Chaz Bono on Stepping Out of His Comfort Zone With "Big Johnson" Role on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'

Chaz Bono - Getty - H 2020
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[This story contains spoilers from the season 10 finale of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, "Spite Store."]

There's a dramatic scene set in a diner during the first season of FX's groundbreaking series Pose. Kate Mara, playing a scorned wife named Patty, has recently discovered her husband's affair with a trans sex worker, Angel, played by Indya Moore. They share a table and a tense yet nuanced confrontation during which Patty asks if Angel has a penis. She takes it a step further and demands to see it. Angel refuses and tells Patty, "If you really want to know who I am, that is the last place you should look." 

It's a mic drop moment from Angel and it represents how sensitive a subject matter genitals can be in the transgender community. So much so that on GLAAD's Tips for Allies of Transgender People, it specifically states, "Don't ask about a transgender person's genitals, surgical status or sex life." It doesn't come up that often in mainstream media and far less so in comedies because when it comes to punchlines, that's typically not the first place people look.

Until last Sunday. 

On the Season 10 finale of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Chaz Bono took on the role of Joey Funkhouser, a trans man who accidentally flashes his recently acquired and extra-large manhood in the face of Larry David while they are in the locker room of Pacific Palisades' members-only Riviera Country Club. Star and creator David is long known as an equal opportunity offender, and executive producer Jeff Schaffer told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week that during the run of the show, David has had his share of fun, to name but a few, with "mixed-race couples, firemen, doctors and people transitioning. No one is immune — no one." The fun in this particular episode comes as Bono's character inadvertently causes physical damage (spoiler alert!) by swinging his manhood around as David becomes semi-obsessed by the size, massive enough to gain entrance to the "Big Johnson" club alongside David's pal, played by J.B. Smoove.

With its potential to offend and for the way it wraps issues of race, class, gender and sexuality inside in intentionally awkward social settings, Curb couldn't be more different from groundbreaking LGBTQ shows like Pose and Amazon's Transparent that filter the trans experience through a dramatic and loving lens. But for Bono, starring opposite David offered him an opportunity to shed his activist armor for a change and instead flex a different set of acting muscles from ones he's had on display in recent high-profile projects such as Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story. That doesn't mean it was all jokes and games, however.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Bono, 51, explains that he, too, had to tread lightly in some scenes because even the subject matter of what it is in his pants — both in real life and make-believe — can be maddening. "It’s one of those things that people can get fixated on," he says. But thanks to the "brilliant" creative team on Curb and working alongside David, Bono believes they pulled it off. He talks to THR about how he got the part, why he asked his longtime friend from GLAAD to help out and if there's been any talk of Joey Funkhouser bringing his "Big Johnson" back for future episodes. 

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get this part?

I auditioned for it, I guess it would have probably been the beginning of last year — January or early February. We shot throughout March of last year.

What did you know about the part at the time?

I didn't know a lot other than it was a trans character. I don't know he was a Funkhouser until I actually was at the audition.

Had you been a fan of the show?

Yeah. I've been really lucky now the two big shows I've gotten to work on — Curb and American Horror Story — I have been fans of since the beginning. So, I knew [Curb] really well. At first, I was just kind of excited to get the audition because I got to audition with Larry. I remember leaving and thinking that while I hoped I would book it, even if I didn’t, I got to do improv with Larry David. That was pretty cool.

Were you nervous?

Sure. It’s a little nerve-wracking, you know, when it's a show that you love. I have studied acting for many years, though I've never done a lot of strict improv. It was a good audition, and I left feeling like it went well. But if I didn’t get it, at least I had the story to tell.

You booked it. Executive producer Jeff Schaffer told us that you even had a hand in shaping the dialogue for your character, along with GLAAD’s director of transgender media and representation Nick Adams. What is that process like?

When you get the script, it's not like a regular script. It's an outline of what happens in each scene but there's no dialogue. I was reading it and there were a couple things that just worried me a little bit. I had talked to Jeff about that stuff and I suggested he talk to Nick because, you know, honestly, for me as an actor, I don't want to have to worry about that. I want to concentrate on my job as an actor. So, they talked to Nick and by the time we got [to set], there was a good trajectory. We always did several takes and there were some takes that afterwards, I would say, “You will get killed if you use that one.”

Let’s talk about Joey Funkhouser. Schaffer said that this subject matter proved to be something that was relatively untouched in terms of comedy. People just aren’t talking about gender confirmation surgery in this way, for trans men. What are your thoughts on that and how well it’s been received?

Honestly, it worked really well and wasn't offensive. I mean, not any more than anything on that show. I thought it was really funny, but the whole time I was filming it, I was wondering how it would work. I can't speak for all trans people, but you know, for myself, what’s in my pants is not a subject that I ever want to talk about. It’s one of those things that people can get fixated on and I find it to be maddening. I was in an uncomfortable space shooting it, though I really enjoyed the process because I loved working with those guys and it was really fun to do something that was completely different like improv. It was a weird experience.

What is Larry like to work with?

