Law & Order: Special Victims Unit recently introduced a storyline surrounding transgender people serving in the military.
Titled "Service," the episode involved a trial about an escort who is allegedly raped in a hotel room. One of the reluctant witnesses in the case was soldier named Jim Preston ( who later reveals he is transgender ), played by Marquise Vilson.
Vilson starred in Philip Dawkins' play Charm as Beta in a story centered around LGBT youth, and has filmed a new movie with Julia Roberts called Ben Is Back that comes out soon.
Windy City Times: Where did you grow up?
Marquise Vilson: I grew up in New York City, in the Bronx, so I am native New Yorker. I lived down south for a few years before returning to New York last year. I decided to get more serious about my acting career. Part of that was because I booked an Off Broadway play called Charm. When working on that production I decided to return home.
WCT: Did you always want to be an actor?
MV: I have been performing for a long time, not specifically acting, but I am from the original underground ballroom community similar to the movie Paris Is Burning. I have been a part of ballroom since 1995. That was my first audience and first stage. I think there is a parallel because there is that same energy when you are competing.
When I decided to go into acting, it was a very natural transition. I started acting in 2016.
WCT: When did you come out as transgender?
MV: I have been living male and as Marquise since I was 16 years old. It took me a while to see what that would look like, because this was back in the '90s, [when] there was no language at all understanding what trans was. I just knew I was a male and a boy.
In terms of medical transition, I started that in 2005.
WCT: You served in the military in 2001?
MV: Yes, shortly after 9/11. The conversation back then was not about transgender people in the military. It was very specific to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Since there was no conversation around people of trans experience in the military, I feel there was a natural assumption about what my sexual orientation was versus my gender identity and expression.
There were real challenges that I had in terms of being myself in the military. Anyone that falls out of the heteronormative box is going to face challenges naturally, but nothing like what is happening present day.
I have to go back to my experiences and how that made me feel, but also do the legwork for folks going through it right now in this moment. They are basically being told that they can't serve and their country is not going to stand by them as they make the decision to serve.
WCT: What led you to the role of Jim Preston?
MV: The Casting Society of America had an open casting for people of trans experience and gender nonconforming. Law & Order: SVU was already working on this character. When I went into the casting one of the people that was there works very directly with the SVU.
A few months later I had an official audition. It went from there.
WCT: How was it portraying this character?
MV: It was such pleasure and an honor. There is finally more inclusiveness around gender non conforming and trans people in the media. I am glad it's happening and hope it continues so that people can provide more authenticity to these roles.
As a [trans] male who is Black, I think it's super-important to have these images in media. I can think of only one right now with Brian Michael Smith, who recently played a role on Queen Sugar and was on Blue Bloods.
There are just not enough roles or visibility. It was an honor to play this role especially what is going on around politics currently.
WCT: How emotional was it for you when all of the other soldiers were saluting you at the end on that episode?
MV: That was extremely emotional. When I first read the script, I did tear up. It was powerful and moment in time. I think there is a lot of misinformation and myths about who we are and what we represent. To have Jim Preston stand there and be respected was extremely powerful. It meant a lot. This was an opportunity for a trans person to be a hero.
WCT: Do you feel Hollywood is waking up to having trans people play trans characters?
MV: It seems that way. I think trans people can play all different roles and I have seen it go different ways. I hope casting directors continue to be open to it.
WCT: Did you hear from viewers after the "SVU" episode aired?
MV: I heard from a lot of people, including the LGBTQ community, friends, family, and battle buddies from old military days. All of the feedback was absolutely positive.
WCT: I heard Mariska Hargitay was also supportive.
MV: Ten minutes after the episode aired, she called me directly on my cell phone. It was the most reaffirming conversation I ever had. She gave me some very kind words.
WCT: You mentioned misconceptions about being trans. What are some of them?
MV: People that don't know anyone trans often think I am transitioning from male to female. They don't realize I am already where I am supposed to be.
Also, that we aren't employable. That is a huge misconception.
WCT: Talk about the new Julia Roberts film.
MV: Ben Is Back is the name of it. It was written and directed by Peter Hedges. I have a smaller part in it, but it is a speaking role, so I am proud of it. I ended up nailing it in one take oddly enough! It comes out this summer.
WCT: Are you playing a trans person in the film?
MV: NoI am a cis guy.
WCT: When are you visiting Chicago?
MV: I will whenever Chicago invites me!