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Actor or actress? Billions star Asia Kate Dillon on how non-binary people fit into the Emmys


Monday April 10, 2017

Showtime was so impressed with Asia Kate Dillon’s breakout performance as the gender non-binary character Taylor Mason in the drama Billions, it wanted to submit Dillon for an Emmy nomination.

But there was just one problem. The network wasn’t sure whether to submit Dillon for best actor or best actress. Like the character Mason, Dillon identifies as neither male nor female and uses the pronouns “they” and “them.”

Faced with this difficult choice, Dillon wrote a letter to the Television Academy asking what the categories mean and why they exist (You can read the whole letter at Variety).

The Academy replied that “anyone can submit under either category for any reason.” After digging into the history of the terms “actor” and “actress,” Dillon opted for the former.  

Dillon spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how they came to that decision.

Sex: The classification of a person as male or female, usually based on the appearance of their external anatomy.

Gender identity: A person’s internal, deeply held sense of their gender. 

Non-binary: Terms used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman

Source: Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation

Carol Off: You play a gender non-binary character, and yet you had to come up with a gender if you were going to be submitted for an award. That must have said something to you?

Asia Kate Dillon: Well, as it turned out, I didn’t have to come up with a gender in order to be submitted. So it ended up sitting quite well, actually.

According to the Academy rules, they’ve always stated that … any performer can submit under either category for any reason, and that the Academy is not going to do any kind of anatomical or gender identity check.

And so knowing that information, and using the findings of other research I’d done into the etymology, the origin, of the words “actor” and “actress,” I decided to go with “actor,” because it is a non-gendered, non-sexed word from the late 1500s referring to performers in plays, specifically.

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Asia Kate Dillon says the character they play on Billions means a lot to people. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Showtime Networks)

CO: You’ve chosen this neutral word, actor, but you’re going to be in a category where probably you’re just competing with men.

AKD: Well, I will be in a category, as far as I know, with people who self-identify as men. But that doesn’t mean that I know anything about, you know, the anatomical sex of the other people who are going to be submitted alongside me, which I think is really important.

Why Taylor Mason matters

CO: I just want to talk a bit about this show that you’re in, Billions. …Why do you think people are so drawn to Taylor Mason?

AKD: Taylor is someone who is, you know, surrounded by hypermasculinity, working in a morally ambiguous world. And Taylor has a very strong moral centre and is not hypermasculine in particular.

So I think that when you have someone who is sort of outside the norm of what we’ve seen of that world stepping into that world and then we get to watch them navigate that world, I think that’s what’s exciting about Taylor’s journey

I have received tweets from self-identified white, straight, cisgendered men who have openly said, you know, ‘I knew nothing about non-binary identity, I’m a Republican, I’m 65 years old, but you and your character have opened my eyes.’ So yeah, that’s been extraordinarily gratifying.

CO: When you first read the script for Billions and the description of this character, what did you think?

AKD: Well, the character breakdown, among other things … said: “Taylor, female, non-binary.” And I had actually never come across those two words next to each other in that way

Since I  do research into every aspect of a character I play, I looked up those words and I had an ah-ha moment, where I realized, you know, female … referring to anatomical sex, non-binary, referring to gender identify. I was assigned female at birth. My gender identify is non-binary. How amazing!

CO: Was it an emotional moment for you?

AKD: Yes, I would say a grand emotional moment. I was able to finally put words to feelings and thoughts that I’d had from a very young age.

And you know, I’ve received many messages from people all over the world of varying age who have said how much the character of Taylor being non-binary means to them, and how much the fact that there is an actor who is non-binary that’s playing that character means to them.

For all of the visibility that Taylor is giving to other people, and that I am giving to other people now, Taylor really gave that visibility to me first.

CO: How difficult is it going to be, do you think, to change people’s views?

AKD: Because I was assigned female at birth and I am light-skinned, white, I think people hear my message more than they hear it from someone who was assigned male at birth and is a person of colour.

I have a lot of hope that people are listening to me and I also understand that we have a lot of work to do.

This interview has bee edited for clarity and length. For the whole conversation, listen to our complete interview with Asia Kate Dillon. 

CBC | Arts News

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