Alexandra Billings says she’s been too busy living in the present to think about making history. But the celebrated actress of stage and screen knows that becoming the first transgender faculty member of the USC School of Dramatic Arts to gain tenure is no small thing when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation.
“I think that it speaks volumes about how far USC has come,” Billings said at a reception on Monday celebrating the school’s LGBTQ+ alumni, faculty, students and staff. “To have a mixed-race trans woman be not just faculty, but a tenured faculty member, is to say to other marginalized queer folk: ‘We want you here. We honor you here. We honor your story and your work.’ That’s extraordinary.”
More than 150 people gathered in the courtyard of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center to toast Billings, an associate professor of acting. A special School of Dramatic Arts performance of Tomlin’s stage show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Revisited followed inside the center’s Renberg Theatre.
“The room just changes in energy when she’s there,” School of Dramatic Arts Dean Emily Roxworthy said of Billings in her toast. “She’s an incredible teacher and trans activist who is a beacon to students who can say, ‘USC has a place for me because Alex is there.’ We were so incredibly fortunate to recruit her, and we’re really, really proud at this moment.”
Bringing authenticity to transgender roles
Billings is best known to television viewers for her recurring roles as transgender women on the Amazon dramatic series Transparent and the ABC sitcom The Conners. She has managed to carve out a prolific career despite having to watch better-known cisgender performers land transgender roles in television and movies.
Before the tide began to change in recent years, Billings was considered something of a pioneer as a trans actress playing actual trans characters on television shows such as How to Get Away with Murder, ER and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the TV movie Romy and Michele: In the Beginning.
I make sure when I say yes to something, that it’s about creating dialogue and about being a portal for change.
“I’m very lucky in the sense that I have a lot of really good friends in the business that are very loyal and believe that the marginalized voice is the voice of the future,” she said. “I make sure when I say yes to something, that it’s about creating dialogue and about being a portal for change.”
Billings is no longer satisfied with just having some kind of LGBTQ+ representation in a production.
“I want the queer voice to be the center story,” she said. “I want us to stop being only the supportive voice.”
Making her own way
The USC milestone comes amid a series of high points for Billings in a career where she has often had to create her own opportunities. This includes her one-person autobiographical show, S/HE & ME, which has toured to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and off-Broadway. Billings made her Broadway debut in 2018 in the play The Nap, becoming one of the first openly trans people to be cast in a trans role on Broadway. Two years later, she began playing the role of Madame Morrible in the Broadway production of Wicked before and after the closures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t tend to think about whatever I did first because that’s for the history books,” Billings said. “I feel like as long as we keep doing the thing, as long as we keep in mind that it’s the students and their artistic voice that matters, everything else will be taken care of.”
The beginning of a fruitful partnership
Reception attendees also toasted School of Dramatic Arts alumnus Jonathan Munoz-Proulx for becoming artistic director of the L.A. LGBT Center 10 months ago and for using his Trojan connections to make Monday’s performance — directed by School of Dramatic Arts adjunct lecturer Ken Sawyer and attended by Tomlin herself — come to fruition.
“To have these two worlds of USC and the center be in collaboration is such a beautiful gift and moment for all of us,” Munoz-Proulx said. “There are lots of opportunities for partnership, and we’re invested in maintaining our relationship with USC moving forward.”
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