Ivory Aquino, Alexandra Grey, Jazzmun talk to GLAAD about playing trans characters in ABC's 'When We Rise'

On Monday, February 27, the ABC mini-series When We Rise premiered, with new episodes airing every night this week at 9:00 pm ET.

From Academy Award-winning writer-director Dustin Lance Black, the series chronicles the history of the LGBTQ community from the 1970s up until now. The eight-hour series chronicles how the LGBTQ movement on the west coast developed, and the prominent advocates and organizations who led the way, including trans leaders Cecilia Chung, Bobbie Jean Baker, and Seville. All of the trans characters in the series are played by actresses who are also transgender.

Legendary trans advocate Cecilia Chung is played by Ivory Aquino. In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE magazine, Aquino said that as a young transgender girl from the Philippines she had given up her dream of becoming an actor and instead pursued music, which eventually led to a career on stage. Though Aquino doesn't often bring up the fact that she is transgender, she felt it important for the casting director of When We Rise to know and made sure they did before landing the part. 

Alexandra Grey, a star on the rise who, last fall alone, appeared on CBS' Code Black, NBC's Chicago Med, Comedy Central's Drunk History, and in a breakout role as Elizah in Amazon's Transparent, portrays Seville, a homeless trans woman who finds shelter at City of Refuge United Church.

Trans advocate Bobbie Jean Baker is played by Jazzmun, who has her own established career as an actress and trans advocate. Baker was an ordained minister at City Refuge United Church in Oakland, where she served as TransSaints Minister of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, lay minister at Transcending Transgender Ministries, and has worked with numerous Bay-area non-profits as an advocate.

 

GLAAD caught up with Ivory, Alexandra, and Jazzmun to find out about their experiences working on this important series, what they hope people will take away from watching, and what else everyone can look forward to seeing them in. 

GLAAD: What was it like to work on When We Rise?

Ivory Aquino: To say When We Rise has changed my life is an understatement. As an actress, it gifted me the opportunity to work with the most inspiring artists I have emulated throughout my career. As a member of the LGBTQ and trans community, it gave me a deeper connection with the history of the civil rights movement in this country I now call home. Just as anyone in the community strives to simply live a happy life, I enjoyed my private life in New York with my pup Chewy-Bear alongside my dear friends, acting in the theatre and doing what I love without pomp. More than anything, I am an artist. Although I had never seen myself as an activist with the quietness of my life, I realize now that with my role in When We Rise, my life has taken on activism by virtue of being an artist with more visibility who happens to be trans. For until my family in the community are able to lead their happy lives, with access to the same facilities and resources as everybody else, then I will use my voice to advocate for them and for our community. 

Alexandra Grey: It was such a joy! I knew how important of a project it was early on, and when I received the script for audition I really wanted to share Seville's story even more. It was a blessing to work with such seasoned and brilliant actors like Phylicia Rashad and Michael K. Williams. I can't describe how emotional it was to film a lot of these scenes. Also to work with Dustin Lance Black, who is bae of course, but also a genius. I love his passion and he really guided me to let me know it was okay to go to those dark places to achieve what I believe the world will be moved by.

Jazzmun: I had the most amazing time working on When We Rise. It was a profound moment in my life. Having the opportunity to work with extraordinarily talented individuals to tell a story about American LGBTQ History was empowering, affirming, and inspiring.

GLAAD: What do you hope people will take away from the series and/or your character's story?

IA: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Charles Dickens wrote as he set the stage for A Tale of Two Cities. For our times now, and for the times depicted in When We Rise, the reverse may ring more true: “It was the worst of times,”…but these can also be “the best of times." Undeniably, these are trying times. But as the people portrayed in When We Rise demonstrate, these are also times of opportunity. Opportunity to show that we stand united as a community of minorities asking for the same freedoms as the majority. By standing up for our lives and those of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, we are activists not only for ourselves but for all of humanity. Until equal rights for all are attained, the movements depicted in When We Rise continue. My biggest wish for those watching the series and Cecilia’s journey, and I do hope it's members of other communities as well as those of our LGBTQ communities, is that they see that we’re all more similar than different. 

AG: With the recent tragic murders of trans woman of color, I really hope the viewers take away the transgender experience. I think a lot of what is going on in the world is because we're just not educated enough on each other's differences and backgrounds. I hope people will show more compassion and more love. I want them to walk away after watching this television experience feeling changed and motivated to stand up for all of us. Seville is such a brave transgender woman of color, like myself, who's life on this earth hasn't always been easy, but nevertheless, she fights through it and continues to this day! And if there's anything I can leave you with today, I would just say "PLEASE STOP KILLING US."

J: I hope people take away from the series and my character Bobbie Jean Baker’s story how important it is for people to stand up for what they believe in, continue to challenge the systems that having been put in place to ostracize and dehumanize marginalized communities, and how important it is to take care of one another.

GLAAD: What can we see you in next?

IA: I currently have offers for acting projects and speaking engagements, and am in conversations on which to do next. I’m excited to share that with everyone when the time is right, and if anyone wishes to know, I will share on TwitterInstagram and on Facebook Official.

AG: In addition to appearing in Doubt on CBS, there's a few projects that I can't talk about right now, but soon! I'm just happy to be a part of the trans movement. Follow me on social media to keep up with my new projects on Instagram and Twitter.

J: Although I do not  have a new project rolling out, I am working closely and intentionally with Trans/GNC individuals here in the City of Angels to ensure that Los Angeles is a sanctuary for the Trans/GNC Communities. I am immersed in my activist work. And with the recent murders of seven Trans Women of Color, it is imperative that Trans Rights and Lives are protected, prioritized, and centered. We’re in a State of Emergency! You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Tune in to When We Rise tonight and for the rest of the week at 9:00 pm ET on ABC.