‘Queer as Folk’ Star Jesse James Keitel on Playing a One-Time Party Girl Navigating Adulthood

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In Peacock’s new Queer as Folk, Jesse James Keitel stars as Ruthie, a trans woman and onetime party girl trying — and sometimes failing — to mature. The 28-year-old actress (a queer trans woman) made history in 2020 when she won the role of private investigator and aspiring singer Jerrie Kennedy on ABC’s Big Sky, which just concluded its second season in May. Her casting on Big Sky marked the first time a nonbinary actor (at the time, Keitel identified as nonbinary) played a nonbinary series regular on primetime TV.

Keitel says it’s now “a dream come true” to be a part of the rich Queer as Folk legacy. “The previous two iterations changed the TV landscape for queer stories,” Keitel says. “As an audience, we expect more from television today than we did 20 years ago. The issues queer people are facing in the media and in real life and in legislation have changed. So [now] you get to see characters like mine, a really messy trans woman who’s navigating adulthood in a way we haven’t really seen so much on TV.”

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Notably, the character of Ruthie is also portrayed by Keitel in the show pre-transition. “The idea came from Jaclyn Moore, one of my writers, who created the origin story of Ruthie,” says series creator Stephen Dunn. “Ultimately, it’s Ruthie coming into her own, finding her name, finding her identity.” He notes, too, that at one point the character is dead-named (referred to by the name she used before transitioning). “Which we bleep for the audience,” continues Dunn. “It’s censored out, it’s like a swear word.”

Keitel — who grew up on Long Island and graduated with a BFA in acting from Pace University in 2015 — has performed in drag under the name Peroxide as a member of the Haus of FemAnon, but she doesn’t expect to resurrect that character anytime soon. “I think I definitely found myself through that and have now found myself in other ways,” she says. “As I’ve gotten older and have gotten further in transition — I turned to drag when acting was stifling. And then I turned to acting when drag became stifling.”

Devin Way as Brodie and Jesse James Keitel as Ruthie in Peacock’s Queer as Folk. - Credit: Courtesy of Peacock
Devin Way as Brodie and Jesse James Keitel as Ruthie in Peacock’s Queer as Folk. - Credit: Courtesy of Peacock

Courtesy of Peacock

She tells THR that she feels comfortable as Ruthie, a character she says is similar to the person she is in real life, especially when it comes to her dry, witty humor. But Keitel admits filming love scenes on Queer as Folk was a challenge. “Ruthie taught me so much about myself, and the show itself did as well because of the ways it pushed me with my comfort level with my own body,” she says. “I’ve never shied away from my body. I’ve never really had that much shame about my body until it came time to be nude on TV. And then all of a sudden there was this ever-present body panic of navigating being a sexual being, being an adult, being a trans woman and feeling exposed on TV. Ruthie gave me so much confidence in myself because she has so much confidence in herself.”

The actress is proud of her trans status but acknowledges the prickly nuances of being someone expected to bear the weight of representation on their shoulders. “Sometimes you don’t want to be an advocate. Sometimes you just want to be good at your job,” Keitel says. “I hope my career as an actor isn’t reduced to one small part of my lived experience for the rest of my life.”

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the June 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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