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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Glee‘s “Jagged Little Tapestry.”]
During the hour, three-time Emmy nominee Dot Marie Jones‘ Coach Shannon Beiste revealed to Sam (Chord Overstreet) and Sue (Jane Lynch) that she is transitioning from a woman to a man. To tell the story, Glee armed the character with a letter from a psychologist diagnosing her with gender dysphoria (otherwise known as gender identity disorder) — or as Beiste explained to dim-witted but lovable Sam, “where your outsides don’t match how you feel on the inside.”
The episode featured a moving monologue from Jones in which the school’s football coach explained that her transition wasn’t about who she wanted to go to bed with but who she wanted to go to bed as. She then explained that she’d be having surgery to remove her breasts and begin taking testosterone as Glee kicked off a story that will see her character Shannon become Sheldon over the course of the season. (As for Sue and Sam, they both whole-heartedly accept her, with the former going so far as to say she’ll have a job at the school should she decide to return.)
The arc comes after Jones previously starred as a pre-operative transsexual on Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk‘s FX pilot Pretty/Handsome, which revolved around a married father of two (played by Joseph Fiennes) who had to tell his family that he is a transsexual.
Here, Jones talks with The Hollywood Reporter about taking on the storyline and what to expect for the remainder of Glee‘s final season.
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When and how did this storyline first come up?
Ryan told me he had big plans for Beiste this season. I got the script and read it and it’s not what I expected. I definitely didn’t think it was this.
How did you respond to the storyline?
I didn’t want to let anybody down. I’d done the domestic violence storyline before and having young girls look up to Beiste and looking at it now, it’s just another vehicle to reach another group of people who are learning to be OK in your body.
You played a similar character for Ryan and Brad before on Pretty/Handsome. How does this experience compare? Do you see this as an extension of the story they attempted to tell in 2008?
The only similarity is that she’s trans, nothing else. The character of Mario in Pretty/Handsome was the best thing I’ve ever done or gotten to do. This is like a totally different highway. It’s a similar topic but Mario had cancer — it was heart-wrenching. This is also heart-wrenching — and I’ll cry my eyes out watching it tonight — but in a totally different way. On Pretty/Handsome, Mario had a life and a wife. But on Glee, she’s figuring it out and comes to this conclusion.
What did you take away from Pretty/Handsome that you brought to Glee for this arc?
To be respectful and make the trans community proud. What I brought away from Pretty/Handsome is the fact that I always want to be the best I can be with what Ryan gives me and want to make them proud of my work. I’m always very supportive of the community and I took the confidence I had on Pretty/Handsome — they loved what I did — and brought it to Glee. I just pray to God it comes across as good.
How will we see Beiste’s transition as the season progresses?
I’m out for the next three or four episodes and come back, I think, in episode six. In this episode, I talk about what my next steps are and what I’m having done, so when I come back it’s after all of that and I’m coming back as Sheldon.
What kind of physical transformation can viewers expect to see when Shannon becomes Sheldon?
It’s a big transition. A lot of people walked right past me and had no idea it was me. Hair and makeup did an incredible job. It’s pretty awesome. The first time I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked like one of my brothers! It’s just like any role you take on, you’re just switching things around a bit.
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Sue and Sam are very accepting. Will everyone have that same reaction or might she encounter some hatred?
We have some great scenes coming up with Chord and Jane. If anything, as it is in life, all we want is to be accepted and for people to appreciate us for who we are — in makeup and out of makeup. I hope it opens up some eyes and hearts.
Did you get to work with the transgender community for this storyline?
There is some stuff coming up in future episodes.
What do you think makes the time right to tell this story?
Like it or not, it’s real life. I think Fox is amazing for putting this on broadcast television. [Trans actress] Alexandra Billings played my wife when I did Pretty/Handsome and is in [Amazon’s] Transparent. I was very inquisitive [when we worked together] and was trying to be respectful and dialed in with my character on that. Working with her was amazing. I pulled from that as well for Glee and remembered what we talked about.
We know it will make a difference. Look at all the things that all the kids on our show have gone through, everything that Chris Colfer and Kurt have gone through. Of any show on broadcast, it should be a Fox show because they are the risk takers. I don’t think even taking a risk is the right word. It’s just real.
What has it been like for you to play this story? Do you feel a certain responsibility to the trans community?
Yeah, I do. I feel like with Beiste, since I came on in season two, all she has ever wanted is to be accepted for who she was and now who he is. I’ve always said words are pretty powerful and you have to be careful how you use them. The kids look up to characters on Glee as role models and I take it as a big responsibility because I want it to come across as accepting. I hate the word “accepting” because who the hell is anybody to not accept somebody for who they are? I just hope and pray tonight’s episode leads to a lot more, whether it’s trans, gay or any other work for trans actors and actresses.
This storyline is particularly timely given Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. Do you have a message to send to others who may feel trapped in the wrong body?
Even for kids who are scared to come out: Talk to somebody. And if nobody will listen, you keep on until you find somebody who will listen. I just hope people take tonight’s show with an open heart and come away with a full heart.
What did you think of Glee‘s big reveal? Sound off in the comments below. Glee airs Fridays on Fox.
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