The culture is deeply into Hulu’s gripping scammer show “The Dropout,” which chronicles the rise and fall of Theranos fraudster Elizabeth Holmes. Nicky Endres’ performance as honorable tech genius Ana Arriola —who is wonderfully outspoken about their queerness irl— plays a significant role in the twisted story. INTO chatted to Endres about how “The Dropout” normalizes Ana’s queerness on screen, the poignance of Ana’s influence on Elizabeth’s iconic look, using voice acting to challenge the concept of gender, and narrating the audiobook for Emme Lund’s novel “The Boy With A Bird In His Chest”.
INTO: When did you first hear about the Theranos scam?
ENDRES: My partner is actually a clinical laboratory scientist, so I think I first heard about Theranos from him while he was reading the book “Bad Blood” by John Carreyrou sometime in 2018, maybe. I thought he was telling me about a fictional novel that was just kind of science-y!
Do you know whether Hulu was always going to cast a trans actor for the role of Ana?
Yes! I’m happy and proud to say that as far as I know, authentic casting was important to the production team. And in my internet research, I found an interview with the real Ana where she had said something to the effect of “If anyone ever turns this into a film or television show, whoever they get to play me should be a trans woman of color.” So it’s fantastic that Ana’s wishes about her own representation were taken to heart and executed with the same intention and integrity. And I feel honored to get to be the result of that, because my values also align with Ana’s that way.
You’ve referred to your role in “The Dropout” as “a dramatic re-enactment of real-life genius.” Did you get to meet Ana at all, or was your prep mostly researching online?
My prep was all online, low-key stalking. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to actually contact Real Ana without some kind of formal invitation to do so. Also, it was relatively easy to find her giving talks and being on panels in online videos, which gave me enough information to get an idea of who she is and what she cares about. Ana and I did, however, become friends after I had wrapped shooting! She reached out to me on social media after a friend of hers told her about my being cast as her, and we clicked immediately. She’s just as smart, charming, and stylish as I expected her to be, and also down to earth and kind.
“My prep was all online, low-key stalking.”
How is your creative process different when portraying someone real? Is there added pressure playing someone in the queer community, who’s also going to watch the show?
My creative process was actually rather similar to playing a totally fictional character, the exception being that there was just more information available to me to guide my choices. I tend to be most inspired by the script first; the story itself. And in this case, since the script came from years of research, interviews, and podcasting, and the creators of the show know the real Ana, and sought her approval of her own representation in the script…it was just a huge a dramaturgical gift.
There was good information in the script that helped me understand who Ana Arriola is and what I could bring out of myself to play her TV counterpart. Also, coincidentally, Ana and I have a lot in common, so I felt an immediate connection to who she is, and as I researched her more, that just became more and more apparent.
I think she and I probably both feel that our outness and visibility as nonbinary trans femmes of color isn’t so much a pressure to represent our community as much as it is a responsibility to honor our community on principle – to be the change we want to see in the world – to be out, to be proud, and to care.
The Dropout doesn’t address Ana’s transness; only her badass genius, vision, and ethics. Was that something that appealed to you about the role?
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Actually, that was cut! There was originally a line where I do say that I am a queer designer — the subtext being that I’m coming from an intersectional, trans-inclusive feminist point of view, eager to support a fellow “outsider” in a cis/het-normative patriarchal industry – but I agree with the cut. It was unnecessary for us to telegraph Ana’s identity. The audience gets normalized, honest glimpses of Ana’s queerness: I (as TV Ana) say I have a wife and kids, I say I was rooting for Holmes because I thought we were both trying to help humanity…and I’m just me, doing my thing as a queer person in the world, occupying space without needing to explain why I exist.
So it was great that the respect was baked-in from the beginning and that it shows up in the final cut. I also, as an actor, was warmly welcomed to set, and I brought my lived experience as a queer PoC to my portrayal of Ana, so there’s that aspect of authenticity that is really honest, too.
“Our outness and visibility as nonbinary trans femmes of color isn’t so much a pressure to represent our community as much as it is a responsibility to honor our community on principle – to be the change we want to see in the world.“
It was shocking but not surprising (because queer people stay iconic) to learn that it was Ana who recommended Elizabeth “dress more like a CEO” —going so far as to pass along the details of Steve Jobs’ turtleneck designer! How much did creating an image for Ana play into the role?
