Let’s suppose you are an up-and-coming actor who is cast on the second season of a hit Showtime series. Your character is so well-received that Showtime wants to submit your name to the Television Academy making you eligible for an Emmy nomination. Seems like a celebratory no-brainer right?
Well, if you are Asia Kate Dillon and you are gender non-binary identifying (Asia goes by the non-gendered pronouns “they” and “them”), such a situation presents a predicament. A breakout star of the current season of Billions, on which they play Taylor Mason a math and finance genius (who is also gender non-binary identifying) at Axe Capital, Dillon had to decide whether they preferred a best supporting actor or actress nod. The 32 year-old sent a thoughtful letter to the Television Academy questioning the meaning of such gender specific categories and got an equally thoughtful answer: the Academy’s rules have always stated that anyone can be submitted under either category. Dillon chose “actor,” a term that is historically gender neutral.
Seemingly simultaneously with the Academy’s response, MTV announced that for its upcoming Movie Awards, which air this Sunday hosted by Adam Devine, it would eliminate gender-based categories and add television ones. Little surprise that they chose Dillon to open the show by presenting the award for the Best Actor in a Movie at this newly anointed 2017 Movie & TV Awards.
Here Dillon, an Ithaca, NY native, chats activism, Billions and the apocalypse.
When you were being submitted for a possible Emmy nomination, was that the first time you’d thought about which category you might want to exist in from an awards standpoint?
No, it’s not the first time I thought about that. I’d been watching awards shows since I was very small and I would say because I was so ambiguous about my gender identity from a young age even before I had words to put to those thoughts or feelings, I would say I also felt ambiguous about anywhere I encountered the binary. And so certainly awards ceremonies were one of those places that sparked thoughts and feelings in my mind regarding why is it like that? And how could it be different?
You got a very positive and supportive response from the Academy. Were you surprised?
I was very hopeful about reaching out to them. I really felt like for whatever reason it was going to go well, whatever that meant. But I also understand that given our current political climate here in America, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ issues, that typically the answer to any question regarding anatomical sex or gender identity or sexual orientation is a door slammed in your face. So certainly, I’m aware of that political climate, but I also was very hopeful and that’s the attitude I wrote the letter with. And their response was immediate and thoughtful and considered which is we have the words “actor” and “actress” but Academy rules have stated since the beginning that any performer can enter either category for any reason and so they said please pick whichever one you would like. And the Academy is certainly not going to do any kind of birth certificate check or gender identity check. And the Academy as they said, they’re all about inclusivity. And so I think because actor is a word I use which is non-gendered and non-sexed that’s the category I chose and I’m excited and hopeful for what’s possible in the future.
And very soon after you wrote your letter MTV announced that their annual movie awards would having acting categories that were non-gendered. That’s a big sea change in a pretty short period of time.
I’m proud of MTV for joining the conversation about breaking down binaries. Binaries whether it be man or woman or black or white, they were created to separate us, to create an us and a them. Without binaries, there’s only us. Which means we’re actually all equal. So to be presenting the first acting award in history that is based solely on performance and not on sex or gender identity is an historic moment and it’s a moment that will go down in history and that is a history I share not only with my family, friends and coworkers, but with all the trans, non-binary and gender-non-conforming people, particularly people of color, who have been leading the way for change long before I was born.
Your activism with regards to this, was that something that was an obvious evolution of your experience? How did that voice emerge for you?
I would say it started with my mother. My mother has always rooted for the underdog, so to speak. She has always been in support of uplifting historically marginalized and historically disenfranchised people. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nina Simone: these were artists and thinkers that I was made aware of from a very young age. Racism did not stand in our family. Inequality did not stand in our family. That is something that was part of my upbringing from the time I was born. And so it’s honestly just been a part of who I am. I was recently going through a box of my things from when I was much younger, it was a middle school box of stuff. And I found a card that was sent to me from AIDS Work in Ithaca, which is where I was born and raised, Ithaca, NY. And AIDS Work is an organization there that raises money to support people with HIV and AIDS. And apparently in 6th grade I had gone around my school and raised $37 for AIDS Work and mailed it in just to help support the cause. And they had sent me a thank you letter for my activism. And I had a moment where I thought, I know I’ve been doing this my whole life but here’s the actual evidence. It really is a part of who I am.
