In What Works For Me – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to celebrities about wellbeing and self-care.
Brian Michael Smith made headlines in 2017 when he came out as trans after years working in TV where he’d made a name largely playing cisgender roles.
But it was two years later that he landed the role that made him a household name in the US – in Ryan Murphy’s spinoff procedural drama 9-1-1: Lone Star, opposite 1980s heart-throb Rob Lowe. The series wrapped its first season before the pandemic hit, but speaking to HuffPost UK, Smith says he feared the show that propelled him into the mainstream might never return.
The 37-year-old’s role as firefighter Paul, also a trans man, was a step forward for representation, he says, but the thought this progress might become a casualty of the pandemic, along with his job, left him with anxiety.
“We started to think, maybe what if we don’t come back? I don’t want to jinx it, but that’s starting to happen, things are getting pushed back, things are getting cancelled, things are closed and they’re going to be for a while,” says Smith.
“I had some anxiety: what if we don’t get the chance to go back to work? I love it so much, I love working on the show, I love who I work with. It was really sad to imagine – and then we got the news we are renewed, we’re coming back for a second season. It gave me something to press forward for, do you know what I mean?”
“Playing a Black trans character on a TV show is a story that needs to be told,” Smith says of 9-1-1: Lone Star. The second series arrives in the UK later in 2021 on Sky Witness, where the first season is already available. “I just want to make sure I’m honouring this opportunity that has been given to me and I feel like I’ve been able to do that, even though this year has thrown so much as us.”
Playing Paul is a cathartic experience, explains Smith, who finds elements of the story “overlap” with his own experiences, while leaving plenty of room to get creative with character. “There’s things that are inherently different,” he adds.
“This is why I feel like I was brought in for the role because I can really pull from some authentic experiences, or even if I haven’t had the experience myself, just a deeper understanding perhaps of what the character might be going through and then filtering it through the lens of his story. That’s what’s exciting for me, that’s been what the work is.”
Smith has been promoting the trans cause ever since he came out, both inside and outside of work – “wherever I’m useful I try to be relevant”, he says.
“I like to use my art and the platforms I get from my art to do that. I also like to amplify the voices of other activists and organisations that are doing work to either reverse legislation or raise information about anti-trans legislation, or anti-black legislation, anti-racism legislation,” he says. A quick scroll through his Instagram reveals those passion points: campaigns for universal healthcare, posts honouring trans people murdered by name, and a poem in memory of Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker shot and killed by US police.
Role models such as Smith have never felt more crucial. While in the UK, the trans backlash from a small faction of cisgendered, largely white women, often centres public and “safe” space, Smith says it’s a mistake to think that America is necessarily more open-minded about transness. “They may not be as concerned about the bathrooms, but they’re concerned about trans people in sports, and ‘we can’t have parents forcing their kids to transition, kids don’t know what they want’,” he says. “It’s kind of shifted a little bit here.”
And while 9-1-1 Lone Star has been well received, with a ‘Certified Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Smith is aware it’s only one show – and there are people whose stories urgently need told to increase understanding of trans issues.
“Not everybody watches everything, so as long as I feel like there is an area of misunderstanding in the world then I wanna do something about it, especially if I feel I am particularly qualified to tell a kind of story,” he says.
Which characters would he most like to play? Right now, he has his eyes on science fiction and historical non-fiction, “something I haven’t done before.”
Until recently, most of his characters were cisgender. “I enjoy playing cis roles and and feel like the last two years I’ve been able to do something I’ve wanted to do: bring very different trans characters into existence and in front of audiences. Now I feel like I’ve explored what I wanted to explore in that realm.
“Hopefully with Paul, we can go for more seasons where I can continue to explore that, and develop his character, but I’m also interested in some of the things I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid: action movies, I would love to play a character in a war film, superhero movies are great…”
Is there a block to getting those roles?
“Sometimes it’s just limited imagination,” he says of the ways that trans people can be viewed by the industry. “People assume that trans people will only be accepted as trans characters, or that there aren’t enough trans writers, or that there aren’t any trans producers or directors, there’s that attitude.”
Of course, says Smith, such an attitude can be toxic. “If people want to see more representation of trans people you just have to look around, because with the explosion of digital creation, lots of trans actors and film makers have been creating their own content and it’s readily available.”
In the meantime, Smith and his wife, who works in a New York school, have other pressing matters – a new dog, which the actor has been potty training at the time of our call. “It’s been a healing experience to have him around in such a fractured year,” he says of his super cute chug (a mix of chihuahua and pug).
The pandemic months have halted many hopes and dreams, but what started out as anxiety is slowly turning into clarity for Smith. “At first there was this sense of fear, not knowing what exactly to do, try to make the best of a situation that is out of my control,” he says. “I started to think, all right, what’s the most important thing to us? I had all these plans for what 2020 was gonna be.”
But after the travesties of Covid-19, his priorities fell into place. “What’s really important is people I care I about,” he concludes. “My wife and my family and being together, and finding what works for us. There’s so much in the world that’s out of our control, so I want to focus on things that are in control.”
The lesson: “We’ve gotta figure out ways to stay as connected as we can.”
9-1-1: Lone Star’s first season is on Sky Witness, where the second season will broadcast later in 2021.