Zach Barack recently starred in ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ and is the first transgender actor to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Read below to discover he got into the film industry, how he landed his role in ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ and how he would like to see trans representation continue to develop in the film and television industry. Our very own Andrew Salazar was thrilled to talk to him!
ANDREW: To start things up, you have already had such a big year so far starring in Spectrums LA’s Finest and Spider-Man: Far From Home. The latter has already been out for two weeks and is on its way to being the highest grossing Spider-Man film of all time. How does it feel knowing that your image has gotten this much exposure?
ZACH: It feels pretty unreal, consistently. I feel a lot of gratitude, but also I think there’s this weird… I’ve seen it, my roommates wanted to see it with me, I saw it at the premiere and so I’ve seen it three times now. Every time it sort of feels like I can’t fully process the fact that I’m in it. It’s very exciting and it’s so interesting because it’s caused people I never thought I talked to reach out and just say congratulations. Honestly, in a weird kind of beautiful way, it has opened up a lot of relationships for me. I got to find out a lot about what’s going on with people that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s brought a lot of really good things.
ANDREW: Do you mind going into how you first found yourself in the film industry to how you found yourself on the first day of shooting a Spider-Man movie? You went from point A to point Z – it’s incredible.
ZACH: When I was a kid, I really liked performing. On two different occasions, I think I nearly got scammed. I really wanted to be an actor when I was a kid and I would go to these mass casting calls for like Disney and stuff like that. I went and they took me to the next round and my parents were like “something feels off about this”. So, they wouldn’t let me do it and I was really sad. In retrospect, probably for the better because I would then learn proper etiquette. Then I was like “oh that was what happened to me when I was a kid”. Right when I graduated high school, I nearly tried to do one of those again. Once again, my parents were like “we know you’re older now but it’s still a scam”. I waited for a while and I kind of let it go. When I was in college, I started submitting myself to my current manager who runs “Transgender Talent” and I had seen an open casting call for an NBC show. I submitted myself and she was like “you know, you didn’t get this one but from now on if I see something that looks like a fit, I’ll try to submit you if I can even though we don’t represent you”. She thought I had a nice voice and did well in the sample she had seen of me. Once every few months I’d get a call and I remember how excited I’d get when it’s your name. I would be like “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god”. I had so little exposure to the industry that everything felt like a big deal at that point. I had no concept of what was to come. When I got the call for Spider-Man, I was actually pulling into work. The only job I had prior was when I was in a social work video where I play a trans alcoholic, but I can’t even see it.
ANDREW: Could you elaborate on that?
ZACH: Social work school, you know? They don’t want to give away the content for free which makes it fun. I had sort of experience working in film and that’s how I got this call. As I’m pulling in, I was an intern – I was supposed to go home to bus tables that summer, but my mom convinced me to stay in LA and try to work on stuff for the future. So, I stayed and I interned Grace and Frankie for their production team. I was pulling into Paramount and I got this call, “you have to go to this audition today”. I called work and was like, “I have to go”. They got it because they were in film and they understood. I drove home, I shaved, I went to this audition. Actually, I went into the wrong audition at first… I went upstairs in the Cassidy building and Sarah Finn is downstairs and I looked around and all of these tall blonde boys were standing next to me. “Well I’m definitely not getting this one – I don’t think that I’m what they’re looking for”. I walked into the audition room and started reading, they told me “you’re in the wrong place – run downstairs”. It ended up being one of my best auditions. It felt really, really good. I really loved and still love the casting directors. I worked with Jason Stamey and Molly Doyle. They both are incredible people who I have since been able to chat and catch up with – really kind and made it a really great environment. Sarah Finn is lovely as well. It sort of just happened that day. I could feel it in my gut, but I didn’t get anything for a few days. It was like, “ah shucks”, you know? They kind of made it sound like it was going to be something you hear about quickly. Then the weekend ended and I got a call andthat was sort of it. It just jumps from point A to point B, you know what I mean? Or point A to point Z. I’ve had good teachers- everybody I’ve worked with has been so more than willing to be a mentor, to be a friend, to be a helping hand.
ANDREW: That’s actually a really fun story because only you will keep that unique experience.
ANDREW: Can you describe your experience working with director John Watts? Every day was probably the best day ever because you’re working on a Spider-Man movie, but were there any in particular that stood out?
