Even in the blackest of nights, some stars rise.
Case in point: actress Shakina Nayfack, who just became the first openly transgender woman to star in a network primetime sitcom. The show in question is Connecting…, which airs Thursday nights on NBC.
For Nayfack, Connecting… represents the culmination of years of buzz. She first gained attention with a role on the TBS series The Detour. From there, she returned to her roots in legitimate theatre, founding the Musical Theatre Factory, a new theatrical company in the Off-Broadway scene. She also began performing her one-woman show, Manifest Pussy, thereafter, which details her upbringing in Southern California, study of dance, and her gender transition. Last year, she scored another win, landing the role as the “replacement” Maura in the musical finale of Transparent, replacing the embattled Jeffrey Tambor in the story.
Now Connecting… catapults Nayfack to new heights. The show focuses on a group of friends riding out the COVID-19 pandemic via Zoom meetups. Nayfack plays Ellis, a beer-swilling, die-hard basketball fan who often plays the voice of reason among her angst-ridden friends. We caught up with the actress just ahead of the October 8 premiere to chat about the series, her newfound fame and just how she performs a show in which she’s never met her costars. Connecting… airs Thursdays on NBC.
Are you OK? How are you dealing with the pandemic?
Thanks for checking in about that. I was actually just thinking earlier today, people might think we’re living the dream because we get to star in a sitcom in a moment where there’s not a lot of work. The truth is, we’re all still living in the trauma of 2020. I think that I am surviving and thriving thanks to a patient and supportive partner, a reliable therapist and Uber Eats.
Well and the show deals very directly with the trauma of 2020, which never seems to end.
Yeah. It’s relentless, and that is one thing we’re trying to do: give people a way to process. The show tries to keep up with the events of the past year in a way that none of us had the emotional bandwidth to do yet. So hopefully, the show helps you accumulate of everything we’ve been through—the sum total of where we’re at.
So how did this project come to you? Did you have to audition? Was Ellis always written as a trans character?
It was just an audition. Sarah Isaacson the casting director was very smart in her conversations with Martin & Brenden [Gero & Gall], the show creators as to how to go about the search. When I received the casting breakdown, it said all the roles and “identifies as” with the gender they were looking for. So when I got the invitation to audition, all roles were open to all identities, which I thought was a really cool blank slate way to start building an ensemble.
Normally I wouldn’t ask, but what was the audition process like given that you never actually appear on the same set as your costars?
It was a series of self-tapes first, and a callback session with Martin & Brenden & Sarah [Isaacson, the casting director]. I did a screen test for other executives at NBC, but it was all via Zoom. It was just hopping on Zoom in character. I would introduce myself as Shakina, have a quick second, then snap into Ellis. I think actors are used to doing the self-tape at-home process. But because everything was shut down and we were shooting from everyone’s homes, we were one of the first shows that got green-lit to go into production. It was one of the first auditions that began circulating when TV got back in business.
All my friends—I think everyone I know got called in to audition for the show. It was the first audition that widely circulated among the professional community. And I thought there was no way [I would get the part]. So you never know.
Were you apprehensive about doing a show where you never actually work with your castmates?
You know, I feel like everything I’ve ever done has prepared me for this role on this show, everything I’ve done as an artist. I started a theatre company called Musical Theatre Factory in the back of a gay porn studio. I was living in the back too. So I know what it’s like to have creative mayhem in my living space. I’ve done that, I’ve got it down. I’ve also been on set enough for TV that I know how TV works. But I also still self-produce enough of my own things to know how to have a hand in everything. As a theatre major, you have to know a bit about lighting and sound and set decoration and everything. So I just thought I would rise to the occasion. Every skill set I’ve worked for in my life thus far is being called on. And that’s an artist’s dream in general, but at a point of emotional fatigue and powerlessness, it was a great call to arms.
This may be the first ensemble show in history where the ensemble never meets. How exactly does the filming process work? What kind of challenge does that pose? How do you find a rhythm to a scene with your fellow actors?
After our first day of shooting, the actors started a group chat together. We knew we needed rehearsal time. First of all, the technical process is so intense by the time we got through it, acting was almost an afterthought. So we thought we needed to carve out time to preserve what we were trying to do as artists. We decided on a process: we do a reading together, privately with the writers before we do our industry table read. That lets us look at each other through the Zoom windows and get a sense of each other’s choices as actors. Then, when we do the table read, we mostly play it looking into the camera for the executives, which is what we do when we shoot the show.
For the show, we rehearse once or twice where we get to look at each other in Zoom and connect. But then when it comes time to shoot, we just look into the tiny iPhone lens and just hear each other. With all the technical delays and issues of a Zoom call, we have to keep the popcorn pace of two jokes a minute comedy. It’s really quick.
