Ian Alexander just had a week that most aspiring actors only dream of. Last Friday, the 15-year-old made his professional acting debut in the Netflix sci-fi series The OA. He plays Buck Vu, a suburban high schooler who befriends an interdimensional angel (or, at least, a woman who claims to be an interdimensional angel). He is also transgender and Asian-American — a kind of character who rarely, if ever, makes it to TV screens.
According to GLAAD, only 16 regular and recurring trans characters will be found on scripted television this season. Only four of those 16 were men, and only one was Asian-American. Given Hollywood’s notable missteps with Asian-American and trans actors, it’s no wonder why people from many different pockets of the internet have gravitated toward Alexander’s sensitive, warm performance. On Wednesday, in the middle of his winter break from school, Vulture chatted with Alexander about The OA, his acting debut, and what Buck means to him.
The OA sucked up the better part of my weekend. Have you watched it yet?
I sat down and watched all of it with my mom on Sunday. It’s one thing to read it in the script and see little bits and pieces on set, but seeing it all come together was incredible.
What kind of feedback have you gotten?
So far, it’s been very supportive. I know my followings have skyrocketed since the show came out. I’m really blown away by how much people love and connect with the character. People have messaged me saying that I helped them come out to their family or helped them to be more confident with their identities. It’s everything that I ever hoped the show could do for people.
Buck is a young trans man. How do you identify?
I identify as transgender male, though I’m still experimenting with gender nonconformity and the possibility of being nonbinary. I definitely use he/him pronouns only. I guess, sexuality-wise, I identify as pansexual, which means an attraction to people regardless of gender.
You’re pretty active on Tumblr and Twitter. What’s it like to go from reblogging stuff to being the stuff that’s reblogged?
I mean, it’s incredible. It still feels like I’m dreaming all of it, like I’m gonna wake up and still be a regular kid. That used to be me, someone creating and sharing content about shows they like. Now, I see it happening with something I’m involved in. I want to encourage it as much as I can. I’m going through all the tags of The OA and my character’s name and liking all the posts. It’s so funny to see people reply to their own posts with a screenshot of me liking or reblogging that says, “Oh my God, he liked it.” I never really saw myself as being the object of someone’s interest.
The OA is your first major acting gig, right?
Yes, it’s my first-ever experience doing anything other than community theater and high-school plays. I’ve been doing more backstage stuff recently, working on technical details. But I did do some Shakespeare characters before that. I played a lot of male roles growing up; I never really questioned it. It just felt so natural to me to play a male character, but now looking back, it totally makes sense. [Laughs.]
I read that you found the casting call from a Tumblr post. Is that right?
According to Brit Marling, she and Zal Batmanglij were determined to cast an Asian-American trans male actor as Buck. Were you surprised to see such a direct and clear opportunity?
It was definitely a pleasant surprise. I’d never really been one to go out and actively pursue acting. If my school was doing a play, I’d try out, but I never really imagined there would be an opportunity for someone like me to be a part of a show. The casting call was so specific. It said “14-year-old Asian-American trans male to play 14-year-old Asian American trans male character.” At the time, I thought, “Well, I’m 14. I’m Asian-American. And I can act. I guess I should go for it. Why in the world shouldn’t I?” I was so excited, but I never really thought I was going to get a response. I was just some kid with no experience who doesn’t live in New York or L.A. I did it as more of a statement to myself, like, “Why not put myself out there?”
After you were cast, how did you prepare for the role?
Like I said, I had no professional experience. I didn’t really know where to start. They did provide me with an acting coach, who helped me put together the character. I had all of this emotion and all of these traits in common with my character, I suppose, but I didn’t know how to put it into my performance so that it could be captured on film. [The acting coach] really helped me own my character and perfect it. And because I did have a lot of common experience with the character, I just had to relive those moments, and all those same emotions that I’ve felt in my life would come back.
Which emotions and moments do you share with Buck?
