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Meet trans-blazer Shakina Nayfack of Hulu's 'Difficult People'

Shakina Nayfack
Photo credit:
shakina.nyc

In these modern times where a new breed of reactionaries can become media sensations and say everything they feel which borders on psychopathy, or at the very least self-inflicted Tourette’s Syndrome, it’s no wonder why there aren’t more shows like Hulu’s “Difficult People.”

The irreverent comedy created and written by Julie Klausner has become somewhat of a cult favorite with all of its profanity and New York sensibilities, the characters seem to be awash in the psycho-reactive slime from “Ghostbusters II.”

The cast of characters include the two leads Julie Kessler (Klausner) and Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner), Julie’s self-involved mother Marilyn played by the iconic Andrea Martin, and a crew of interesting people who work at D's diner downtown.

But “Difficult People” has another cast member perhaps the most groundbreaking on a modern American sitcom, her name is Lola who also works at the diner and is played by transgender actress Shakina Nayfack.

At this time in United States' media history it seems that the term “transgender” will go down as the word that launched a thousand bathroom bills.

At no other time in history have men and women’s bravery been so celebrated and yet so audibly reviled.

Paid streaming services seemed to be ahead of the public in knowing that the subject matter was ripe for exploring, Netflix invented binge-watching in 2013 with “Orange is the New Black,” introducing transgender star Laverne Cox onto servers and Emmy ballots.

Amazon followed with a whole show focused on transitioning in “Transparent” in 2014.

But unlike “Orange,” a cis-gender (Jeffrey Tambor) male was cast to play the lead instead of an actual transgender woman.

 And who would have thought only a year later Olympic Gold Medal winner Bruce Jenner would transition into Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine?

Since then, multiple reality shows and specials have given arcs to transgender people, and soon the world was starting to get educated on the difference between drag queen, transvestite and transgender.

It is a time of transition, both in people and in television.

Shakina Nayfack is gearing up to become a trailblazer in her field much like her other sisters who have been brave enough to be themselves.

Of course her role on “Difficult People” isn’t as big as say Cox’s role as Sophia on "Orange is the New Black,” but it’s just as important for other reasons.

“I think that the character of Sophia is still one that is, you know, really relying on tragic circumstances to elicit empathy for the character,” Shakina told me over the phone. “So in many ways Lola is the first trans comic role.”

Shakina grew up in Southern California, going between Orange County and San Diego. She now lives in New York, but the dream of coming back to the Golden State to do her one-woman show, perhaps become bi-coastal is something she would ultimately like to do.

Her father, brother and boyfriend live in San Diego, and she is in talks to do something big with her stage act, “I really want to find more ways to work there because it’s a beautiful city and so much of my heart is there."

But her heart lies elsewhere too, the activist and actress doesn’t seem as though she is going to stay silent about the tumultuous political climate either.

Her show is a huge success and continues to gather more fans each week. It’s more than just a paid gig for her, it’s a good place to educate cast and crew about transgender people. In this way, her  character is not just a storyline gimmick, but a fleshed out human being with a life.

“I think that Hulu and ‘Difficult People' are doing everything right,” she tells me. “In that, when they decided they wanted to bring on a trans character to the show, they committed to casting a trans actress, and not only casting a trans actress, but bringing in an actress who could help them develop the role; treating me as a consultant as well and a contributing writer.”

She says that representation is not about whose story is being told, but who is doing the telling, and Hulu and “Difficult People” have welcomed her in a big way.

“I feel like it’s so radical because the humor is coming from her [Lola], it’s not directed at her or around her, she is an engine of humor on the show which is a really new thing for trans representation.”

This casting as Lola is not something she had expected a few years ago. In fact she had given up on acting because she didn’t want to be in the business as a perceived male, and she never thought she would survive long enough to see the day she could be herself on set.

But that all changed three years ago.

“When I made the decision to transition medically--I had been out as trans for a long time--but it wasn’t until 2013 when I decided to transition physically,” she says. “And I created a solo show about my decision to transition that I did here in New York, really with the intention of my peer and colleagues and friends about where this decision was coming from and what it meant to me.”

On her birthday 2015, Shakina got the news that she had been cast in “Difficult People” and suddenly what she may have thought was going to be impossible had really only been camouflaged by destiny.

Yet, the political climate was shifting toward Trump’s brand of communication: the unwillingness to be politically correct in the most conservative of ways.

