After having cut his teeth on Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” and the latest iteration of “The L Word” — in two recurring roles that allowed him to explore his identity as a trans man through his art — Brian Michael Smith was looking for a new creative challenge in the summer of 2019 when he got an audition to play a leading role on “9-1-1: Lone Star,” a spinoff of the hit Fox procedural drama “9-1-1,” which he had watched with his wife and his mother.
But when he read a scene from the pilot episode, in which a trans male firefighter named Paul Strickland confides in his captain, Owen Strand (played by Rob Lowe), about his struggles with adult acne, Smith felt that the amount of exposition — while well-intentioned — wasn’t entirely truthful to his experiences as a trans man. So when he taped his audition, he offered two different versions to the executive producers: one that was written on the page and one that he could proudly stand behind personally and professionally.
“I feel like giving myself permission to do that was important and something that also let me know that, ‘hey, I’m ready to take this on — I’m ready to take ownership of this and to share my ideas and not be afraid to speak up,’” Smith said in a recent video interview. “As we were starting to develop the story a little bit more in season one, I had a really great meeting with all the writers. I was like, ‘If you’re not going to have someone who’s gone through the trans experience in the room, I’m very happy with sharing as much as I need to help or I can point you to resources that will inform the work that we’re doing.’”
Smith became the first Black trans man to land a regular series role on network television when he was cast in September 2019, joining the likes of his transfeminine counterpart Laverne Cox. Since then, Smith, 38, has gotten direct messages from other trans viewers who feel comfortable enough to “ask questions or share what they’re going through or what they can expect if they make certain choices in their lives, like transitioning,” he said.
“They’re like: ‘I didn’t think that I would be able to be both trans and a firefighter or both trans and an actor. … But when I see you doing both and not having to hide anything and there’s no risk and loss, that makes me feel like I can do it,’” he said, adding that young trans people, in particular, have been able to watch the show with their parents to alleviate their shared concerns about acceptance in the workforce. “It’s been really heartwarming and empowering and validating to receive messages from people who are in these smaller communities, who don’t have access to the resources like I had living in a big city.”
Having witnessed firsthand the evolution of onscreen trans representation, Smith said that, with the rise of social media platforms and shows like “Pose,” “people are more aware of the vastness of the trans experience.”
“There’s differences in ages, in where people identify along the spectrum of gender identity or sexual orientation, and I feel like that’s taking the pressure off of trying to get one character to represent it all,” he said.
“We’ve seen over time, with the representation of trans people on TV, that you’re going to miss the mark when you try to shoehorn the entire experience. That kind of representation only occurs when people of that experience are part of the storytelling and the development of those characters,” he said.
“I just think, because we have pioneers — whether they’re creating their own movies or they’re making sure that their authentic voice is being captured in the work — that’s where this opening is coming from,” he said. “The bottom line is that people are paying to see this authentic representation. They want to see themselves. They want to see something that they’ve never seen before. I think this time is ripe for that kind of acceptance.”
It’s that continued commitment to authentic representation from the inception of “Lone Star” that appealed not only to Smith but also to his co-stars Ronen Rubinstein and Rafael Silva, who make up the romantic duo known as “Tarlos” (a portmanteau of their characters’ names, T.K. Strand and Carlos Reyes).
Rubinstein and Silva met more than two years ago during a chemistry read at the Fox Studio Lot in Los Angeles, an encounter that they said in separate interviews felt akin to catching lightning in a bottle. Silva, a recent graduate of Pace University’s undergraduate acting program, admitted that he felt “self-conscious,” because the scene they read felt like a deeply intimate conversation between two people instead of a high-stakes audition. Rubinstein, who was best known for his work on “Orange Is the New Black” and “Dead of Summer” and had already been cast as Lowe’s onscreen son, felt the same way.
“For someone that hasn’t worked a lot, and for him to be that open and to have that trust for a stranger, I think it really shows the kind of professional and the actor and person that he is,” Rubinstein said. “When he left the room, I turned to one of our producers and he’s like, ‘If that’s what you guys could do with a blue curtain behind you, can you imagine what happens when we’re actually on set?’ And I’ll never forget that quote. I looked at him, and I said, ‘Can we just cast him now?!’ We still had to see another person, but they were obviously hooked immediately.”
Since their fateful first meeting, Rubinstein and Silva’s initial connection as friends has only deepened, in large part because of Rubinstein’s decision to come out as bisexual in April. Rubinstein said that as they were shooting a scene in a bar toward the end of the first season, he opened up to Silva about his life and his experiences with different people. But it wasn’t until they were shooting the second season that Rubinstein began to ask Silva, who is openly gay: “Hey, how was it for you to come out to your family, to your friends? And what was that experience like?”
“It’s obviously scary, and you might lose some people, which I have, but I think the overall experience has been extremely positive,” Rubinstein said. “He was very much a shoulder to lean on, and he had a very open mind and an open heart about what I was about to go through. I was like, ‘Listen, I think I’m ready to tell the world my story and my truth.’ And he was like: ‘Do it, baby, you have my support. And if you need me, if you want to talk, if it gets scary or overwhelming, I’m here.’ And we did for the first couple of weeks.
