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Rising star Theo Germaine's next act is Showtime's 'Work in Progress'

The “Politician” actor — and trained circus performer — discusses the new series, fire breathing and getting past the gender-identity elephant in the room.
Image: Theo Germaine attends a premiere in New York on Sept. 26, 2019.
Theo Germaine attends a premiere in New York on Sept. 26, 2019.John Lamparski / Getty Images file

There’s a scene in the second episode of the new Showtime series “Work in Progress” that Theo Germaine, one of the show’s stars, can especially relate to.

It involves the well-meaning brother-in-law of Abby — the series’ protagonist and a self-described “45-year-old queer dyke” — starting to ask a seemingly probing question about Abby’s new transgender boyfriend, Chris (played by Germaine). But before bro-ish Mike (Gerard Neugent) can even spit out his sentence, Abby (Abby McEnany) cuts him off. She politely but assertively tells him that it's not the responsibility of the LGBTQ community to educate the cis-hetero community on issues they might not understand, and says that he can “Google it” or “for god sakes, read a book.”

Abby’s line serves as a non-preachy reminder of exactly where we are in the age of identity politics: The world is now saturated with enough educational information about marginalized groups that one can be forgiven for dismissing an awkward question with “Google it.”And Germaine, a trans nonbinary actor who uses he/him and they/them pronouns interchangeably, has been in Abby's position to many varying degrees.

“I frequently have to be the teacher when somebody else has acted out of ignorance or acted selfishly,” Germaine, 27, told NBC News. “But it shouldn't be the hurt person's responsibility to educate the person who's done the hurt.”

In Germaine's case, the real-life “hurt” ranges from an unsupportive relative's “conditioned homophobia and transphobia” to encounters with well-intended Mike-types who still don't know that certain variants of “trans” are considered offensive. But even in “woke,” queer company, Germaine has still had to be the teacher, in a sense, despite “the hurt” being largely off the table.

“Work in Progress,” a dry, romantic comedy, premieres Dec. 8, but Germaine is already a breakout sensation thanks to their role as cunning strategist James in “The Politician,” a Ryan Murphy comedy that dropped on Netflix in September. James' gender identity is never addressed, and both the character and Germaine were introduced to the world — without easy instruction manuals — in one binge-worthy, possibly unprecedented burst.

Murphy — the showrunner behind “Pose,” “American Horror Story” and “Glee,” just to name a few — has been on an unstoppable climb of inclusive casting, but it's hard to think of another ingenue like Germaine: an unknown talent whose onscreen and offscreen selves enigmatically defy binaries. Even queer media outlets couldn't resist the utopian novelty of it all.

“Even though the show is not about my character's gender identity, I'm getting asked [about] that so much that it's turned around and become about gender identity,” Germaine said of media interviews.

What makes Germaine a compelling new talent goes far beyond them being nonbinary. Germaine is also an aspiring director, screenwriter and DJ. They take ballet classes for fun, and they're finishing their first play. One of Germaine’s earliest passions was the circus, where they performed as an aerialist, stilt walker, fire breather and fire eater.

“When I was nine, we had cable for a little while, and these Cirque du Soleil shows would play on Bravo,” recalled Germaine, who grew up in the small town of Monticello, Illinois, before relocating to Champaign-Urbana. “I was obsessed. But in my town, it was really hard to find circusy things, so in high school, my boyfriend and I built our own stilts, and I started stilt walking.”

This led to roughly five years of Germaine performing in “a burlesque vaudeville troupe as a sideshow performer,” until one fire accident caused them to pump the brakes. “I swallowed all of this smoke and had a horrible infiltration in one of my lungs,” Germaine said. “I knew I had to back off.”

But all the while, Germaine was also engaged in theater, playing mostly female roles in high school, male roles in college at the University of Illinois, and portraying a wide spectrum of characters from a witch in “Macbeth” to the fox in “The Little Prince.” They said their experience in the circus has a direct correlation to their agility and body awareness as an actor.

For “Work in Progress,” Germaine does a full 180 from their steely and wickedly verbose work on “The Politician” to play a markedly patient and wide-minded salve — their character, Chris, is the warm hug that both Abby and the show itself desperately yearn for. And moreover, Abby and Chris' achingly sweet relationship provides an organic home for those teachable moments, which mostly exist in their communication with each other. Chris, for example, tells Abby in private what his personal and sexual boundaries are as a trans man.

“I felt it had a necessary balance that made it be for the community and also a little educational,” Germaine said of the show. “That's something that made me feel really good about the project.”

And while Germaine does want conversations to move beyond the obvious, and feels their part in “The Politician” should “just be how it is, and not this amazing, progressive, special thing,” the importance of representation is by no means lost on them. The play they're working on is about “trans people, polyamory, health care and ghosts,” and they love that “Work in Progress” is so thoroughly queer.

“I still want to do content that's very trans and very gay,” Germaine said, “because there are different struggles the trans community still faces, and it's important for my resilience and my soul to do content that's more in the family of 'Work in Progress.'”

That said, when it comes to the topic of opportunities around casting and gender identity, Germaine sums up their feelings quickly, saying, “I think that everybody should get the chance to play Hamlet.”

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