Though he’s only a junior, Ian Alexander has already had a more eventful high school experience than most.
After spontaneously replying to an open casting call for a new Netflix series in August 2015, Alexander booked the role — his first professional acting job ever — and left his Washington, D.C., school for New York to film for three months on the set of “The OA.”
“Sophomore year was better than freshman year,” the 15-year-old told NBC News. “Way better.”
While he had no prior professional acting experience, Alexander is known as the natural performer in his family.
Because Alexander’s father worked in the Department of Defense, Alexander moved often while he was growing up. But whether it was in Oahu, Hawaii — where he spent the first six years of his life — or an air force base in Japan — where he lived before finally settling in D.C., Alexander found ways to become involved in the performing arts. He joined a community theater in elementary school and took chorus lessons in middle school.
“I have childhood memories of writing scripts and putting on shows in the house while forcing my family members to perform with me,” Alexander said. “I’m normally very quiet and shy, but when I sing or act I transform into this confident person, and I’m always so shocked when it happens.”
The confidence faded when Alexander began his freshman year of high school, which he refers to as “a really dark period.” Coming to terms with his gender and sexual identity was a struggle for Alexander, and wore on other areas of his life. His grades plummeted, and he lost interest in things he was passionate about, like singing. He worried constantly about whether he’d be accepted by his family, who he describes as “pretty religious,” after coming out to them.
Alexander came out to his friends as transgender in December 2014, and to his parents a month later, which was, he said, “a lot more difficult.”
Months later while on Tumblr, Alexander came across a flyer that the trans community had been circulating. It read “New Netflix Series Seeking Asian Transgender 14-15 Year Old Actor (Transitioning from Female to Male).”
Seeing that a TV show wished to cast someone that looked like him was a much-needed affirmation for Alexander, he said. He immediately wrote an email to the address provided, including random pictures of himself in lieu of professional head shots.
“It’s just so rare to see Hollywood casting an Asian-American trans boy, let alone any trans boy, that I felt like I had no other choice but to audition,” Alexander said. “Why not? I just went for it. I didn’t think I’d hear back.”
But he did hear back, and after discussing the opportunity with his mother and a phone call with “The OA” director Zal Batmanglij, he was offered the role.
Released on Netflix in December 2016 in the form of eight, one-hour episodes, “The OA” is a science fiction drama following the mysterious reappearance of Prairie Johnson, a blind girl who had gone missing from her hometown seven years earlier. Her parents reunite with their daughter under strange circumstances: Prairie has intricate scars on her back, refers to herself as “the OA”, and can now see.
Alexander plays Buck Vu, a high school choir student and one of five town residents who are drawn to Prairie and her story. Though the newly-banded group couldn’t be more varied — members include a local bully and a middle-aged schoolteacher, among others — further episodes reveal each character has an “invisible self” they hide from everyone else, but Prairie seems to see. The idea of an invisible self couldn’t ring truer for Buck, who is also, like Alexander, a Vietnamese-American trans teenager.
Though they had a basic outline for the character of Buck, Batmanglij and Brit Marling, the co-creators of “The OA,” asked Alexander to provide input to make his character more relatable for other trans kids, Alexander said. In one memorable scene, Buck listens at the top of his stairs as his parents argue; his father refers to him by his birth name and uses incorrect pronouns while his mother attempts to defend Buck. The argument was one of many that Alexander had written and emailed to the creators, examples of the things his own parents fought about at home.
“Playing Buck was very personal, but I had to put myself out there,” Alexander said. “I want to be visible for people like me because during that dark period, I needed someone to inspire me like that.”
Since the show’s release, Alexander has received a lot of positive feedback, specifically in the form of Twitter messages from fans who’d been inspired by his portrayal of Buck and come out to their own families as trans.
His time spent filming “The OA” solidified Alexander’s dream of attending college for film production — he’d like to write and direct as well — but for now, he’s focusing on binge-watching the second season of Netflix’s “Daredevil.”
“Maybe I should say I’m focusing on my schoolwork,” Alexander said. “I think that’s what my mom would want me to say.”