Isis King has undeniably come a long way since I first met her a couple of years before her life-changing appearance as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. What hasn’t changed is the unshakeable self-confidence Isis exudes. It’s a confidence that, even back then, seemed to emanate from her like a light as we worked in a mundane retail job where she’d spend her lunch breaks sketching and creating stunning fashion illustrations of womens’ couture.
Kind-hearted and soft-spoken, but with a prominent presence, it felt like Isis was already a star, but the world just didn’t know it yet. So for me, it was no surprise that given the opportunity, Isis King would take the 15 minutes of fame bestowed upon her by the universe and run with it like the wind. And she did, forging a path as a groundbreaking media personalty, transgender icon, LGBTQ role model, and celebrated actress with a breakout role in the critically acclaimed, When They See Us (directed by Ava DuVernay).
The ascending trajectory of Isis King continues, now with a new role – Alexis, in the HBO Max docu-series, Equal. Equal aired on October 22, wowing audiences with its emotional depictions of the LGBTQ stories seldom told, and some unheard of by the masses –until now.
I invite you to read my very insightful interview with the remarkable Isis King, as she discusses Equal and her hopes for what the project will accomplish.
CA: Isis! How are you, darling?
Isis: Hi Corey! I’m good. How are you?
CA: I am well, thanks, This is so funny, you and I together again. You know I am so proud of all you’re doing, especially when you do things like this new project, the multi-episode Equal on HBO Max. Tell me about Equal and the role you play.
Isis: Well, I want to say first, what was really great for me was the director of my episode was Kimberly Reed. She herself is a trans woman and the DP (Director of Photography). So many people behind the scenes were trans and non-gender-nonconforming. That in itself was an awesome experience because that adds another layer of understanding and depth to the project.
It’s a four-part series made up of different stories, told collectively together, stories that happened before Stonewall. I knew about Stonewall, but I didn’t know about the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco and many other impactful moments that led up to Stonewall.
CA: So these are stories of the LGBTQ movement’s unsung heroes that we don’t know about?
Isis: Yes, episode one depicts the rise and early organization. I’m in episode two, which focuses more on the trans aspect of the movement. Episode three is about the black community and the growing LGBTQ civil rights movement, and the last episode teeters toward the Stonewall movement.
My episode tells the stories of a few trans women and a trans man. It’s refreshing, like Black History Month, because these are stories we haven’t heard. It’s like, we’re not going to just talk about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, who are awesome, but other people also helped make up the moments and applied pressure to society.
I play a character named Alexis; a composite character made up of many trans and gender-nonconforming people. Throughout the episode, you see her get more and more frustrated by the abuse police got away with because being who we were back then was illegal.
This is really important to show because look at what’s happening now with a president who’s trying to take away our rights. It’s important for us to see where we came from, to know how hard we have to work – so that we don’t go back there.
CA: That’s a really great point because so often the younger generation –and I say younger because I came out in the eighties and nineties, but we often accuse the younger LGBTQ generation of not knowing those stories. Now, I’m like, well damn, I didn’t know them either! I’m just now learning from you telling me all these things.
Sometimes when people discuss early LGBTQ rights history, a criticism is that ethnic people have been removed from the stories. So, I think the casting of many ethnic performers in “Equal” is a great contribution.
Isis: Oh Yes, and in my episode, you will see Alexandra Gray, who is an awesome actress and a friend of mine. Also, Haile Sahar from Pose is in the Stonewall episode, which I believe is episode 4.
CA: Oh, I love Haile. We had a fun time when I met her first on the red carpet at the GLAAD Awards in 2019, and I was actually supposed to do an interview with her for Instinct Magazine, so heeeeey Haile, I’m still waiting, girl, lol.
The rest of the cast are some heavy hitters too; Samira Wiley, Cheyenne Jackson, Anthony Rapp, and Billy Porter as narrator. That’s a Powerhouse production.
