This is the story of how transgender comedian Ian Harvie went from background actor on Amazon’s acclaimed series Transparent to writer’s room consultant to an actor on the series. Click here for more of EW.com’s Best of 2014 coverage.
Transparent, which was named EW‘s best show of 2014, centers around the Pfefferman clan and their “moppa,” Maura (Jeffrey Tambor)—who comes out as transgender at the beginning of season 1. After appearing in a scene in the pilot, Harvie connected with creator Jill Soloway on Twitter, who invited him to the show’s writers’ room. He initially thought he was just going to be a consultant for the show—but Soloway had other ideas.
“I sat with Jill and all of her writers, and they said, ‘We have a story arc about a trans guy and Ali that we would like to talk to you about. Would you care to share some stories with us about your life and experiences?'” Harvie told EW. “I did, and some of it was really emotional, and some of it was really hilarious. So at the end, Jill said, ‘Really what I want you to do is, would you play this guy?'” The request came as a shock to Harvie. “I kind of crapped my pants a little bit, as anyone would,” he remembered. “I think my exact words to her were, ‘Well, I haven’t acted in a long time. I would have to dust off my skills.’ And she said, ‘Well, what if I did that for you?'”
The idea worked out—and Harvie took on the role of Dale, who meets Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali, the youngest of Maura’s children. Ali initially asks her friend Syd (Carrie Brownstein) why a flannel-shirt wearing “Paul Bunyan” is teaching a women’s studies class. Then Syd reveals that Dale is trans. In the following episode, Ali and Dale go on a date. Dressed in a high femme outfit with red lipstick and a corset to appease Dale, Ali initially sees Dale’s home as a rugged cabin with a neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign. (This perception appears to be an illusion by the episode’s end.)
“A lot of this show’s theme is, ‘Will you love me if I’m not who you thought I was?'” Harvie explained. “We put people in these boxes, and at first I thought I was putting Ali in this box of trying to make her high femme for me. But I think that something happened similarly in reverse.” For Harvie, it’s about “fluidity”—how people present their gender can change. “In the end, I want—not necessarily from that scene, but from a lot of this and in my own life—I just want to be constantly asking myself about all the binaries of the world. Not just gender,” he said.
Some of Harvie’s own stories—like one about his mother still calling him by his birth name, an anecdote that also appears in his stand-up—ended up being attributed to his character, while his consulting also informed other storylines one the show. “At the moment that I was sharing these stories, I didn’t know how they would come out. But to see [the writers] transform that into words for a character to say, I just thought how great and how well that they grasped as writers the stuff that I had told them from my trans experience. I thought it was really beautiful,” Harvie said.
The feedback Harvie has gotten in response to the show, which EW‘s Melissa Maerz credited as helping change the world, has also been rewarding. “I have so many trans friends on Facebook that are just like, ‘Wow, I saw so much of myself,'” Harvie said. “That to me is so important, because when you get to see yourself in projects that are this great, it makes your life feel like you exist. You are no longer ‘other.’ You exist and in return, hopefully, it will educate some people.”