Don't try to label this actor a 'woman' or 'man'

<em>Billions</em> star Asia Kate Dillon speaks on playing nonbinary Taylor Amber Mason in the hit Showtime drama series. (Photo: Build NYC)
Billions star Asia Kate Dillon speaks on playing nonbinary Taylor Amber Mason in the hit Showtime drama series. (Photo: Build NYC)

Asia Kate Dillon is a fierce actor with arresting eyes and a buzzcut, known for breakout roles including a Nazi skinhead inmate in Orange Is the New Black and, currently, a calculating hedge-fund intern on Showtime’s Billions. But what the 33-year-old gets asked about perhaps most frequently is gender identity: Dillon’s is “nonbinary,” with the preferred pronoun of “they.”

Still, recurrent explaining is not something they mind one bit.

“I’m really grateful for that,” Dillon tells Yahoo Lifestyle at New York City’s Build Studio (part of Yahoo’s parent company, Oath), where they had dropped by for a live studio interview. “I mean, I spent so many years not understanding my own gender identity, not having the language to talk about it, and not feeling safe in many environments to talk about it. And so now, having the opportunity to talk about it and have it printed is extraordinary for me, and it doesn’t get tiring.”

One particularly notable moment of explanation was when Dillon was a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. They noted about being nonbinary, “It’s a term used by some people, myself included, who experience their gender identity as falling somewhere outside the boxes of man or woman. … Female is a sex, and sex is between our legs, and gender identity is between our ears.”

Dillon’s Billions character of Taylor identifies as nonbinary as well — a point that caused Dillon to weep with joy upon first reading the script. “If there had been someone like Taylor on TV when I was young, it would’ve meant a great deal,” Dillon says. Below, some highlights from our quick but deep conversation.

Why is it important to you to identify as nonbinary rather than to just expand the definition of what “woman” can mean?

It’s important to me because it is me. That is my experience of myself, and so I’m just living my life as me. Nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, and trans people have always been around, just as long as any other type of person. So in that sense, I think expanding the definition of what a woman is is great — for people who identify as women and want to work at expanding that definition for themselves and the world at large. That’s not where I’m coming from, and so that’s why it’s important to me.

So have you felt excluded, then, by the women’s movement, and specifically the Women’s March?

The short answer is yes. I think a lot of the women’s movement is perpetuating the synonymous use of “woman” and “vagina,” and not all women have vaginas, not all people with vaginas are women. And the pussy hats — not all pussies are pink, but that association is totally exclusive, and not just of nonbinary people, but of trans women and people of color. And so the future, to me, is inclusive, and it’s intersectional, certainly. And if it’s not intersectional then it’s not feminism, really. So I do feel left out of conversations that continue to align femininity and womanhood with uteruses and vaginas. I think that’s an archaic alignment, and I’m excited for a future in which we don’t do that.

Let’s talk about your buzzcut: When did you first do it and why, and what does it feel like for you?

The very first time I buzzed my head I was 21 — I’d had short hair since I was 14 — I just remember it was like 2 in the morning and I just was like, I really want to do it, I want to see what I look like and what my head shape is. And I remember taking the clippers that my roommate had at the time and just going for it. And it was incredibly freeing… and ultimately, I felt like there was nothing to hide behind. It was like, here’s my face, here’s what I look like, and the world is going to really see me now.

Since then, I’ve had all different kinds of styles and colors, and for Orange Is the New Black I played a skinhead, so it worked for that. And then when I was cast as Taylor, it felt like the shorter buzz just felt right for the character, honestly, so that’s why I’ve maintained it. I’m so grateful that neither Brandy nor Taylor wear any makeup — although they do cover my neck tattoo for Taylor — but it’s a real easy time in the [hair and makeup] chair for me.

Asia Kate Dillon attends the Showtime Golden Globe Nominees Celebration at Sunset Tower on Jan. 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Tara Ziemba/Getty Images)
Asia Kate Dillon attends the Showtime Golden Globe Nominees Celebration at Sunset Tower on Jan. 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Tara Ziemba/Getty Images)

How challenging was it for you to play Brandy, the pretty scary white supremacist skinhead character on Orange Is the New Black?

I was really grateful to be playing a white antagonist in a Black Lives Matter storyline, because you need white antagonists to tell those stories. And I’m certainly happy as a light-skinned white person to play an antihero onscreen, because we have so many examples of white people as heroes. Is it hard and challenging to play a character like that? Certainly. Although as an actor, I’m never judging the character that I’m playing, because that’s not helpful. My job was to show up on set, put on the costume, play the character, and then take off the costume, and leave the character at work. So that’s what I did.

In my real life, I’m a Black Lives Matter social justice activist, and so it was incredibly interesting to me to play somebody coming from the totally opposite side, whose beliefs are as deeply entrenched — as deeply felt, and given as much gravity, as I give my beliefs. And I think just knowing that, understanding that, allows a possible road towards a way in which to approach conversation with a person who is coming from a totally different perspective, but who is holding it in the same place within themselves that you hold your beliefs.

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