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Colette: An interview with trans actor Jake Graf

May 8, 2019

Film + EntertainmentInterview | by Candid Magazine


We reviewed Colette back in September 2018 as part of our Toronto International Film Festival coverage. Released in the UK in January, the film is now seeing DVD/ VOD release this week. To the celebrate Candid Magazine was granted interview time with one of the films stars Jake Graf, a trans actor playing the Gaston de Caillavet, the husband of Colette’s (Keira Knightly) love interest.

Graf made for great interviewee, candidly talking to us about his role, his own trans story and his advocacy of trans visibility. Here is what he had to say:

Actor Jake Graf.

Can you tell us about your role in Colette?

I play Gaston de Caillavet, he was a wealthy man about town hanging out with his wife, I think at places like the Moulin Rouge and initially when he meets Colette, he thinks he is going to get in on with her, but Colette only has eyes for his wife. I think that his wife is actually the first woman that Colette has an attraction to. Whilst my role is not that huge, Wash kindly made me the first person that stood up to Willy (Dominic West), which helped my character stand out in the film.

I read that Wash Westmoreland (director) actually contact you directly for the part. Is that correct?

Yes, weirdly I got a message from Wash on Facebook, saying that he was familiar with me as we had friends in common of who worked on The Danish Girl, which I was also in. He told me he would love to see me for the role, then his casting agent got involved. When I met him, admittedly I hadn’t done a lot of research, he’s the most down to earth and it was probably the most relax of auditions that I did a perfect take. And as these things usually go, I didn’t hear anything for a few months, only for then to receive a nice message from Wash again that all was good to go.

Do people highlight back to you that you’re a trans man playing a cis-gender role. 

I had a lot of questions from the US press, who are like you are trans actor playing a straight guy, how do you do that? Well I am an actor first and foremost, so actually I managed to do that fairly well. As a trans actor, I’ve played lots of trans-roles, but more and more now when I got to castings, I’m told I don’t read as trans enough, so my agent has been putting forward for more cis-gender roles. I mean I felt like a man since I was three years old and it is nice for me now to be acknowledged in that respect and to play roles befitting to my gender identity. 

Colette does touch on trans theme of sorts, specifically with Denise Gough character.

I did sit with Denise for a fair few hours. She was very adamant that the role would be properly researched. She plays an early transgender man. When I was growing up in the 80s, the word transgender wasn’t used then, so most certainly not back then. She is known as uncle Max who identifies as a man. I don’t know if hormones or surgery where available back then or it was and just not talked about. Denise and I talked what it meant to be trans then how difficult it would have been. However, Missy/ Uncle Max was from a certain social standing, a socialite with money, she was able to afford the luxury of wearing men’s clothes and behave accordingly. Whereas poorer people would not have been able to do that, at the time it was even illegal for women to wear trousers. Admittedly, I had no idea about all this stuff and it does show, unlike how the mainstream media wants to portray this as something new, that perhaps transgender individuals have been around since the dawn of time. 

Scene from Colette, Graf with Keira Knightley and Janine Harouni.

Both Colette and The Danish Girl are period dramas. Is that something you are particulary interested in doing?

To be honest any part with any big director who wants to give me a role, I am all for it. Most actors would bite their hands off to have such opportunities. I do like period dramas. When you think, 5 or 6 years ago, pre-dating The Danish Girl the notion of having a transgender queer themed period piece was beyond the realms of imagination. And now you also have Colette and The Favourite, indicating that some progress has been made. Again, people are cottoning on that LGBTQ+ have been around for millennia. But yes, there is real magic and charm to doing period. Things like the incredible set design, 500 Hungarian extras, everyone suited and booted looking very dapper. 

You mentioned earlier that you get feedback that you don’t read trans enough. What is that these directors and casting agents are specifically looking for then? 

I think a lot of directors and studios, a lot of the time, if they want to cast transgender actors is because they want to, not always, tick those diversity boxes. That in itselft is still great, as it’s a push for more diversity casting. But a lot of the times it’s for the public to see that they are ticking those boxes more than anything else. When I walk into a room, it’s not that obvious for the most part that I am trans. When I walk into castings, people assume I’ve come to the wrong place or I haven’t understood the casting call. There is a real luxury being able to live that stealth lifestyle, almost like a privilege to be able to pass through life undetected. But then by the same token, for the roles I’m put forward, I am being told I don’t fit the bill. I am not trans enough.

As a trans man and an actor as well, do you feel that you are putting yourself there for even more critique? 

I also write and direct, so I feel have some experience of the other side of the camera. I know how tough it is as an actor to put yourself out there. I try and be very careful and nurturing with my actors. Cause I know how it is to go to these auditions and be judged. I have made a conscious decision as there are so few visibly out there trans male actors, mostly because transgender men can slip under the radar with their physicality, to make myself as visible as possible. Also with my wife ( Hannah Winterbourne, who is also transgender), as a couple we try to put ourselves out there as much as possible, despite the critique, feedback and hatred online because we think regardless of any negativity it’s really important to show we are visible, we are proud, we are just the same as anyone else and it is nothing to be feared. As an actor, a trans man and an advocate I feel its more worthwhile to be out there for the generations to come.

Scene from Graf’s 2015 short Brace.

I watched a few of your shorts and you seem to explore heavily the psychological aspect of being trans. 

Thank you for watching. For me it’s really important that people know what we are going through on a daily basis. Everyone is going through their struggles; everyone has a hard time and that’s not exclusive to being trans. I just wanted to give some sort inkling, an understanding of that. Simple things like getting mis-gendered on the phone, which happens constantly to my wife or the everyday bullying trans kids receive.

My most recent short is about trans children, featuring all actors from the Mermaids charity which I’m a patron of. These kids are not only being taunted by their peers, but also by their teachers, by the other parents in the class. They are worried about what others would consider silly things like what loo they can go into that will cause the least amount of ridicule. 

I think it’s important to debunk what the mainstream media portrays of what it means to be trans; that we are all confused and uncertain about our identities. I just wanted to show through these films, we do know our identities, we know exactly who we are as do these children. I knew from the age of three that I was transgender. I do think it’s important that other people understand that nobody choose this, it’s a difficult life and we want to get on with it, just like everyone else. So, on the whole my films, so far, are made to give insight into the everyday struggles of a trans person.

So, what’s up next for you?

I have actually just completed the first draft of my feature film, called Lavender. Learning about re-writing a 110-page script over and over. I am working with the people behind the Alexander McQueen documentary that came out last year. One of the producers in transgender Andee Ryder, we are working closely together on this… I am spreading my wings to a full feature. Otherwise mainly acting, with few roles coming up. Overall, I am interested in telling and being involved with stories that previously haven’t been explored. As long its original and fresh, I want to be part of it.

Colette is out now digitally with DVD release on the 13th May, 2019.

Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.

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