When “Transparent,” Amazon’s sharp, candy-colored TV show, premiered in 2014, it was a landmark of representation and storytelling for transgender people.
You know, just like “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”
The most recent entry to the “Spider” canon has earned over one billion dollars — it’s the most successful of the “Spider-Man” movies, and Sony’s highest-grossing movie. When the massive studios behind “Spider-Man” decided to cast young transgender actors in the blockbuster, they were making a conscious choice to represent trans lives on screen. A choice that would likely have never happened without the ripple-effects of “Transparent,” which released its fifth season musical finale episode just before the high holidays.
Zach Barack, a mild-mannered Jewish 23-year-old from Illinois, was cast in both.
In “Transparent,” he stands out in an ensemble of young trans people who create a chosen-family after their parents shun them. And his role as one of Peter Parker’s classmates in “Spider-Man” made him the first out trans actor to ever have a speaking role in a Marvel movie. Barack’s appearance, though often in the background, is a monumental first — it’s likely the most high-profile, highest-grossing, and most-viewed piece of media to ever feature an out transgender person.
In movie theaters around the world, Barack is 30-feet tall, entertaining millions with a story about saving the world.
But just a few years ago, he didn’t believe he would ever tell another person the truth about who he is, he told the Forward. “I thought, ‘This is something I’m going to my grave with.’”
Growing up in an Irish-Catholic town outside of Chicago, Barack could see that he was one of the only Jewish kids around. He also believed that he was one of the only transgender people in the world.
“I think this is probably the experience for a lot of Jewish kids,” he reflects. “I didn’t have a lot of people who shared experiences with me, so even before I started to come out, I had the idea that there was something about me that was sort of different, inherently, beside the fact that I was going to have a bunch more to unpack for the rest of my life.”
Wait — is that a comment on Barack’s Jewishness? Or gender?
He pauses. “Both.”
Barack has three older brothers — one’s a lawyer, one’s a banker, one’s studying to be a psychologist. They all read comic books (Barack, wary of comic book politics, explains that he read them “casually.”) With the older brothers away at school, he says, he started “kind of going through some stuff.” The “stuff” led to him being sent to a wilderness program for troubled teens. When a counselor assigned him the Paulo Coelho best-seller “The Alchemist.” he scoffed. “I thought I was cool, and the book was about, like, looking inside,” he says, laughing. “And then I read it and was like, ‘Uh, maybe I should look inside.’”
When the program ended, he was sent to an elite all-girls boarding school.
“It is not without a little irony,” he says, “that being there — at a pretty progressive school where more people were willing to be vulnerable — really allowed me to learn more, because of the safety of the setting.”
He pauses. “Irony, right? Do I mean coincidence?” There’s a pause, then he laughs, and says more confidently, “Irony.”
Barack thrived at the girls’ school. His teachers sent him to a leadership conference where he met, to his surprise, people who had been labeled one gender when they were born, and now lived as their actual gender. He hadn’t ever met a transgender person. “I was like ‘We can do that? We can act on that? I didn’t know that.”
“Up to that point my only exposure had been a “20/20” segment every few years, with a bunch of adults with no experience in it talking about whether it was okay or not,” Barack says. “These TV specials debating the morality of [trans] identities, I thought — ‘That’s not something I want to involve myself in. That seems miserable.’”
Looking for media with trans actors or characters, he found “Boys Don’t Cry,” a Hilary Swank movie based on the true story of a trans man who was raped, then murdered. “It wasn’t a totally huge leap in the right direction,” Barack says, wryly. “But I was like — there are stories about us! I didn’t realize this was a big population. I thought there were like, ten of us. But it’s hundreds of thousands.”
And so Barack began to research, studying his own identity like it was a foreign language. He bought books by trans writers on Amazon, lying to his parents about the charges. His dad took him on a college tour, and at night in adjoining hotel rooms, Barack cried silently, reading books by men who were living openly trans lives. He spent the rest of the trip anxiously asking his dad whether he should cut his hair short. “And my dad kept saying, ‘I don’t know, it’s up to you!’” he laughs. “I really thought I was having an emotional crisis about my hair.”
“I was, you know, really asking a different question — Do I tell people? Do I start living my life as a trans person?”
