To someone who doesn’t remember the days of water cooler TV, it would be hard to explain the enormous cultural impact of a show like “The L Word.” Following the watershed gay show “Will & Grace” and the slightly more niche “Queer as Folk,” the Showtime lesbian melodrama marked the first time a mainstream TV show focused solely on gay women. “The L Word” ushered in the era of “lesbian chic,” celebrating and spotlighting queer women in all of their sexy, stylish, and deliciously messy glory.
This being mainstream television, however, and with the show’s trendy Los Angeles setting, “The L Word” could only showcase so much of the LGBTQ community. In an obvious play for straight audiences, most of the characters on “The L Word” were feminine presenting and cisgender, with little to no discussion of gender identity or presentation.
It wasn’t until Season 3 aired in 2006 that viewers met the first recurring trans masculine character on TV, the unassumingly sweet Max Sweeney. Played by Daniel Sea, Max’s transition is one of the series’ most controversial and poorly handled character arcs. Throughout Max’s medical transition, he descends into raging fits and is ridiculed, humiliated, and challenged by his so-called friends.
More than 15 years later, “The L Word: Generation Q” is attempting to right some of the harm caused by Max’s story by bringing the character back. Now a thriving and happy father of four with a loving partner, Max returns in a recent episode to bestow some friendly parenting advice on the new show’s trans male character Micah (Leo Sheng). It’s a tender reconciliation for many fans of the show, but it was especially healing for Sea.
In a recent video interview, IndieWire spoke with the actor behind Max about their experience on “The L Word” to better understand how a shifting public consciousness around trans people has changed the conversation.
IndieWire: How did the response to Max over the years change your feelings about the role and the work you did on “The L Word”?
Daniel Sea: The responses are as complex as our identities are, and the response is shifting, as is our understanding and language for all of the questions about gender, transness, queerness. I identify as trans, non-binary, and trans-masculine, and I use he and they pronouns. I feel that for me the journey of transness is about reclaiming our ancient heritage. We have always existed. In cultures around the world, the ancient ways included and usually uplifted the value of trans people.
When I was hired for “The L Word” in 2005 and I realized it was going to be a trans story, which I didn’t know when I accepted the job, I had been using the word trans to describe myself since 2002. At that time, what I meant by trans was transitioning across the spectrum of gender. We were very playful with all these terms, my generation, in San Francisco and New York particularly. So we used they, we used Z, we used he and also she. It was very playful. My community called me Little Prince for years.
One of the criticisms of the show back in 2005 was that Max was being played by a cis actor. But that was inaccurate, right?
At that moment, we were fighting for rights and for health coverage to cover access to medical support for trans people. So, when suddenly in the public eye, it felt important for me to not identify as trans because I had the understanding if I wasn’t taking medical intervention at the time that I shouldn’t use the word trans. Even though I had used that word to describe myself before. I also spoke about not prescribing to the gender binary in the press in 2005.
How did taking the job in “The L Word” change your life?
When I was cast as Max, I had no idea what an impact this would have on my life. Being able to work full-time as an artist was wonderful. But also, over the four years of Max’s presence on the show, there were many parts of the story that were very painful to embody as a trans person. As an actor I am set to the task to bring the script to life, which I dedicated myself to. Acting in this role of Max, the first recurring trans masculine role on TV, was a real honor for me. But at the same time, there were highly problematic aspects of the story which I attempted to intervene on in various ways. But as an actor at that time, I had very little, if any, influence on his storyline.
What were the most painful parts for you of the way Max’s story was told?
For me, the overall arc of the character — which seemed to spiral downwards into suffering, alienation, and misery — was the most painful thing. I was consistently hopeful with each script I received that we would see trans joy, but unfortunately, this is not what the writers chose to do. So much of what he was experiencing, in terms of gender dysphoria, bathroom situations, violent street attacks, I had experienced in my life.
