There’s an interview that actress and comedian Patti Harrison thinks about a lot. Back in 2016, model and actress Hari Nef told The Guardian, “I know some of my exposure has been due to my identity, but I believe in more than that. I think that often my work is obscured by my gender identity. I don’t want it to be a big deal. This is not what I want to talk about anymore.” Like Nef, Harrison is a trans woman, and what Nef said stuck with her.
“I remember reading that and being like, ‘Wouldn’t you want to take whatever you can get and capitalize on that, if possible?” Harrison told IndieWire during a recent interview. Now, the star of Sundance hit “Together Together” says she gets it, and while she’s more than happy to talk about her breakout role in Nikole Beckwith’s dramedy — in which she plays Anna, a gestational surrogate to Ed Helms’ wannabe single dad Matt — she’s also ready to move beyond the usual talking points.
Even when applying her bone-dry humor to the current landscape and wondering what’s next in her burgeoning career, Harrison manages to suffuse her words with wit, wisdom, and warmth. She’s the sort of talent who can go on an extended riff about the industry’s current obsession with been-there, done-that material before segueing into a silly, if still salient idea: why not ask her the kind of questions you’d just ask, oh, Timothée Chalamet? He’s a performer too, just like Harrison.
“Together Together,” which debuted at Sundance in January and is now in theaters and on VOD, marks Harrison’s first starring role, and the sweet, incisive story is a departure from her broader comedic work. From a star-making appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” back in 2017 to roles on everything from “High Maintenance,” “Broad City,” and “Shrill” to writing for Netflix hit “Big Mouth,” Harrison is just getting started.
Before that, though, she’d like to talk about mustard.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IndieWire: Your first starring role is in a bonafide theatrical hit in the middle of a pandemic. What’s that like?
Patti Harrison: Nikole Beckwith definitely planned the pandemic to a crescendo into this film. It’s the magic of cinema! But no, it’s been really, really nice, because it’s my first movie that I’ve worked on in this capacity. I just have never experienced the production life of a movie, or going into post-production, how long that takes. For the most part, it’s just quiet for a long time. And then you kind of forget that you did something, you acted in a movie.
Thankfully, things leveled out and the vaccine was available. Paired with the video on demand, it definitely felt like, okay, there are options, people will be able to see it. It’s not ideal. We didn’t get to do our fun little premiere thing or anything like that. But ultimately, I think it’s really nice, special, weird thing.
As someone who has watched your career, it’s like, “Well, this is very clearly a turning point for Patti.” Does it feel that way for you? Has it changed things for your career?
Definitely, in terms of the kind of opportunities that I’ve gotten afterward. Nikole, the whole time, she was like, “You know, this movie is going to do stuff for you?” And I was just like, “Yeah, sure.”
I felt pretty skeptical of what [performance] I gave, because I get so stressed out when I’m on camera that a lot of times I have — I guess not literally, but it feels like an anxiety blackout a little bit. I’ll do what they’re asking me to do, and then I won’t remember what performance I gave, and I’m just assuming, like, “Oh, Jesus Christ. I really shit the bed on that one.”
She made me excited about it, but with the pandemic and stuff, I was like, “I don’t really think people are going to see this movie in this capacity.” And then, it got into Sundance and then it was like, “Oh, well, that’s cool.” It ended up being a huge gift. My family in Ohio, who would never be able to go with me to Sundance, they were able to watch my movie when it premiered.
I’m watching it kind of change things incrementally, but I’m still just at home in LA, my house is filthy. They send you these big, giant fucking premiere gifts or FYC packages or whatever the fuck. Most of it, I’m like, “I don’t feel like half of this is recyclable.” I remember being like, “I can’t wait to join the Writers Guild so I can get screeners. I can’t wait.” Now I’m getting more stuff than I have time to break down all these boxes for.
What have you been offered that feels different than the things you were offered even a year ago?
A lot of the stuff that I had access to before were really small features, or the guest star sort of thing where I just pop in and I have a small character who has two lines and I get to be funny. But it seems like after the movie, I’ve had some opportunities for a bigger role, which is exciting and feels nice, too.
I’m always afraid to talk about stuff because I’m afraid to get ahead of myself or jinx something. I would really love to pivot into a place where [it’s not just] offers for projects like, “She’s a trans rock and roll star, but she has a secret … she’s actually cis!” That actually sounds amazing, don’t steal that. I can hear you typing on your typewriter right now. You’re editing this. You already shot it!
