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Jesse James Keitel as Jerrie Kennedy on Big Sky,

Photofest
September 08, 2021
Features

Keeping It Real

As a cast member — and, more recently, a consultant — Jesse James Keitel brings authenticity to trans representation as Big Sky’s Jerrie Kennedy.


Exclusive to TelevisionAcademy.com

Jennifer Vineyard

Jesse James Keitel, a nonbinary transfeminine actor, made history by playing a character with the same identity on network television.

As Jerrie Kennedy on ABC's Big Sky, Keitel (who uses they/them and she/her pronouns) defies both trans tropes and traditional network drama formulas.

Jerrie isn't introduced as a sex worker, although she does that on the side, to pay the bills. Jerrie's professional dream is to be a singer, and we get glimpses of that via her music videos, karaoke performances and the makeshift gospel group she leads after her kidnapping.

Now, having survived that ordeal, Jerrie has found a new line of work assisting Dewell & Hoyt's private investigators, at least unofficially. Keitel shares her character's evolution and her own as an actor (and now consultant on the set).

From what I understand, you were the only cast member who actually got a scene done in New Mexico before the shutdown from the pandemic...

Yes, ma'am, that's me! It was so crazy. I had booked the role late on a Friday night, was in New Mexico by Sunday, we had a week of preproduction, and then that following Friday, I was the first one up to shoot. We started shooting Jerrie's unreleased music video of the song. It was really lovely. That version never made it to air. Ten minutes after shooting it, we got shut down. To say it was a whirlwind is such an understatement.

I think the pandemic just gave the team more time to breathe, compared to shooting a pilot, which is just, "Go, go, go!" I think we were all just dancing around Covid each time. Covid brought us to Canada, and then Covid brought us back to New Mexico, which is I guess where we're supposed to be!

With that extra time, were you able to talk to the writers more about how to write trans characters? I don't know if there was a LGBTQ+ writer in the writers' room.

I'm not sure. I don't know how anyone identified. I know everyone was willing to listen when I did have questions, comments or concerns about Jerrie's experience. But language is ever-evolving, I think. And if you're not from a certain community, you might not have the proper tools at your disposal to adequately represent that community.

So, I don't think there ever was a purposeful misstep, but that said, I think having me cast, having this authentic casting, is a testament to what having an actor representing the community they represent in the show brings to a role. Just being myself made Jerrie a lot more human.

You're a consultant now moving forward for Season 2. How did that come about?

There is a precedent for it. Big Sky is not the first show to do it. Euphoria did it [with Scott Turner Shofield], Clarice did it [with Jen Richards]. And I think more productions should do this.

While I do think that any writer can write for any character, it doesn't mean that your voice is going to be the most authentic to that character's lived experience. If there is not a trans writer in the writers' room representing a character, then there should be trans consultants, especially if you have trans talent.

I really wanted to ensure that not only would Jerrie be taken care of, but that I myself would be taken care of, and that the product would be as great as the process. It didn't have to be me, but I did express that there needs to be some kind of trans representation behind the scenes, and I had mentioned that I was interested.

I'm not a writer on the show, but in my personal life, I'm also a writer, so if you have talent who can do that, it'd be foolish not to utilize it. And I think [showrunner] Elwood [Reid] is a fan of my writing, so it felt like a no-brainer. This isn't coming from a place of ego, but there are not very many trans characters on primetime television, especially series regulars, and the opportunity that ABC and Big Sky have with Jerrie is next level. I wanted to make sure it's the best it could be.

Can you give me some examples of what you're doing as a consultant for Season 2?

I only just started on the show yesterday! (Laughs) So I haven't had much of an impact yet. That being said, there were definitely times in Season 1 where I felt it was 100 percent necessary and important for me to speak up, when there were moments that I didn't think accurately represented the trans community. I don't think it's normal for actors to do that, but it wasn't about me.

I was a little nervous about referencing Jerrie's genitals in one of the earlier episodes. There was some language used at one point [by Danielle played by Natalie Alyn Lind] calling Jerrie a man. I spoke up. I said, "I don't think that's okay." I expressed my concerns, and while not everything I said changed anything, it led to a bigger conversation.

GLAAD is also going to be involved in Season 2, and I think not only is Season 2 going to be a great opportunity for Jerrie and for trans representation on TV, but I think there's going to be some really impactful storytelling.

One of the really impactful moments so far was your shower scene. You worked with an intimacy coordinator, Amanda Cutting. How did that help?

I have to be honest — I was terrified of that scene! And not because I was scared of nudity or of being exposed like that. That scene in particular, I felt, teetered on a very fine line between empowering and potentially very problematic. A lot of that came down to trusting Brian Geraghty [as serial killer and sex trafficker Ronald Pergman], how I performed it, and how it was edited.

I was scared of the wig reveal being like Jerrie de-transing. There were parts that I was scared were going to give the wrong message to viewers who might not be as informed about trans issues, who might look at that and say, "Jerrie is a man. She's not worthy of being trafficked." When, in reality, trans people are trafficked quite a lot.

Trans sex workers are routinely put in dangerous, terrifying situations. So, I was nervous. And when I expressed my concerns, I was met with nothing but compassion and understanding.

