How Starring in a Netflix Show Helped This Nonbinary Actor Thrive
By Nico Lang / September 12, 2019
The future is nonbinary — or at least JayR Tinaco hopes it is.
The Australian actor currently appears in Another Life, a Netflix science-fiction drama which premiered on the streaming platform in July. Starring Katee Sackoff in her first series since Battlestar Galactica, the show is basically Arrival by way of a straight-to-video VHS you’d find at Blockbuster in the 90s: extraterrestrial life touches down on earth and a group of scientists travel through space to seek out the mysterious being’s origins. It’s diverting in a B-movie way, if fairly unremarkable.
But what distinguishes Another Life is its surprisingly fluid approach to sexuality and gender. Tinaco plays Zayn Petrossian, a medic who joins the crew to aid in their fateful mission. The role could have been written off as a redshirt, doomed from the moment they are introduced, but it’s clear from the moment Zayn enters the frame that the character is something special. While the rest of their crewmembers jockey for power, Zayn stands calmly at the edge of the frame in lipstick, eyeshadow, and mascara — above the drama and looking fabulous while they’re at it.
Like the character they’re playing, Tinaco identifies as nonbinary. The actor, who had a small role in Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe earlier this year, didn’t grow up on science fiction and never saw themselves journeying through space to save the galaxy. But Tinaco says starring in a show which envisions a future where people aren’t defined by gender or sexual orientation helped them more fully embrace living outside the binary and to come into their own wholeness.
In an interview with Out, Tinaco discusses how they were cast in the show and what it meant to bring all of themself to the screen.
What attracted you to the role?
When they were casting the role, they really wanted a nonbinary person. I like to express myself with male and female clothing, and that’s just how I’ve always done it. I’m 30 years old now but in high school — 10 plus years ago — I was wearing makeup. As a teenager, having a mother that didn’t tell me that I was different led me to just experiment and express myself. I never thought of it as different until someone else told me I was different.
I’m from a really small town in Australia. It’s a rural coastal town in Queensland, if you can think of the epitome of a small country town, that was it. They had rodeos on the weekend. I was bullied quite a bit from the guys that I went to school with. I was told a few times that people wanted to kill me. I don’t remember a day that I wasn’t called a name. People would throw things at me. I was pushed and shoved. I wasn’t beaten up thankfully, and it was more verbal abuse than anything.
But I was lucky that I had really, really good girlfriends that surrounded me and a really strong mother that really stood up for me.
When you were growing up, were you always drawn to sci-fi or was that something that only came about professionally?
Oh god, definitely not. This was the last thing that I would expect to be doing. I was a huge fantasy fan. I loved the vampire stuff and everything on the CW. My favorite show when I was growing up was Charmed. I loved that show, but for me, sci-fi wasn’t really on my radar. When it came to becoming an actor, it’s not really where I saw myself. But as an aspiring actor, you audition for everything — you’re going to go for every opportunity you can.
Auditioning for this, I was intimidated by it being sci-fi and then playing a doctor. I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this. It seems really out of my reach.” But I had such a strong connection to the character. In the callback with the director and the producer, they were giving me choices to make and they would say, “Maybe we could try this with Zayn.” I would say, “I don’t really agree with that. I don’t think they would make that choice.” I don’t really know what came over me at that moment. Because usually you should not disagree with the director and the producer in the callback, because it’s not your role yet. But I felt like I had to stand up for Zayn, and I think that’s actually what got me the role.
I remember having an interview with them or having a talk with them later on after I booked it, and they said that I came in with such strength, whereas a lot of people were still kind of discovering themselves and trying to come out. But I knew exactly who Zayn was. It was pretty much me as a doctor, if I had gone through years and years of college.
Was there a moment where you started to realize that playing this role resonated with you more deeply than you expected going in?
Playing Zayn just made me more comfortable being nonbinary. I think labels scare people, but they aren’t the end all be all — you can just be whoever you want to be. If someone doesn’t understand that, then I’m here to educate and help them. But if they don’t understand that, that’s on them — not me.