It wasn’t really a specific moment, but more of a feeling, which was really personal. My relationship with my father is very similar to Buck’s relationship with his father. In any of those particular scenes, I would have to reflect back on those actual memories I had and relive those moments. It was very intense. It was very personal. Obviously, I have never been in a lot of the specific situations Buck has been in, but I had a lot of aspects of my life that I could draw on and use.
How did you prepare for all the “Movement” sequences that Ryan Heffington choreographed? Do you have a dance background?
Other than a couple years of ballet as a child, I had no experience. It was really quite a process, learning the choreography. We trained for, like, a month — more than that — just perfecting it all together. We had to do it all in unison. We had varying levels of experience. Brandon Perea is a professional dancer, so it was very easy for him. But for people like me and Brendan [Meyer], we weren’t very flexible and didn’t have a lot of stamina, so it was a lot more difficult for us to catch on. [Laughs.]
One part of The OA that resonated with me was how it invokes the idea of queer families and chosen families, the nontraditional networks of support that friends build up for themselves. I’m curious, what was your relationship like with the other actors on set?
That’s incredible to hear. I was really hoping that the chemistry we had in real life would be translated, that you could feel [what we felt]. Me and the boys and Brit and the grown-ups became very close friends very quickly. We really did become a family, and it was a very supportive environment. There are moments in the show where stuff was ad-libbed or improvised, and they kept it in because the chemistry between the characters was so real.
Do you remember a specific ad-lib that was left in?
There’s a moment [in episode seven] where the boys are walking up a hill with OA. Steve was just with his love interest and he’s feeling giddy. He’s running up the hill with the other characters, and Buck’s eating a Clif Bar. Buck tells Steve, “Hey, I’ll split it with you.” Steve hugs Buck and grabs his Clif Bar, but then completely forgets to share. OA turns to grab a bite and just laughs at the whole exchange. It was completely genuine. I’m really glad they kept that in. It’s just such a normal moment.
Earlier this year, you made headlines for non-OA reasons when you tweeted a response to UCLA students with anti-trans signs. You were smiling and holding your own sign that read, “Shut the fuck up.” The tweet got tens of thousands of likes and retweets.
Yeah, I’ve always been outspoken about things that are important to me. Social media provides such a good platform to be an activist. I’m really glad the show has provided me with a platform to speak to a larger audience and advocate for people and have my voice heard.
I know it’s only been a week, but have you changed the way you use social media since The OA premiered?
Not really. I was prepared, in a way, for the show to drop and for my platform to get so much larger. I definitely didn’t expect to get this much of a response, but I’m still actively trying to promote issues that are important to me and spend time responding to fans of the show. I’ve always had a separate public Twitter for the important stuff and then all the personal stuff I keep for a much small audience of close friends.
Hollywood has historically been terrible at casting trans actors. The same is true about casting Asian-American actors, much less Asian-American actors who are trans. Do you have any thoughts on the topic of onscreen representation?
Definitely. It’s really important to have accurate representation, especially in Hollywood. It’s almost 2017 and we still have such small numbers and percentages, as far as diversity [on TV and in film] goes. I think having diverse characters in television and film is very important, especially because America as a country is so, so diverse. Why don’t we have that represented in our entertainment? I think it’s really important not only to cast people of color as actors, but to write characters that are diverse as well.
What’s next for you?
I don’t really have any projects locked down, but a couple of people have reached out to me who are producing student films in college or high school. I’d love to do that, help out people like me — the struggling artists in high school or college looking to make a short film, something like that.
If you could work with anyone, who would you like to work with?
Hypothetically, I’d like to work with Amandla Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard and that whole new generation of actors. I really look up to them because they’re so vocal about being a part of the LGBTQ community and all heavily advocate on their social media.
What kind of characters would you want to play?
I mean, there are so many. I’d just love to keep acting. I’d really love to portray a character either undergoing transition before and the process of coming out. I think it would be really cool to portray a character who hasn’t cut their hair yet and is still wearing makeup and stuff. Also, maybe a character struggling with mental illness because I also connect with that. I’d really love to be a part of as much as possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed.