Why a trans actress in The Peripheral is a messenger from our future | The DeanBeat

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I’ve been enjoying the peek into our metaverse future that Amazon Prime Video is delivering each week with airings of The Peripheral streaming show.

As I noted when the series debuted, it’s an example of how the world is science fiction is becoming more science and less fiction. And the recent sixth episode of the show feature the addition of Alexandra Billings, a trans actress who plays the inspector Ainsley Lowbeer in the show.

The show is Prime Video’s top show, and, to paraphrase the first line from Herman Narula’s book Virtual Society, I believe that one day it will be watched by a person without a body. That’s because The Peripheral depicts what it’s like to move between different worlds and to inhabit the bodies of others.

And for a trans actress like Billings, this brings to mind the notion that your physical body may not matter in a future where digital and physical seamlessly interact. Billings has been a trailblazer for LGBTQ+ representation, and she recently made history when she starred on Broadway as Madam Morrible in Wicked, the first time a trans actress has portrayed a traditionally cis female role.

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I talked to her about the significance of the role in The Peripheral, where she plays a trans person in the future. The show is based on a novel by William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace, and it was produced by Westworld creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. It’s a complicated story that moves around in time and explores whether the digital world is real or not. And the show is different from the book, as it uses Gibson’s story as a jumping off point for ideas about our future. And that gives Billings some interesting leeway to play Lowbeer as a trans person in the show.

Lowbeer is a character who polices the border between a physical reality and the virtual world. And she is like a messenger from the future for us. And she can teach us how to think about topics like transhumanism. Lowbeer’s character is pretty unique, and I think anyone thinking about the metaverse should consider watching The Peripheral.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

The Peripheral is coming from Amazon Studios on October 21.The Peripheral is coming from Amazon Studios on October 21.
The Peripheral is coming from Amazon Studios on October 21.

VentureBeat: It sounds like an exciting role for you.

Alexandra Billings: Yes, it is. It’s super fun, and it was super exciting.

VentureBeat: Did you view this as a kind of ground-breaking role?

Billings: Oh, yeah, sure, absolutely. It’s rare that you have a transgender character that’s written as a trans person. Meaning, a trans person doesn’t come into a show and have to change a cis character into a trans experience, but that it’s specifically written for us. Also, that her transness isn’t the central part of her being. It takes a backseat to who she is and what she does. That itself is pretty extraordinary.

VentureBeat: I think you maybe could get to a place where your head kind of explodes, because transhumanism in the future should be quite possible. Given the technology in the show, it’s a reality that people can swap bodies. They can be whoever they wish to be at any given moment. It feels quite relevant.

Billings: You’re exactly right, and that’s very astute, because the queerness of this show happens all the way through it. Flynne becomes a man, because the Peripherals are actually just–I want to say robots, but that’s not sort of true. They’re vessels, really. They present in one particular gender, but your particular gender doesn’t necessarily have to do with the Peripheral that you climb into.

It was really fascinating. That actually didn’t sink into my little pea brain until I was watching it. I thought, “This is queer as heck!” It’s really stunning. From the very beginning the whole thing screams trans. It’s fascinating.

VentureBeat: I also feel like some of this is not really present–I mean, I read through the first book. It doesn’t seem like it is a theme of the first book at all. It’s just there. But it sounds like the fiction of the show can actually show this more.

Billings: I think you’re right, yes. I think that’s exactly right. What the books did was hint at it and put it in the world. What the TV show did was just allow it to blossom a bit more. And again, it doesn’t hit you over the head. But it is there. It is present. It’s so great. I mean, thank God that’s true. Because how else do we normalize but by just putting our stories in the center?

That VR headset is something Mark Zuckerberg would love to have.That VR headset is something Mark Zuckerberg would love to have.
That VR headset is something Mark Zuckerberg would love to have.

VentureBeat: Is there some creativity you feel like you can bring to this role, then, because it’s not sticking to the text as canon? It’s interesting that it’s using the text as a jumping-off point to express a lot of different things.

Billings: I think that’s right. The writers are the ones in charge of the direction, but they have meetings with all of us and ask us, “What do you think? Where should we go? What interests you? What doesn’t interest you?” Because the writers are cis, when I got the role I told them, “When you write Lowbeer, you must come to me. You have to talk to me.” And they were more than willing to do that. They were actually very grateful. They said, “We’re really appreciative of your voice.” I said that it needs to be infiltrated into the storyline and into Lowbeer, so that her transness comes from a lived experience, and not one that is writing about a lived experience.

