They met online as gamers, a Trans girl, a train-wreck, a troublemaker and a trustafarian. They are not Gen-X and they don’t want to be Gen-Y, so they decided to move in together and call themselves Gen Zed. They grew up, and now they wondered why they even bothered.
So goes the introduction to a new animated series created by Goodnight Burbank’s Hayden Black and it’s the first American animated series featuring a transgender actress in a lead role. Gen Zed -Zed being the British pronunciation of the letter Z, thus Generation Z, – is a funny, quirky show aimed directly at the foreheads of the millennials.
PlanetTransgender had the opportunity to interview creator, writer and director Hayden Black as well as get a first look at the rough draft of the first episode. Although the rough cut is for our eyes only, ok…my eyes only…it gives you a glimpse at the story board version of an animated series and the work it takes to go from pencil to final product. Hayden tells us more:
PlanetTransgender [PT]: So they met as online gamers so they millennials I’m assuming, First of all, how did you come up with the idea of Gen Zed?
Hayden Black [HB]: I was drunk. No, I’d gone out on a date with a girl who I’d met on OKCupid and she showed me that she had something like 200 unread messages and it got me thinking about how disposable dating had become. That led me to start wondering about what it was like for people having grown up completely immersed in tech and how they make their way through the world.
That led to a bigger picture. The economy is crap; four year colleges are too expensive for a lot of people to attend so they’re going to two year schools. The cost of living is through the roof. Politics have become increasingly polarized. More people are staying at home long after they would have moved out in previous generations. These were all ingredients. If it sounds dark, it is. But out of the dark comes comedy.
[PT]: Can you describe the Quillam/Eye logo?
[HB]: It’s our designer/animator Alex Bradley’s unique take on the all-seeing eye – but with added references to the larger spectrum of Human sexual identity that is generally ignored. Quillam himself is a mystery; he plays online video games with the gang but no one knows who he actually is. He’s played by a very dashing English actor who I have a unique love/hate relationship with. Me.
[PT]: Are the individual characters based on anyone that you may know or have met?
[HB]: There are always elements of people I meet in the characters I create because authenticity is very important to me. But they’re generally mash-ups of personalities. The show itself is inspired by two UK comedies: The Young Ones and Spaced.
[PT]: When you were in the creative process for Gen Zed, how did you decide on the mix of characters?
[HB]: I wanted a diverse cast to reflect the diversity of human life. I did lean slightly on two characters from The Young Ones for elements of two of the Gen Zed characters. Cameron’s bad poetry was inspired by Rik’s bad poetry, and Huey is a slightly less violent Vyvyan. Rik Mayall, bless your soul, you are sorely missed.
[PT]: It seems like writers are rushing to cast Trans women into their movies; how did you decide [or why did you decide] to have a person who is transgender as part of the series?
[HB]: I’d wanted to do a story with a Trans woman in it for a number of years. Gen Zed isn’t the first script I’ve written with a Trans character in it. It’s just the first of them to become a reality. For so long, all we saw of Trans people on TV were those titillating “I Dated A Woman Who Was A Man” episodes of Jerry Springer. Trans people were being marginalized and ignored – or worse, cast as Circus freaks – and I knew that there was far more to their story than was being shown. The timing is incredible for this project thanks to the torch being lit by Orange Is The New Black and Transparent, but that’s all it is.
[PT]: How did Julie become involved in the project? Was there an audition process involved in her character?
[HB]: A mutual friend introduced us when she heard I was looking for a Trans actress. The audition was part of a table read where I was auditioning other actors for other roles too. I think in that same audition we read John M. Keating (who was actually reading for someone else at the time). John later became Huey.
To me, casting is like a jigsaw puzzle; you move the pieces around, discard some, and pick up new ones, until you’ve got the picture you want.
Julie was the first actress I reached out to audition for the role of Shona and she nailed it right out of the gate. Shona is a well-rounded character and there are quite a few moving moments – and Julie knows how to hit the gas and when to hit the brakes instinctively.
[PT]: Does Julie provide you with any feedback on her character or is this written completely by you [or the writers]?
[HB]: As I’m the sole writer, I invite all my cast – and the crew too – to let me know their thoughts on their characters and the story. Paul Calder, our amazing editor who also edited every single episode of Futurama, gives me great feedback too. At the end of the day, it’s my vision and I make the final decisions but I recognize that it’s a collaborative medium and I like people to feel creative and involved. Julie is one of a number of Trans people involved in the project, all of whom give me their thoughts. I’m proud to say the notes thus far have been more of the “Oh my god, this happened to me” variety.
[PT]: I think its awesome [btw] that the lead role is a Trans person. Since I’ve only seen the trailer it seems like her being Trans isn’t the central focus of the show, but that it’s four friends from completely different backgrounds trying to find their way…Am I interpreting this correctly?
