“I think a lot of people see trans people as some weird subculture hiding in the shadows, but I’ve never been one to hide in the shadows,” says transgender actress and performer Candis Cayne. The 44-year-old actress isn't exaggerating: after starting out as a drag performer on the streets of New York, she starred in Dirty Sexy Money in 2007, becoming the first transgender actress to play a regular transgender part on primetime TV. Within the past year, Cayne has once again surfaced on national TV, this time appearing on Caitlyn Jenner’s I Am Cait, spreading awareness about the trans community to not only Jenner, but throughout the world.
A lot has changed since Cayne starred in Dirty Sexy Money with regards to trans actors starring in television roles. Characters have moved beyond “murdered prostitutes” into complex parts for the actors who star in them. It’s something we’ve seen with Laverne Cox on Orange Is The New Black, and we’ll likely see again in Cox’s new starring role on Doubt this fall.
We caught up with Cayne about how the acting landscape has changed for trans actors since she starred in Dirty Sexy Money, what she’s been able to accomplish through I Am Cait, and what she wants to accomplish for the future trans generations.
How do you think the movement of trans folks breaking into mainstream TV has changed?
When I first starred in Dirty Sexy Money, it was barely a word on anybody’s lips. It’s gotten to the point where everyone around the world knows what trans is. That had a lot to do with Caitlyn [Jenner] coming out. In one fell swoop, the word “trans” was everywhere in the world. Everyone knew who it was, whether they agreed with it or not. For me, it’s about the next generation coming up and never having to be afraid or ashamed of who they are. We have to do the groundwork now. In the early '90s when I started my transition, it wasn’t easy. There was no structure of how to even go about transitioning. You did it on your own, got hormones on the street.
When did things start getting better?
In the late '90s and early '00s. Now people have heard of it. Slowly but surely, people are accepting it, and that’s going to take a while. I hope that in 10 or 20 years that it’s something like, “Oh honey, our daughter said she’s transgender. Oh honey, congratulations!” That’s how it should be: there shouldn’t be pre-judgment. It’s not something I chose: it was something that was inherently in me. I chose to realize and become who I truly was. That’s a really freeing that. That’s what our world is truly about: the pursuit of happiness.
What did you learn the most from working with Caitlyn Jenner and starring on I Am Cait?
For me personally, how important it is to have allies and advocates who are out there representing my community and the power that has. As far as helping people understand who we are, going around to all of these kids camps, traveling the country, and having people from every walk of life say, “Thank you for what you’re doing” is kind of an awesome thing. That’s what I learned the most from being on such a juggernaut of a show. It’s shown all over the world, which is amazing.
What do you want to see change the most in the trans community, in terms of representation on TV and in movies?
The most important thing for me is that: A) trans writers, producers, directors and filmmakers are involved, especially in TV and also in trans stories because they understand the nuance of it, and B) juicier parts written by and starred in by trans people—making diverse characters that the trans community can play.
Are there any trans stars that you’re excited to see on the small or big screen coming up?
[I’m excited for my friends] Trace Lysette who’s on Transparent and Jamie Clayton who’s on Sense8. There are a small group of girls who have gone outside of the box and have trained to become really viable actors in the industry. It’s really nice because that will show younger trans kids that they can do it too.
What are your thoughts on Doubt, which Laverne Cox will star in this fall on CBS? Do you also see this as a huge step for the transgender community?
Yes! It’s incredible for her. It’s an amazing thing for her career, and it's more visibility for the trans community and trans actors out there.
Tell me about the projects you’re working on right now. What are the things you're passionate about right now?
I have a couple of things I’m working on including being involved in my own kind of scripted thing that I’m doing. I’m writing a book, which I’m really excited about. It’s not so much a memoir—it’s a book about making people realize how beautiful and special they are on the inside and the outside.
That sounds really inspirational.
That’s what I want it to be. Coming from a blonde hair blue-eyed girl, it doesn’t seem so viable sometimes, but I am a trans woman, and I’ve had to navigate through this world’s stereotypes and racism, really, and try to make something of myself and feel good about who I am. I want other people to feel that way too.
Going back to the beginning, what challenges did you face breaking into mainstream TV?
My biggest challenges were just not getting a chance—not getting called for anything and trying to convince people I was right for the part. And once I did, having to educate writers, directors, and producers on the trans experience. I was an entertainer in New York City, but I wasn’t that person who could go stealth and audition for girl parts and have people not know who I was. I lived in New York City and danced on the street—everyone knew who I was. I was just trying to break into the business.
The first few roles right before Dirty Sexy Money, I had to talk to the writers and directors and say, “Trans people wouldn’t do that,” or I’d have to pass on certain jobs. It was a big crapshoot. In the beginning, you were always playing characters who were murdered and you were playing a prostitute or a drug addict. Later, you were still a prostitute, but you were a “complex prostitute.” Those were the parts you had to play. As an actor, your life is ups and downs as it is. That’s just kind of tenfold when you’re a trans actor who is trying to navigate an industry that doesn’t know how to write for you or how to be towards you.
Has it gotten any better?
Now, I’m being called in regularly for auditions, and I’m being respected as an actor. It’s a big difference from then and now.
How do you think you’ve been able to educate America the most on trans issues with your presence on TV?
The normalcy of it. A lot of people see trans people as some weird subculture hiding in the shadows, but I’ve never been one to hide in the shadows—I know how to find my light. I think that’s the biggest thing people have gotten from me. People have seen that I’m just a normal girl with ups and downs and feelings; I want love and I want kids. I don’t make any apologies for who I am, I’m a good-hearted person and I want the best for me and everyone.