Ask Chaz Bono what his goals are, and he’ll put it succinctly: “I want to be able to make a living as an actor. That’s all.”
It’s this imperative that led him to take on the role of Jerry the Hoarder in the new movie Dirty, starring Roger Guenveur Smith (American Gangster) and Paul Elia. Taking a deep look at police corruption through the journey of two dirty cops, Bono’s turn as Jerry, a psychologically disturbed confidential informant, is the first in which a trans man has played a male role in a feature film. It’s a role he almost didn’t get.
“They didn’t want me for this role at all,” Bono, 47, tells Yahoo Celebrity. “They had a different physical type in mind, and they just didn’t see me as that character. They said I was totally wrong — they wanted a Steve Buscemi type and told me, ‘We need a real actor.’”
But Bono was undeterred and set his sights on winning the role of Jerry.
“What was on screen was what I brought to the audition, minus most of the makeup,” he says. “I went in looking really bad — that was one of the other things they told me, was that I was too good-looking for the part. So I went in looking dirty, with old clothes. A drag performer friend helped me look bad, and it worked. I got the part.”
The result is a performance that’s dramatically different from anything Bono has ever done before — and that’s by design. He worked diligently with colleagues from the actor’s studio he attends — Anthony Meindl’s Actor Workshop in Los Angeles — and made very specific choices in portraying Jerry’s paranoid, jittery persona. He also talked with a former crystal meth addict to nail some of the physical attributes that Jerry displays on screen. As Bono puts it, “That was just kind of it for me. Once we started working on the part, it just sung to me.”
The setting also helped him get into character as his scenes for the low-budget indie were shot in one day at the director’s parents’ house, which was set up to look as if a hoarder lived there. “It was difficult to find a place to sit,” he laughs.
Though Bono’s acting career is just starting to take off (he recently played Reverend Rydale on CBS’s The Bold and the Beautiful), it’s a passion that’s been driving him since he was 14.
“I was having a hard year, and my mom enrolled me in the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in Los Angeles, where I fell in love with acting,” Bono recalls. “I asked if I could audition for a performing arts high school in New York, and that’s where I went to school. As I was coming to the end of senior year after four years as a drama major, I ended up in a senior play playing a male character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was the first time I felt good or comfortable on stage — or in acting, period. I didn’t know why at the time, I just knew that wasn’t going to happen in the real world, so I’d better figure out a career.”
It wasn’t until 2012, when Bono landed parts in Degrassi: The Next Generation and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, that the acting bug was reawakened for him. After receiving positive feedback from directors, Bono decided to return to the craft. He signed up with a new actor’s studio, and immersed himself in that world once again. Says Bono, “It became apparent to me that the love I had for acting never went away. It was the only thing I felt passionate about doing. So I made the decision to do whatever it took to ensure this would be the career I was going to have for the rest of my life.”
And he’s got a wonderful support system in his Oscar-winning mother, Cher, who’s helped out with a little acting advice and then some.
“Mom has been unbelievably supportive,” Bono shares. “For the most part, she’s just really had my back on this and been a fan — she’s been supportive of everything I’ve done. I’m in a theater group called 30 Minute Musicals, where we do short musical parodies of popular films. It was my way of getting my toe back into theater and getting on stage. She came to one of the first shows I did there, and she liked it. And I know when she saw a clip from Dirty, she knew where I was at and what I was capable of. She’s really been there any way she can, helping me out and being supportive, and sending clips of my work out to people she knows.”
Bono recognizes the challenges he faces as a transgender actor, but has no interest in giving that mindset any credence as he moves forward in his career, nor does he have any interest in being typecast.
“I know there’s one other transgender actor who’s stealth, and my advice to him was to remain that way,” he says. “Too many transgender actresses are great and could play any female role, but they’re only given trans parts. I’ve turned down transgender roles. I’m a character actor. I don’t want to fall into only getting those parts.”
Ask him what it will take to change Hollywood’s mind about how they see transgender actors, and Bono is curt: “I have no idea. It’s not my job to change Hollywood, it’s just my job to have an acting career.”
While Bono remains involved in the LGBTQ community and supportive of the challenges they face, his focus is clear: “I’m a man on a mission, and that’s to make a dream come true for me that started back when I was 14.”
Dirty is being released nationwide July 12 on VOD.