[HB]: You are indeed! Shona narrates the series – she’d be the Carrie if this was Sex and the City – and as such we see intimate moments from her life. But we see that in all the characters and that’s where the story really gets interesting. It’s a heartfelt comedy about four young misfits who find each other in a shitty world with a shitty economy.
[PT]: Collectively, the four main actors/actresses that play the 4 main characters are – although slightly unknowns – appear from their bios to be on the brink of moving on to greater success, so same question as Julie, was this an open casting call or were these other 3 actors that stood out in some way?
[HB]: I audition through my network of friends and contacts and read various people who come recommended. I’d met Emily C. Chang (Betsy) at a comedy festival we were both appearing in. John came through a dear friend and Kevyn Richmond (Cameron) was amongst a few people submitted by a producer I know.
[PT]: Jane Weidlin from the GoGos is in this, how did you get her to sign on?
[HB]: We follow each other on Twitter and I reached out to her via a DM asking if she’d do a one-line cameo (when you’re working on a low-budget project, you don’t make big asks of amazingly talented people). She read the script then emailed me back to say she wasn’t interested in a one-line cameo. She said she loved it so much, she wanted me to write her a featured recurring character. And as its Jane Wiedlin the ONLY answer to that is ‘yes!!”
[PT]: I see Hal Sparks also makes an appearance in Gen Zed, how did his appearance or participation come about?
[HB]: Another twitter ask. Again, we follow each other on there and I reached out to him. He’s such a talented, lovely man. We’re very lucky to have him.
However, all is not fine in the land of Zed as Hayden and Trans actress Julie Goldstein have recently realized.
Enter 4chan…author sighs deeply, pauses, and then issues a dramatic cartoonish eye roll.
[Scene]: Somewhere in an undisclosed location, thirteen steps down from the kitchen of his parents’ home, there is a basement where the only light emanating is from the glowing screen of a random 4chan troll. A thin dusting of Cheese Puffs covers the keyboard and ten empty 20oz Mountain Dew Kickstarter bottles litter the floor around his sagging chair. It’s only noon and time to issue some death threats to the cast of Gen Zed; specifically Julie Rei Goldstein.
4chan – and its equally juvenile 8chan – is supposedly the last bastion of free speech on the internet. These forums were designed as an “anything goes” posting board, free of any rules; instead, they became the training ground for racism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and random anonymous death threats from the children of parents too lazy to parent.
The harassment started within days of the Gen Zed trailer releasing and has continued to the present. Hayden and the cast were issued violent threats that allegedly would be carried out at the Long Beach Comic Con the second week in September. When a troller posted pictures of their LBCC pass back to 4chan proving that they were present at LBCC, additional security was immediately issued to the Gen Zed panel.
PlanetTransgender was provided with the links to the 4chan conversations but its content is not suitable for republishing; sadly, but typically, the conversations illustrate the level of hate people who are transgender are getting and how scared they are of a trans positive portrayal in the media.
Two days later when I inquired, Hayden informed me that a single girl showed up to film the panel and when asked not to record the airing of the animatic, she continued to film in secret. The girl –overly polite and very complimentary of Julie – posted the video to YouTube with snarky remarks.
Julie, who plays the Trans character Shona said in a phone interview about her 4chan attacks, “I’ve had my work put out there and have been attacked for being trans from people who have seen my work and basically said horrible transphobic comments, but never in the sheer volume that 4chan has done for Gen Zed, but the other thing that I never got until Gen Zed, which is really odd, is I never had anti-Semitic stuff thrown at me.”
Julie continues, “That’s what really shocked me because I’m used to being attacked for being trans, I’m at the point in my life where that doesn’t faze me, but I’m not used to being attacked for being Jewish, even though technically yes, I come from a Jewish background, but I’m a non-practicing Jew, which is what I’m being attacked for.”
Shona, the main character, is a budding stand-up comic. Throughout the show her comedy is used to pepper the situations all of the characters are living through. Julie notes that a lot of comedy in the show comes from a trans positive place and it sets the scene for Shona’s comedy because “that’s who she is and she realizes that the world has treated her like shit and she pretty much comes to a place where she realizes that, “if I can’t laugh at this, I’m going to go insane so you know what, let’s just all make a joke out of it in a positive way”.”
The trans community has come to expect cisgender actors and actresses being cast into transgender roles – we call it transface – but we also need to acknowledge the writers and directors that are actively sourcing trans actresses for leading trans positive roles. Having seen the pilot episode, Gen Zed is filled with characters that are immediately identifiable while still having empathy for a situation they were thrown into. The writing is fresh and the voice actors transform 2D characters into lovable misfits facing everyday problems with a sense of humor, all of this makes the series a standout in its genre.
Gen Zed is making an impact in its positive character development to the extent that it if it has 4chan’s attention, then people are taking notice. As Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”