(Featured image courtesy of CBBC)
One of the last frontiers of representation that has still yet to be fully explored in television is that of transgender characters. They had popped up in a few films and TV series in the late 20th century, but they were usually played for laughs, and none were played by actual transgender actors. It wasn’t until well into the last decade that sympathetic and complex portrayals of trans men and women started to populate our TV screens. Audiences met Sophia Burset behind bars in Orange Is the New Black, followed the superheroics of crimefighter Dreamer on Supergirl, watched Theo cast spells on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and were immersed in a whole world of LGBTQ+ culture on Pose. All of these roles were especially groundbreaking because they were played by actors who are actually trans. Cisgender performers have historically taken those roles from the people those parts are meant to represent, but as society’s understanding of trans people has expanded and evolved, an increasing demand has grown for accuracy both on and off-screen.
One of the most heartfelt recent portrayals of trans characters came from a rare form of representation: middle school. Young adolescence is often when people in the LGBTQIA+ community begin to develop a better understanding of their sexuality or gender identity, but depictions of that time are few and far in between. However, those young people are the ones who need representation the most, to help guide them through their new realizations. It’s essential for them to see other kids and teens going through their same experiences to know that they are both normal and far from alone.
First Day, a new Australian series focusing on the experience of a young trans girl, aims to change that. The four-episode season premiered in March on ABC Me, a children’s channel, then made its way to the states on Hulu just last month. The show received overwhelmingly positive reviews from both critics and the public, who praised its storytelling and delicate handling of heavy topics. Its star, Evie Macdonald, made history as the first transgender actor to play a lead role in an Australian scripted television series.
TV Wasteland spoke with creator Julie Kalceff and star Evie Macdonald to discuss how First Day grew from short film to series, its impact on young Australians, and its impact on themselves.
Growing up, Kalceff “didn’t have a great deal of exposure to the arts,” but she was an avid reader who always dreamed of someday becoming a writer, “but it seemed too far outside my reality to even be a possibility. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I realized I needed to do everything I could to pursue a career in writing, in particular screenwriting, or I’d regret not having taken the risk.” She would go on to create Starting From Now, a short-form online drama series following four lesbians in the suburbs of Sydney. Over three years, five seasons were produced, collecting over 130 million views along the way and eventually being sold to broadcast. Kalceff described it as a “passion project and a direct response to a lack of LGBTQIA+ representation on mainstream Australian television.” While it was made on a very low budget, it proved that you don’t need money and flashiness to produce something that will land with people, as “it seemed to connect with audiences and fill a gap in the content available at the time.”
In 2017, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) started an initiative “to create more content for female audiences between the ages of eight and twelve years.” Julie had never created content for children before, but it just happened that she heard about the initiative at the same time as one of her close family member’s children transitioning. “I saw the opportunity to create a television episode about a transgender girl as a way of helping this child feel less alone.” So, she created First Day as a standalone episode, a one-and-done story about twelve-year-old Hannah exploring the high school world.
Because she struggles with feelings of belonging, defending her rights, and being vulnerable with others about her identity, the role of Hannah is a difficult one to play, requiring just the right actress. Kalceff knew that it was essential that a transgender girl was cast in the part, so she used her company’s Facebook page to send out a casting call. A dozen girls replied, and “I spoke with each girl and her parents so they knew what was involved and how it might impact them personally to be on national television.” A few were chosen to be screen tested, and Kalceff recalled how she and fellow producer Kirsty Stark were “blown away” by the performance of one Evie Macdonald. “We also knew Evie had the support of her family and would be protected from any backlash to the series.”
Evie remembered seeing the casting call for First Day and feeling compelled to join the project simply because it was such strong representation. While growing up and transitioning, she recalled that “it was really hard to relate to the things I was watching” because there was so little trans media at the time, though she did cite model Andreja Pejić and close friend Grace Hyland as people who have inspired her over the years. She felt that she related to Hannah in a lot of ways, “because of the things we would go through,” but she also thinks that her character is a lot more introverted than she is. “It takes her a lot to come out of her shell. Me on the other hand, I would rather be out from the get go than hide.”
