Jake Graf’s creative talents as a filmmaker have catapulted him to success but being a trans advocate and role model are equally important to him.
I was honoured to have caught up with Jake to learn more about the man who is at home in front of and behind the camera.
AJ: There is still a lot of prejudice towards the transgender community. How do you manage to stay strong when you’ve encountered prejudice and abuse?
Jake: I have been very lucky in that I haven’t experienced a huge amount of prejudice, at least not to my face..! Strangely enough, some of the worst reactions that I’ve had have been from the lesbian community, of which I was a large part for over a decade. When I transitioned, a lot of the girls I was friendly with took issue with my transition, as though I were betraying the cause somehow! One woman who worked in the now defunct Candy Bar told me that I wasn’t a ‘real man’, but simply a ‘man by transformation’. She was fired the same night by the very protective manager…!
I am more than aware that I am lucky to have what’s known as ‘passing privilege’, which means that essentially I don’t look outwardly ‘trans’, and so avoid much of the abuse and barbs experienced by many of my trans female friends, but I think that anyone who puts themselves in the public eye is opening themselves up to criticism, you just need to try not to let it get to you. I’m really lucky to have a supportive mum, an amazing girlfriend, and some really great friends, so the rest doesn’t matter so much!
AJ: Do you think there is a lack of visibility and storylines for trans men in film?
Jake: Absolutely! Other than ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, and the much derided ‘About Ray’, there are almost no sign of trans men in films or television. The L Word gave it a go with their fairly unsympathetic ‘Max’ character, Eastenders cast a trans man in a trans role who hardly sees screen time, and other than that we are largely invisible. I think one of the problems with trans men on screen is that as most of us don’t look obviously trans, we have less ‘shock’ value! If broadcasters are casting trans folk, they almost seem to want those people to really fly the trans flag as visibly as possible, and as many trans men are able to pass through the world unnoticed, I suppose we are somewhat less interesting on screen.
When I made my short film ‘Brace’ back in 2014, it was one of the first films to feature not only trans men, but gay trans men. The reaction was amazing simply because these were characters that no one had ever seen before, and for the most part haven’t seen much of since. There is certainly room for more of our stories on screen, and indeed for more trans people full stop!
AJ: Tell us a little bit about your last project, ‘Dawn’. What inspired you to make the film?
Jake: I have many trans female friends who tell me that they almost never see themselves portrayed positively onscreen, and yet most have such heartbreaking and fantastic stories that it seemed remiss not to at least give it a go. There was a running theme in their narratives, one of never feeling good enough, pretty enough, or feminine enough, and an overwhelming sense that their often tough early experiences as trans women had left permanent psychological scars. ‘Dawn’ is an amalgamation of several stories, but I actually wrote it based loosely on a friend of mine, a trans woman who has, like Dawn(the film’s lead) had a tough upbringing, abuse and bullying throughout her school years, and a father who has treated her less than kindly. She was almost obsessive about her looks and outward appearance, and I tried to imagine the relief she might feel if just for once the external didn’t matter, and her inner beauty could shine through unhindered. The idea of having her meet a man who had lost his sight and finding a real connection one morning at dawn just seemed to work, and we haven’t looked back! I cast the stunning and talented Nicole Gibson as Dawn, Harry Rundle from ‘Brace’ as Will, and got some really talented people on board, including award winning editor Giorgio Galli, and my excellent composer Justine Barker. Forty five festivals later, we’ve just been nominated for Best British and Best International Short at The Iris Prize Film festival, and released on Peccadillo Pictures’ new ‘Boys on Film’ collection. Pretty impressive on a budget of just five thousand pounds!
AJ: ‘Dawn’ reunites you with Harry Rundle from ‘Brace’, what was it like working with him again?
Jake: Harry is an absolute joy to work with, a total professional, a hugely talented actor, and someone I hope to work with regularly in the future. I’m really lucky that I write all of my films, because it also means I can then make all the casting decisions! When I first worked with Harry on ‘Brace’, it was as a co-star, with him playing my love interest. I learnt so much from him, from his focus, to his totally natural delivery, to his absolute dedication and commitment to the role. When I met Harry, he barely knew what transgender meant, so I’ve really dragged him down the rabbit hole..!
AJ: Being the writer and director must have been challenging, how did you manage to stay focused?
