In a year of many firsts for LGBTQ people, English actor, writer and director Hayden Black is seeking to add to that list. His upcoming animated Web series, Gen Zed, is slated to be the first animated series to feature a transgender actress (Julie Rei Goldstein) in the lead role.
The show will have a little something for everyone, as it brings together four online gamers Real World-style, complete with punchy humor that only you and your BFFs will understand. Nineteen-year-old Shona will certainly steal our hearts with her down-to-earth approach to the crazy world around her and her outrageous roommates.
We gained exclusive access to the man behind the entire production, and he answered the questions we’ve been dying to ask him.
How did you get into writing Web series and TV shows?
I’ve always been a writer and a comedian in the sense that I’m not a stand-up comic. I don’t get onstage, but I like to do things that make people laugh. I’ve always harbored this wonderful desire to write things that affect the social dialogue. I think the best way to do that is to write things that make people laugh and think, because they don’t realize they’re being asked to participate in the conversation. It’s a very subversive way of talking through things with people and getting them talking too.
How has it been delving into writing for animation and come up with Gen Zed?
It’s something that I’ve always loved doing and still want to do. This script and story of Gen Zed began about a year ago. It was last May or June when I wrote a half-hour spec sitcom script about these four college-age gamers. I obviously modeled some of the characters on people I knew in real life and it kind of sat there. Around October I thought, Maybe I can animate this and maybe it could, instead of going to TV, create its own place on the Web?
I felt like I knew what to expect because I’d already had huge success on the Web in doing that pioneer thing; Goodnight Burbank was the first-ever half-hour scripted comedy to debut on the Web. The day it debuted on Hulu, Mark Cuban was watching and snatched it up for his cable network at the time. So we also became the first half-hour show to go from Web to television.
With Gen Zed we’re aiming it at millennials [15-25-year-olds] and they live on the Web pretty much. So I started thinking in terms of where my audience lives and where I’ve lived and played before. Once I realized where its natural home should be, I allowed the script to grow from 30 pages to about 62 pages. I thought I’d just chop it into webisodes, as they’re now known. And then I wrote intros and outros for them to give them their own personal feel.
How did you come up with the main character, Shona?
I wanted to introduce a trans character and just show that she’s human. We all have so much shit on our daily plates to deal with, and the other thing with Shona’s character is that other people don’t need your shit to add to their plate. Here’s Shona, and what distinguishes her is not necessarily that she’s trans because she’s a fun, funny, bright, charming individual. It just so happens that she’s trans. That should have no meaning whatsoever. That’s how I wanted to present her. I didn’t want to create this titillating character where we explore sexuality — I mean, it’s all in there — but we didn’t want that to be all she’s about.
How did you find the right people to jump on board during casting?
So I started doing a table reading and I got this unbelievable group of people together. We also made sure that there’s an ethnically diverse cast played by their actual human ethnic counterparts.
In terms of Julie Rei Goldstein, she was the first girl we auditioned for the role and she blew everyone’s socks off. Her character, Shona, is a very strong part of the series, and because the show isn’t just comedy, we needed someone with heart too. She really knows when to hit the gas and the brakes. She’s an unbelievable actress, and I hope this ignites her career. We also have trans people working on the series. We just added a trans animator the other week and we have a trans man and a trans woman serving as colorists.
How was it bridging the gap between your generation and millennials? Because you’re not a millennial, right?
It’s twofold. Long after the scripts had been written, a millennial 20-year-old pointed me to a video about the girl talking about her “eyebrows on fleek in this bitch.” My initial reaction was, “What the fuck?” It flew over my head in every conceivable way. There were millions of response videos and it just continued to become a part of the larger language. Four or five months have passed since then, and I saw it on The Daily Show and other shows, so clearly it’s making its mark on the general consciousness. And so now it’s already moved on and people are on something else.
So I did a joke based around that. It appears, I think, in episode 4 and it’s 30 seconds long. Sponsors are not going to have the first clue what fleek means, and my thing is they shouldn’t. It’s not aimed at them. So it’s a combination of doing some research on the latest stuff and there’s something that will never change, which is human emotion, and if you just remember what it was like as a young person, it never goes away.
