Normally these kinds of interviews start with a, “I rolled into the lobby of Hotel X and discovered that so and so dresses casually,” kind of things but as it turns out, I’ve been married to my interviewee for 19 years this month, and because of Covid we are living together in Appleton for the first time in three years. She came home to me, and to Appleton, once Hollywood shut down and it was obvious there would be no roles in the near future. She’d been sleeping on her manager’s couch and going to auditions and was otherwise waiting for a movie that she was going to be playing the lead in to be fully cast; it was meant to start filming in April, of course, because that’s just our luck. But it’s just your luck, dear reader, to hear from Rachel Crowl, who has been acting off and on for 30 years, and who, somewhere in the middle of things, transitioned from being an off-Broadway actor who got great reviews in The New York Times to being a photographer/videographer (“pixel pusher” is how she puts it) for Lawrence University to reclaiming her acting career again, after the age of 40. Also, coincidentally, I’ve written two—now very old—books about our relationship, both written before she transitioned.
In the time period between when I wrote my books (2004 and 2007) and her transition, the world changed as a result of the remarkable efforts of trans advocates and activists and our allies. Trans rights have become an incredible, necessary part of the LGBTQ movement’s push for progress, so much so that the remarkable documentary on trans representation in visual media Disclosure now exists, so we started there.
What are your thoughts about Disclosure?
Ahh, Disclosure was magic! I’m so grateful that they made that documentary and that it seems to be resonating with audiences. It’s important to understand how trans people have been seen on the big and small screens, to learn from that, and most importantly act on it.
We know that you’ll get better, genuine performances if you cast accordingly. For instance, an Asian-American actor is going to understand on an intrinsic subconscious level what that experience has been like and if you cast a white actor in that part they’re going to have to find a way to work that into the performance. It’s the same thing with trans characters. From a purely artistic viewpoint, it’s ridiculous. It’s like trying to do two levels of acting at the same time.
That’s what it’s like when I see a cisgender man play a transwoman. I’m watching him perform transness AS WELL as the actual arc of the character. And the two levels almost always show! Casting a trans person in a trans role automatically gets you a level of authenticity that doesn’t have to be performed because it’s already a lived experience and that means the actor now just has to focus on the character.
But it’s also really important for audiences to actually see the diversity that exists in this world. Especially for people to see themselves represented truthfully on the screen or the stage.
Disclosure really points this out in a way that’s awesome. Because, quite frankly, who the hell wants to see yet another shitty false representation? I certainly don’t!
I found the way Disclosure pointed out how much representation teaches trans people about themselves—in really dysfunctional ways—very moving. Having started our work so long ago, when there were so few representations, all of them bad, I’m amazed we found any examples of healthy, good examples of transitioned people and transitioned relationships. Bad representation is such a plague—not just in media, but in our actual lives. I mean, we had no good examples of either, back in the day, and despite your having such an incredibly successful off-Broadway career and being reviewed well in the Times, it all got so complicated really fast. So why did you quit acting?
Yeah, I really had it all going for me for a while there. Ha!
Even within that success though, I knew that dealing with my gender was a thing that was going to happen; it was just a question of when. And because you are awesome, I actually had the opportunity to do just that.
It meant—at least for me—that I was going to have to quit being an actor. When I transitioned in the mid-aughts the world looked very different than it does now. The opportunities for a trans actor just weren’t there.
I always say that the only roles it seemed that were open to me post-transition were either a “dead body the cops make a joke about” or a “live body the cops make a joke about.” I’d been playing leading roles off-Broadway and I really couldn’t see myself doing any of that.
Also, it’s important to point out that I really needed time in this world as a woman to really consider acting again. I’m not a trained actor, it’s all just instinct for me (and learning from every amazing actor I worked with). And at that time, I just didn’t have any experience as a woman to draw upon, so in essence I would have been performing that double-level of acting that I mentioned earlier. And I’m not a fan of that.
To be honest, I thought it was a fair trade: if I give up the acting career, hopefully I could have a good quality of life as a woman. At least that’s the deal I thought I was making with the universe.
So I retired. The word “retired” felt better, like it was an active choice, y’know?
I remember you called it your “Michael Jordan retirement” because people understood that. Still, you spent a decade doing other things and actually managed that good quality of life as a woman. I remember that you wouldn’t even come see theatre with me, though, too, because it was painful to have given that up. So how and why did you start acting again?