The beauty of it was that Zayn’s identity never came up in the script or the show at all. There was no story around Zayn coming out or talking about how they came out, when they discovered that they were nonbinary. They were just simply there. I can’t wait for the day when that is the case: when we don’t have to talk about it anymore and have to educate people. That excited me playing that [role], and I thought, “Wow, this one day could be the world.” There’s two other, cisgender men on the ship and they all end up making out. There’s a threesome, and it doesn’t come up again. They’re not calling each other gay or anything like that. The relationship that [my character has with] Bernie — he seems like this straight, cisgender male, but it never becomes a conversation. You just see them building a relationship and love for each other.
Were you able to have discussions throughout the process of filming to shape how the character would be portrayed?
Yes, 100 percent. I had so much involvement with the character development, which I was so thankful for, all the way down to wardrobe. In the beginning, some of the wardrobe choices were pretty questionable, a lot of flowing gowns. I said, “This doesn’t seem practical. Just because they’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t mean they have to be fabulous.” It’s just another stereotypical cliche that you would put on an LGBTQ+ person — they’re not going to be in pink chiffon and flowing gowns. So we had to workshop a lot of that and I made a point of wanting it to be practical. Especially being a doctor, their wardrobe is the last thing they need to think about.
They still had a personality here and there, but it’s not over the top, which I loved. They really included me in everything, and they ran everything by me.
What defines Zayn’s unfabulous wardrobe?
They’re just so sure of who they are. They don’t want to have to prove themselves through their wardrobe. The fact that they’re being 100 percent authentically themselves and comfortable with the crew speaks volumes. It’s just funny, though, because you will see Zayn — I think in the first episode — in a heel, which I thought was really cute. It’s a little closeup of a heel as they walk on the first time you see them. There’s also a funeral scene where I’m wearing a kilt with a cute little blazer, but it’s all very subtle.
Have you had the opportunity to audition for nonbinary characters before?
I’m lucky enough to have a management team that really understands who I am and who I want to be as an actor. I do present quite androgynously and people mistake that for being a trans female, but I’m not trans. I used to go in for those roles, but I stopped doing that now because I believe that trans actors should be going out for trans roles. I’ve cut it down to just going out for nonbinary and genderfluid roles, and we’re seeing so much more of that. I’m so grateful, and it’s so exciting. But if there’s a role where the production doesn’t know if they want to cast a male or a female, my management team will present me and say, “Why don’t you switch it up and have a nonbinary character?” That’s actually gotten me in the room a couple of times, and I see it more and more all the time. I’ve never auditioned more in my life.
In Australia, there was nothing there for me. I think Australia’s industry is a bit behind in that sense. So coming here into the North American market, there’s just been an influx of work. I know that I still don’t audition as much as a cisgender woman or a cisgender man, but I’m auditioning more and more all the time. Especially with all these streaming services now, there’s just so much more work for everybody, and people understand they have to be progressive in their work. The world wants to see the real world represented. It’s really important to see all walks of life represented in the media.
What does it mean to you to be able to represent all of yourself on screen, where you don’t have to play cis but you get to be visibly yourself?
I’ve always wanted to act, but I didn’t really care to do it for anybody else. It sounds selfish, but I wanted to do it because that’s been my dream. I’d never really thought, “Well, I want to inspire people and I want other people to see themselves.” But after doing this and seeing how much love and positivity has come from it, it’s inspired me to know that I’m inspiring others. I look back when I was in high school and I didn’t have anyone that was like me to look up [to] on screen. Back then, what saved me was Queer as Folk. I remember waking up at 1:00 a.m. on a school night, and I would sneak off into the living room and watch it. But I didn’t really understand back then how alienating it could be if you don’t see yourself.
After playing Zayn, I’ve understood how important it is to be that person for other people. I want to be that now for young kids. There’s still so many LGBTQ+ youth out there that are taking their lives because they don’t understand what they’re feeling or they feel alienated, like a freak or a weirdo. If I’m helping that cause, then it’s worth it.
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