In an era where seemingly everything is mined for inspiration—or, let’s be frank, appropriation—what does it take to be truly one of a kind? A willingness to break the rules is essential; a strong sense of personal style certainly doesn't hurt; but most of all, you need to have a truly meaningful point of view. At W we are all about celebrating originality, which is why we’ve rounded up some of our favorite people who are constantly pushing boundaries, and asked them to share valuable insights. They may be just starting out or in the prime of their careers, but they are all leading the conversation in their chosen fields—whether it’s fashion, art, film, music, photography, or even skateboarding. The bottom line is that, regardless of their differences, they all share one very important trait: for them, standing out, rather than blending in, is not an option but a necessity.
Asia Kate Dillon is an actor who has made history through their role of Taylor Mason on the Showtime series Billions, which marks the first non-binary main role on American television. They currently star in Orchid Receipt Service, a play which they produced, alongside a cast primarily made up of transgender and gender-nonconforming artists.
You’ve made history by playing Taylor, the first non‑binary main character to appear on American television, on the show Billions. At what point did you realize that you identify as nonbinary?
In the first email I received from my agent about an audition, there was a character breakdown for Taylor that said “female gender nonbinary.” And I didn’t really understand. I thought, Well, how can you have a female gender, but not a gender-nonbinary identity? So I did some research and discovered that “female” referred to assigned sex at birth, and “nonbinary” was a term used by some people who experience their gender identity as falling somewhere outside of the boxes of boy or girl, or man or woman. That was the first time that it really clicked for me—that I had words to describe a feeling that I’d had from the time that I was very young, even though I didn’t experience gender or body dysphoria. So for me, encountering Taylor for the first time really helped clarify that I didn’t need to change my body to be valid as a nonbinary person, and that “they/them” pronouns are the right ones for me. It really was an incredibly freeing experience to finally be able to live in the full truth of who I was, and really gratifying and humbling to get to play a character who would have meant so much to me when I was younger.
Were you ever worried that Taylor would not be the multidimensional character they’ve come to be over the course of the series?
When I got the part, all I knew was that I was going to be in the first episode of season two. If it had been a one-off episode where the character’s gender identity was the butt of a joke, or the only thing you learned about them, I certainly would not have been interested. Now, one of the things that really excites me about playing Taylor is they are a fully fleshed-out human being who’s complicated and integral to the plot of the story.
What have you heard from viewers about Taylor?
I’ve heard from people from all over the world, of all different ages, who say, “I’m nonbinary and I never knew that there was anyone else like me”; some say, “I’m a parent of someone who’s just come out as nonbinary and/or trans, and I now know what that means”; and I’ve even had people reach out to me and say, “I’m a right-wing conservative who was homophobic and transphobic, but I love your character and it helped change my heart and my mind and create understanding within me.” I don’t think any of us anticipated that Billions would be a teaching tool, but it’s a silver lining that’s been really, really cool.
Oddly enough, Khloé Kardashian has also played a role in that; she referred to you as “Miss Asia” in a tweet praising your performance as Taylor, which you both managed to turn into an educational exchange about pronouns.
I thought it was an incredible opportunity to engage in a conversation, and my instinct told me it was going to go well, so I just did it: I tweeted back at her to thank her and to point out that the prefix I use is “Mx.” And her response ended up perfectly demonstrating how to react when you misgender someone accidentally. Your job is to say, “Oh, my gosh, I’m sorry,” and then use the correct pronoun and move on, and that’s exactly what she did. Spending time over-apologizing or feeling bad about yourself in a way that makes the situation about you, instead of the person you misgendered, is not a helpful way to be an ally.
You successfully petitioned the Television Academy to be considered for an Emmy Award nomination in the Outstanding Supporting Actor category. Are you hoping that dividing up awards into Best Actress and Best Actor will become a thing of the past?
I’ve always used the word “actor,” even before I came into an understanding of my nonbinary gender identity. I didn’t have that language for it when I was younger—I just knew that “actress” was specifically associated with girls and women, and “actor” was and is a gender-neutral word that always felt right to me. I don’t think we need to be separating people based on their gender identity or their sex before we judge and award art. The actress category came into being to make sure that people who identify as women or were assigned female at birth got awards, because otherwise they were only going to go to white cis men. But the thing is, the actress category really was a Band-Aid for a problem that we still have today. There are so many ways in which the actress category didn’t do anything for the representation of anyone other than white cis women. And so, if you change the category to performer, and we see that nine cis men are nominated, and one person of color is nominated, then we really have to look at that and go, “Okay, what do we do about this?”
Both of the most prominent characters you’ve portrayed—Taylor on Billions and the Adjudicator in John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum—are nonbinary. Are you open to playing someone who isn’t in the future?
Definitely—though of course I’m not going to play a role that was written for a person of color, or one where it’s essential that the person was assigned male at birth because you have to see that person’s body when they’re nude. I’m just excited to play whatever role I’m the best actor for, in projects that really speak to me.
Taylor and the Adjudicator both have very defined—and very different—styles. How does your personal style compare?
My personal style is about being as comfortable as possible at all times. If I can get away with wearing pajamas and having it look fashionable, then I’ve succeeded. Taylor dresses very differently than I do. I mean, I enjoy a button-up, but I very rarely actually button it all the way up to the top the way that Taylor does. They aren’t even business casual—they’re just business, and it’s through that look that they hold a lot of their power. The Adjudicator calculates what they’re going to wear depending on the situation too, but it’s this totally opposite end of the fashion spectrum. It’s high femme and high fashion, so very angular and very vintage Thierry Mugler. It was really fun for me to play two different nonbinary characters who have two distinct styles—in part to show the world that nonbinary can look many different ways.
Having costarred with Keanu Reeves in John Wick, do you now have a Keanu story?
One time, around 2 a.m., I was waiting to go to set, and Keanu noticed I was reading Illuminations, by Arthur Rimbaud. So we had this whole talk about Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine at 2 a.m. He’s just so intelligent and so well-read—he also co-runs a book press in L.A.—so having conversations about real life and the things we cared about, and then also getting to make a kick-ass action film? It was pretty great.
Who is your style icon?
Either Prince or David Bowie. Prince in particular just would fluctuate from high glam and totally sort of rock ’n’ roll and avant-garde to very casual. But they both just went with whatever they were feeling at the time and also clearly were interested in being fluid—whatever that meant to them.
What was your style like as a teenager?
I wore a lot of turtlenecks, Converse sneakers, and parachute pants or JNCO jeans. I have a clear memory of being in high school, wearing big combat boots and tights when it was winter. I just remember that I was cold, and I was uncomfortable, and I thought, I will not continue to dress in clothing that doesn’t really make me feel like me.
When did you first shave your head?
My hair has been short since I was 14, but I first shaved it when I was 21. I was like, I want to know what I really look like, and to me, somehow, that meant that I needed to shave my head. You never know what shape of head you have until you cut all your hair off.
Who is your beauty icon?
It seems like that should be a simple question, but it feels fairly complicated, because, you know, I grew up in America. So I grew up with advertisements everywhere telling me exactly what I was supposed to look like and how I was supposed to be. So it was anyone who represented something different, or other—as well as my mother, who has always been my biggest supporter.