Real Ana is so chic and stylish; she has a love of art and design and she definitely has some signature looks. So all of that was honored in the script, and the costumes team totally took it to heart and selected a wide range of high fashion pieces for me to try on. We all agreed that it was important for everything TV Ana wears to tell the story of who she is — that thought and care go into her self-expression. And that’s something true for me, too. It’s probably especially resonant for all trans and nonbinary folks, because of how, in moving through a cis-normative, binary-dominant world, we often feel we need to go the extra mile in communicating how we want to be seen, treated. Because gender identity is one thing—an internal sense of who one is—and gender expression is an external communication (and I think of it as a celebration) of who we are.
I think it’s especially poignant for Holmes’s lesson in style, image, and self-expression to have come from Ana of all people – a queer designer who more than anyone would know the deeper, vulnerable, existential reasons why what we wear shouldn’t be so easily dismissed as frivolity. I honestly feel rather poetic about it, and that’s also why wardrobe is always one of my favorite parts of creating a character. It says so much about what a person thinks and feels about themselves. How they literally move through the world.
Also, I just love playing stylish characters because I get to kiki with the costumes team and we just have a great time collaborating! I was granted a lot of input in coming up with TV Ana’s looks –the silk kimono, arranging the beaded necklace asymmetrically; the side braid was also my contribution. And then the hair and make-up teams brought it to life with volumizing and a signature coral lip.
Has there been any response or reaction to your “The Dropout” performance that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
Yes, definitely, and that was not something I’d anticipated. Real Ana told me she’d been receiving messages from folks expressing gratitude – especially for the scene where Ana confronts Holmes. Both she and others are feeling vindicated, getting closure, and experiencing catharsis. That scene for them stands in for what they couldn’t do in real life, and TV Ana gets to say all the things they didn’t get to say to Holmes’s face. That has been beautiful to me. It really moves me because that is why I love storytelling and why I am an artist.
“[Ana’s presentation] is resonant for all trans and nonbinary folks…we often feel we need to go the extra mile in communicating how we want to be seen, treated.”
Stories tell us who we are; it’s how we make sense of the world. And I think it is beautiful and important when stories show us we’re not alone, and that what we feel is valid and shared, and that art can even help us heal. Holmes deceived, intimidated, and traumatized a lot of people. I’m really honored and humbled to be a part of something that has helped some folks finally feel heard and to heal from that harm.
Your website beautifully states: “Although the pitch and texture of Nicky’s signature sultry sonancy can range from baritone to alto, lending itself to characters of all genders, their natural nonbinary trans voice isn’t so much a sound as it is a perspective.” Can you expand on that a bit?
I’ve been entering into the worlds of voiceover and audiobook narration, partly motivated by the pandemic and [the fact that] audio is a medium that is more easily done remotely. But also because I am just always interested in improving as an artist. Since I’m liberally educated, to me that means learning as much as possible from everywhere and applying what I learn across mediums. Like, I’ve long been told that I’m funny, but I didn’t get into stand-up until I’d transitioned and grown up and developed my own point of view about things, you know? Developed my own voice. And comedy has helped me improve as an actor, so I thought, “Well, now that I have found my voice, let’s try using it literally.”
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But as I entered the worlds of VO and audiobooks, I encountered the same cisgender/binary systems that didn’t know what to do with me. One of my coaches re-framed that as my getting to tell the industry what trans and nonbinary means in a human voice. And so for me, that’s my tagline – I’m not here to convince you that my voice has a particular gender; I’m here to challenge your very concept of gender in the first place, because from my perspective, gender is a construct, it’s malleable, it’s fluid. And so when it comes to me as a voice artist, I want to give you my best work and have that speak for itself. Ha! Unintentional pun but it stands!
“I’m not here to convince you that my voice has a particular gender; I’m here to challenge your very concept of gender in the first place, because from my perspective, gender is a construct.”
Your audiobook narration of Emme Lund’s magnificent, heart-filled The Boy With A Bird In His Chest is such a clear, perfect encapsulation of that. Could you speak to what drew you into this specific project?
Aww, thank you! I’m really lucky that the project found me! I must really give some shout-outs here, because the communities of the People of the Global Majority (PGM) VO List created by Edward Hong, and QueerVox’s List of LGBTQIA+ voices created by JP Karliak, and the fantastic training course The Great Audiobook Adventure by Elise Arsenault all helped me immensely in even being in a position to work on “The Boy With a Bird in His Chest.”
Community is everything for artists, I think – a lesson I was late to learn, but that much more grateful for now that I’ve found it. It’s not even about getting jobs – community is about sharing the joys and toils of being in a wildly unpredictable career, keeping the dream alive, and cheering one another on to level up and continually improve. I feel so grateful to have gotten to narrate Emme Lund’s creative, intimate, and heartfelt novel; I felt an instant connection to its sensitive protagonist and magical realism that tiptoes the line of being both literal and metaphorical. It was a challenge I felt ready to take on, and I hope listeners fall in love with it as I did.