It took those Amazon books, rereading “The Alchemist,” and even Hilary Swank — but Zach Barack got that haircut. He came out, too. He had acted a little here and there, almost getting scammed by a profiteering talent agency (“I’m lucky my parents said no”) and started doing stand up comedy during his sophomore year of college at USC. “All of a sudden, being Zach on the stage was like — ‘Oh my god! I enjoyed this one million times more than anything I had ever learned that I could do,’” he said. He had no idea how to pursue a career in acting, and his family had zero connections. “We were kind of just hoping I would get an audition,” he said.
Just like before, Zach began researching. He studied music management at USC, and in between classes, he found a manager who specifically worked with transgender talent. She didn’t sign him, but she sent him out on sporadic auditions. “Every few months I would get a call for another role and I wouldn’t get it,” he says. He kept working. He kept doing what he calls “looking up information,” navigating the meandering road towards showbiz success into something accessible to him, something scholastic. His mom convinced him to find a job in L.A. between semesters so he could keep auditioning over the summer, and he landed an internship at Netflix. “I was a terrible intern,” he says, sounding genuinely mournful. “No one should have been stuck with someone with as little experience. But they were great teachers.”
Barack was a college kid — thriving in his music classes, screwing up as an intern, chipping away at an unrealistic dream. And then one day, pulling into the parking lot at Netflix, he got a call from his manager, telling him he had an audition for a major motion picture. “You have to drop everything,” she said. Barack reversed out of the parking lot and sped through Hollywood, back to the USC campus, to shave — the part was for a high schooler. He raced back to Hollywood, and arrived, out of breath, in a waiting room.
The room was filled with dozens of blonde, blue-eyed men, each over six feet tall.
“I have a feeling i’m not getting this part,” Barack remembers thinking. “Very goyish.” Still, he walked into the room and started his audition. The casting directors stared at him blankly. He was in the wrong room. Barack raced through the building to the “Spider-Man” auditions, shouting, “I promise I’m on time! I’m a fool!”
Four days later, he had the part.
Now is perhaps a good time to mention Barack’s anxiety.
Take this example: When his manager and a casting agent for “Spider-Man” told him over the phone that he’d landed the part, Barack’s first response was silence, followed by, “I don’t have a passport, guys!” The movie was filming in Europe, and something, he was certain, would prevent him from being there. He went to San Diego and had a passport overnighted. “I was sure they wouldn’t give it to me,” he said. They gave it to him. He packed his things and flew home to Chicago, waiting for the disaster that would ground his flight to Europe. The flight was seamless. He flew to Europe, and shot scenes with A-list actors in historic cities. “Something’s gonna happen!” he insisted. It didn’t.
“I’m such an anxious and neurotic person that it wasn’t until the premiere that it really hit me — I’m going to be on a big screen. It’s happening,” he says. “It was also sort of a lesson in — sometimes, your anxiety is wrong.” Sometimes, your built-in conditioning that everything will go wrong because everything has always gone wrong, is wrong. Sometimes, you have no reason to be afraid.
Barack’s feeling on the set of “Transparent” was different — less fear, more awe, he says. In “Spider-Man” he got to tell a story that was a little bit like his own. Like a trans person, Barack points out, Peter Parker keeps his difficult-to-navigate identity a secret because telling the truth could put him in actual danger. In “Transparent,” Barack got to act in a show about that very identity, a show that he personally looked up to, “as a queer Jew with a complicated family.”
On the glamorous international set of “Spider-Man,” Barack hung out with movie stars — Samuel L Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya. “It was one of the best experiences of my life,” he says.
If shooting an action movie with a-list stars in Europe was fun, the ‘Transparent” set “felt like coming home.” The “Transparent” series finale brings back every trans character from the show’s history. “In my experience,” Barack says, “trans people have a way of interacting with everyone that’s so full of love and acceptance, let alone when it’s a bunch of us together getting to do what we love as a team.”
In the series’ final scene, in which Barack is featured prominently, nearly every actor in the show’s four seasons gathers to perform an envelope-pushing song about responding to trauma with joy. For Barack, it was cathartic. “I love being Jewish, and I love being trans and I got to be around a bunch of people putting on a celebration of those parts of my identity,” he says. “When I had jobs in the past before I started acting, I used to wonder if I should ever tell anyone I was trans.” On the set of “Transparent,” he found himself “in a place where we sang about how it was something worth celebrating.”Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny
Zach Barack On ‘Spider-Man’ And Being Trans And Jewish