Michael D. Cohen Talks Casting Call for Trans Youth: "This Is Inclusion"

Michael D. Cohen
David Beeler

The Nickelodeon 'Henry Danger' star is giving trans and non-binary kids a shot at TV roles for acceptance on and off screen.

Despite more trans roles being written and getting visibility on film and TV screens, barriers to aspiring trans actors getting into the entertainment business remain.

So trans Nickelodeon star Michael D. Cohen has launched the Trans Youth Acting Challenge to allow trans and non-binary youth to break through and connect with TV producers and directors. The star of the Henry Danger action sitcom for kids in 2019 revealed his own transgender journey after he transitioned two decades earlier.

Fast forward to today and Cohen sees benefits in holding a casting call for trans youth with an eye to building positive representation for trans people both on and off screen. "By creating this opportunity for kids, who knows what it will bring to them. We're giving them support and we'll see what that does for them. I think it can only do positive things, because they're getting that support, they're getting respect, they're getting the messaging that they're important," Cohen tells THR.

As a child, Cohen always wanted to act, but saw no door into Hollywood via a casting call for someone like himself that was questioning their gender. "If I had known about this as a kid, it would have been life changing for me. This is inclusion, to include someone who would not be normally included," he insists.

The Trans Youth Acting Challenge, with a Jan. 11, 2021 application deadline, will give trans and non-binary youth the opportunity to submit audition self-tapes online. The top 12 submissions will be invited to participate in an online master class with Cohen. And all applicants will be eligible to participate in an online group webinar and Q&A with Cohen and the Nickelodeon casting team.

Here Cohen is especially proud of having Nickelodeon not only backing him as he launches the casting and master class initiative, but having its own casting execs participating. "It makes me feel good to know that I work for a network that stands by its values, and that those values are in line with my own," he says.

When Cohen first revealed his transgender journey 18 months ago, he recalls Nickelodeon being supportive. But that was a first step as Cohen and Nickelodeon with the Trans Youth Acting Challenge can now move beyond encouragement to concrete steps for inclusion.

"It's one thing to be positive in social media posts, it's another to take action. And they (Nickelodeon) were ready and willing to do that, they just needed someone to come forward and say let's do this thing," Cohen recounts. He adds the Trans Youth Acting Challenge also allows Cohen to move beyond being a role model for trans actors.

"It's another thing to say, okay, what does that mean, what can I do to actually impact the lives of kids, where they can access something in a way I couldn't as a kid," Cohen insists. Part of his call to action with the Trans Youth Acting Challenge is the planned masterclass to offer guidance and mentorship to trans kids with real potential to get on screen.

"Some kids may come with skills, some kids may not come with skills. But we're really looking for kids that have a passion for acting, that show potential, that can be themselves on camera and have a desire to move in that direction," Cohen says.

The casting call initiative with Nickelodeon is also building privacy to protect young trans kids who already have the coming-of-age burden of feeling that they are the other gender or don't identify with any gender. "Nobody who submits (a tape) and participates is obligated in any way to share that they did. Confidentiality is key. We are not going to be publishing who the 12 finalists are," Cohen explains.

And if a young person who is trans is cast in a role through the Trans Youth Acting Challenge, their participation will only be made public if they are to play a trans character and if they decide to make an announcement.

Of course, young people who are transgender may well have specific skills that can be applied to acting, where questions of identity and reality are forever in play as performers assume the lives of imagined characters. But it's not that simple, says Cohen, because successful acting is really about being more of who you are.

And a trans man or woman who has transitioned may be better at that elusive authenticity prized by all seasoned actors, rather than just pretending to be someone else. "I know what it feels like to feel radically inauthentic. And that helps my acting and understanding different points of view," Cohen insists.

Having lived as a privileged man after living the life of a woman before his transition, Cohen adds he knows what it's like to live as both genders in our culture. "When I look at a character, I can see the people, I can see that character's experience in a different way. I know how different people get treated differently in the world, and that opens my mind," he says.

The challenge, Cohen adds, is to carry off the illusion to the film or TV viewer that, as an actor, you are a different character, while inside you're drawing ever closer to your true self. "I approach it like, yes, I really, really want to know what it's like to be that other character, but my only way to do that is to dig deeper into myself," he insists.