VentureBeat: Where are some interesting places this is going that you might hint at? I’m sure you don’t want to spoil anything, but–

Billings: That’s so hard. It’s such a hard question, because I don’t want to get fired. And also I feel like–one thing I can tell you is that we’ve had conversations about what has never been done on television, and also what would be interesting to the story, to the world itself, and how Lowbeer can add to the story. That’s what matters to me the most. The fact that I’m in it is representation enough. I don’t think we need to browbeat people. But the conversations that we’ve had have been about, how do we keep the story interesting? How do we keep it buoyant? That’s all I can tell you.

Jonathan Nolan and Gary Carr of The Peripheral.Jonathan Nolan and Gary Carr of The Peripheral.
Jonathan Nolan and Gary Carr of The Peripheral.

VentureBeat: One thing I can think of is that the times and maybe the acceptance of trans people would be different in Flynne’s age than in the future. You can see that change has happened, maybe.

Billings: I think that’s right. Also, because the show is a reflection of this global experience we’re all going through right now, I think it would behoove the show to have people that are still stuck in the 1950s. You talk about relevance. We still have Candace Cameron talking about traditional marriage as if it’s an actual thing. She’s going to make these movies about traditional marriage, which isn’t a thing. There’s no such thing as traditional marriage. That’s not a category of marriage. It doesn’t make any sense. What she’s saying is, “I’m going to make these films that are exclusionary. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make films about this experience only when we talk about marriage.” Which doesn’t make any sense.

Having those kinds of people, even in the Peripheral–they’re never going to go away. That’s the thing. We’re not going to get rid of them. They’re not going to disappear. We always have to have that balance. Nobody is a one and nobody is a 10. We have to have the ideas of that scale in order to keep ourselves balanced. I think having some of those kinds of people in the Peripheral–I think that matters.

VentureBeat: It might be interesting from your point of view to be a messenger from the future for our real world today.

Billings: That’s a great idea. I’d love to be a message from the future.

VentureBeat: What are some things you would say?

Billings: You know, I think I’d say–listen, it’s probably the stuff I say now, which is that I really believe, as long as we keep going forward, things are going to change. But we have to keep moving. We can take breaks, but we can’t rest. We can’t take a nap. That can’t be true. We can allow ourselves some space from the revolution, but we have to keep moving. Otherwise people like this sad woman who’s living a very delusionary world–what we have to do is instead of saying, “You’re wrong and you’re a terrible person,” we move forward into education. That’s what the future holds.

VentureBeat: It’s something like–technology changes for sure, but humanity changes as well.

Billings: That’s right. Listen, humanity is technology. Technology doesn’t exist as a thing unless we’re the ones who program it. A computer doesn’t know anything else besides what we tell it. It doesn’t get smarter. We get smarter. That’s what we have to remember. We are technology. One of the reasons social media is so interesting is because it’s us. It’s humanity condensed into your phone.

VentureBeat: It’s interesting, too–transhumanism seems like a popular science fiction idea. It seems almost like an ideal state to a lot of people. I’ve never heard people say it’s unacceptable. I’ve basically heard people say it’s acceptable. I would think that then maybe–it’s interesting to compare that to trans people.

Billings: I would agree with you. Especially, adding the word “humanism” to our community normalizes and allows–I have no desire to assimilate. I never have. My transness was never–you know, I never wanted to be the same. People called me a weirdo my whole life and I thought, “Fabulous!” That was never a thing for me. That was never a trigger. But I did want to be able to come into society, to be able to be a part of the thing. Not to be the same as, but to bring my otherness into society. I think adding the word “humanism” to our community helps do that.

Lisa Joy and Vincenzo talk with Dean Takahashi.Lisa Joy and Vincenzo talk with Dean Takahashi.
Lisa Joy and Vincenzo Natali talk with Dean Takahashi.

VentureBeat: I did remember another science fiction story that envisioned a future version of YouTube that would put you in VR, in a body suit, and let you feel what it’s like to be somebody else. Walk a mile in the shoes of an LGBTQ person.

Billings: That is a great idea. I fear, though, that just because you spend one day, one week, or even one year walking in my skin, you still don’t get the full vision of my history. You don’t know what it’s like to have spent day after day after day as a seven-year-old transgender person. I’m 60 years old now. This is back in the late 1960s. To spend day after day as a trans child and not have a word for what you are. That’s very different than walking around the planet as a 50-, 40-, or 30-year-old trans person. I think it’s a great idea in theory, but we need to be very mindful that the queer experience is historical. It doesn’t exist moment by moment only. We have a culture.

VentureBeat: Where do you hope this all goes, your opportunities related to the show?

Billings: Listen, I hope the Peripheral runs for 150 years. I do. I think it should run as long as–what was that other thing? I never watched it. The dragons show. I’m a terrible person. I never watched it. But I think the Peripheral literally can reflect the state of the human experience as long as we continue to change. Let’s hope it never ends. Let’s hope there’s never any happily ever after. There’s alway just a continuum.

VentureBeat: Let’s hope we get past the Jackpot.

Billings: That’s right!

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