The character of Taylor on Billions exists in the very traditionally hyper-masculine environment of a hedge fund. And at first, Taylor’s presence is at odds with that. But once Taylor has success that somehow transcends it. Is that experience something you relate to personally, that idea that talent can help a person transcend an otherwise very difficult atmosphere or field?
Taylor as you said enters that world as an intern and certainly has trepidation about how they will succeed in as you said a hyper-masculine world and whether they will be able to because they are not particularly hyper-masculine. Is that a quality that is necessary in that world? And what we’ve come to see through Taylor’s journey is that it actually isn’t. Taylor is able to function almost better than anyone else we’re seeing at Axe Capital other than Bobby [Axelrod] because of Taylor’s ability to, for lack of a better way of putting it, make money. Make money. Crunch the numbers. Do the job. So I would say if there is a way for me to humbly answer your question regarding talent, I would say that yes, ultimately I think producers, casting directors, playwrights, whoever it may be that is casting someone, they are ultimately looking for the best actor to play that part. So when it comes to my gender identity, that’s one part that make up all the parts of me. And clearly in the room when I auditioned for Taylor, talent is what accounted for that because the conversation about my gender identity didn’t happen until [after] I was cast.
You’ve had so many positive things happen. What have been some of the challenges as you’ve been navigating your career while maintaining an identity that is true to who you are?
I would say that a challenge that is not unique to me or my struggle, but I can only speak about my experience is that I have grown up in a culture and society that has told me as a person that was assigned female at birth how I am supposed to look and how I am supposed to be for profit, basically. And that is damaging to any psyche. And so I think that constantly coming up against images, films, magazines, television shows that are telling you, me, what the ideal is can be very damaging. And so I would say that I’m very fortunate to have had deep, deep love and support from my mother and my family, encouraging me to always be who I was even in the face of whatever it was that was telling me I shouldn’t because ultimately, I am awesome. And anyone who is trying to deny my awesomeness is actually just going to miss out on me and that is their loss. So that’s how I keep my head up.
Was that something you thought about seriously when you were becoming an actor, the challenges you would have in facing the stereotypes that are prevalent in the industry?
The honest answer is no. I’ve always felt like I’m Asia, I’m the first me and I’m the first Asia that’s going to walk into the room and I’m here to change the game. That’s part of who I am.
And going forward, it’s a crazy political climate, where do you fall on the scale of optimism and how do you want to continue the momentum of what you’ve accomplished thus far?
Well, given the current political climate I actually feel very hopeful. There is a great silver lining to the 45th presidency which is it’s hard to swallow that he is existing which gives us the silver lining which is a great uncovering of the historical disenfranchisement and marginalization of so many people in this country for so long. And the great uncovering is so needed for the conversations like we’re having now about gender identity, as we’re starting to have about race and the prison industrial complex, with documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s. These conversations are actually happening now in the mainstream and that is huge and I’m so grateful to be alive at a time when those conversations are happening and that I get to be a part of them. I’m so excited.
What would be your dream roles going forward?
I definitely am committed to the fact that I want all of my work whether it’s self-generated or I’m working collaboratively with other people in any capacity to be uplifting and supporting for historically disenfranchised and historically marginalized people. So that is a component that I always consider when I’m looking at work. And on top of that I would love to travel to far away and exotic locations to film things. I would love to do things that teach me new skills. Like I don’t know how to ride a horse. And not that I need a film or television project to teach me that, but it’s one of the perks of being an actor, inhabiting a character who has experiences and a knowledge that I don’t. Like playing Taylor, I get to learn all about the stocks. And even if I don’t retain that information I spent the time doing it. And that’s challenging and exciting.
What other skill sets would you want?
Jujitsu. Parkour. I mean parkour is hard core. I feel like there are elements of it, maybe lower level elements of it that would be really dope. Because if the apocalypse happens I want to at least be able to carry one other person on my back out of danger.
That’s a very thoughtful approach to the end of the world.
Well I also want to carry me, so I feel like I should be prepared to carry someone else.
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