That’s fascinating. And obviously, with comedy, timing is so key. It’s kind of amazing what you guys are doing on that level.
Everybody loves rapid-fire high-speed comedy. It’s hard to get in that groove when you’ve spent the morning decorating your set and focusing your lights. Usually, you’re sitting in your trailer running your lines and Zen-ing out to be fully present on set. This doesn’t have any of that.
So let me ask you a bit about your character, Ellis. She is someone I really related to, maybe because we’re both queer and single in the socially distant era. You already mention that you were given a general idea of the character, but she was, in many ways a blank slate. What specific qualities did you want to bring to her?
I think the writers really expanded their visions of the characters around what each of us ended upbringing as ensemble characters. In the pilot, we knew that Ellis was obsessed with basketball—particularly the Clippers—and was going nuts without that. I can identify with that, not in terms of sports, but in terms of the things that bring me joy and sanity that I’ve been deprived of. Then, once I got into the role, we started talking about how radical it is to have a character who is trans and a sports fan. Sports are an arena used rhetorically to be divisive with trans people.
So to suddenly have a trans character that loves sports takes the wind out of all those sails. I’m an activist by virtue of my existence as an artist. While I have a background in community organizing—I was out at the protests the first chance I could get this summer—my platform as an actor is my greatest tool. The show creators understood that was important to me. So I send in pitches for new lines each show to be more on point with the issues that I want to address. That certainly would not have happened had there not been a trans actor cast in this show.
Also, my brand of political humor and agitation is not necessarily the party favorite. So it’s fun to be a little rock & roll badass with it.
So you are probably the first prime time out trans actor playing a trans character in TV history. Is there a pressure to that?
Of course. There are a couple of different levels of pressure I’m willing to assume, one being that I know this character will become a lifeline to a lot of people. I know I was young and alone at home before. A queer character became a lifeline for me. I know that this character will help people survive. That’s a huge responsibility and something I hope I can live up to. Then, within the industry, this victory we’re talking about in terms of a network sitcom is only possible because of headway made by other trans actors.
We’re really like a rising tide of pillars of our community who have to be ambassadors. I hope I can make them proud. I hope what I bring to the conversation can contribute to the accessibility and awareness around trans identity. So it is intimidating, but I have role models: Laverne [Cox], Trace [Lysette], Jamie Clayton. I’m not the first to tread these mainstream waters. I hope I make people feel happy.
So in prepping this interview, I discovered your amazing theatrical resume. In one clip I ran across from one of your shows, you talk about auditioning for a pilot and hoping it would change your life. Now you are in that position. How does getting a show like Connecting change your life?
In some ways its too early to tell. The world hasn’t seen it. My colleagues haven’t seen it. What I feel potentially is available is that these other projects I’ve been pushing along are like my personal Sisyphus bolder are going to crest over the hill. I want people to take me seriously as an actor and creator, and that’s the opportunity that could come from this. But what matters to me the most, as I say, is that literally, we have four weeks until the election. That’s four times that a person who has never met a transperson could meet me in their living room. Suddenly, they could feel differently. They could see differently with a human face to put on it.
And I like Ellis. She’s my friend, so I don’t want to oppress her.
What’s the future of the show after COVID? Will you keep the Zoom format?
I really don’t know. I know that we all signed seven-year options like you do with a network show. If the show is popular and people love it and love these characters, we’ll make more episodes. The fact is we went from the show being greenlit to the show being cast to the show being shot in under a month.
Oh dear lord. That’s insane.
It was so fast. We shoot an episode a week in our own apartments. The momentum is there. I don’t know how it will change post-COVID. I hope people feel connected to us like a group of friends, and that we can all get through this together. If this show becomes an anchor for folks that feel alone in their living spaces, if we provide a sense of hope and continuity, that is a huge gift. And if we get to continue beyond that, I hope we do get to meet in person.
Wonderful. In my research, I saw you give a TED Talk on forgiveness.
I was very moved by it. You’re somebody that is a great advocate of forgiveness, even in politics. We’re on the cusp of a moment where we will all need to forgive one another to move forward. How do we do that?
Wow. That’s a great question.
The reason I delivered that talk was because I believe behavior transformation comes from heart transformation. So what I tried to present in that talk was a simple exercise to meditate on forgiveness in your own life to build the muscle to give and receive it in relationships. In terms of moving forward, I think we have to close our eyes and imagine forgiving the people we are really angry with, and forgive ourselves for the reasons we haven’t shown up enough to prevent atrocities. We have to learn to draw healthy boundaries around that which we deem to be unforgivable and learn how to live healthy, compassionate lives without that getting in the way. Those are big steps.
Yes they are.
So start by voting. And just try to be more gracious.
Beautiful. Anything else you want to add?
Black trans lives matter.
Connecting airs Thursdays on NBC.