Actor Theo Germaine, 28, is best known for playing James Sullivan, the high school student turned shrewd political campaign advisor, in Ryan Murphy’s hit Netflix show, The Politician. Despite being a trans male role, the plot doesn’t revolve around the character’s gender, which is refreshing to see on screen. That said, Germaine, who was conditioned as a girl, and spent their late teenage years passing as a man before finally deciding, “Fuck all of this” and identifying as non-binary, is keen to see bigger changes within the industry: “Being limited to just playing, you know, a select few trans characters that Hollywood decides are palatable to put into the industry is not exciting,” they say. “I want me and all of my friends to have access to the same opportunities that every white cisgender male actor has.”
As season two of The Politician hits Netflix this month, we caught up with the actor over Zoom to discuss the effects of growing up surrounded by traditional standards of beauty and how they’ve since sought to dismantle them.
At what age were you when you started caring about how you look?
“I’ve always been someone who likes expressing myself through how I look, whether that’s by playing dress-up or wearing makeup. The first type of makeup I started playing around with was face paint. I just loved using my face as a canvas and turning it into an animal or something. As I was evolving my understanding of gender, I was like, ‘I kind of feel like a boy, but I also really like dressing up like a princess.’ But then I really started having these gender feelings. I tried to reject them for a bit when I was 12, 13. I tried very hard to fit in with the popular girls at school, seeing what they were wearing and what kind of makeup they were doing, but then I was like, ‘This isn’t working. I like it as a costume, but it’s not me.’”
What was it like growing up in the Midwest?
“I grew up in Central Illinois, in a very, very small town. There was basically no diversity there, and there were a lot of very rigid gender roles and a lot of Eurocentric standards of beauty at full force. So my understanding of beauty has been shaped by these stereotypes and then by breaking out of them.”
Beauty is very much predicated on gender binaries. That must have been very challenging for you.
“It takes a lot of learning to not listen to somebody else in regards to what’s beautiful. Because I grew up around these rigid gender roles, when I was 18, 19, my coming-out process was about over-correcting myself in order to fit into this other part of society. So there were certain things I started avoiding, like wearing makeup and bright colors. During that process, I was like, ‘Yep, I’m definitely a boy, I use he/him pronouns, nothing else.’ At the time, I still kind of felt like I was in the middle, but that space to exist in was very small. The work environments that I was in were very masculine and kind of intimidating, and I was trying to blend in. Then at some point, when I was around 22, I just stopped. I was like, ‘I’m just going to do whatever I want and I hope that some other people follow suit.’”
Do you think makeup should be gendered?
“A lot of this stuff is constructed. The place where I started was by asking, ‘Why are these the rules? What is the history of them?’ Because a lot of these stereotypes are based on Eurocentric standards, and that’s really racist. As a society, I hope there’s an aggressive push to question things. I think that there’s not going to be because there are so many people working to uphold them. A lot of people would be scared if it was suddenly like, ‘This thing doesn’t mean that you’re masculine and this thing doesn’t mean that you’re feminine.’ This is not to try and make everyone gender neutral, because I think that everybody’s gender is personal to them.”Theo Germaine as James Sullivan in The Politician.Photography Getty Images
How do gender stereotypes play into your career as an actor, where you have to ‘look the part’?
“In my experience, casting directors are more likely to say, ‘This trans person doesn’t look right’ or ‘I can’t imagine this person in this role.’ That’s a huge detriment. When I go into auditions where, let’s say, they’re looking for a white masculine person, who’s roughly this age — I’m probably going to be one of the few non-cisgender people showing up. So automatically I’m potentially the wild card. The casting director could already be on the fence about putting me on the audition list. So I know that my chances are a little bit lower than most people’s, and that’s because of gender stereotyping. But it’s part of a bigger conversation. In Hollywood, there are so many pressures to just look a certain way so there are a lot of actors that are being overlooked because we’re too obsessed with beauty and/or we’re a racist society. For someone who faces a certain number of challenges in the industry, because of my whiteness, there are a lot of challenges that I don’t face. So we have so much work to do in regards to that.”
Are things changing?
“I do think that things are changing. I don’t think that someone like me or several of my cast mates would have been seen on television even five years ago. So there are little victories happening, but on the whole, it’s like a very slow-moving freighter that is kind of motivated by money.”
What I thought was brilliant about The Politician was that even though James Sullivan is a specifically trans male part, the character’s gender is never addressed. Is this the kind of role you’re happy to keep playing, or do you want to be playing cis male characters?
“There are a lot of things I want to do that have traditionally gone to very specific-looking types of cisgender dudes. I want to do sci-fi; I want to do action; I want to do Marvel. And there are so many talented people that are not [because they] don’t look that part. And you know what? Screw that!”The PoliticianPhotography Netflix
What can we expect to see from James in season two?
“I’m not sure how much I can say, but he’s still in school. He’s super-overwhelmed and I think that there’s a little bit of his privilege that he is not ready to address yet. I think that maybe he’s a little bit stuck in some of his old ways. There are a couple of ways in which he needs to grow.”
What are you hoping for in the industry and the world at large?
“I want to fight for more opportunities in the industry. There’s so much change that needs to happen. I think it’s going to take a lot of people speaking up who we haven’t seen before; I think a lot of people who maybe have let themselves feel very comfortable need to start feeling uncomfortable. My wish also is that there’s a better sense of true fostering that happens within the arts at large, because there’s so much gatekeeping there. I think I just extend that to the world in the sense that, like, there are so many things we’re settling for, and it’s really scary to be like, ‘Man, this isn’t good enough.’ But I hope people will take more risks and start speaking out about stuff.”