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Nonbinary actor Jesse James Keitel on groundbreaking 'Big Sky' role

Keitel, who plays a transfeminine musician and sex worker in the ABC drama, is the first nonbinary actor to play a nonbinary series regular on primetime TV.
Jesse James Keitel as Jerrie in "Big Sky."
Jesse James Keitel as Jerrie in "Big Sky."Kharen Hill / ABC

As a rising nonbinary and transgender actor, Jesse James Keitel was hesitant to audition for the role of Jerrie on ABC’s “Big Sky.”

Keitel, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns, felt there was something “murky” about the inconsistent character breakdown that cast doubt on the show’s ability to properly represent a transgender character. After landing the role, Keitel — the first nonbinary series regular on primetime television — was able to sit down with the writers and producers to craft the character into something that was much more representative of the contemporary queer experience.

On the new procedural drama from creator and executive producer David E. Kelley — about two private detectives (Kylie Bunbury, Ryan Phillippe) and an ex-cop (Katheryn Winnick) who team up to solve a kidnapping case in Montana — Keitel portrays Jerrie Kennedy, a transfeminine, nonbinary musician and sex worker abducted at a rest stop by truck driver Ronald Pergman (Brian Geraghty) for a potential sex trafficking ring. Keitel said they have been able to bring their own lived experiences to Jerrie throughout the season to rebuild the character’s appearance from the ground up.

Image: Jesse James Keitel in an episode of "Big Sky."
Jesse James Keitel in an episode of "Big Sky."Darko Sikman / ABC

“My character’s presentation, as you’ll see later in the series, is uniquely hers,” the actor told NBC News. “There have been times when something just didn’t sit right with me in the script, and the producers have been amazing at listening to what I had to say and tweaking the script to be more of what I would want to see on TV. Across the board, the whole team has been great. I’m not the only queer person on this show, but it certainly is a very straight, cis space, so being allowed to have those conversations has been really a breath of fresh air.”

Born and raised in Manorville, New York, Keitel — a distant relative of Academy Award-nominee Harvey Keitel — grew up performing in local theater productions on Long Island, which ultimately influenced their decision to pursue an acting degree at Pace University. Throughout their teenage years, Keitel admits they never felt they fit the traditional mold of a successful Hollywood actor but “had a very abstract idea of what gender and sexuality meant to me as a person.”

“I never actually considered that [acting] could be a reality for me, especially as a young queer kid who had this really funky hair and a really cool style,” they revealed. “I kind of went into college with this idea that I needed to become the most neutral version of myself to succeed. I cut my hair; I changed how I dressed. I really tried to mold myself into this idea of what a successful actor needed to look like. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I just couldn’t understand why the puzzle pieces didn’t fit together.”

Image: Jesse James Keitel as Jerrie in an episode of "Big Sky."
Jesse James Keitel in an episode of "Big Sky."Darko Sikman / ABC

Frustrated and depressed, Keitel turned to New York City nightlife and began to perform in drag under the stage name Peroxide, a transformative experience that they credit for helping them accept their own identity.

“It was that avant-garde exploration of gender, presentation and costumes that gave me an artistic outlet and an understanding of self that I had not had since I was in seventh or eighth grade. I had not only confidence and new skills, but I was able to use what I had been learning and put it into my acting career. I really started becoming successful as an actor when I incorporated this new part of myself,” explained the performer, who won a Student Academy Award last year for their work in “Miller & Son.”

With “Big Sky,” Keitel said they feel a unique sense of responsibility to portray a queer character in a way that is authentic but not exploitative. In the show’s second episode, “Nowhere to Run,” Jerrie is forced to strip and take a shower in front of her high-strung abductor, but, in a rare moment of power and resistance, she chooses to reveal herself to him. It’s a stunning scene that Keitel admittedly struggled to get right.

“It really kept me up at night, because I was so scared of that scene being done wrong. As an actor, there’s only so much that is in your control, and what was in my control was how I delivered the lines,” they explained. “There is a lot of violence against trans people in the real world, and we often see that violence on-screen as well, but I think how ‘Big Sky’ does it differently is you really do see how my character overcomes this violence — and it’s not violence because of her transness. It’s, unfortunately, due to sex trafficking, but she’s not being targeted and hate-crimed because of her transness. She honestly just ended up in a very sad and unfortunate situation.”

While she might only appear to be “a poor, trans sex worker from Montana living in a trailer park,” Jerrie’s complicated backstory and fraught familial relationships will be a major part of the show’s third episode, teased Keitel.

“When I say she’s been through hell and back, I mean that. She’s had a very hard life, and it’s only been made harder because of her transness, [but] Jerrie has a storyline that isn’t your stereotypical path for a trans character on TV.”

While they are aware of the historical significance of this groundbreaking role, Keitel, who has been a consistent advocate for trans actors playing trans roles, is prepared to be the catalyst for a much larger conversation about the LGBTQ community.

“I hope having more visibility for people like Jerrie and I leads to a better understanding for some queer kid who just wants their family to love them,” Keitel said, noting that they feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to portray Jerrie in an authentic way. “The most I could hope for is that this leads to a small understanding that you don’t need to fully understand someone’s identity to respect that they also have a place in this world.”

While the U.S. and many other countries have seen an alarming spike in Covid-19 cases, the entertainment industry has resumed large-scale productions under enhanced safety protocols. Despite being forced to relocate from Albuquerque and Las Vegas to work in Vancouver, Keitel said they feel extremely fortunate to be shooting a new show “led by such amazingly warm and gifted actors” in the middle of a pandemic.

“Honestly, it’s so wild that I’m here,” they said, laughing. “I feel so grateful, and I jokingly said that I feel like I won the lottery five times over, but I mean it. Knock on wood, we haven’t had any hiccups yet. Doing a production during a pandemic is very odd — frankly, I don’t recommend it! It’s a different level of added stress, but damn am I grateful to pull it off.”

After leaving fans with a bloody killing in the final seconds of the pilot, the writers have set a gripping precedent that no one on the cast is really safe, with Keitel guaranteeing “plenty of twists and turns” for the remainder of the season.

New episodes of “Big Sky” air on ABC at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. CST) on Tuesdays.

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