Showtime’s Wall Street drama series “Billions” came up empty Emmy nominations morning last July. Although the show’s first season was both popular and well-reviewed, there’s a lot of shows that fit the same bill.
This year, things could be different thanks to Asia Kate Dillon’s performance as Taylor Mason. Sporting a shaved head and buttoned-down men’s clothes, the actor portrays a whip-thin Mensa-level analyst who was born female and identifies as non-binary.
Showrunner Brian Koppelman learned about non-binary fluidity from his kids. “I was fascinated,” he said. “It seemed to fill something Dave [Levien] and I were looking for, a character to come in from the external world, an atypical intern that Axe recognizes could be helpful.”
“It did free us up have a different lens to look at Axe Capital,” said Levien, who also serves as showrunner. “On the surface they are all looking at Taylor, but the audience is seeing the place through Taylor’s eyes. We have an amazing partner in Asia who is dextrous and able to take anything we threw at them and make it great. This character could grow at Axe and we had an actor to grow with it.”
When Ithaca, New York native Dillon read the breakdown description of the character, the actor shivered, having long felt ambiguous about their gender identity. “I started experimenting with gender non-conformity in middle and high school,” Dillon said in our video interview, “in terms of how I dressed and cut my hair.”
A performer named Taylor Mack introduced Dillon to how to play with gender pronouns. “It gave me my first taste of the idea that identity could be an autonomous decision,” Dillon said. “I started removing gender pronouns from theatrical bios and started replacing them with my name, which felt really good.”
Until Dillon read the breakdown description, they had identified as queer. “I looked up the word ‘female,'” they said. “That’s an assigned sex. Non-binary is a gender identity. They are different. It was the first time my mind was opened to understanding that assigned sex and gender identity were two different things. Sometimes they conform, and sometimes they don’t.”
So far Dillon, has landed some parts that were traditionally played by men, as well as “parts they didn’t know how they wanted to cast,” they said. “My manager and agents know I want to be sent out for parts across the gender spectrum.”
Dillon would happily play characters who are self-identified as girls, women, boys or men, they said. But when it came to competing for the Emmys, Dillon wrote a letter to the TV Academy challenging the Emmy categories; the TV Academy responded by telling Dillon to choose whatever category they wanted. After doing some research, Dillon chose Best Supporting Actor, because going back in time actors have long been gender-neutral.
Whatever happens with the Emmys, Season 3 will bring back Mason. “We’ll uncover a little more,” said Dillon, who keeps the writers straight on their pronouns and non-gendered versions of words. “It’s on me to bring it up,” Dillon said. “Someone else is not looking through that lens.”
Mason is navigating a perilous journey through Axe Capital’s hyper-masculine universe. “Taylor is somebody who has a strong moral center and is coming up against what that means within this hedge fund billionaire world,” said Dillon. “How can Taylor maintain their sense of integrity in a world that is morally ambiguous?”
It’s fun throwing questions at Dillon about how they also navigate fluid femininity, masculinity and sexuality. And Dillon recognizes that they have taken on another role: gender spokesperson. For example, what does sexy mean when you are non-binary?
“I work specifically to subvert the traditional ideas of sexiness,” said Dillon. “Cleavage, I don’t have that, so what do I get to feel sexy about? Long hair is typically feminine. Does [short hair] make me a man? Not necessarily. It’s very freeing to decide for oneself how we want to be and identify and interact with the world.”
Dillon’s representatives are flooded with auditions. The actor is feeling grateful and lucky. “I’m excited to go on Taylor’s journey,” they said. The career they most want to emulate: “Leonardo Di Caprio. He’s continuing to stretch himself and what the capacity of an actor could and should be. He’s played every type of different character, he’s so versatile. And on top of that he’s committed to social justice. For me, activism and art go hand in hand.”