Known as the cute, charismatic, and culture-savvy Queer Eye guy, Jai Rodriguez sat down with dot429 to discuss his career, playing a transgender character, and the trials and tribulations that stem from breaking out of his “Queer Eye” image.
You are known for your successful role as the culture guy on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Have you found it difficult to break out of that mold and show your other acting abilities? I ask this for the benefit of people who are trying to shift careers.
Jai: The only career training I’ve ever had was in acting, and I began my career as an actor/singer. Reality was something secondary, because casting directors had seen me before and wanted my strengths as a performer to rub off in Queer Eye. That’s why I was hired. So actually, my career change came from being an actor/singer full-time to being a television host on Queer Eye. So when people say, “Oh, you’re changing your career,” I tell them, “No, I’m actually going back to my career.” I was a successful actor in New York. I was on a couple of soap operas, then on All My Children. I was a young dad on All my Children; I had a baby on the show. It’s a reminder to people who knew me, as well as an education process for people who didn’t, that I’m an actor first and foremost. I think my greatest acting accomplishment was convincing America and the globe that I was some cultural savant for Queer Eye. I mean, in Queer Eye, I had no training, was not a culture expert, and I was ten years younger than the other guys. I eventually had to cater the show to my strengths. I started bringing experts in to help me with things I didn’t know. So yes, my career shift began with being a full-time actor and performer in New York and then being a successful host.
You recently played a transgender woman. Can you tell us a little about that and how you feel it differs from drag queen acts?”¨”¨
Jai: I was recently asked to play a transgender woman named Amanda on NBC’s new law drama called Harry’s Law. I’ve played drag queens before. It’s fun, but once you play one, you get stuck with people offering you those kinds of roles. After playing Angel in Rent for five years, I just wasn’t looking forward to it. When I read the script, I realized it was different from anything I’d ever done. I’d never played a man who lived his full life as a woman, someone who was anatomically male and considered himself a woman. On the set and even off-camera, everyone calls me “she” and “her.” In the script there wasn’t one slip-up or mention of “him.” I think the script honored that she lived her life as a woman, and although she had a penis, she was a woman.”¨
With Transgender Day of Remembrance, how do you think the media”¨ portrays transgender people in general?
Jai: First, I think there’s an overwhelming sense that transgender people are cool, but people are still pigeonholing them as the transgender prostitute or Jezebel. There is exposure to the transgender community, but often it is characterized as a caricature of an actual person. Like gay people, they started as more of a joke, and now they’re on television more.
Would you ever want to play a straight character?
Jai: It’s something that I would do. It’s something I’m capable of doing. I’ve watched it and know what it looks like, but it’s not something I feel like I have to do. I don’t feel like I have to play a straight person to be considered a good actor. I don’t think straight actors, well-known or otherwise, think every day, “I need a gay role to prove that I can act.” Straight actors do one gay role and then they continue their full-time career in their straight roles. Much like that, I don’t feel the need to play a straight role.
Back to the whole transgender issue. Do you think the LGBT community, in general, embraces transgender people?
Jai: I dated a psychologist/sex therapist for about two years, and he had what I felt to be a very anti-transgender feeling. He did not feel like they were part of the community. He did not feel like their goals were the same as ours, so we should not align ourselves with them on political issues. He felt that they were less likely to get any movement. I would remind him that the drag queens started the Stonewall riots. They were the ones to stand up for LGBT issues. The transgender community has been on the side of gay people for so long, it’s only fair that we unite with them during this fight for equality. I understand very much the notion that they’re not like us because they’re straight. It’s not necessarily true that all transgender people change their sex and are now attracted to the sex that is now their opposite. Sometimes they change gender and start dating someone of that same gender. I’ve definitely met people who went male to female and are now lesbian. And that’s not uncommon. I feel like transgender people are part of the community, and it is important to keep them as part of the community. It’s important to educate the world. People freak out about things they don’t understand.
Who did you look like when you were dressed up?
Jai: When I went to the makeup trailer I wanted to be prepared for what I thought she looked like. She lives her life every day as a normal, beautiful, attractive woman. Based on my own skin complexion, I thought Kim Kardashian was a good reference for what I wanted the look to be. Everyone agreed. The night of my performance I wanted her to be kind of a French version of Lady Gaga with a Barbarella kind of feel. I definitely wanted to keep her everyday look like that of Kim Kardashian.