‘Rise’ Star Ellie Desautels Talks Playing Michael and the Importance of Trans and Non-Binary Representation

· Updated on May 27, 2018

Among the many characters that make up the teen ensemble of NBC’s musical drama Rise, Michael stands out. He’s the secondary male lead of his high school production of Spring Awakening, taking on the difficult role of Moritz. He’s confident without being cocky, strong while remaining vulnerable. He may be a supporting character, but his story compels.

Michael is trans, and is played by non-binary actor Ellie Desautels. In their hands, Michael is a remarkable character who has so far stolen the show. Though the show is just four episodes in, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else taking on the role.

Desautels talked with INTO about Michael’s arc so far, why they think trans representation is so important, and how they felt about that straightwashing controversy.

INTO: How did you and Rise come together?

Ellie Desaultels (ED): I got the audition through my managers, Shirley Grant Management. I’d been auditioning for like a year and a half before I got the audition for Rise. I went in, did my audition with just one person in the room. The next day, I heard about a callback, which happened the next week. Went to the callback, which was awesome all the producers were there, and the creative team. I got the part the next day.

You identify as non-binary yourself. To you, what is the importance of non-cis actors playing trans roles?

ED: My senior thesis in college I just graduated last May was about trans representation. So I have a lot of thoughts. There are two really important factors in casting a trans person. The first is maybe the most talked about, that trans people have an authentic experience. They bring an authenticity to transgender narratives. The second thing would be, it’s just so important to have trans actors in trans roles, because it puts our faces out there. It just shows that there are trans actors who can do this, and make a living as actors. Also, it’s just so important for trans audiences to see trans actors being successful on TV. It inspires them and shows them that they can do it, too. There’s many other reasons, but I think those are three really good ones.

We meet Michael when he’s open about being trans. Have you thought at all about what his process was to getting to that place before the series begins?

ED: I guess I could call it a head-canon, my ideas with that. You see that Maashous [played by Rarmian Newton] introduces Michael to Lou [the school theatre director, played by Josh Radnor] by bring Lou to chorus rehearsal. Lou gets to see Michael sing. I love that there’s this underlying, not-really-talked-about friendship between Michael and Maashous. I just daydream about it. I figured that they were in the cafeteria or something, and maybe they had just started being friends. And maybe Michael sensed that he could trust Maashous. He was able to use this new friendship to test out his identity, and ask, ‘Hey, could you call me Michael when it’s just us? I want to socially transition, and I need to try it out on somebody in school.’

During the fourth episode, Michael had a major showdown moment with some bullies, and stood tall in the face of transphobic insults. What was the process of filming that scene like?

ED: It was certainly a scene to look forward to, for me, when we were shooting. I remember I brought my fiancée on that day. We were rehearsing that scene together. I hadn’t heard Michael’s dead name said out loud to him, as a curse word, before. I actually started crying, because I hated that it was happening to my character. I hated that he had to hear his dead name be used that way. I had already planned, going into that day, that Michael wasn’t going to take that garbage from those football players. We’ve seen that so many times on TV. To have the liberty as an actor to take this scene and react the way I wanted a trans character to react having that moment, rehearsing with my fiancée, fueled that more. I was like, ‘I’m really happy with the way I’m going to do this today. And I’m going to really be careful; I have a responsibility to all trans kids today to have Michael stand up for himself.’

Actually doing the scene wasn’t too bad, but it was physically exhausting. There were a lot of people in the house, and it was pretty hot. We got sweaty. But I was also so lucky to have two awesome scene partners, who were just great allies. Angus O’Brien and Carter Redwood were the two bullies. They made me feel really safe. So I was lucky to be in an environment that made me feel safe, that didn’t feel uncomfortable. It was really important work that I was doing.

After the scene aired, you opened your DMs for anyone trans who was triggered by the scene. Can you share anything that came of that?

ED: I opened my DMs, and I also did a live on Instagram afterwards. Basically, the live was just to be a face-to-face experience for trans people. I didn’t want anyone to have to put into words what they were feeling. So I said something like, ‘If you’re feeling panicky, send me an emoji.’ So a few people sent emojis. And then I just talked to them, spoke softly. Because I know what it feels like to have panic attacks. Not specifically about being triggered, but having anxiety, I know what that feels like. I knew what I would want if that had happened to me. It was a really great moment.

I had done the live for about 10 minutes, and then I realized I should probably do a check-in. I asked if anyone was still feeling panicky. Somebody sent an emoji, and so I said, ‘Let’s just be quiet. I’m talking a lot. Let’s just sit silently. And everybody send some hearts. Send some love.’ As I sat silently, everybody sent heart emojis. It was really sweet that I got to create a community like that, and create a little safe bubble. I knew it was going to be triggering content. And I wanted them to feel heard.

I want to ask about the controversy that erupted earlier this year, when the show was accused of straightwashing its lead character. What was hearing that criticism like for you?

ED: It was tough to hear people talking about Jason [Katims, Rise’s creator] negatively. What I had always kept in mind is that it’s just fiction. It was inspired by Drama High, the book by Michael Sokolove. But what also I was thinking during the whole thing is, there’s something to be said about this decent, straight, cis, white character casually accepting his LGBTQ students. I think there’s something to be said about representing that kind of person, who I don’t think we see much of.

Can you tease any of what’s ahead in Michael’s journey?

ED: You get to see more a bit next week, from episode six on you get to see Michael blending in more with the troupe, becoming a regular teenager, from the audience perspective. To me, obviously, he’s already a regular teenager, but I think the audience is going to get to see just Michael being Michael. Hanging out with friends, having a lot of fun. A story I’m super stoked for people to start seeing is, a little later on, you get to see Michael and a friend with whom friendship has kinda fallen through the cracks. They rekindle their friendship through a difficult situation that his friend starts to go through. Through that difficult situation together, Michael finds his role as a support system and rock for her. I’m really excited for that, because as a story, it has nothing to do with Michael being trans. It’s this whole beautiful friendship, this difficult situation, and it’s really good. I cannot wait for people to see it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Image courtesy of NBC.

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