In 1989, five Black and brown boys were arrested for allegedly gang-raping a white woman in Central Park. Portrayed as a pack of animalistic young men “wilding” in the park and brutally beating and gang-raping a female jogger simply for the thrill of it, the five boys were demonized in the press, convicted by a jury, and handed stiff sentences.
But as Ava DuVernay’s groundbreaking Netflix series When They See Us heartbreakingly illustrates, the conviction of the Central Park Five was actually a terrible miscarriage of justice perpetrated by a system whose racial biases warped its view of the boys who would — over a decade later — all be completely exonerated. At the time of their arrest, now-President Donald Trump bought $85,000 worth of full-page newspaper ads that read, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” The ads, and his open letter and public outcry, helped shaped white (and wealthy) New Yorker’s opinions of the accused.
Despite occurring 30 years ago, the tragedy of the Central Park Five is hardly ancient history, a fact reiterated both by current police shootings of young unarmed Black men and boys (repeated tragedies demonstrating how white men in power continue to view teens and adolescents of color not as innocent children but as dangerous criminals) and the relevance of When They See Us’s transgender subplot. Not to mention, the havoc Trump continues to wield on the lives of people of color and trans people.
Korey Wise (played by Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome) was 16 years old and the only boy sentenced to adult prison, where, for his own safety, he spent the majority of his 14-year sentence in solitary confinement. While he was locked up, his older sibling, Marci, a trans woman, was murdered. In the series, he last sees her alive when their mother (Niecy Nash) throws her out of the house.
In a powerhouse performance, Isis King portrays Marci in all time periods, both pre-transition (as Norman), post-transition, and as her ghost, who appears to Korey in prison after her death.
The actress is acutely aware that Marci’s storyline is disturbingly relevant today because trans women — especially women of color — continue to be murdered at a devastating rate. King says that she believes toxic masculinity and transphobia both play roles in these deaths, and she fears violence against trans women won’t end until we “teach men to stop taking out their internalized trauma on trans bodies, teach families to accept their trans family members, and create more opportunities and accessibility to the trans community without discrimination.”
“I think the humiliation of men who date us needs to stop and is also a major factor for our murders,” King further elucidated. “Many times men have to prove their masculinity even at young ages and are taught that anything LGBTQ, and especially trans, is wrong, so guilt plays a huge role. Some of these murders happen when trans women have to resort to sex work to survive. These streets can be a dangerous place, and job placement [and] housing should be available for trans women who need it with low to no income. Many are kicked out of homes at early ages, so they are forced to do what they have to do to survive — never getting the opportunities many others have, which is in and of itself a disservice to trans women, especially those of color.”
King has personal experience with homelessness, but she recognizes she’s benefited from opportunities that so many others have been denied. When she became the first out trans woman to appear on the competition series, America’s Next Top Model, King was living at The Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth in New York. She was also connected with another organization that works with LGBTQ youth, the Reciprocity Foundation, which helped Tyra Banks as the supermodel and America’s Next Top Model executive producer cast a photoshoot that incorporated real women experiencing homelessness as background models. King was cast—and her performance so impressed Banks that the supermodel recruited the then-teenage King as a contestant for the following season. King later returned for cycle 17’s All-Stars season.
Even then, King says she knew “the acting bug was inside of me,” and it only grew stronger after Top Model. She began acting in theater productions where she honed her skills.
“Being live on stage teaches you how to improvise, and how to draw the audience into the moment,” King says. “The improv part helped tremendously with my acting, and with being confident in front of an audience.”
But, King admits, breaking into Hollywood hasn’t been easy. She’s often been rejected from trans roles for essentially being “too passable” to cast.
“I’ve heard that so many times in auditions,” she admits. “Trans women come in many different looks, shapes, and sizes, and I feel that many of my years as an actress were filled with ‘You are too petite’ or ‘You are trans? Hmm.’ Recently this year, a TV show declined my audition because they said I was ‘too pretty.’ I had to school my manager and explain to her that saying I am ‘too pretty’ was the new politically correct way of saying too passable. When I first started, most of the few passable roles went to cis females. If they hired a trans actress, they wanted to know they were trans simply by looking at them. These days, auditions are more open to variety. I’m just happy that more of my trans sisters are getting audition opportunities.”
In 2012, King became American Apparel’s first transgender model and went on to release her own line with the brand. She’s since garnered more on-screen roles including Shameless, The Bold and the Beautiful, and the 2016 reality show Strut. But it’s King’s scene-stealing performance in When They See Us that proves her acting chops, showing the world she’s way more than a pretty face and fierce runway model.
“Being recognized and respected as an actress touches my heart more than anyone will ever know,” King says. “Being typecast as a model or reality TV star is difficult when you have so much more to give. I’m so grateful that Ava included me in this project and gave me a chance to be more than just a glamorous model type. I want to get gritty. I want to become characters… and Ava allowed me the chance to do that playing Norman-Marci Wise.”
But was dressing as a man, something she worked hard to get away from, difficult?
“I was surprised at how comfortable and excited I was to get into boy drag,” she says. “Who knows how I would have felt maybe five years ago — it may have been uncomfortable or felt shameful. However, now as an actress, I realize that I will be called to play many different roles and given the significance of this role, I was eager to play the pre-transitioned character of Norman.”
King really dove into the physical transformation of the role, wearing the kind of chest binder traditionally used by trans men, and suggesting sideburns. “This moment was exciting because I got to look completely different,” she recalls. “I can’t lie, I thought of Charlize Theron in Monster, and Rebecca Romijn as Mystique in the X-Men while in hair and makeup. I looked at the moment as an artist in disguise for a role. The chest binding was fascinating, but so very worth it.”
King’s performance was so remarkable it is being put forward for an Emmy award nod. If nominated, King would make history as the first out transgender actress nominated for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series. MJ Rodriguez, who stars on Pose, is another trans woman poised to receive an Emmy nomination this year (in the category of best actress in a drama). Laverne Cox made history as the first out trans person to earn a Primetime Emmy nomination in 2014 for best comedy guest actress for her role on Orange is the New Black (and later nominated for best drama guest actress for the series). King’s eager to make history. She knows, too, that a younger generation of trans girls are looking up to her.
“I take that responsibility very seriously,” she says. “It’s been just about 11 years since I first aired on Top Model, and the stories about how I’ve changed lives taught me that this fight is bigger than me. I didn’t see positive representation of trans women on TV [when I was] coming up. I didn’t know it existed. I love that I can help someone else [have the] hope that I myself had to figure out on my own as I went along. It should be easier for them — that’s what I’m fighting for.”
Looking to the future, King dreams of playing a superhero or fantasy character in what she calls “female kick-butt movies”). “I would love to be in a project where I had powers like a mutant or a sorceress. My imagination over the years has only grown larger and I truly feel I would bring those characters to life.”
King also longs for a time when trans characters are allowed to be light and silly, rather than tragic murder victims. She wouldn’t mind following the career of one of her favorite actresses, Cameron Diaz.
“Her ability to create such innocent and unaware moments in many of her rom-coms have resonated so much with me in my daily life,” King admits. “How I deal with being shy while dating, how I’m super clumsy and look at the glass half full. I would love to bring a character like hers to life because I have never seen a trans character in that type of role, and that is perfectly me! I mean, I’m not an airhead and neither is she, but my life is filled with so many goofy moments and I would love the opportunity to bring that part of my personality to life on screen. Trans-based roles are always serious — and that is needed — but damn it, I want to see myself in a rom-com full of laughs and quirks!”