According to Kalceff, “the response to the original standalone episode was overwhelming. It screened in festivals all over the world,” winning audience and diversity awards wherever it went. The creators weren’t originally sure how it would be received, especially in different places across the globe that all had different understandings of the subject matter, but “to see First Day so warmly embraced by audiences around the world was both extremely gratifying and encouraging.” The short would end up collecting the MIPCOM Diversify TV Excellence Award for Kids’ Programming and the Prix Jeunesse International Children’s Television Festival’s Gender Equity Prize.
A response that seemed to be common between all of the festivals was that everyone wanted more of Hannah, so Kalceff and Stark decided to expand the story to a full season. “It was an opportunity to further explore Hannah’s character and delve deeper into her world. We always felt with the short film that we only ever scratched the surface, and there was so much more of Hannah’s story to explore.” Between the original film and the show, Julie had to do more research and preparation as she delved even deeper into Hannah’s experiences. “I’m not transgender, and it’s been a long time since I was twelve years old, so it was imperative to do the research needed to find the emotional truth and honesty needed to tell this story.” She and Kirsty were aware that they needed “a great deal of research and consultation” to craft everything just right, and once Evie was brought onto the project, “our job became about empowering Evie and giving her the support she needed to bring Hannah to life.”
The series has a large cast of young people, and Macdonald feels that they “got truly lucky with our cast. By the end of filming, we were all like family, no matter what role you played.” They would get together on the weekends and create lasting bonds that have continued since the end of production.
One of the most striking things about Hannah’s story is that it is geared towards tweens. Many LGBTQIA+ stories are very mature, often centered around sex and adult themes, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it leaves an aching need for more stories that young children can easily consume. It was an intentional choice for Kalceff to focus the series towards girls Hannah’s age. However, she also believes that audiences of all ages can relate to Hannah in some way. The decision to start with Hannah’s arrival at a new school was intentional as well, as that feeling of not quite belonging just yet and feeling out of place “is something most people have experienced and was a way of creating empathy for the character.” While some of Hannah’s struggles are very specific to trans youth, the majority of her feelings are universal, able to ring true with pretty much any audience.
Due to the nature of Hannah’s struggles, the role ended up requiring a lot of heavy and emotional acting on Evie’s part. To put herself in the mind of her character and get the best performance possible during those scenes, it became all about “letting that guard come down and really trying to put myself into Hannah’s shoes. I believe just being vulnerable and acting as if you were her and how you think she would deal with these things.” However, she also felt it was important to distance herself from the character enough to allow herself to be hurt but not become attached to those emotions.
Hannah’s tale has only grown in popularity since the premiere of the series, and both Kalceff and Macdonald have loved seeing the world’s response. Kalceff emphasized that “it has proven just how important it is for people to see themselves represented on screen.”
If there’s one thing Kalceff wants you to do while watching First Day, it’s to discuss it. Many parents have posted to social media how they’re watching the show with their kids (both trans and cis), and starting conversations was one of the creators’ main aims. “Screen stories offer a shared experience and give us a way to start talking about how we’re feeling, especially if we haven’t previously been able to verbalise those emotions and thoughts.”
For Evie, she likes the idea that someone like a younger version of herself would watch the series and relate to it. “To see this. To feel like this is something that I can relate to. To show my parents this to help them understand who I was from a young age. To know I wasn’t alone.” If one thing’s for sure, there are likely countless kids just like Evie out there who will have First Day to guide them through that loneliness and help them come to terms with who they are. “I hope that when a trans child watches this that they know they’re not alone, and whatever struggles they go through, they never need to hide who they are.”
That’s what First Day is, a monumental stepping stone. Macdonald acknowledges the crucial need for more portrayals of young Australians like herself. She may be the first transgender actor to play a lead role in a scripted Australian series, but “what that says to me is that there will be more.”
To boil it down to one statement, what Evie loves about First Day “was that it captures the true meaning of being trans; meaning that everyone’s story is different and that there is no right way to be transgender.”
A second season of First Day is currently in development. According to Kalceff, “there’s still so much to explore when it comes to this character and, all going well, we’re looking forward to sharing more of Hannah’s story with our audience.” She and Stark are also looking into a spinoff series that would be aimed at a slightly older YA audience.
All of First Day’s groundbreaking first season is available to watch on Hulu now.