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Asia Kate Dillon uses the pronouns “they, their and them.” Because, like their onscreen character Taylor Mason on Showtime’s Billions, Dillon self-identifies as nonbinary. And thanks to this groundbreaking role, these are pronouns that more people will hopefully feel more comfortable using in the very near future.
Taylor made their debut on the current second season of the Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis drama this month. As an intern at Axe Capital, their sharp intellect and hedge-fund know-how quickly caught Axe’s eye, launching a storyline that sees Taylor’s importance with the company grow as the season progresses.
Offscreen, the role is just as important, as it marks the first time a character has openly identified as gender-neutral on television. The fact that Dillon also self-identifies that way is kismet; showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien auditioned many members from the LGBTQ community for the role of Taylor, but a nonbinary person was not a prerequisite.
Fresh off of Taylor’s debut, which has sparked a conversation about gender identity on social media, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the Orange Is the New Black alum to discuss the historic role, crafting the character and their relevance in today’s climate.
What was your casting and audition process like?
There was an initial audition, and then there were two callbacks over the course of about a month. The first audition was with Allison Estrin, the casting director, and then at the callback, I met the co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and then the second and final callback was with Allison, Brian, David and Reed Morano, who directed the first episode of season two. My audition scene was the scene from the first episode, between Mafee (Dan Soder) and Taylor. I remember doing research was key for memorizing my lines. There some jargon in that speech, and I couldn’t quite commit it to memory, and I had to research all of that stuff before it really stuck. I still only know marginally a bit more than I did before. Taylor knows much, much more than I do.
What was appealing about this specific part?
The aspect that Taylor’s identity is one part of the many parts that make up Taylor is certainly what was appealing about playing the character. On top of that, Taylor is highly intelligent, a left-brain person and fits in really well, actually, at this hedge fund as this intern.
After you got the part, did you have conversations with the writers to help flesh them out?
I’d like to give a lot of credit to the writers in that, while they were writing the character of Taylor before I was cast, they auditioned people from the entire LGBTQ spectrum. They spoke with nonbinary people. They really wanted to make sure that they had an understanding about something that — as Brian and David like to say, they self-identify as white, cisgender, straight men, so this was unfamiliar territory for them. And so I really credit them and respect them for reaching outside of their comfort zones to investigate non-binary-gender issues and gender-identity stuff in general.
Then, once I was cast, as the season progressed, occasionally a script would come my way when a pronoun would be wrong, and I would just sort of send off an email to Brian and David with the catch. It would come back and it would have been changed right away, which made me feel really respected. It was a really collaborative experience.
Did you identify with the scene involving Taylor’s introduction to Axe about their pronouns?
There is a struggle involved, certainly, but then there’s also a lot more visibility and a lot more acceptance as well. I find that often when I tell people what pronoun I use, I don’t get a lot of backlash. I’m really lucky in that respect. That’s a credit to the visibility that we’re seeing and the conversations that are happening around the topic. I also think it’s because people actually have a much more innate understanding of gender being fluid and gender identity being on a spectrum than they even thought that they might. Those moments of conversation I find particularly exciting.
Do you feel personal responsibility with this role? What kind of reactions have you had from people so far?
Although my casting as a nonbinary actor to play this nonbinary character on a major television series was, in fact, a coincidence, it is certainly significant. Not only are people responding to the character of Taylor on Twitter and on Instagram and things like that, but I’m getting messages from strangers all over the world — mostly young people saying how much it means to them as a nonbinary person to see nonbinary representation in the media. Those messages just mean everything to me. That’s really what it’s all about — the media having the ability to reach places in the world where there may be someone who is isolated from anyone else who is having a similar experience. That’s the power that art can have, and I’m really proud to be a part of a piece of art that is reaching people. Particularly at a time like this.
What do you think it is about the current TV landscape that makes a character like Taylor possible?
The stories I grew up with, whether it came to queer representation or representation of anyone that was different, it was always a story of like, very sad, usually ended up with somebody dying, and it made the idea of being queer or different really scary, actually. What we have now are stories that are more positive, stories that are showing a different experience, which is really important now.
Do you believe shows like Transparent or Orange Is the New Black helped break down that door?
What about actors like Laverne Cox? Did you have a chance to speak with her when you did Orange?
We were actually on set a couple of times together. There were a couple of large group scenes in season four where we had no direct dialogue, but we were on set at the same time. And so we did get to speak. Laverne is such a light and wonder, and it was such a pleasure to just get some time with her.
Would you have rather seen a role like Taylor happen on broadcast television, rather than a premium cable network like Showtime with a more limited viewership? Is broadcast ready for a character like this?
I don’t know. The world is ready for a character like Taylor, and the world is more ready than it thinks it is for people who are nonbinary and gender-non-conforming because we’ve been here since the beginning of time. We’ve always been here.
What about reactions from the creative community? Has the role sparked some conversations in that realm?
Certainly. Within my immediate creative community, I would say gender is something that I’ve always been interested in and always talked about. In that sense, I’ve always been a person in the room that’s bringing that up. But now that I am playing a nonbinary character, when people are asking me what I’m up to and what kind of art I’m making, it’s certainly sparked a more in-depth conversation about gender and identity, which I appreciate. One of the best side effects about working on Billions that I did not anticipate were the number of conversations I had about gender identity with my fellow actors and also members of the crew. From the person holding the boom to the person wiring my microphone, just how many conversations I had with so many open minds and hearts. It was really wonderful. I’m really grateful for that outcome.
Billions airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
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