In the two years since Elliot Fletcher became a professional actor, he’s landed a trio of significant TV roles playing young trans males on Freeform’s The Fosters, Showtime’s Shameless, and MTV’s Faking It. On The Fosters, Fletcher plays Aaron, a teen who’s in a relationship with Callie (Maia Mitchell) and isn’t very public about his trans identity. But in Tuesday night’s episode, “Scars,” a run-in with the police lands Aaron behind bars, where his gender identity could put him in serious danger. “Gender nonconforming or trans people in prison or in jail — it’s not talked about at all,” Fletcher says.
The 21-year-old actor spoke to Vulture about what it’s like playing diverse trans characters, how “Scars” explores safety issues for trans people in prison, and why he’d love to play a cis male villain.
You play three very different transmasculine characters. It’s like you’re single-handedly changing how trans people are viewed by playing young men who are so different from one another. What does this unique opportunity mean to you?
It means a lot. It’s an honor. I feel very lucky and very privileged to have this spot. It’s really nice to be able to give feedback and make sure that the stories are being told in the right way and all that stuff. It’s really important to me. But why is it just me? There should be so many more transmasculine people in the public eye. But I’m glad I can be this. Definitely when I was growing up, there wasn’t a person that I looked up to on TV because there wasn’t anybody on TV.
We’ve seen a lot of sides of Aaron on The Fosters, but tonight’s episode explores safety issues in prisons for trans people. How did you feel about that story?
When I read the script, it was a little scary, to be honest. I do very deeply connect with the characters that I play. I can’t imagine that I’m the only actor who does that. But it’s scary. I know it was obviously not a real situation, but filming it and having to talk about being strip-searched, oh my God, that’s terrifying. I have never had any personal experience with that. But I know that that’s the way it’s handled. The show is pretty accurate to the way it’s handled in real life. They don’t know where to put them, so they put them in solitary. Or by themselves, which really isn’t fair. It’s like we don’t know what to do with these people, so we’ll just put them in their own space. Aaron says in the show that it doesn’t feel they’re being treated like humans. We’re being treated like animals.
It doesn’t even matter what the crime is.
Right. It’s very dehumanizing. It’s really quite scary. I’m sure a lot of viewers are probably confused by it and in the same head space as a lot of the guards when Aaron says, “Hey, I’m trans and I don’t feel comfortable going to central jail.” Gender nonconforming or trans people in prison or in jail — it’s not talked about at all. I mean, prison life in general, whether a person is cisgender, transgender, queer, or whatever, it’s hardly talked about. We really don’t talk about people in prison like they’re real people, so it gets even more complicated when people don’t know what to do with a person. I’m hoping that people will watch the show and be like, “Oh, wow. That doesn’t seem right. I didn’t know that’s what happens to trans folks. But that doesn’t seem like a fair thing to do if you really don’t know what to do with them.”
The episode also features an interesting conversation between Aaron and Callie about his chest scars when she’s painting a portrait of him. I wondered if you personally relate to that. Aaron is reluctant to let Callie show his scars because everyone will know he’s trans and he’s selective about who he tells.
No, not really. I know a lot of guys who are very like, “These are my scars and that’s really cool and I’m super proud.” And that’s awesome. If that’s the way you perceive yourself and want to look at yourself, that’s really cool. I know there’s some guys who look at the scars on their chest and they’re like, “Oh, God, this is really embarrassing. I don’t want to show this. I don’t want people to see.” That’s also fine. I’m one of those people that — I really just don’t care. I don’t see them as anything. I don’t see them as an emblem, like, “Oh yeah, check me out. I’m super badass and proud.” I don’t think of them as something that I’m embarrassed about. I honestly just think of it as a normal part of my body, just like anybody else’s chest. For Aaron, there are not a lot of people who know. That’s a big thing for him, I think.
After Aaron gets out of jail, he explains to Callie that people celebrate if you come out as gay, but when you come out as trans, a lot of people in your life feel betrayed. I don’t think I’ve heard that expressed on TV before in that way.
I’m really glad it was brought into the show because it’s really, really true. [Laughs.]
Is that something that happened to you?
I will say it didn’t happen to me often [laughs] so it’s hard for me give feedback on that. If a person doesn’t know I’m trans and I come out them, at this point, it’s still jaw-dropping news. It’s groundbreaking, like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe he’s trans.” I’m at the point where there’s nothing groundbreaking about a trans story line, but I’m trans myself. I just don’t think we are these cool things to look at.
I get that. But it is groundbreaking that shows are telling these stories, right? You are telling three very different stories on three shows. Does that make you feel proud?
It’s good to know that the shows that I’m working on reach such a wide audience — and that a lot of people who don’t have any knowledge of the trans community or the queer community can watch and learn something. I know the writers of the show and I know the producers of the show, so I know that they don’t see it as something groundbreaking and something wild and new because they know me and they respect me and they know other trans people. I totally understand that it’s groundbreaking for a lot of people because they don’t have any awareness of the community. It’s not groundbreaking for me and my queer bubble. [Laughs.]
What you’re saying is that you don’t want to be the designated representative for the community.
Right. Exactly. I don’t.
Do you have a voice in the writing of Aaron’s story lines? Do you talk with the writers about that?
The writers and the producers and the creators of The Fosters are so collaborative. They’re really, really willing to listen, which is really awesome. If there were ever any moments where I felt uncomfortable or I felt like there’s something particular a trans person would say or this isn’t how we would express it, we would express it in a different way, they were totally open and receptive to what I had to say and the comments or the ideas that I could throw at them. They also work with GLAAD, talking to the representatives there and learning stuff. I have a little say, but I wanna leave it to them because they know what they’re doing and I don’t.
Earlier in the season, a pair of episodes handled Aaron and Callie having sex for the first time and their talk before doing so. Which episode has been hardest for you?
It’s hard to go to set and take off all your clothes in front of everyone. [Laughs.] But that’s just how that is. That doesn’t really bother me. It’s a TV show, so it’s fake. But even playing it, like when I was sitting in a jail and having someone go, “So, you’re a woman?” I know it’s fake, but it doesn’t necessarily feel good for me. It doesn’t feel nice. The jail episode was pretty intense to film.
Would you like to play cis male characters?
I read a story about how Grey’s Anatomy producer Krista Vernoff wants to work with you again. What kind of role would you be interested in?
Right now, I think I’m playing a lot of the nice guy. I would love to play a villain. I think that’d be really fun. Of course, if I’m playing a villain, I would like for me to be cis because I don’t think we need anymore negative connotations of trans people being villains. But I’d love to play a villain. I’d love to play a superhero. I’d love to play just a goofy dude. I’m really willing to play anything. I’m open for whatever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.