleans is its diversity. However, there are still pockets that are stuck in a 1950’s mentality. I also notice that the world is changing and most people under 25 don’t care if you are transgender. When you tell them they say, oh cool and move on like it’s no big deal. Unlike the older generations where they look like a rabbit in a headlight. There are still transgender people murdered in New Orleans because of who they are. Like Chyna Gibson, Ciara McElveen, and Jaquarris Holland were killed in 2017. However, it is getting better.
BA: What advice would you give to someone trans who wishes to act or be involved in film/tv?
SW: The advice I would have for anyone who wants to do film and television for a living, run for the hills. Just kidding, but it does take a very disciplined person to make a living. It’s hard work long hours away from home and going from project to project. You will be a gypsy of sorts, but you will get to see the world. It’s also feasts or famine either everybody wants you or nobody wants you. You may go several months without work. And if you are not a saver you need to learn how to be one. Also, to be an actress, you have to get thick skin because there is a lot of rejections. However, for the LGBTQ community it can be a great place to be you but even there I have been fired from a show for being transgender. I have also found some amazing people in the film business. I think they understand more because we try to look at life from other people’s point of view which gives us empathy. If a person could walk a mile in your shoes, they would begin to understand what it’s like to be you. I think people need to find their passion. For me I am finally finding mine and now have a message I want to tell the world. Transgender people are just like everyone else we have hopes and dreams and only want to make the most of our lives with having it cut short. Love and light. Phee