While Ryan Murphy may have modeled his toxically ambitious protagonist in “The Politician” after Tracy Flick, the character played by Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne’s excellent political dark comedy “Election” (1999), Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) has more in common with a far wealthier manipulator: “Gossip Girl” Queen bee Blair Waldorf. Like Leighton Meester’s doyenne of the Upper East Side, Payton surrounds himself with the finest things in life, including only the best, brightest, and most loyal political advisors. There’s his buttoned-up beard Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), the engine McAffee (Laura Dreyfuss), and his morally ambiguous sidekick James (Theo Germaine), who would sacrifice his own romantic happiness to see Payton succeed — and thank him for the opportunity.
Like Murphy’s early Fox hit “Glee,” the characters in “The Politician” speak at a breakneck clip, reveling in the comedic sweet spot between bombastic intellect and unabashed self-interest. Germaine’s pointed delivery and conniving specificity proves he has been studying the Murphy ouevre for quite some time; he makes a meal out of his mostly expository lines that could easily have floated past unnoticed. It’s no surprise, then, that Germaine’s favorite show on TV right now is “Pose,” another Murphy creation and one that cast a record number trans women in leading roles.
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“The Politician” is less overt in its inclusivity, though it’s certainly there. Murphy has taken the lessons he learned on “Pose” and made inclusive casting a simple fact of life. The school principal is played by Natasha Ofili, an African American actress who is also deaf; the comedian and actor Ryan J. Haddad, who has cerebral palsy, has some of the best scenes in the show; and one of Payton’s political rivals (Rahne Jones) self-identifies, almost with a wink, as a gender non-conforming person of color.
With all of this delicious diversity, it’s no big deal that Germaine is trans — which is, itself, kind of a big deal.
“Everybody in the show is just kinda fluid, and kind of all over the place, but nothing is specifically talked about,” Germaine said during a recent interview. “Which was kinda scary at first, because I’m so used to having to label myself.”
Germaine was raised in the corn fields of Illinois, where there weren’t always a lot of opportunities for trans actors. He found early success in the Chicago theater scene, with roles at venerated regional theaters like the Steppenwolf and the Goodman. “The Politician” is undoubtedly his big break, and it’s coming just in time for Hollywood’s trans new wave. Though Germaine is still at the beginning of his career, he knew “The Politician” was different than other roles.
“So many auditions for trans characters feel stale, or it’s all about the moment of coming out, or it’s about the point at which somebody is in their transition,” he said. “To not have any of those things be part of the reality was like, ‘OK, how do I take that hat off and just be an actor and just get to do this thing? I kept thinking, ‘Oh, this is what it must be like for cisgender people, who don’t have to always be like, ‘Yep, I’m trans.'”
James’ gender identity is never directly addressed in the show’s eight episodes, and all the characters embrace a laissez faire attitude toward gender and sexuality. He has a clandestine romance with Alice, in which we see them interrupted during a hook-up. It’s refreshing to see a trans-masculine character in an otherwise typical heterosexual romantic storyline, even if it is brief.
Looking at shows like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Pose,” trans representation in Hollywood has so far mostly centered on trans women. For many reasons, Hollywood is still figuring out what to do with trans male characters.
“I’m always excited to audition for everything, but it’s frequently just like, they want somebody who’s not on [testosterone] yet, or they want somebody who’s not had top surgery yet, or they want somebody who’s super buff and has a beard, and I’m kind of like, I don’t know where I fit in.”
On “The Politician,” he fits in.
“I was misgendered one time on set by an extra, and I just immediately was like, ‘Hey, that’s not what I use,'” said Germaine, who uses both they/them and he/him pronouns. “I felt super welcome on set and nobody skipped a beat. I was always gendered correctly and I felt super respected. I quickly even let go of the fear that anything was gonna go wrong. It was kind of magical, actually.”
Though the casting breakdown was specifically seeking a transgender male, Germaine could very well have played James as a cisgender character. There’s nothing in the script that alludes to the character being trans. Many trans advocates in Hollywood have said the next wave of inclusion would mean productions seeking trans actors and actresses for all roles — not only specifically transgender ones. Germaine admits that would be ideal, but we’re not there yet.
“I think it’s slowly starting to [improve] a little bit, but it’s not happening a whole bunch yet,” he said. “I would like to think [‘The Politician’] is one of the things that will help make more opportunities like this happen.”