In my teenage years, the hallmark of youth was Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Has that changed? Of course not, girls and guys still just want to have fun. That basic notion has not changed. What’s changed is technology. My take is that since we’ve come down from the trees, I think the only things that have changed are human hygiene and technology! Everything else is basic human behavior. We’re hateful people and loving people. We’re jealous, we’re joyous. We’re human, and that will not and has not changed.
What do you think about the uptick in trans representation with Laverne Cox on OITNB, Jamie Clayton on Sense8, Amazon’s Transparent, and more? Did they influence you?
It didn’t really influence me too much because I had been working on this character since about six years ago, but there was nothing I could do with her at the time. I’ve never had an agent or representation. All the opportunities I’ve ended up with I kind of had to hustle for myself. It’s been a lot of fucking work. When it got to fleshing out Gen Zed, I wanted to do that trans character. About a year ago, it still hadn’t taken off, but I think with the influence of Laverne and Transparent, it lit the touch paper. They really opened up to doors for what I was already doing.
What’s trans visibility like across the pond?
Well, I don’t live over there right now, but I do follow the pop culture and I have found that they do have a lot of reality shows that feature trans characters in them. I also think, in general, Britain tends to be more LGBTQ-friendly. There are less people hiding behind Bibles over there.
Why was it so important to create a trans character?
I know we’re in a very important place to create a character that may be a role model for other people. I just want to make sure this character is inspiring, and that’s why there was no question we were going to have a trans actress voice the role.
Every person’s journey is unique to them and so is every trans woman’s journey. I’m not trying to tell every trans woman’s journey, but we created a character that encompasses many of those things.
At the end of every single episode, we’ll also hear a word said as we fade to black. It’s going to be said by a chorus of trans icons like Fallon Fox, Jenna Talackova, and more. Each word by itself won’t make sense by itself, but it will to our viewers who are listening and taking note. In the end, it will form a sentence, and so there’s a very rich tapestry made up of trans men and women giving their talents. We’re incredibly lucky even on the music front with Siamese Spots, a band made up of two trans women, and Spectacular Spectacular.
What has been your favorite animated series over the years?
Well, I was definitely into cartoons as a kid, so I guess my fallbacks were that Hanna-Barbera stuff like Scooby-Doo. I think the first seven or eight years of The Simpsons were absolute gold. I still think South Park is great, and they still regularly write things that make you laugh and think. It’s more than just a show.
How does it feel to have created a show that will be the first of its kind?
I didn’t set out to do anything revolutionary. I set out to have fun, and in January of this year, we had already cast and we were two weeks from recording. And I found out by accident that we would be the first animated series with a trans actress in the lead role. We just set out to make a great show about four younger people, but we thought it was crazy that no one’s ever done this before. I think people who set out to be revolutionary rarely are because it’s hard to climb those mountains. It’s the people who have no idea they’re being revolutionary who do so.
How did you get all of the trans icons on board?
I have incredibly incriminating photos of all of them. No, I simply just asked if they were interested in being a part of history. I sent them some info and clips from the scenes and let them know what we were trying to do. A lot of people have said yes. A few have said no, but that’s OK.
What do you think this will mean for the trans community?
The first challenge is making sure we don’t offend anyone in the trans community with what we’re doing. But I’m sure we won’t because we have so many trans people involved in the production. With this project it’ll be interesting to see how we navigate funding. As far as distribution, it’s still so early that we don’t quite know where we will wind up. Ideally, we’ll find enough sponsors and do our own thing online. I’d love to convert the site into a place of resources and correspondence for trans folks, youth, and their families.
What does pride mean to you?
I think pride means this warm feeling that you’ve done something really good, something that helps people. But it doesn’t even have to be about helping others; it oftentimes is about the self. And I think in terms of the LGBT community, it’s about strength of mind, not being afraid to say who you are and hold your head high. It’s about overcoming years of violence, oppression, and bigotry and stating I’m going to live my life the way I should be able to.
Gen Zed will be premiering soon. Stay up to date!