Julie Kalceff wants more representation of trans characters on TV screens.
Kalceff is the creator, writer, and director of First Day, an Australian tween mini-series about a transgender 12-year-old facing the struggle of navigating high school, and life, as her authentic self. Across four half-hour episodes, Evie Macdonald —the first transgender actor to be cast in the lead role of an Australian series— shows Hannah as she faces everyday terrors like making new friends, and facing down a bully as well as less-obvious ordeals including sleeping over at a friends’ house or donning a swimming suit at summer camp. At one point, Hannah is outed on social media and she battles with the question of whether to return to school.
“It’s incredibly important that we see stories about transgender people, that transgender people see themselves on screens because it makes them visible and it means they’re not being alienated,” says Kalceff, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter as First Day lands on CBC Gem in Canada, after premiering Down Under on Australian kids channel ABC Me and on Hulu in the United States.
To tell Hannah’s story authentically, youthful trauma and all, Kalceff chose to frame the series from the perspective of the young girl, rather than take the typical route for TV portrayals of transgender kids and focus on the feeling of her parents, or on the social issue of gender-affirming treatments like puberty blockers or hormone therapies.
“It’s Hannah’s story. We didn’t want to make a story about a transgender girl and then sideline her and not have her at the center of the drama,” the director explains.
This focus also led to casting Macdonald in the lead, her first acting role. Kalceff was determined not to follow the trend of casting a cisgender boy to play a trans girl, believing that would only reinforce the false notion that being trans is about cross-dressing and that a transgender girl is really a boy underneath.
“As a person that is transgender myself, it was really good to see that real and authentic material shown on TV, because people aren’t watching just acting, they’re watching experiences that I can go back to as if they were my own memories,” says Macdonald.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the young actress notes that Kalceff’s script was open to script and dialog changes to better reflect the real experiences of a 12-year-old growing up trans in modern-day Australia.
“Julie knows that I’m trans and I’ve had very real experiences, so she took that into account,” Macdonald recalls.
Macdonald is quick to note, however, that First Day is not her story but a fictional depiction of “things that a transgender person might go through. Just because those are not identical to mine, it doesn’t mean it’s not authentic,” she adds.
A case in point is the character of Isabella, who attempts to bully Hannah by revealing her transgender identity to her new friends and classmates. “Hannah gets very scared and she shuts down because that’s a very confronting situation for her. But if it was me, I would have faced it head-on. We’re very different people,” Macdonald explains.
For Kalceff, who is not transgender, however, the issue of authenticity is important. After her experience writing and directing First Day she says she wants to support transgender writers to develop projects that tell their own stories.
“I’m very much aware that I’m not transgender, so I don’t feel I’m the best person to tell those stories,” she says.