Ivory Aquino on Playing Trans Pioneer Cecilia Chung in “When We Rise”

  • Among some of the more familiar faces on ABC’s “When We Rise” are some uber-talented newcomers that go toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Mary-Louise Parker, Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell. Ivory Aquino has had a successful career in live theater, but her role as real-life trans activist Cecilia Chung in the LGBTQ history-themed mini-series will introduce viewers to her on a national level. GO talked with the out actress at the Television Critics Winter Press Tour where she told us why it’s so important trans women get cast to play trans roles and what it was like to play Cecilia pre-transition.
Photo by ABC

On the audition process:

“An agency sent me the breakdown. As soon as I saw the breakdown, I knew that I had to play this role. Obviously because of the people involved,  but the fact that ABC was producing a show covering the LGBTQ civil rights movement, that was just epic for me. And I knew it would make a difference—it will be making a difference—and I told myself I want to be part of this and just inspire people.

My initial audition I had to prepare four scenes. I had two days to prepare, so on the second day, I had these four scenes. I was so invested, I went off book for them. I put my heart into it. And when I left, I knew that I gave my all. And it was interesting because I did not hear anything for a week and I said ‘Something is up.’ And amazingly enough, because they were casting such a wide net, they had also put the breakdown on Actor’s Access, which reaches actors directly. So I saw that, and I said ‘OK, this being on Actor’s Access is giving me an opportunity to write the casting director and follow up.’ So I wrote a thank you note. I said ‘Thank you for having me. It would be an honor to be a part of this project. I just want to make sure that you know I’m trans.’ Because I wanted to make sure that that stone was uncovered. So the following day, I got a callback.

Fast forward to being on set with Lance, he told me on set that when he first saw my audition tape, he was a little pissed at casting because I’m not visibly trans, I guess. He told casting specifically ‘Send me trans actors,’ and when he saw my tape, he didn’t think I was. So who knows whether me reaching out made a difference. It made me feel better because I’m like ‘This project is too important for me to not follow up, and sure enough, I got the callback the following day. I had to prepare a fifth scene, so the next day, I had five scenes to do. I did my best, and a couple of days later, I got the call. It’s changed my life.”

On how she feels about people finally being able to watch “When We Rise:”

“I’m really excited. Of course, you wish for times to be more harmonious, but during times like this when you are hoping for the best, I think it is–there’s no other time that a project like this would be able to just make a difference as much as it can when it comes out. For sure. So I’m excited in that respect. I’m also excited I can finally see the last episodes.”

On playing Cecilia pre-transition:

“Kudos to Lance for having open conversations with me because initially when I first got the script, Cecilia had begun her transition. When I was in conversation with Lance, he and I discussed that it would depict the transgender journey more accurately if we first meet her and she’s pre-transition, and so it would show the tortured state one is in feeling lost and that it has somewhere to go. And so in that sense, I am so thankful that Lance was open. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

It’s a little tough watching yourself, especially during the pre-transition segment because I believed so much in the story, but I really had to release any sense of vanity or ego to inhabit Cecilia pre-transition. And thankfully hair and makeup was amazing, but really to be in that mindset—because it is a tortured mindset when you’re in that stage and you know that you want to get from A to Z but that you do it a day at a time. So it was a bit tough for me to watch but I was willing to go there because I believe so much in the story and to truthfully portray the transgender journey.”

Photo by ABC/Eike Schroter

On what she hopes non-LGBTQ viewers will get out of “When We Rise:”

“And at the end of the day, they see that whatever outer trappings we have that may be different from them, that we have the same heart as them. We have the same desires to live fulfilling lives, to be able to love, to feel loved, and to just want to make a difference in the world for the better. That’s hopefully—them seeing that in the characters, I think that will make a huge difference.”

On trans women playing trans roles:

“In parts 6 and 7, there are other trans actors, and they are spectacular. So for Lance and the production team to be committed to having trans actors who happen to be trans play trans characters, it’s especially important for trans women because it literally saves lives. Because when society sees a trans story, and when the trans story is done, and they afterwards see interviews or award shows and see that the actor playing the trans character is a cisgender man without their wig, without makeup, it sends the wrong message that these trans characters are in fact men when they are not. Trans women are women! And it has led to violence because there are men that are attracted to trans women, why not? What’s wrong with that? You’re attracted to a woman—a trans woman. But because you have this notion that ‘Oh my gosh, are they a man?’ then they assert their masculinity by being violence against trans women, leading to death. So that’s why I think it’s important, especially, for trans women characters to be played by actors who are also trans. There’s so much trans talent out there. There’s so much trans talent that I’m excited for productions to hire a trans actor for a cisgender role if they are the right actor for the role.”

Photo by ABC/Eike Schroter

On Cecilia being her first trans role:

“This is my first trans role. All of the other roles I’ve had have been cisgender roles, because I’ve had a career in the theater. I got to play Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and honestly, for me that was a dream. I honestly told someone ‘I can go to Heaven now,” because that was a dream. And in the theater, that was able to happen because there are more liberties I guess, but the TV/film world is ready for the right actor, for the best actor, whether or not they’re trans.”

“When We Rise” continues airing tonight and tomorrow at 9 ET/PT on ABC.