In the new season of Nashville on CMT, Jen Richards plays Allyson Del Lago, a physical therapist who helps Juliette (Hayden Penettiere) recover from last season's plane crash. Richards sat down with NewNowNext to discuss how she came to Nashville and why TV needs more trans actors than ever before.
Did the showrunners talk to you about making a conscious decision to have a larger LGBT representation on Nashville?
To be frank there wasn't much conversation at all. [After auditioning] they just offered me the part and I really didn't know anything until I showed up on set. The more I've learned, and the more people I've talked to at Lionsgate, on set and at CMT, the more impressed I've been with their genuine commitment to showcasing a real diversity of people. Nashville isn't all just straight white people and they want to be true to that.
Is your character being trans ever discussed on the show?
It's only been brought up in one line in the scenes I've seen so far. My only scenes are with Hayden Panettiere. It's a small part, but what I liked is that theres a subtext to it. Hayden has a flashback and my character empathizes with her. There's a moment of connection between the two of them. "I was in my own kind of accident, not exactly like yours but I know what it's like to be in such a hurry to heal your body. You forget that your soul needs to heal too."
It was a really lovely line, it was something I wish I had written myself. It added a lovely subtext without being overt. Where the fact that the character was trans added a layer to the scene but it wasn't necessary. It wasn't about her being trans, it just gave her extra compassion. I was excited by that.
Do you ever go out when you're filming in Nashville?
Oh yeah! I had already loved Nashville. The music, the people the food. I'm from Mississippi and the rest of my family is from North Carolina. That's where I call home. I like the men down there too [laughs]. There's a breed of men in Nashville that are definitely my type. It's a very progressive city. I was excited when the news of Tennessee Thrives came out, which was this coalition of over a hundred different businesses, including CMT—which was one of the companies that spearheaded the effort—where they were proactively coming together to preempt any legislation like HB2 from getting passed in Tennessee.
You're in the new CBS series, Doubt starring Laverne Cox...
I have one scene in Doubt. It's just a couple of lines but it was so much fun to do because it was a scene between Laverne, Angelica Ross and I. The three of us play friends, and the three of us are old friends since long before any of us were that prevalent in the media. So it was just really great being on set and every time the director would yell "Cut!" we would just start giggling because it was so surreal. It was super fun.
Do you think there's a turning point right now with trans actors on TV?
It's a huge step forward. Having a trans person as the star of a primetime drama is a huge first for us. The only time that we've had a recurring trans character was Candis Cayne back on Dirty Sexy Money. That was a beacon of hope for trans women and trans actors. So now having Laverne on is a big step. The truth is Hollywood is very conservative. No one in Hollywood wants to be first, they want to be second. Laverne having this role on Doubt is a first and we're hoping this will open up doors for a lot of us to be seconds.
Have you ever not gotten a role because of being trans?
Of course—and here's the tricky part and what frustrates a lot of us: there's a bunch of really great trans actors here [in L.A.], but the problem is that we only get called in for trans roles. It just doesn't occur to casting directors. When they think of a trans woman, and when they think of what an audience thinks of a trans woman, they think of a guy in a drag. So we get called in for trans roles and then we don't get those trans roles because we look too feminine. That's happened consistently over the years and it's only starting to change now.
Do you think having more trans characters on TV affects tolerance and acceptance?
I can't forget that stakes are life and death. The first trans death of 2017 was a young, black trans woman in Mississippi. One of the ways we can combat things like HB2 in North Carolina is by getting trans people on television. That law is only possible by peoples' projections of their own fears. They buy into this image of some burly predator who throws on a wig and says they're a trans woman and can get access to a women's bathroom. Which is fiction for people like me, who have been invisible.
I have been using women's restrooms in North Carolina for years without issue but they don't see me. So thats why it's important that I get on television, that all kinds of trans people get on television so that the reality can replace the fiction. As long as the fiction is dangerous we need to have some more reality there.
Nashville airs Thursdays at 9/8c on CMT.