Chella Man—a 20-year-old deaf, Chinese-American, transmasculine, genderqueer model and visual artist—made his acting debut on the second season of DC Universe’s delirious superhero series, Titans, last month.
Yet his character Jericho, the mute son of evildoer Deathstroke (Esai Morales) and half-brother of Titans’ member Ravager, will have something of a “coming-out” party in this Friday’s episode, tellingly titled “Jericho.”
The pivotal ep reveals the violent, tragic incident that caused Jericho to lose his voice (and learn sign language), and it also introduces his superpower: the ability to teleport his consciousness and possess others just by making eye contact. Bonus: He’s also bisexual.
Man, who lives in Brooklyn, documented his physical transition, which included top surgery and testosterone shots, on his social media as well as in a series of columns for Them in 2017 and 2018.
He's also very much in love with his photographer and performance artist girlfriend, MaryV, whose portrait-in-progress was prominently displayed behind him when we spoke via Skype video chat (Man uses a mix of cochlear implants and lipreading to communicate).
Here, he discusses ASL authenticity, The Matrix, and a scene in Titans that got so intense, it left him with cuts on his hands.
How did this acting gig come about?
A friend of mine, who also happens to be a deaf actor, Lauren Ridloff, sent me the casting call. It asked for a half-Asian or Latinx individual who knew sign language. A call this specific was impossible to turn down!
Chella Man as Jericho in Titans.
How do you identify with Jericho?
What stood out to me the most is how he sees the best in people. Regardless of what they do, he will see past that and believe that people are good. I grew up Jewish, and in a lot of ways, when I was reading the script, he reminded me of Anne Frank. In spite of everything, she still believed people are good at heart. I feel I do that to a point in my own life. Jericho is also extremely sweet and sensitive, and I really resonate with that as well. He also identifies as bisexual, and I identify as pansexual. We found a way to slip that in [this episode] very briefly.
What do you see as the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality?
It depends on who you ask. It’s whichever term resonates with you. Some people don’t like to use “bisexual” because it means two. I identify as pansexual because I want to make sure when I say I’m pansexual, it means everyone and everything.
Was there any direction from Titans’ creative team that you found especially helpful in bringing this comic book character to life?
They just wanted me to bring who I was to the role, and actually asked me to refrain from reading a lot of the comics because they wanted this to be a new era. The best advice I got was from approaching my fellow cast members and asking them about acting and experiences. I don’t really do small talk, so I would get in deep with them immediately. A lot of them gave great advice.
Were any of your scenes emotional for you?
Yeah. There was one scene where I’m signing, and I have to be angry and upset, and I got so deeply into it that when I looked down there were cuts in my hand. I was signing so intensely I was scratching my hand, and I really lost myself. I'd never experienced anything like that.
You said in a HuffPo interview that you “rarely saw sign language authentically represented on screen growing up, so this incredible opportunity has made my heart soar.” Can you elaborate on the importance of being able to do that?
ASL is like any other language. If you learn it briefly for a role, it’s different than when it’s a part of you and your culture. It looks different, and people who grew up signing in the hard-of-hearing and deaf community will recognize it and feel misrepresented. In addition to that, we already struggle so much to get roles and jobs in general, so when a deaf or hard-of-hearing role goes to someone who has the privilege to get other roles more easily, it’s unfair and just perpetuates this lack of representation in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. I think it’s very important that these kind of roles go to people [who've actually experienced it].
Do you also think there's an importance in a transgender actor being cast as a cisgender character?
This goes back to what I was saying before about there not being enough opportunities for marginalized individuals in general. To have a trans actor get a role that’s not even specifically for a trans person—that’s rare. If we're even given an opportunity, many times it’s to play a character of the gender identity we identify with, but I have this privilege of "passing." I can present myself as a cisgender male, which is a huge privilege that opens the door to me receiving roles like this. I think it’s huge, but we also need to continue to do work so people who don’t pass, or who don't even want to pass, can get those roles as well.
There was a boycott campaign this past summer over the film Adam because trans members of the cast were allegedly mistreated and misgendered on set. What was your experience on the set of Titans?
Everyone was willing to open their hearts and minds and listen to what I had to say. A bunch of people who didn’t even know I was trans, we had great conversations. I met people whose siblings were trans and people who had no idea what that really meant. It was beautiful to talk to them, because a lot of times in New York I am surrounded by queer people, which is fantastic, but I also believe it’s important to diversify the people you talk to. There was no maliciousness. Sorry to hear about Adam.
You’re also a model and have graced a few magazine covers, including the 500th issue of the U.K.’s Gay Times. Are there any artists or photographers you'd love to work with?
Christine Sun Kim is a friend of mine who I have always looked to for representation as a deaf artist. She’s a deaf Asian artist, and I discovered her while in high school because she gave a Ted Talk. At the time I identified as a deaf Asian woman, so that was the first representation [of someone like myself that] I saw. My eyes became saucers—I was very excited to listen to what she had to say, and to see someone who understood what I experienced who was now giving this talk on a stage. At that moment I found the role model I lacked growing up.
A lot of her stuff is about the deaf experience. Right now she’s working on graphs highlighting different experiences of a deaf individual. Some were in the Whitney Biennial, and they were all about deaf rage—why deaf people sometimes get angry and why that’s okay and how oppression leads them to be angry. She also does sound work, feeling the vibrations.
What does MaryV think about you being a superhero?
She doesn’t want to see me get punched or anything, but we’re excited.
What would you like to see Jericho get up to in Season 3?
I'd like to see him kick some evil ass.
Have you been approached with other acting gigs yet?
I'm doing auditions for different roles, but I’m also thinking on focusing on my art more. This January I’ll go to Italy for an artist residency.
Did you hear about The Matrix 4?
Oh, my god, I would love to be in Matrix 4. It would be a dream to play someone who kicks evil ass, same as Jericho.
Matrix aside, what’s your dream role?
I would love to play someone like myself. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it scattered in other stories, but I’ve never seen my story told.
Man's special episode of Titans, "Jericho," is streaming October 25 on DC Universe.