Isis: It really is, and when I saw the trailer, I was so surprised. It was such a quick turnaround to complete the project. Literally, when we filmed, it was right when we started hearing about COVID-19. I recall filming my scenes on the 12th, and by the 16th, everything was getting shut down. I didn’t really hear much after that. Then I saw it pop up, completed, with that incredible trailer.
It really hit me differently than I expected it to when I saw the preview. It was so powerful; the music and the tone of it were really intense. I was like, okay, let me prepare myself because you know, it’s going to make you sad, it’s going to make you angry. It’s going to make you feel something serious. And the timing of it is so perfect because we have to continue to speak up.
It’s like you said, so many young people have far more privilege now. Some of them may have a supportive family, or they may be able to use whatever gender bathroom they prefer when they’re out in public. Many people overlook how hard the fight was for the people who came before them. And I think this, especially with the Powerhouse group in this project, really allows more people to see we need to continue to push the movement forward.
CA: I think it’s a continuing effort for the public to become more aware and informed. I interviewed Indya Moore on the red carpet at the GLAAD Awards as well. It was profound, regarding police brutality against black men, Indya said to me, “black trans women are the first ones on the front lines yelling at the cops to stop killing our men, our brothers, and fathers, but then those same men turn around and kill us.
Isis: Wow, yes.
CA: Indya asked the question, “Why are we not getting back love from those same black men who we are actually on the front lines defending and demanding the cops stop killing?” Very powerful words. So, Isis, where do you see the relationship between ethnic trans citizens and their minority communities, namely Black and Hispanic communities?
Isis: I actually spoke up about this during Pride month, and it started a big conversation. I said, “I want to be out there fighting for my Black brothers, but I’m also scared to be out there fighting and marching for my Black brothers” And it’s an argument that a lot of people don’t want to have, but unfortunately, I really think it comes from systemic oppression and racism. It comes from black men being told they have to be this or have to be like that.…or in the church – this is right, this is wrong, and all that is embedded in our heads really young.
We’re told that femininity in a black man is bad, and you’re going to hell, not going to be loved, or you’re going to be disowned. So, it really gets into the heads of young people like me, until we start to feel “who I am is not right.” It also puts in the heads of people who might be attracted to someone like me that it’s bad, and I have to constantly have this battle within myself because of who I love.
There’s also a stigma. Whenever something happens to one of our sisters(trans), the first thing people say is, “See, this is why y’all have to stop tricking,” but then you find out that the guy actually knew he was with a transgender woman, okay?! So stop that narrative. I’m not saying that every girl is upfront, but I’m telling you most of the time they are so that whole narrative needs to go.
CA: I have a final question. I interviewed Laverne Cox when she was promoting her documentary, “Disclosure.” We spoke at length about terminology and if she felt comfortable with being in Hollywood categorized as a “trans actress,” or would she like to be known as just “an actress?” How do you navigate that, and are the roles you audition for always transgender roles, or do you also get calls for Cis-gender roles?
Isis: I have had some auditions this year and last year – but only a few that were not trans. I always use the example, if my character is a waitress or whatever the character might be, and my identity, or who I’m with, doesn’t come up in the story, then I don’t think it should really matter. It also really just comes down to what they want or what they’re looking for. Sometimes, I want to play the cool girl at school, college, or wherever. You know, it just depends on how forward-thinking the director is really.
Equal brought together a cast of such variety – all very talented, so it’s possible to hire the LGBTQ community to do what we naturally can do, including telling all the stories that touch us personally.
CA: Yes, I completely agree, and listen, you are living proof of that. Again, I’m so proud of all you’re doing, AND I’m also rooting for you to get in with Marvel or DC Comics- either one, because I know you want to play a superhero! I know you are ready!
Isis: (Lol) Okaaaay? YOU know! You know what I want.
CA: Yes, and I know you can do it! Well, I thank you so much, Miss Isis King, from Equal, now available for viewing and streaming on HBO Max. We appreciate your time, best of luck and continued success!
Isis: Thank you, bye-bye. See you on social media!
See the emotional trailer for Equal, and watch the groundbreaking docu-series on HBO Max.