In many ways “Difficult People” is doing the same thing. I wondered what she thought of people criticizing Trump about his verbal character when “Difficult People” was almost doing the same type of shtick.

In this era of non-politically correctness forged by Trump, why is “Difficult People” so funny?

“I think it really has to do with intention and power,” she says. “Trump is like this insanely wealthy man who, if elected, could bring ruin upon our entire global population.

“The intentions of Difficult People are you have this woman writer who’s trying to really elbow her way into the man’s world of comedy writing for television.”

Shakina says that Donald Trump is capitalizing off of people's fear and insecurities whereas her show and everyone involved is working from a place of joy.

There may be some cynicism and morose textures on the surface, but like any really groundbreaking sitcom, “Difficult People” is drawing from real-life experiences not wild conjecture, “We love what we’re doing and we’re going to make light of situations that ultimately are actually difficult to deal with in the real world.”

Some of these difficulties especially in the trans community are about where they sit down or stand up to urinate or other things. Perhaps this isn’t the platform on which they wanted to base their cause, but it definitely has the world talking and becoming enlightened.

As I talked to her more, I got the feeling that she was driven by an inner force that had strengthened through the years. 

It was this force that carried her to North Carolina, the state that is passing laws to ban trans folk from using the restroom, and taking away LGBT legal protections, even human rights. 

Shakina says she went to the state to perform her show to draw attention to the hypocrisy of what she calls a "Jim Crow era" mentality designed to keep minorities oppressed. 

She says history will ultimately vindicate the behaviors of the modern world towards trans people, but that doesn't help the men and women now who are already fighting for the right to exist. 

And as for politicians driving the propaganda that trans people will sexually assault children, Shakina has a rather disturbing story that happened to her recently. 

“I was at a movie last week--I was there alone to watch Star Trek in the middle of the day just to, like you know, get my little break from the rest of the week," she recalls. "This dude in front of me was jacking off and grabbed me from between the seats and I thought after all of this nonsense for months of people portraying transgender folks as sex criminals, for me to be accosted by some random straight man in a movie theater was just an example of the way things actually work. I am not worried about any trans woman molesting a child in a bathroom, I am definitely concerned for the fate of trans men going into restrooms where straight men might get violent with them. I think the perpetrators of rape--I don’t know the exact percentage--are overwhelmingly cisgender men."

Through all these personal experiences which I can only sympathize with because I am not transgender myself, it would seem that Hollywood is doing a good thing to create roles and reality television for transgender men and women. 

The entertainment industry always seems to have its hand on the pulse of politics and the ability to educate someone to a cause, or perhaps even change a mind that has thought a certain way for decades.

For now, there are small steps with big impacts in the industry when it comes to trans entertainment and celebrity. 

Laverne Cox is set to play Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Fox's production of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

I asked Shakina what she thought of Laverne's casting, usually Frank-N-Furter is played by a male.

She says it's a musical that is near and dear to heart and the part is a dream role she would love to play, but she does see some issues for Laverne. 

"Where it’s going to be problematic is going to be in the language," she says, "because the movement for trans visibility is so focused on reaching people how to talk about trans folk with respect. And Rocky Horror is irreverent and dated, so it’s going to be tricky."

As for her own career Shakina is emboldened by her newfound stardom as Lola on "Difficult People."

Her character may be a 9/11 conspiracy theorist with a Farrah Fawcett hairstyle, but she never backs down from a verbal spar and her countenance is a true representation of a trans woman maneuvering through a bitter world. 

I have always been a fan of the sitcom, especially Norman Lear and his signature pitches of topical characters on the fringes of the modern zeitgeist. 

For instance "All in the Family," a controversial 70's show which followed the almost loveable bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) who was made to endure societal changes at the tail-end of the civil rights movement. 

Or "Maude," played by Bea Arthur, the female version of Archie Bunker, who was an empowering soul who tried to clinch the true meaning of being a woman with an opinion in a man's world. 

"Difficult People" is an updated version of these Lear ideals in which decades of change have happened, but new ones are in flux. 

I told Shakina the world might just be ready for a Lear-esque sitcom which follows a trans woman through the vicissitudes of a modern world.

"From your mouth to God’s ears," she laughs. "I mentioned this to Julie after the season ended I was like I am one-hundred percent committed to Difficult People and love the show and will always be grateful to them for giving me this opportunity. But I also can’t wait for the opportunity to blast into the scene on network television. Why not?”

Yes, why not? 

Both seasons of "Difficult People" are now streaming on Hulu, except for the season two finale which airs on September 9.