Ohio native Roger Hill started to write Huckleberry 20 years ago when he was just a senior in high school in Youngstown, Ohio. The film centers around Huckleberry, an 18-year-old transgender male from a poor Ohio community, who’s navigating a particularly intense year in his life.
But even though the film is set in the late-90s, it deals with many of the issues the trans community continues to struggle with, including threats of violence and a pressure to conform.
The film also goes beyond issues of gender identity to explore the ravages of poverty in the rural Rust Belt, as well as the heartbreak of unrequited love and revenge. Much of the film was shot at a number of locations around Athens, home to Ohio University, Hill’s alma mater.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Daniel Fisher-Golden, the trans actor who plays the titular role in the new film, which screens one night only at The Bop Stop (2920 Detroit Avenue) on November 3 at 10:30 a.m., as part of the Ohio Independent Film Festival’s Program 1. The screening includes a Q&A with Harry Greenberger and Roger Hill.
The interview was lightly edited for clarity.
How do you feel about the state of trans representation in film?
I’m actually writing my college thesis about this very topic! First, I think it’s important to note just how impactful representation in film can be. I think something often forgotten about is that, even when people are aware that the film they are watching is fictional, they still interpret certain parts as truth. Take, for example, Jaws, a fictional film about shark attacks. While people knew that the events in this movie never truly occurred, many still believed that the way sharks were represented—as bloodthirsty, highly deadly monsters—was truthful because they had no other information on which to base their ideas of sharks. I think the same thing applies to transgender representation because there really isn’t too much, or any, widespread knowledge about the actual experiences of transgender people, so most people’s knowledge of transgender people comes from the media they consume.
Right now, there are very seldom transgender characters in film, and of the few that exist, most tend to focus entirely on the fact that the character is transgender, making it the sole source of conflict in the plot. Subliminally, it sends the message that trans people bring harm unto themselves because they would have saved themselves a whole movie’s worth of strife had they transitioned.
Another issue I see is that these characters’ transness is portrayed all too often with an invasive obsession with the genitals of the character. Almost anytime I reveal my transgender status to someone who is not well educated on the matter, one of the first questions I’m asked is “Have you had the surgery?”
Objectifying transgender people down to what’s between their legs
sensationalizes instead of normalizes them. In order to successfully normalize the trans experience, we need to start putting transgender characters into non-trans stories. That’s exactly why I was so excited to be apart of Huckleberry.
This film was always meant to be more than just another transgender story.
How was your experience as a trans actor making Huckleberry?
Being a transgender actor is definitely a different playing field. Besides Huckleberry, most of the roles I’ve been offered are one-dimensional characters who are added to the story as a shock factor. On top of this, most filmmakers don’t seem to really understand what casting a transgender actor means.
First, I’ve been sent multiple audition sides for roles looking for “transgender men,” but they wind up being for trans women characters because they didn’t take the time to learn even the proper trans-related language to use.
A second issue I commonly see is that since so many transgender characters’ stories revolve around them coming out, filmmakers tend to be only interested in transgender actors who are early in their transition or have not medically transitioned at all. This means that in order to qualify for most transgender roles, trans actors can’t medically transition, through hormones or surgery, because none of the characters available to us have.
When auditioning for Huckleberry, I mentioned to the director, Roger Hill, that I am on hormone replacement therapy, which meant my voice was already pretty low, and there was the potential that between shooting the proof of concept and the full feature my voice and body would continue to change.
Roger, to my surprise at the time, found no issue with this and told me we could handle issues like that as they arose. Working on Huckleberry, I never felt that my transness was exploited, and Roger was wonderful about making sure that I was comfortable with everything related to how we portrayed Huck’s identity; he even gave me the reigns when it came to choosing the language Huckleberry uses to describe his experience related to his gender identity. Also, I wasn’t the only trans person involved in this project, so I really have to commend Roger for asking for and listening to the opinions of multiple trans people in creating this film. There are no words to express the gratitude I feel toward everyone involved in this production who created such a welcoming, supportive, and judgment-free environment.
What do you think is unique about this film?
The biggest thing about this film that stood out to me, and ultimately the reason I wanted to be a part of this experience, was that Huckleberry is about so much more than the struggles of being transgender. It’s a story of love, revenge, and justice, which are themes that I think anyone can relate to.
This film really takes the next step forward in pushing transgender representation forward, showing that any story can have a trans character without making their identity a cheap plot device. This is a film that anyone can enjoy and relate to regardless of whether they are cis or trans.
The other thing I love about this film is the deep look we get into life in late-90s Rust Belt Ohio, which provided us with such complex and interesting characters. The setting of this film also perfectly embodies the mood and tone through its beautiful scenery that gives off a certain kind of eerie sorrow that is difficult for me to describe. I remember when I first arrived in Ohio to start filming, the leaves had just changed color and we were driving through the hills and mountains; I had to catch my breath and take it all in because I really have never before seen anything like that.