Then Amanda came into the picture, and she made me feel not only safe and protected, but like what I was about to do was my show, like I just show up and do my work. I didn't have to worry about the safety of my body in the moment. I didn't have to worry about feeling overexposed. She made me feel so comfortable.

How?

(Laughs) Well, I came ready. I was showered, shaved and moisturized — full body ready to go. And that was a problem, because then none of the adhesive covering my private parts would stick! (Laughs) I was slippery as a seal. And it was funny, trying to get everything in order, because I needed to be able to go in the shower multiple times, and everything needed to be waterproof. There were so many layers!

But within 30 seconds of meeting Amanda, we got to know each other very well. She had to get all up in there.

I had brought a big roll of duct tape. I have a background in drag, and I know some trans people will tuck with duct tape, so I was like, "Duct tape is fine!" But when I pulled out the roll of duct tape, everyone was like, "Oh, no!" Amanda had some type of fabric diaper that was glued to the inside of your thighs and up your butt crack. Then there was a waterproof tattoo layer over that. And she had some essential oils to help you relax.

Having a stranger gluing and waterproofing your private parts so you could go stand in a cow barn in the middle of Canada, it wasn't that bad. (Laughs) Thank goodness I'm not a prude! Thank goodness she's good at her job!

When I was first offered the opportunity to work with an intimacy coordinator, I wasn't really sure what that would mean: "Do I really need one?" Now, I don't think I would ever do a scene like that without an intimacy coordinator again. She truly made that experience much better than it could have been.

What was Brian Geraghty like as a scene partner? You mentioned a lot came down to trusting him...

I've heard some very sad stories of some other trans actors who had to have intimate scenes, and their scene partners acting revolted by their scene partner's body right in front of them. I wasn't necessarily scared of that happening, but Brian didn't play Ronald in like a, "Ewww, this is disgusting," or a fetishizing way. He played Ronald in an empathetic way.

I think that's why the scene landed the way it did. You felt so bad for Jerrie, but you viewed it as an empowering moment.

Let's talk about how Jerrie's arc has evolved, from a would-be trafficked sex worker to what seems to be an apprentice detective of sorts. How did you approach some of these other more empowering moments?

Talk about a story arc! Jerrie's life is really looking up. Post-rescue, Jerrie comes into the office more, and there was one scene in particular where it could have been just like a run-of-the-mill procedural, like an "I'm a victim. Ronald is stalking me" moment. Cassie [Kylie Bunbury] ended up being the more empathetic person in the scene, and Jenny [Katheryn Winnick] was the more pragmatic.

And I was able to appeal to Jenny's more empathetic side by telling her, "No, I'm the one who needs help. The other two girls are fine. It's me he's stalking." That was all in the delivery.

Toward the end of Season 1, when Jerrie goes into the field, she has so much more of a commanding presence. She's going to really come into her own. Just getting to act with these strong, powerful women is really inspiring. And Dedee Pfeiffer [Denise] is such a hoot.

You got a concussion on set at one point?

In Episode 3, Jerrie and Danielle hit Ronald in the face with a shackle, but I ended up hitting my head very hard on the floor. I had a concussion for the rest of the episode, but I was so embarrassed, I didn't really let anyone know until we were done. I was foolish in that respect. And after I told them, that was the end of the day for me.

Funny enough, because I couldn't look at screens or anything for a week, I listened non-stop to true crime podcasts. You might think I'd be sick of that kind of material after being tied up in a shipping container, but I probably listened to 60 episodes of Crime Junkie! It was my obsession. It really hit home that these things happen, but Jerrie is one of the lucky ones.

Not only did Jerrie survive, but she found a support system. There are many people who are not as fortunate. Walking through the world now, I still question my safety everywhere I go, thinking, "It could just as easily happen to me."

There is a slight true crime element to Big Sky as well, given that the Highway Serial Killer Initiative does exist.

It's real. Definitely. When I'm driving and I see one of those semi-trucks, it brings back very fond memories of filming those early episodes. Now and again, it'll cross my mind: "There is a chance that there are three girls shackled in there." That's not to say that all truckers are bad people. Obviously, that's not the case. They're the backbone of the country. They make our country run.

Could there be a love interest for Jerrie in Season 2? There is an online contingent of people who 'ship Jerrie with U.S. Marshal Mark Lindor.

If the shoe fits! I've definitely seen three camps. The Jerrie/Lindor ship, the Lindor/Cassie ship and then the Jenny/Cassie ship. I think that one's my favorite. (Laughs) That's got to be Season 15. They really should fall head over heels in love. But I can say that Jerrie may find herself in a complicated romantic situation in Season 2.

Will we learn more about her backstory? Or what her connection to Jimmy is?

I hope so. Jerrie has such a rich, complicated, beautiful backstory — having a rough relationship with her parents, leaving home at 14, living in a trailer park and then people like Jimmy who come in and out of her life. There was some dialogue that never made it in, where we learn he already has a girlfriend. I think Jerrie frequently finds herself in complicated romantic situations, and I'm sure that her trans status complicates that further.

I imagine being in a small town can be alienating. But she's growing up. She's got a good job. She's getting new aspirations. And I think she's got some new dreams that may actually start coming true.

She's getting paid by Dewell & Hoyt now, right? And getting a benefits package?

Oh, yes. She gets health insurance. She gets full dental, vision, the works. Dewell & Hoyt hooks her up!


For more on Big Sky, click HERE

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