“It was definitely a little scary and definitely overwhelming, specifically with family and friends,” Rubinstein added. “The public and the media were incredible, and I couldn’t ask for a better reaction. They have been the most supportive, actually.”
Silva echoed many of those sentiments, praising Rubinstein for not only trusting him with such a sensitive topic but for also choosing to come out on his own accord and on his own timeline.
“You don’t know where a person comes from, you don’t know a person’s experience with their own queerness, so one always has to respect it. Because while some people may have led a life of not much resistance, it would be very silly of all of us to assume that that is everyone’s experience,” Silva said. “For me, as long as you base any relationship out of truth, I think the only place where you can go with that is trust. And I think while we were developing our work, while we were getting to know each other, I think it was Carlos and T.K. that allowed us to become closer as friends and to really just be vulnerable with each other.”
In April, Smith, Silva and Rubinstein were presenters at the GLAAD Media Awards and proudly adopted the moniker of the “leading men of ‘9-1-1: Lone Star.’” In an industry that is working toward more diverse and equitable representation of all identities, the three men share similar views in the evolving debate about which actors should be allowed to play which roles: Trans actors should play trans characters, because it is vital to have someone with that lived experience, but the conversation becomes more complicated with actors of different sexualities.
“Authenticity can really help form and shape a long-lasting, impactful character, and I feel like whenever there’s a restriction or there’s a limitation, the people who make decisions about who they’re casting don’t consider everyone,” Smith said. “When there’s so few roles that are for a gay character out there, let us have an opportunity to play the roles that are about our lives today. … If all things were equal, then yes, any actor should be able to play any part. But [since] all things aren’t equal, I say, ‘Let’s lean in the direction of authenticity.’”
Rubinstein said: “I got to be honest: I haven’t seen many roles that are bisexual. I didn’t see any when I was growing up, and maybe it’s time to show more characters like that. And me personally, I think, right now in the moment, I would say, ‘Yeah, I would like to see somebody portraying a bisexual character who is bisexual.’ It could have maybe helped me when I was younger.”
Silva said: “Are we going to exclude non-queer actors from playing queer roles? No, I don’t think so, because then it would be highly hypocritical of queer actors wanting to play non-queer roles. We’re just trying to depict that marginalized communities exist, and then we need that sort of accurate representation. It’s important to cast the right people for those right roles, but I don’t think the conversation ends here.”
The intersectionality of his identities as a queer, Latino actor has had an inextricable impact on Silva’s portrayal of Carlos — and how he views his half of the “Tarlos” dynamic. A study published last year by the Latino Donor Collaborative found that, while Latinos make up about 18.7 percent of the U.S. population, they continue to be disproportionately underrepresented in mainstream media, making up only 2.9 percent of leads on television.
“For me, it’s absolutely about the queer representation, queer love, but it’s also about the Latine existence in America,” Silva said, using a gender-neutral option in lieu of “Latino” or “Latina.” “I think, as long as I approach all of that with a sense of dignity, of responsibility, I can only hope that I’m doing a good job. I’m just extremely grateful for the fans for latching on to Carlos and latching on to this beautiful couple that really demonstrates humanity. They’re not needles in a haystack. We’re not hard to find. We’re everywhere — queer people are everywhere.”
Nearly a year after a deadly winter storm plowed through Texas, “9-1-1: Lone Star” will dramatize the event in a mammoth, four-episode opening storyline, setting up what Rubinstein declared “the best season of the ‘9-1-1’ universe.” Asked to substantiate his claim, Rubinstein said he was only taking a “nice, friendly jab” at the original series, but he previewed that “there is a certain episode that I’ve teased that is sort of my opus as T.K. and very much the proudest work I’ve ever done as an actor.”
“I don’t know how much I can say, but within the first two minutes [of season three], there’s a major bombshell,” he added later. “I think that’s a way for the writers to keep the audience on their toes, and I think it’s a very human thing.”
And while fans have criticized the show for failing to give minority characters more screen time in the first two seasons, Silva and Smith said the writers — and showrunner Tim Minear, who has spent more time with “Lone Star” than with the original “9-1-1” this season — have already delved deeper into each and every character in the nine new episodes (of 18) they have already shot. While Silva previewed that Carlos will be “more independent at his work” as a police officer, Smith teased that “we get to see Paul in ways we haven’t seen him before.”
“Paul is going to be challenged in ways in this season that you haven’t seen him challenged before,” he said. “These challenges are with work and in areas of personal life that we haven’t explored yet.”
Silva said: “I think the show gets to breathe a little more lightly. But I think the essence of the show is very much there. This is all just the [Fire Station] 126 and Carlos and Grace, and it’s just one big family, and it’s a lot of fun. I think this season’s going to be fun — it’s going to be huge.”
The third season of “9-1-1: Lone Star” premieres Monday, Jan. 3, at 8 p.m. on Fox. The first two seasons are streaming on Hulu and Fox Now.