ZACH: Yeah, there were a couple. The first few weeks I felt like I constantly had the giggles. I remember just because we were getting to know each other. You know when you have like a friend crush on people? I had a friend crush on like everybody I was working with and kind of spilled it. I felt like I was always laughing and then I’m like, “no don’t laugh too much”. It was really fun, but I think one of my favorite days at least, I’d probably have a million, was when we were shooting on the boat in Venice. It was so much fun and we were being really silly, probably mildly unsafe at times. Goofing around we were all like, “we’re probably all going to be super nauseous and miserable”. Then it ended up just being beautiful because we got to see all of Venice with like a camera on us and all we had to do was enjoy it. John (Watts) in like fetal position with his camera on the ground- looking up and doing shots with Tom and Zendaya for that bit. It was so fun because we were all together. Then at one point he got off because they were doing shots on a boat that was parallel to us. That’s when the rest really got exciting. John is a really nice guy. He’s really kind to you. Very into feedback and there were things that I watched people say, “What is this? What if we do this?”and he would go “Yeah, that makes sense”. He’s flexible, kind, and he articulates what he wants really clearly.
ANDREW: Speaking of like creative freedom, I’m curious, did you get to decide for yourself if your character was snapped or not?
ZACH: Well I wasn’t in the class in the earlier film. Which sort of implies that I actually was in a younger class along with Brad (played by Remy Hill). I caught up to them and the grade. It just makes sense.
ANDREW: Yeah it does. So, you are the first transgender actor to have joined a Marvel movie. You already told me how the whole process went, but what was your immediate reaction when you found out that you got the job?
ZACH: I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t sure what my character was going to be like. So, I thought it was very surreal, but I started catastrophizing in my head. I was like, “okay so what can go wrong between now and when I get to Europe?”. I didn’t have a ride. I had to overnight my passport in San Diego. By the time I was looking for something, “my passport is not going to be ready then”. In Europe I’m like, “okay well we haven’t started shooting – between now and when we start shooting, something’s going to happen”. When we shot it, I was like, “between now and when the movie comes up, something’s going to happen”. I kept worrying because I’m an anxious person. It was so freeing to go to the premiere and actually watch it and think “Oh my God, we did it”. I want to say that there have been other trans actors who have done superhero stuff- who’ve been in the Marvel shows on Netflix. There is an actor who has, since being in Spiderman: Homecoming, has come out as trans. Josie Totah is her name. There are other trans folks that have done stuff like this, but to be someone who breaks the barrier and who gets to have the conversation- that is very surreal and really beautiful. It’s a privilege and a responsibility to take very seriously. There were people that I looked up to who did that too. There are actors who are even around my age, who I was dying to be when I was in high school. I saw them getting roles and realized trans people really can do this. Not until I was 17 or 18, that’s when the rush of people wanting us on their shows and stuff started happening. It took a while in my life to see that. I thought, “I hope I can be a first one day”. I still kind of really don’t think that part has fully set in is the truth. It’s very surreal.
ANDREW: Your Ted Talk this year was very moving. You and I are around the same age and not a lot of people like us can say that they already hosted a Ted Talk. You compared your coming of age to that of like a comic book origin story. You also brought up characters like Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman. Can you touch upon why you think the comic book medium in general can be so important for diverse readers?
ZACH: I realized in the process of doing the presentation that I kept coming to comic books because a lot of my stories surrounded them. It’s so funny because during my senior year in high school I started working as a fellow at a nonprofit. I got asked by Raymond Braun, he’s a youtuber and social media influencer, to join aproject at the time called the “Visible Me”. He was like, “talk about your experience”, and I realized at that point that a lot about being trans parallels the superhero stories I’d always read. Then my freshman year, I got asked to write an article for this paper that was meant for freshman going into college. I wrote aboutdual identities and figuring out what path to choose as a trans person going into college. Everybody in high school knew who I was, but nobody’s going to know going into college. Do I delete all my pictures? Do I hide that part of me? That was another parallel that just felt very natural. Having once again another opportunity to talk about coming of age and what it means to grow up in a trans body. It felt like it happened organically. I think at every point in my life that’s sort of something I’ve been drawn to, which is why it was so poetic to get the job I got.
ANDREW: Oh absolutely. What are your thoughts regarding the current state of LGBTQ representation in film and television?
ZACH: I think that we’re on the right track. I think Marvel and Sony really want to do this the right way. They don’t want us to be tokenized and I think there are genuinely a lot of people who are working to make it for the right reasons. They want it to be so that kids can look at these movies and think, “holy cow, that’s me onscreen”. I do think that it’s happening in ways where it’s not kosher. I do think that there are people doing it for the wrong reasons, but for the most part, I have never experienced that in any of the projects I’ve worked on or any of the people I’ve met. At the premiere, Victoria Alonso, who’s one of the producers for Spider-Man, she’s someone I never thought would talk to me – but she came up and talked to me about it. It felt humanizing because I think there’s something that can happen if there isn’t people addressing it in a very direct way. She just said “thank you for being part of it”. That meant a lot because I think there needs to be an awareness of this person doing this big thing in our movie and that’s meaningful and we need to thank them or we need to be appreciative of them. I had already talked to enough people that made it clear to me that they were all in this for the right reason, but it was another kind of confirmation. I think that’s what usually leads to better representation, but I think we still need more, you know what I mean? We need to make it canon. We need to have trans people be trans in movies at times. Not always, but at times- even if it’s not the subject of discussion. It doesn’t have to be the whole character, but it can be confirmed and then moved on from. We need to have more leading roles and something that I really want…there’s never been a major motion picture about a trans man played by a trans man. I love Hilary Swanks’ portrayal of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. I know we talk a lot about cis women playing trans men and how that’s a problem these days., but it was 1999 so I have a different attitude towards that. She did a really good job and in her Oscar acceptance speech she acknowledged Brandon Teena and used the right pronouns, it was big at the time. Now we have trans masculine actors who are out there saying “give us roles”! I hope that’s what we have next.