You’ve talked in the past about producers wanting to talk to you about projects that aren’t necessarily related to your own experiences as a trans woman, but other people’s perceptions of your experiences. What is that like, to be in a room with people who seem to think they know what your story is or what your experience is, and then wanting to turn that into content?
Those are usually meetings where they’re asking me if I want to create or I want to EP a show, or write a project that’s about that, and I explain that I’m coming from a place where I feel like those stories — they’re valid and they are real, people do have those experiences — but that I have my own, and it’s just not what I’m interested in creatively. Then, it’s still like, “Yeah, but I know that’s not your story specifically, but it would be an interesting story to tell about trans people.”
To me, it feels like every time I’m watching some trans story, it’s about their grief around their gender. And there’s not really a lot of opportunity for them to explore stories outside of that. It’s just really frustrating. It’s really one dimensional. It’s based on stories they’ve seen in media about what the trans experience is, and I think it speaks to a larger criticism I have: It feels like there’s 10 new TV shows being announced a day, and they’re all just copy-and-pasted of another show that already exists. It seems like studios and networks only greenlight stuff that has familiarity to them. If you can be like, “Oh, it’s ‘Workaholics,’ but it’s Asian girls,” they’re like, “Yeah, we’ve got it. We know exactly what the show is. It’s greenlit.”
Or the way people feel the need to shoehorn it into the story, when there’s a trans character and she’s like, “Hey, girl. Make sure to get these over to Mr. Colby’s office at 3:00 PM. Also, oh my gosh, I have the spins. I just took my estrogen shot. The needle? Oh, it fell out of my pants. Oh, my gosh. Can you see my ball sack through this little skirt?” Why!?
Your casting in “Together Together” is groundbreaking in many ways — you’re playing a character who isn’t just written as being cis, but who has to be cis — and it seems to be the focal point of many conversations about the film. Does it feel better to you if it’s not the major conversation point about this film?
I would love to live in a world where it wasn’t a big deal. I would love to just be taking interviews about this movie that were more about just the rest of the movie, but all of the focus is pinholed into me being trans. But the reality of it is that, if it helps open doors, then great. I think Nikole really did something incredible with giving me this opportunity. I never thought I’d get to do something like that, and it’s so beyond what I ever imagined.
It is important, because I hope that it would create some sort of momentum for casting people to be like, “Oh, yeah, you can cast a person based on if they’re talented or not,” as eye-rolly as it is. The question that I get a lot is, in different wording, [is] “What’s it like to be a transgender comedian?” Or transgender actor, or transgender whatever the fuck. I have to talk about being transgender so much beyond just that. I have to think about being transgender so much that it’s kind of the most boring thing in the world to me.
But when I take my personal grievances out of it, if I saw this happening for someone else, I would be like, “Whoa, that is a substantial thing that is happening that hopefully would lead to more of the same for other people.” I’ll talk about it now. I want to get it out of the way, just get it out of the way. And then, I think there’ll be a time to put a pin in it.
To that end, what is something that you are not asked about a lot in interviews that you wish you were?
Oh, my gosh. I mean, that’s a great question. I don’t know. I like music! “What are you listening to? What are you watching, what are you, whatever?” I feel like stuff that’s oriented away from just the queer shock of it all. Maybe my favorite condiment, I think that’s truly exciting.
This is where you find out that my brain’s fully rancid, and you’re like, “Whoa, I’m glad people only ask her about being trans, because she’s nuts.” My brain is so in, I guess, verbiage mode, weird, semi-didactic, trans verbiage mode. “What questions do you want to be asked?” and I’m like, “I don’t know.” The questions everyone else gets asked!
I would like someone to literally take an interview with Timothée Chalamet or someone, and then just ask me all the same exact questions. “So you’re bilingual, you speak French and English.” I would be like, “Yeah … Oui!”
So, what is your favorite condiment?
Oh, my gosh. I knew this was some takedown piece. Sick, this is fucking sick. Yeah, you would like to know. I bet everyone would like to know, because everyone’s perverted and this is so invasive. What an invasive, disgusting question. I’m a biracial trans woman. This is actually a really layered, fucked-up big question!
But I will say it is yellow mustard. It is stadium mustard, probably, or it’s red chiles. I’ve heard people in L.A. upturn their nose about yellow mustard. They’ll make jokes about it being trashy or primitive. And I’m like, “I need to get out of here.” I’m going to do a filibuster. I mean, there shouldn’t be filibusters, but I’m going to somehow hold space in legal court for yellow mustard. I don’t know how this works out, but it ends up being like, if you speak up against yellow mustard, you get put to death.
“Together Together” is now in theaters and available on VOD platforms.
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