Alexandra Billings is the kind of person who can instantly light up a room with her charm and quirky humor. Not only is she an actress, singer and educator, she is an AIDS and LGBTQ activist who argues for the equality of the LGBTQ community and urges others to use their voice to create change within the community.
Openly transgender, Billings is one of the first actresses to play several transgender characters on television. However, her most notable role is that of Davina in the Amazon hit series Transparent, which recently wrapped up with a musical film after going on hiatus due to controversy surrounding the show’s leading star, Jeffrey Tambor.
As Billings continues to break down barriers, she was also recently cast to play Madame Morrible in Broadway’s Wicked, and was the first transgender person to star in the show. OUT FRONT had the pleasure of chatting more with Billings.
Hi, Alexandra! Thank you so much for chatting with me today. I would like to start off by talking more about the Transparent film that was released a couple weeks ago, Musicale Finale. How has it been received by audiences so far?
I haven’t been to a lot of the screenings, but the couple I have been to, they seem to really like it. They seem to cheer a lot, which is strange. I have never been in a movie before where in the middle of it, people go ‘Woohoo!’ You know what I mean? It’s like something on fire, but it’s great.
And the soundtrack to the film was released at the same time. Can you tell us more about your song?
My song “Goddamn House” is sort of a bridge. What Faith wanted was a musicalized bridge as to what happened to Maura’s house and how it no longer belongs to the kids and belongs to Davina, and there was a seed in there, but it got a little too muddy. So, Faith, because she is so brilliant, made it this sort of weird vaudevillian sort of feel. So, it’s this sort of happy, wacky music underlying this terrible news that the children no longer own their house. Surprise!
What are your personal thoughts about the film? Are you satisfied with how the show wrapped up?
Oh, yeah, I don’t think we could have ended it any other way. Jill Soloway is what I call a raving genius. Their ability to dream and imagine is truly unparalleled. When we took a year off from the show, people thought we just sort of disappeared, and because none of us knew what to do, we were all in pain and angry, upset, confused. Truly, no one knew what to do. I didn’t know this until Jill brought it up in an interview, but if you look back, there’s music in every episode. So, strangely, it’s been turning into this, like, night of the living musical sort of thing. We died and came back to life. I think musicalizing it not only made it kinder, but it also made it more universal, because it’s a language everybody speaks.
I agree. Now, the reason why the show went on hiatus was because of the controversy surrounding Jeffrey Tambor. Would you mind sharing some of your thoughts on the matter?
Oh, sure. What do you want to know?
Well, this was obviously a difficult time. What did you think about the situation when it first came to light? Jeffrey Tambor seems to be this incredibly woke person, but then two sexual harassment allegations were made against him.
Isn’t it funny, what you said? Because that’s what everyone thought. But you have to remember, I’m trying not to get super political, but you have to remember that there are white, heteronormative, cisgender men who come from a very specific time of life where they were taught behaviors that were the norm.
I always equate it like this, and I am getting to a point. I began my transition in 1980, which began a long time ago, but in LGBTQ years, it was the Stone Age. I was raised in California, where the weather is always hot, and boys would run around with very little clothes on. Just your shorts, flip-flops, and maybe a shirt that’s tucked in the back of their shorts. When I began my transition, I noticed that as my body began to feminize, I had to put on more clothes. Also, suddenly, for absolutely no reason, I couldn’t open my own door, carry my own packages, buy my own cigarettes, people pulled out chairs for me—I began to feel helpless. My power in this country, and I know this sounds trivial, but when you think about what behavior means in our country right now, especially the way the administration is acting, you think about how important behavior is. These tiny things matter.
So, now, here you have this man of a certain age who comes in this television show and has enormous success and is praised critically, spiritually, emotionally. It was incredible, and it happened very quickly. Jeffrey Tambor had been working for decades as a very successful actor, but he has never had this kind of success before. Now, I don’t know how he was on other sets, but I can tell you that on this set, and I worked the most with him, he was kind, considerate, and funny. I mean, drop dead to your knees, pee on yourself, funny. He was delightful, intelligent, well-read, learned, and one hell of an actor. Truly. And then, you could walk to get a sandwich, and by the time you came back, he could be vicious, vindictive, maniacal, rude, impertinent, and physical. And it could happen within the blink of an eye. I make this very clear anytime people ask me this.