He's so great to work with. I got treated so well. You know, especially when you're doing an episode of somebody else's show, you don't always get that, but they were just super nice and Larry was great. I just got my reel back featuring my stuff on the episode and I feel like the chemistry with Larry is there — you feel it. I loved working with him.

You are in such good company on this finale: Sean Penn, Mila Kunis, Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn and J.B. Smoove. Were you friendly with any of them beforehand?

I didn't know any of them beforehand and everybody was a great. I remarked to Jeff about that and he said, “You know, we’ve been doing this so long that if we identify an asshole, we just get rid of them.” They just want to work with nice, good people and I felt that.

You tweeted that this role brought you way out of your comfort zone as an actor, not just because it was improv comedy. I assume you meant the trans storyline?

Yeah, I meant having to talk about my dick for an entire episode, having it focused on that area, and I didn't want to [reveal] that on Twitter and give anything away before the episode aired. It was uncomfortable but it was fulfilling and I was really glad to be doing it.

Let’s talk about your process. You’ve been building a résumé of diverse projects, coming off films and American Horror Story to this improv world. How did your experience help you here?

My story as an actor is kind of different from most people in that, you know, I started off wanting to be an actor when I was young. I went to a performing arts high school but I became aware before I graduated that I really didn't understand how to play female parts. I didn't know why, but I got cast as a male character in something and it was the first time I ever felt really good, like I knew what I was doing. After that, I had gotten into NYU Film School and decided that since I’m never going to work as an actor, I better figure out something else to do with my life. But then I really wasn’t into making films. It wasn’t until 2012 that I ended getting a couple of cameos in things and at that point, I decided to take an acting class to see how it felt. It changed my entire line of work and I realized that I was as passionate about this as ever. I just turned 51 and I feel that pressure to get my career off the ground; I do feel like I have the confidence of an older person with a lot of training under my belt. I feel good about my work and I always have a lot of fun with it. For me now, it’s like air.

There are also a few jokes about the “Big Johnson” club with Smoove’s character and then there’s the scene in the locker room when you’re changing. You take off your shirt and your scars are visible. How did you feel about that?

I didn't even think about that, to be honest. Pretty much from the time I had top surgery, I have loved being shirtless. At home I often don't have a shirt on. My dad never had a shirt on, so I kind of grew up with that. He would always sleep in pajama bottoms and, so at night or in the morning, he'd be in the kitchen cooking breakfast and it just was kind of normalized. After my top surgery it was such freedom. I'm not uncomfortable about my chest or my scars. It is what it is.

There are critics who might take offense to a trans actor or even gender confirmation surgery being the subject of jokes. What would you say to that?

First and foremost, I'm an actor, so as long as something isn't terribly offensive to anybody, my job is to tell a story. I don't think of myself as a trans actor. I think of myself as an actor who happens to be trans. My head doesn't really go there that much. I've talked to a lot of other trans actors, and my experience is different because I got to have an activist voice before I started acting. … Now that I’m working as an actor, I just want to act.

What’s next acting-wise, and have you had any conversations about Joey Funkhouser coming back next season to Curb? Presumably there would be more to this fire investigation…

I hope! I really hope the show comes back and I think if it does, I probably have a good shot of getting asked back. Nothing would make me happier than getting to do more Curb. And going forward, other than auditioning, I'm working on a couple projects that I'm either producing or writing and producing.

Anything you can tell us about yet?

Nothing yet. I have some projects that are making the rounds, and one that was written by a couple of my really good friends and they wrote a part for me. I read the pilot and it’s brilliant. We've been trying to get that off the ground and taking meetings. I'm working on a new series with them that's kind of sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, which is what I love to watch. I'm writing a short right now, too, which I am pretty excited about and that is kind of queer-based. So, hopefully we’ll get that going once we're allowed to be around people again.

Another thing I noticed from Twitter is that you’re passionate about getting Joe Biden into the White House. What will you be doing in 2020 to make that happen?

I will be doing whatever I can when I'm not working to make that happen. I had really wanted to get more involved in the Hillary [Clinton] campaign, but I was shooting [American Horror Story: Roanoke] all summer. I never had any idea what my schedule was going to be and with this election, it's even more important because we've lived through almost four years of [Donald] Trump as president. It's not sustainable. I had started off behind Pete Buttigieg, and I still love him, but I'm a practical person when it comes to politics. Again, the 51 thing. When it became apparent that he was [out], I immediately got behind Joe Biden.

What are your thoughts on how Trump has navigated the coronavirus pandemic?

It's horrifying. I watch a lot of MSNBC — as actors, we have either no time or way too much time — and I always watch Rachel Maddow after every [press] briefing because she breaks it down. She will say what is or isn’t happening, like they are not building ventilators out of Florida. It’s just scary. And the last few days where he's said that he wants to open up [businesses] again is really terrifying. 

What's the first thing on your to-do list once the crisis is over?

I'm really miss seeing my friends. So, some socializing is on my to-do list, and then just getting back to the people that I have projects with — getting those collaborations going again. I really miss sitting in a room with writing partners and coming up with ideas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.