And on one hand, to be able to bring to the mainstream these stories that so many in my community were experiencing was very important to me. That’s the work of an actor, we bring our lives to a role. But I think, for marginalized people brought into the business, we are particularly vulnerable in those moments. It was such a singular experience and quite isolating being a “first,” and I didn’t know other trans or queer actors in Hollywood navigating all of this to talk it over with. And none on the set either. This was only the case because of gatekeeping, historically, in the business.
I hear stories of trans and queer actors being on set and saying, “This line doesn’t feel right.” Or “This isn’t going to go over well,” or “This doesn’t feel right for me to say.” Were there times when the writers would listen to you about specific lines or times that they didn’t listen?
Well, I was new to the business, so I had the understanding that I mostly just had to act what was given to me. At the same time, I did try to question and advocate for certain changes. But yeah, it wasn’t a collaboration in terms of the writing. There was a trans consultant that they brought in but it seems his input was not listened to, overall.
Was there ever a moment later, when public opinion started to shift, that you ever had some restorative conversation? Or is it only happening now that they’re bringing you back? Have you ever been able to say to whoever, whether Ilene [Chaiken] or someone—
Something in the way the whole structure of the industry was set up at the time did not allow for this kind of input. I don’t know what went into all of the decisions. I like to think people had the best of intentions. Let’s remember that “The L Word” was the first television show to have a recurring trans masculine character. He was also one of the first trans characters overall on television, and it was Showtime and Ilene Chaiken that championed this possibility, however complicated it was in terms of the storyline.
So it’s complicated. It was already amazing, significant, and groundbreaking that you had women writing and directing the show. And Black women icons like Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier playing central characters and lesbians as the main characters. I mean there’s a lot of other work going on, but it would have been great if Max’s story was attended to in a careful way.
I mean, I’ll just share personally, for me, the scene where Kit tells Max, “Why can’t you just stay a woman and be a strong, masculine woman?” That probably delayed my coming out by years.
The thing is people were saying stuff like that at the time, and they probably still do, but what’s a way you could have that very real viewpoint included and use this as a teachable moment, to reaffirm trans people belonging inside of a changing lesbian and queer community? To me, the answer would have been to see Max thriving, happy, and eventually seen and accepted by his community as he was transitioning, instead of spiraling downwards into misery and alienation. Then you could have the voice of an older person, because let me tell you there were plenty of people saying just that to me and to others.
I am very sorry to hear that kind of storytelling caused that kind of harm to you. Because for me, I went through what I went through having to display all this pain and misery as well as the great opportunities and the cool stuff that happened. It was a whole mix. I will say that trans people I have heard from have always been able to see me as a trans person and actor playing a role and could see that the storyline was hard on me too.
Even to this day, I get letters and messages from people of all ages: young people who saw me when they were children or people who were older or whatever saying, “Seeing you in that role made me understand who I was.” So, it sucks that people who identified in this very deep way simultaneously were hurt by the storytelling. This is why the changes we are beginning to see in the industry regarding how to best tell stories of historically marginalized identities are so important. Because real harm is caused by harmful storytelling. People of those very identities must be central in the creation process.
How did it feel to revisit the role today?
It’s really unique to be able to bring Max back with this reparative gesture. To revisit a character who was unskillfully treated in a hurtful way and to get to see him thriving and happy in the queer and trans context of today. This is perhaps another historical first in filmmaking. I am not aware of any other time that a series has gone back to a trans character from the past to do this kind of reparative work through the storyline itself. This opens up a lot of possibility for healing through story in a metaverse kind of way.
Max is close to my heart. I am infused in him and he is a character that is a part of me, the way I see the world, how people interact with me. So even in a more expansive sense, to be able to go back and see him happy and thriving is wonderful. I believe in that kind of healing, that we can go back in time in order to heal our younger selves by what we do now. What a cool way to do this through this character that is a part of our collective trans and queer story and cosmology.