There’s been a notable increase in audiobooks written by trans people being narrated by trans people, which feels like a hopeful trend from an audiobook listener’s perspective. Have you felt that there’s more willingness towards inclusivity and authentic representation right now?
Yes, I think definitely, across the board in all entertainment mediums, authentic casting and inclusive storytelling are increasing more than ever. Not ever quite fast enough, but it’s happening, and I am grateful. I’ve been a professional actor for 17 years and it feels so amazing to finally see so much opportunity for folks like me. And I think modern audiences are increasingly demanding of it, too. With so much saturation in available content, audiences are pickier about how they spend their time consuming it. Also, in the world of publishing, I think there is more room for niche content. A single book doesn’t need to be massively appealing to literally everyone to be worth its production cost; unlike Hollywood stuff which kind of needs to aim for mass appeal just to break even. So I think yes, more so in publishing than in TV and film, the increase in volume and demand for authentic PGM voices and of LGBTQIA+ voices is a little more rapid.
“I think it’s especially poignant for Holmes’s lesson in style, image, and self-expression to have come from Ana of all people – a queer designer who more than anyone would know the deeper, vulnerable, existential reasons why what we wear shouldn’t be so easily dismissed as frivolity.”
But I’m also grateful that in both TV and publishing, there are Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives for artists to help get traditionally-marginalized folks in positions to showcase their work, and mentorship programs to help get feet in the door. Of course, we really need DEI at all levels – especially at the very top – but I’m definitely seeing it in my career more than ever. I think we’re headed in the right direction, even if it still feels too slow and not enough.
In terms of being both transfeminine nonbinary and a voice artist, what is it like to use such a crucial —and often vulnerable— part of the trans experience as a tool for your job? Is there a degree of freedom in expressing genderfluidity in such a creative medium?
I love it. I think it is vital. And also, broadly, I think all artists lead with our vulnerability and sensitivity and lend ourselves to our work in personal, intimate ways. For me, it is both instinctual – I cannot (nor desire to) separate my identity from my work—and also it’s on principle. That principle being that—especially in an audio-only medium, where we don’t get the visual cues to indicate gender identity, ethnicity, height, weight, age, etc.—I refuse to be restricted to the same categories that visual mediums try to relegate me to.
And on top of that, as a trans and nonbinary person, my voice has historically been a huge source of anxiety for so long. Now that I’ve come to love my voice, I want to use it to its fullest capabilities in VO and narration – including playing cisgender characters – and really just revel in the freedom and empowerment of sounding right for a role or a project, regardless of my gender. Additionally, I want to be part of the force that educates and advances change and openness around how gender itself is a construct worth re-imagining — for all our sakes.
“Community is everything for artists, I think – a lesson I was late to learn, but that much more grateful for now that I’ve found it.”
What is something you’ve learned through navigating the entertainment industry that you want to share with newcomers?
I believe we have to “be the change we want to see in the world” and that community is essential for artists. In addition, I’d advise newcomers to the entertainment industry to investigate what it is that you love most about being an artist. This path is a very difficult road, and the statistics are against you. It’s not for everyone, and pure talent isn’t enough. Knowing what you love most and holding onto that, including it in your work, and keeping that flame of passion alive inside you, that’s what will get you through the toughest times and also what will re-ignite you and propel your momentum when you enjoy successes.
The joy, the love is in the process and in the work; fulfillment needs to come from the doing, because no job or award or ounce of fame is within your control, nor will it last. You have only your own joy in the doing. So fall in love with the doing of it all. Love the process of making art, of being an artist. And it’s ok if you discover it’s not for you—there are infinite ways to incorporate art and creativity in a life that is not directly devoted to the business of entertainment.
And it is a Business, capital B. Part of being a professional artist is also being a business person. And it doesn’t have to be intimidating, onerous, or boring: it can be part of the grander design. But give it a go, give your dreams a fair shot. You’ll never truly know unless you try.
What’s next for you?
Releasing this spring (2022), I play a couple of characters in a podcast by Realm called “Marigold Breach” starring Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto. I also narrated a paranormal mystery romance audiobook that should be coming out in the spring. And I just wrapped filming a horror comedy film, and will probably be getting back on stage for some stand-up comedy so long as Covid’s died down a bit. So… as always, a little bit of everything!♦