I know, as sure as I’m standing here talking to you, that Trace Lysette and Van Barnes are telling and told the absolute truth. Every word of it. And Jeffrey Tambor is lying. I know that, and I don’t say that out of vindictiveness. It’s been two years now; I have no anger. I’ve worked through all that stress. I’m holding onto nothing. I am clearly saying that this man behaved badly. He is the culmination of behavior he was taught because of the generation in which he was raised. And look, whether or not he was woke, I have absolutely no idea. The only person that knows that is Jeffrey Tambor.
Were other cast and crew members just as shocked?
I can’t speak for anybody else, but I can tell you, just from the outside looking in, it was like someone had dropped a bomb in the middle of a peaceful, loving, kind, compassionate commune.
Well, clearly you all moved forward, which resulted in giving us a fabulous film to wrap up the story. Did you ever think Transparent would become such a sensation?
Oh my God, no, are you kidding? Please. Faith got ahold of me through the Facebook when she and Jill’s parent was transitioning asking what the heck the family should do. We talked for, like, six months. Just about how to take care of each other. Then, about six months later, Faith says she’s thinking about making a TV show out of this. I’m like, what? Because remember, nothing like this has ever been done. They asked if I wanted to be in it, and I’m like, sure! Then Faith goes, it’s going to be on Amazon. Now, this was like seven to eight years ago, so I’m thinking the place that sells books. This kind of sounds terrible, but that’s kind of how we all went into it. Like, OK, nobody’s going to see it. So, we’re going to do everything we feel in our gut. We’re going to shake things up and say what we want to say about family, transness, Jewishness, sex, and we’re just going to face them. It was like the lunatics were running the asylum. And that first year, it really is the damnedest thing, we got nominated for a Golden Globe Award, and won! If you search on Google and look at our faces, every single one of us look like we just got out of a clown car. It was such a shock.
What have you taken away the most by being a part of Transparent?
That is it important for me to be of service to those who cannot or are unable to find their voice. That for me, for the rest of my life, is my job.
Awesome. Moving on to an upcoming project, you were just recently cast as Madame Morrible in Broadway’s Wicked. Have you always wanted to be involved with production?
When I was a child, I could recite every single word of The Wizard of Oz at any time. It’s superhuman and incredibly pathetic, but it has always been one of my favorite films. In my dreams, I would go to sleep and listen to The Wizard of Oz. I would climb inside the Emerald City; I would be inside Munchkinland; I would hold hands with Dorothy—it infiltrated my psyche, and I believe my spirit as well. When this opportunity came along, I had no words. I was diagnosed with HIV in the 90s, so I should have been dead 10 times over. This should not be true. I should not be here. So, the fact of it is truly extraordinary. My gratefulness is off the charts.
And what does it mean to be the first trans woman to be in this production?
That’s a beautiful question, thank you for asking that. I think it’s incredibly important. Whoever comes to see the show, they have to have a conversation about something on the way home. Whether it’s how wonderful it is or asking questions, whatever it’s about, a conversation about Madame Morrible comes up, and that really is the gift of the show. So, all the young, trans people who believe they are crazy, they can now without having to say a word just point and gesture at me and turn to their family or friends and say, ‘That’s me.’ This opens an enormous portal for the trans community.
What other upcoming projects should we be on the lookout for? What’s next?
I’m going to Burger King. I’m exhausted [laughs]. Let’s see, there’s so many things! I’m teaching right now; I am a theatre performance professor at USC. I have been teaching for about four decades. Acting and teaching are my two biggest passions. It’s part of the air I breathe. I also have a couple of speaking engagements; I just finished up a film, and I just wrapped up the first season of Diary of a Female President for Disney+. I don’t have much time before Wicked rehearsals start in January.