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Magazine

Theo Germaine on Acting, Self-Worth, and Productivity

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Listen to Theo Germaine’s autobiographical tales and you’ll be nodding in agreement when they assert that “life is unpredictable.” From their humble beginnings in a rural Illinois hometown to becoming the breakout star of Netflix’s hit series The Politician, saw Germaine become one of the most recognizable transmasculine actors in the industry. But lean further into their personal achievements—namely a hard-earned, radical self-acceptance—and you’ll then discover why Germaine is so irresistible on-screen. They’re real—and the real deal.

Anyone’s adolescence can be wasted on manufactured insecurities and shattered confidence, both stemming from feeling like you’ll never fit in. It took a long time for Germaine to be outwardly confident, especially when they realized their non-binary gender identity while growing up in a conservative small town. While they acknowledge that being raised in a liberal or urban environment might have afforded more exposure to the intricacies of queer culture, their intrinsic curiosity would be enough to seek it out, by virtual means if necessary.

“I had access to the internet and did a decent job expanding my worldview as best as I could knowing something else was out there,” they recall. Still, the struggles were very real. “It took me longer to accept myself because there wasn't anyone else like me around. I spent most of my teens confidently knowing who I was, but I would always have to hide because I thought it meant everyone in the world would think I was an abomination.”

“If I could say anything to my teenage self, it'd be that none of that would be the case; that in the future I have friends and loved ones, I get to be out, loud, and express myself, and I get to do what I love, and I get to be happy.” What they love to do is act.

In their younger years, this manifested as amateur performances in the living room, with makeshift costumes and face paint—forehead to chin, cheek to cheek—as if every day were Halloween. Their ambitions soon outgrew the four walls of their family home, the hallowed stages of Broadway, or the grand Chapiteau tents of Cirque du Soleil, as the ultimate goal. The next logical step was to first take over Chicago’s theatre district, where they acted in a series of contemporary plays and Shakespeare, while taking on-camera acting classes, writing, and taking on part-time jobs. Then in 2019, Germaine won a game-changing role as James Sullivan in The Politician, Ryan Murphy’s poignant television series about snowballing turmoil at an elite Southern California high school. The show will debut its second season later this year.

Germaine plays a shrewd campaign advisor to the protagonist, Peyton, who is running for high school class president. James is “a little stubborn, very smart, analytical, and constantly assessing the field with his little computer brain. He’s very driven—I am, too—although we’re not very similar. So it was fun and sometimes an intimidating challenge to be him.” Germaine did however find it refreshing that James’ gender identity never arose as a topic of discussion throughout the season. He just was who he was—a person that’d be in your own friend circle—rather than a token trans character written into a storyline to tick the diversity box. See, while there’s been a marked increase in trans representation in film and television (this should still be rejoiced!), there’s a fine line between crafting an authentic story versus writing in a trans person for the sake of diversity.

“I think the biggest mark is when story focuses on somebody’s ‘being trans’ and nothing else. If everything kind of revolves around sensationalizing or ‘trauma-porning,’ you get a two-dimensional being who exists to serve the cisgender characters in the plot. They won’t be given a good story or have a lot of personality traits, which can make an actor feel used.”

But not in Ryan Murphy’s genre-spanning portfolio of TV shows: They’re the product of a true pioneer of inclusivity who is famed for his brazen casting decisions—and these very intentional choices are blazing trails for trans actors on screens large and small. The prolific director, screenwriter, and producer commits to introducing emerging trans and non-binary talent through characters that are real and complex—deliciously flawed, yet painfully relatable—instead of one-dimensional supporting cast members.

“Ryan is one of the first people to cast so many trans actors on mainstream TV, and it makes me hopeful for the future. There are still a lot of obstacles for so many of us who want to see regular work, but he's impacted me in many positive ways, radicalizing me to never give up.”

And what does a well-rounded trans character look like? “Other things besides being trans! That’s it,” Germaine contends. “Lovers, interests, challenges, jobs, moral debates, heists, ethics flaws. Not just zooming in on gender identity.” It’s a collective effort getting more diversity on set: The casting team should call in more actors for parts. Production companies might want to recruit more trans crewmembers. Showrunners can foster trans content creators and writers—writers especially, who understand what it is like to be trans.

“Ryan has helped me envision how I can make more work for other people like me, and how I can continue to break out of the boxes that casting tries to put me in. Life is unpredictable, but my goal is to continue to broaden my range of characters in television and work in genres I haven’t in yet, notably science fiction, horror, and fantasy, and make the jump to acting in film.”

In addition to writing more, Germaine is also keen to try directing, and other ways to create content with dream co-stars like character actor Doug Jones and transgender actress MJ Rodriguez. But first, they have to get through the age of quarantine, which was in full swing at the time of this interview.

As lockdowns continued to be mandated around the world, the actor’s travel schedule halted to a complete stop. They’ve been grounded in their Hyde Park apartment in Chicago, social distancing for safety. But in between seeking true respite and staying in touch with loved ones, there’s something greater that Germaine has been calling into question: “I’m gaining more insight on how I attach my self-worth to productivity, critiquing myself because of how ableist that mindset is.”

“I’m hoping that able-bodied people can divorce themselves from the productivity-equates-worthiness mentality to become more humbled, and make some lasting changes that help create a wide-spread mindset of something better,” they continued. “Worth is inherent, not based off of a particular job.”

But taking a step back in a society practicing isolation means being kind to your own mind, body, and soul to survive precarious times without the contact we’re used to. Germaine approaches wellness first with intuitive eating: “I make sure I eat breakfast every day. Getting enough protein in the morning usually helps me feel less hungry and weak during the day.”

They exercise and meditate consistently, as well as committing to a six-step skincare regimen that includes a cleanser, toner, essence, serum, eye cream, and moisturizer. Still, Germaine finds themself regularly assessing their relationship to food. “There’s a lot of shame, guilt, and ‘cheating’ in diet culture, and my approach is to do the best you can and eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and to let go of beating yourself up for eating dessert.” When Germaine reprises their role as James in The Politician later this year, we’ll feel no shame in binging on something so scandalously delicious.