Billy Porter and Eva Reign take on the high school rom-com
Eva Reign stepped onto the set of “ Anything’s Possible ” for the first time almost exactly a year ago. She was, to put it mildly, nervous.
It was a big moment for Reign, who had dreamed of acting in films for most of her life but hadn’t managed to break through. She didn’t even have an agent or a manager when she responded to the open casting call. Suddenly there she was, starring in a film directed by Billy Porter about a transgender high school senior’s first big romance and all she could think about was how she was going to have to prove herself. But Porter put her at ease.
“You’re safe now. You’re doing the thing,” Porter told her. “Have fun doing the thing. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t earn it.”
“Anything’s Possible,” which debuts on Amazon Prime Video Friday, is a milestone for transgender representation in film — a studio-produced celebration of an empowered Black trans girl.
Porter likes to say that the script found him. The rom-com, written by Ximena García Lecuona, checked off a lot of boxes for the Tony- and Emmy-winning actor, who makes his directorial debut with the film. He loved that it wasn’t a coming out story. He loved that Kelsa (Reign) was already accepted by her peers and being pursued by a cute guy (Abubakr Ali). He loved that it could help dispel a pernicious fallacy that trans and queer people have “miserable lives.” And he loved that it just happened to be set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Porter was born, raised and found his voice as an artist.
“I wanted to come back and just create a love letter to Pittsburgh, that honored all of the energies, the mentors, the teachers, the chosen families and all of the people who raised me and made me the human being that I am today,” Porter said. “That happened in Pittsburgh.”
Alexa Fogel, who also cast “Pose,” was the one who put Reign in front of Porter. Reign was working as a freelance journalist when a friend told her about an open casting call for the film.
“She stuck out to me because there is a grounded and mature energy to her that is beyond Kelsa’s years,” Porter said. “I really felt like for the first time seeing this archetype in the mainstream marketplace, we needed a leader to guide us through this tale who was grounded and mature — probably more mature than what you would think a traditional 17-year-old would be.”
Porter was a grounding force for Reign throughout the process, encouraging her to embrace the full range of her voice which she’d been made to feel self-conscious about in the theater.
“There are plenty of cis women out there with much, much deeper voices than mine. But when you’re a trans women, they try to put you in strange boxes that don’t make any sense, that are totally made up,” Reign said. “Billy said that before we even started shooting. And I just burst into tears. I had never had that said to me. It made me think this is the start of something totally new.”
For his part, Porter didn’t want Reign to go through what he did. When he was studying theater at Carnegie Mellon, he remembered being told that his own voice was too high for the American stage and that he’d never make it as an actor. His experience in the industry would prove otherwise.
“I’ve been through a whole lot in my life. A whole lot of naysayers. A whole lot of people telling me that who I am was not good enough, that my queerness would be my liability,” Porter said. “This piece found me because of the decisions and choices I made in my life prior, choosing myself and my authenticity decades ago.”
In Kelsa, Reign saw some similarities to her own journey, including having a supportive and sometimes overly protective mother (played in the film by Renée Elise Goldsberry). But, she said, her high school experience in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, was “a little bit rougher.”
“I was this budding trans person at the time, and a lot of people couldn’t quite figure me out,” she said.
Reign turned to writing, drawing comics and acting to express herself and eventually found her way to New York, where she’s been making a name for herself in more than one medium. She recently won a Peabody for her work in the Vice News docu-series “Transnational.” And she’s hopeful about what “Anything’s Possible” might do for the kinds of stories that are told about transgender people.
“Billy Porter is really putting in the work to have more happy, queer, trans narratives,” she said. “We’ve seen happy trans people on shows like ‘Pose’ and ‘Euphoria,’ but I kind of thought that was few and far between. I didn’t think that was something that was going to come up in my all life and career and journey as an artist. I struggle with being honest about that because I don’t want to talk in morbid ways. But I didn’t think it was feasible.”
“A lot of my friends in New York who are also trans artists and actors and writers, they’re all looking at this movie, like, ‘Oh my God, we’re doing this. We’re telling happy stories,’” she added. “We’re all kind of having this collective moment of being like, ‘Oh we’re allowed to show our joy. Hopefully we can do more of that.’”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr