Chaz Bono Reflects on The Grateful Dead, Breaking Into Acting and Caitlyn Jenner
The transgender advocate says, "We still have a long way to go."
Before Caitlyn Jenner captured headlines with her journey to becoming a woman, Chaz Bono helped lay the groundwork toward greater transgender acceptance with his own transition, chronicled in the 2011 documentary Becoming Chaz. In it, he hoped to dispel ignorance about gender reassignment and help smooth the transition for people like Jenner, with whom he has had several discussions, providing advice or just a shoulder to lean on.
"I grew up in a society of rigid gender roles and had the same distance and lack of understanding about what being transgender really means," Bono writes in his 2011 memoir, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man. "For years I fought that secret lurking within me with thoughts such as, 'Trans people aren't "normal" — how could they be?'"
They may not be considered normal in every corner of the globe, but Caitlyn's introduction to the world on the cover of Vanity Fair represented measurable progress toward acceptance.
"It's at its infancy," Bono tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Yes there has been a lot of acceptance. There's also been eight or nine trans women murdered this year already. There are countries trying to block transgender people from using bathrooms. We still have a long way to go." He pauses and then adds, dejectedly, "Honestly, most of my time is focused on how to get people's perception of me changed so I can make money as an actor."
Since his 2011 transition, Bono has wanted to put that part of his life behind him and get on with his fledgling acting career. He has spent the past three years studying and auditioning, and has since landed parts in the crime thriller Dirty, which has yet to find a distributor, and equity waiver productions like 30 Minute Musicals, in which he played President Whitmore in a condensed cabaret version of the sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day.
"When I first transitioned, I was very happy to do everything I did. So I don't negate any of that," says Bono. "But it's brought me to a place where I am now doing what I always wanted to do." And what he's always wanted to do is act. In his current play, Lee Blessing's Down the Road, at Hollywood's Lounge Theatre through Aug. 16, Bono plays prison inmate Bill Reach, admitted murderer of 19 women.
"It's hard to get people to start to think of you differently. I'm just trying to get those few breaks, those few independent films under my belt, so people can actually see my work so that I can start working," say Bono. "The immediate assumption is that I'm not a real actor and that I'm not battle-tested in that arena — there's no credibility. I really have to get people to forget about who I am to be successful."
The acting career comes 20 years after Bono's music career, which began when he played some demo tracks he made with his partner at the time, Heidi Shink, for Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead. He told them to form a band, which they did, calling it Ceremony. Weir introduced them to Jerry Garcia, who worked with them in the studio.
"He couldn't have been sweeter," Bono recalls, although he missed the recent Grateful Dead reunion concerts in Chicago and Santa Clara. "Sitting there, watching a legend play to your music, it was amazing, completely amazing." Never mind that Bono's legendary parents, Sonny and Cher, sang backup on "Livin' It Up," off Ceremony's 1993 album, Hang Out Your Poetry, the last time Cher and Chaz worked together.
Reportedly skeptical at first of his decision to become a man, Cher and her son have grown closer over time, and she was happy to trot down to Theatre Row to see him in Down the Road. Reviews aren't in yet, but Bono isn't too concerned. "I don't really take any of that stuff very seriously," he says. And after losing a parent in a skiing accident, overcoming an addiction to painkillers and undergoing gender reassignment surgery, he's proven his resilience. "I'm a pretty positive person, and I'm a very strong person. So it takes a lot to rattle me."