Jake: So far, I have only directed my own writing, and to be honest I love nothing more than to see the visions in my head translated first onto paper, then onto screen. I was really lucky with ‘Dawn’, as my cinematographer Lorenzo Levrini just has an uncanny knack of conveying exactly what is on the page onto screen. We did very thorough planning, but of course shooting outside in October in London was always going to be risky. As it turned out, the sun shone, we had three stunning dawns, and everything just fell into place. To be honest, I think I will find it more challenging when I start directing other people’s writing, but we shall see!
AJ: The reaction to your work continues to be immense, does it still surprise you how well audiences embrace your films?
Jake: It does! I have been really lucky so far, it’s been very much a case of ‘right place, right time’. My very first short, ‘XWHY’, was shot over two years, using my own transition to show the fictional lead’s physical changes. It was pretty groundbreaking as it apparently hadn’t been done before and people were just starting to understand what ‘transgender’ meant, and so we were nominated for several Best Short awards. It was a very personal story, and people seemed to find it moving, so that spurred me on to write ‘Brace’, which again was very close to my heart story wise, and very topical and current with its themes of homophobia, gang violence and London youth culture .
‘Chance’ was a big change for me, as it told the story of two older, larger men, one a Muslim, one a widower, who meet and fall in love, and is the one that has won the most awards so far. Strangely enough it launched at the same time as a documentary about gay Muslims, so that was also pretty lucky! ‘Dawn’ has done the most on the festival circuit, and is still going strong, but aside from all the awards and festivals, what really makes my day is when someone approaches me after a screening, and tells me that one of my films made them cry, or gave them hope that they’re not alone out there. If the whole point of film and art generally is to move people, and touch your audience, then surely there is no higher accolade!
AJ: What do you think the future holds for young people wanting to get into acting who are trans? What do you hope will happen in the industry to encourage trans people to act?
Jake: I think that until quite recently a lot of trans people might have been wary of putting themselves out into the public sphere to act, but that that is hopefully changing now, as trans becomes more accepted. I also believe that many trans folk have had more pressing matters to worry about than getting involved with their local Amateur Dramatics society on their Saturday mornings until now, but hopefully that too is shifting.
It’s a really tough question, as I most certainly feel that trans actors should be given the same opportunities as cisgender actors, but that the same effort needs to go in. At the recent Eastenders audition in London for their first trans character, it felt that most of the trans folk in the UK showed up, but most had no acting backgrounds or training. A trans friend of mine, who had studied drama for well over two decades, did point out that the ‘no experience’ necessary note in the casting post would have been unheard of outside of the trans community. I just feel that we need to put the work in so that casting directors see that we are best at playing trans roles, and have no option but to cast us. Regardless of anything else, it should be the best actor for the part, cis, trans or otherwise!
AJ: Why is it so important for you to be a positive role model?
Jake: Growing up, I had no one like me to look up to, no one that I could even remotely relate to, and that made for a very isolating, lonely experience. I think that as a child, you need to be able to identify with someone or something familiar to you, be it a character in a book, a character on TV, or even just your older cousin or friend. When there is quite literally no one in your sphere that you can relate to, or recognise as similar to you, you start to feel that there is something really wrong with you, and that stays with you for a long time. I followed guys on Youtube when I was coming to terms with being trans, and it was absolutely invaluable to have that. Now I am lucky enough to be in a position to help and advise other trans guys who are lost, scared, and wondering if they can start their journey. I do as much as I can, but I get hundreds of guys messaging me every week, so it can be hard to keep up, and sometimes they are really young, and often in dangerous situations, so I have to be very careful of what I say. I think as long as they can see people like myself, and my friends and fellow transmen Laith Ashley, Ben Melzer, Malcolm Ribot, and Kieran Moloney to name but a few, then it gives them hope, and sometimes that’s all they need.
AJ: Where can our readers find you when you’re not working?
Jake: I am a West London boy, so if I’m not at home, then I spend time down on the Southbank, one of my very favourite places in London, hanging out with friends and godson in Battersea Park, or just chilling in the pub. I haven’t been to a nightclub in a while, but I do like a good dive bar, especially in New York! Down time is really precious, with everything going on, so it needs to be time well spent.
AJ: What can we expect next from you?
Jake: At the moment I’m in pre production on my next short, ‘Dusk’, which has a really exciting cast already attached, I’m working on post production on another short, ‘Headspace’, and have just written and am now starring in webseries ‘Spectrum’, directed by my amazing friend Campbell X. I am also playing my first cisgender gay character in Jacquie Lawrence’s upcoming series ‘Different For Girls’, and then will be cracking on with writing my second feature screenplay. It’s all systems go right now, which is just how I like it!
‘Brace’ is free to view on Vimeo
Cover photo: © Paul Grace