In June of 2016 you had gotten an email from Savannah Bloch (the director/writer of And Then There Was Eve) asking if I would audition for the film. That ask happened at the perfect time. I was mad at my boss, tired of my job, and really wanted to get back to making art (at the time I thought it was going to be music) so I decided, what the hell, and auditioned. Five days later, I got the role, and three weeks after that I was in Los Angeles and they were yelling “action.”
It was a wild ride but I’m so grateful that it happened. Acting is my favorite thing to do in the whole world, and I feel very blessed to have been given a second chance at it.
I quit that job, raised some money, and moved to LA at the end of the year and it was off to the races, and ultimately the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), which was a dream gig.
You are so good at finding a window when a door has closed. What happened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival?
My first year at OSF I ended up playing Pistol in Shakespeare’s Henry V. The role is male but they’d cast a woman to play it, which was super cool. And when she had a family emergency, I went on. I thought, “Y’know, I spent a long time playing guys, and now I’m being asked to play a guy, so why not really go for it and play a dude? It’s not like I don’t have any experience in that world.”
And I’m so glad I did. There was something so liberating in letting gender go and just running with it. It didn’t affect my identity, and I had such a unique insight into toxic masculinity (Pistol is an asshole) from having been socialized male, that what might have been an obstacle was instead an opportunity.
At some point during the run of that show, the 1491s, a Native American sketch comedy troupe, saw the show. They were working on Between Two Knees which was going to be in the next season at OSF and were on the lookout for people they wanted to cast. And boom, they wanted me!
Tell me more about Between Two Knees.
Between Two Knees is an unapologetic black comedy about Native American experience. It’s dark and funny, and it pulls no punches, especially when it comes to white people (who, let’s be frank, fully deserve it when it comes to our treatment of Native peoples).
I was the only white cast member. That was a new experience for me. I remember being in the rehearsal room and realizing that I was the only white person and thinking, “This feeling you’re feeling right now, Rachel? This is what everybody else in this room feels almost all of the time.”
So I ended up playing ALL the bad white people in the show, and I loved every single minute of it. I played 16 different characters. It was like getting to be in the best episode of Saturday Night Live ever!
And yet, it was more than that. I know my privilege as a white person, and even though I’ve tried to educate myself, there was so much about Native American history that I just didn’t know. It changed me.
I’m extremely passionate now about doing things that can help my Native brothers and sisters. When you spend 10 months living within their world you learn things. When we had a majority Native audience, that was the most magical experience I’ve ever had as an actor. It was like going to church. Hearing their laughter (and their sobs) changed me.
Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. There is so much respect within Indigenous communities for complicated genders and for other marginalized experiences. You now play all the genders, which seems, well, unusual and unusually cool. Do your colleagues or your audience find it harder to accept you in one gender or the other?
So far, no. That’s been both a surprise and a blessing. Even when I play men, people don’t seem to have an issue with calling me “Rachel” or understanding I’m a woman playing a masculine role.
As someone who was just about to be the lead in a film when Covid and quarantine hit, how are you faring?
Whew. I really feel like I was about to “blow up” this year. I had the lead role in a feature film that was supposed to shoot in April and May, and of course that didn’t happen. But also, my time at OSF had put me in front of a lot of people who have actual power when it comes to casting, and when I was in LA at the beginning of the year, I was fortunate enough to have some amazing meetings. And then, the pandemic. It’s hard. But I also remind myself that every single actor I know is going through the same thing. Production of all kinds is shut down, and we’re all trying to figure out how to make it happen. The funny thing, though, is that despite Covid, I’ve still gotten auditions for amazing things. I had the opportunity to do an online version of Macbeth with Patrick Page and some other amazing actors as part of Stars in the House, and that gave me a lot of life. Hopefully, when we as Americans pull out heads out of our collective asses and treat this pandemic seriously, I’ll still have that “buzz” around me. I’m super hopeful. I’ve put in the work, and dammit, I’m a really good actor. I feel like something amazing is just around the corner.
What about activism? How much pressure do you feel to “represent” all trans people?
I’m not much of an activist. It doesn’t come naturally to me, to be honest. But I’ve found that if I strive to be the best damn actor I can be, I can help to change the narrative about trans people. When you present people with excellence, they almost have to sit up and take notice. The most rewarding moments of my acting career 2.0 is having audience members come up to me after a show saying things like, “You were so good! I forgot you were trans and realized it didn’t matter.”
That’s not nothing. I hope it’s my form of making “good trouble” as the late, great John Lewis implored us.