In a time where representation is such a hot topic in Hollywood, Netflix’s The OA does something few have done: cast an actual Asian transgender teenage boy as an Asian transgender teenage boy. Vietnamese-American teen Ian Alexander is one of multiple Asian actors in The OA’s main cast alongside Filipino/Puerto Rican-American Brandon Perea and British Pakistani Riz Ahmed (in a recurring role). Continuing the spotlight from his response to a viral anti-trans photo, Ian makes his on-screen acting debut as Buck Vu in the newly-released show having been cast from an online open casting call in 2015.
Growing up in places including Japan, Hawai’i, and D.C. have helped shape Ian. The fifteen-year-old high school junior has had more experiences than most teenagers his age, and his passion knows no bounds. He’s politically vocal, a huge admirer of actors and filmmakers like Jen Richards (Her Story) and Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) and relentless as a Marvel fanboy (he’s “Team Bucky” for those who are curious). Ian had time to sit down and talk about his upbringing and the show (don’t worry, there are no spoilers here).
JES: What was your upbringing like growing up?
IAN: My dad works for the the Department of Defense, so we moved around a lot. I grew up in Hawai’i and Japan — so the Pacific Islands area. It was really interesting because I went to school with people with a lot of diverse backgrounds, but at the same time, there was that disconnect — I would look at my friends with blonde hair and blue eyes and be like “Why am I not pretty like them?” Because in the media, that’s what I saw, so it was hard for me growing up because I did feel on a level, isolated. At the time, I didn’t know that it was also due to gender dysphoria. But I did have a very nice childhood. I was always passionate about the arts. I was a theater kid — still am, obviously (laughs). I took to art really well — I took studio art and stuff like that in school, also music — all of the arts.
This was your first on screen acting debut. Did you have any other experience acting before that?
I just did community theater growing up. I started out in ensemble [and] I would do musical theater, but also regular plays and stuff involved with my school. I do notice in theater, I tended to — when I got lead — [to get cast as the] male role. I remember playing Watson [or Holmes] in an elementary school play. It was a silly little play about mathematics and solving and using times tables to solve a mystery. It was still really fun. I had short hair like a bob at the time. I remember borrowing a friend’s vest and stuff — It just felt so natural to me. I never really questioned that. I always played dress up as a kid, and I would always play characters. It never really mattered to me that I was playing a princess or a pirate. I would just go with what I felt like and I think that really carried on into my teenage years.
I do remember [a time] when I had my hair short, I had gotten a pixie cut cause I wanted to be like Anne Hathaway or something. Everyone was like, you look like Audrey Hepburn. At that time, it was completely unintentional I had cut my hair short. But then I started getting mistaken as a boy in public, and I realized I was okay with that and that it felt natural, and it felt comfortable. I was always, always very shy. It was kind of a contradiction [that] I was a shy theater kid, but I would completely transform on stage. Something about putting on this character gave me confidence, and I think when I realized part of that was accepting my gender identity, it helped give me so much confidence. I used to be so socially anxious and I wouldn’t talk to people — I sat alone at lunch. I didn’t really make close friends. Once I learned to accept myself, I’ve been able to branch out and really make a lot of meaningful relationships.
On telling his mother he had auditioned for The OA:
[Casting and I] talked back and forth, and then they [said] we’d like to talk to a parent or guardian to see if you can come in and audition in person in New York City. That’s when it kind of hit me, especially since I hadn’t told my mom or my parents at all that I had been doing this audition thing between emailing back and forth. And this all happened in the course of a week or so. So I sat down with my mom and was like “Okay, I know that you taught me as a kid not to talk to strangers online, and to never give someone my full name, and never send a picture of myself, and never tell them my age or where I live… but I did all those things” (laughs). Actually, she took it very well. Obviously, I won’t be doing that without her permission again, but I think it worked out really well.
Can you tell us a little about your character on The OA?
Buck Vu is obviously a Vietnamese-American transgender male… Obviously he is “out” to his parents as trans, but his father is not accepting even though his mother is, which you know is very personal to me.
this just makes me so fucking happy https://t.co/FKMOqo2CnJ—
ex iIithyia (@issakvaItersen) December 17, 2016
How did your parents respond when you got cast?
They were very excited — it was a big opportunity. But there was that caution because this was a big responsibility because we had never done anything like this before. They wanted to make sure I was responsible enough and that I would be able dedicate myself. Moving to New York City for three months, being pulled out of school and all this stuff — it was a very big deal. I definitely had to work on self improvement and being more responsible and working up to that point that I could be responsible and pull it off.
What was it like seeing The OA trailer for the first time?
I remember [the trailer] leaked unexpectedly because there was a little human error, so it was up on Netflix. I remember rushing down to my basement and turning on the TV and watching it at 7am. My parents were like “Why are you up? You always sleep in until noon.” So I watched it like five times in a row and I think seeing it all come together for the first time after waiting for so long [was a moment for me]. I had seen bits and pieces on set, but I never saw the finished product. Also, binge watching it all yesterday was incredible as well. I’m just so proud to be a part of this show.
What do you want audiences to take from your character?
Honestly, I just want them to love my character as much as I love my character. Buck is who I aspire to be. I definitely feel like we can learn a lot from Buck as a person, just his honesty and willingness to put others first over his own needs.
You’re very vocal online. How has having a sense of community, especially given your gender politics, help shape who you are?
I know! I never would have done that three or four years ago. I think that definitely helped me accept myself more because it was a big step admitting to myself — I struggled a lot. There was a lot of mental health issues involved with that because it was so hard for me to understand what I was going through. All I knew was that I was unhappy. But I think having a community online and having people who were like “I’m going through this as well” — there was that sense of not being alone in what I was going through. I think it really helped because at first, it was very terrifying. To have people be like “It’s going to get better, it’s going to be okay” — it was really reassuring.
What makes you angry?
Well, how much time do we have? (laughs) I think anger helps motivate me to make change especially as you notice online. I do advocate a lot. There are a lot of things that are extremely unfair and just horrify me in this world, especially the recent election, the events happening in Aleppo, all of this stuff. It really sparks a fire inside. Like why aren’t other people angry about this as well? Sometimes you do feel alone looking out and seeing people who just don’t care at all. But then you do find those people willing to make change and make a difference and it really helps motivate us and push us forward.
How do you see your future beyond The OA?
Before all this all happened, I didn’t know what direction I would take with my life or my career. I knew it was definitely going to be in the arts, but I wasn’t sure at all. But I know definitely I want to go into film studies and film production. Definitely looking into colleges that have that as a major, which is really relieving because it’s my junior year of high school so I needed to figure that out soon. There was a lot of pressure — you know, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life essentially. It’s been very relieving and gives me hope for the future.
Follow Ian Alexander on Twitter at @ianaiexander, and see him as Buck Vu in all eight episodes of The OA now out on Netflix.
You can follow her on Twitter @jesthevu.