ANDREW: I agree because like I said – me and you aren’t that far apart in age. When watching Spider-Man one of the main things that stood out to me was that Peter’s class literally looked like my friends when I went to high school. The inclusion of different people of color and different genders. It makes for a huge difference when compared to the heteronormative films we saw as we were growing up.
ANDREW: You said you want to see transgender films led by transgender actors. Is there anything else you would like to add in seeing the development of trans representation in film?
ZACH: I understand people trying to figure it out and their hesitation to make the film because they want to do it correctly. I think there’s some fear around that. They don’t want to screw it up, right? I get why studios can sometimes be hesitant. It takes a group of trans people who are comfortable doing it and a group of allies who are comfortable doing it. We have to spend the next few years explaining it to people who have the power and the sort of platform to make these things happenand I do believe that we’re going to have that happen. A: I want more trans focused films. I would love a movie that is specifically about a trans man because I don’t think we’ve really had that. I would love for it to be led by a trans man too. Also, I just want us to have more education on it because one of the reasons that violence against trans women, specifically trans women of color, is such a big thing is because portraying relationships, specifically straight relationships, with men and trans women can create this idea that it’s not something, you know what I mean? It’s not a bad thing to want to love someone that’s trans. First of all, we’re the most amazing people in the whole world, in my opinion. I’m a little biased, but we’re extremely lovable! Sometimes showing that and normalizing it is the best way to help people unlearn that it’s not something to hide. We have a crisis, 20 plus Trans women a year, often more are dying and so many are unreported. So, yes I think educating is crucial. A: we need more trans men on screen. Period. B: we need to show trans woman in a way where they’re not always dying, where they live happy lives, where there’s some normalcy. I mean, because that’s when we stop people getting killed and that should be a priority.
ANDREW: You bring up a good point because whenever you see a trans story in a movie, it’s usually like a tragedy. It’s depicted in a very sad way. I’m not saying that there aren’t struggles with being trans – especially in today’s age. But we rarely if never get a trans film that has a happy ending.
ZACH: I’m hoping we’re headed there and I think we are. I really hope, partly because these are the kind of roles I want to be able to play. I think having trans people play just really human roles and cis roles even is going to be really meaningful for people. Roles where like being trans isn’t talked about. It’s complicated because on one hand I’m trans all the time. I’m trans as everybody I play I think to some degree in my head, but I think there’s power in sort of being anybody. Showing that there’s going to be a plethora of roles for young people who want to do this. Giving them hope because sometimes as a trans person you really need something to look forward to. Like I really need something to look forward to and seeing people like Elliot Fletcher on Faking It and The Fosters -Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black. Things like that really made me have something to look forward to. Something to hold onto when I would ask if this whole trans thing was worth it? Or even if there’s worth in living at times? Even when it got dark in places as a teenager, it can feel really hopeless because you have a harder time looking at the bigger picture as a kid.
ANDREW: Some very amazing points. Before we end this, do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to make audiences aware of?
ZACH: Aside from my Tedx, which I would really encourage people to go check out, I have a part in the Transparent movie coming out in September on Amazon. I highly recommend people watch that. It’s beautiful because it was one of the most moving projects I’ve ever worked on with the most open and honest kind of conversations about everything. People were magnificent, talented, kind, and no one was too good for anybody else. Not that it’s ever been an issue, but you never know. Every time I walk into a project, I ponder how integrated the cast is going to be in terms of how big the roles are. This was not a problem here. Everybody was sort of a family instantly. I think that translates to screen. I really believe that. It’s going to be an incredibly beautiful project and even people who haven’t seen the show are going to love it because it can be its own standalone thing too and meaningful for people in that way.
BOOM! Studios and GLAAD are holding a roundtable discussion on LGBTQ Representation in Entertainment today at 12:00pm. Zach Barack will be one of the panelists! Make sure not to miss it in room 28DE! Make sure to follow @ZachBarack on Twitter and let us know your thoughts on this interview and what Zach has said regarding trans representation in film and television.