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Ian Harvie: Trans-forming comedy

by Jim Gladstone

Ian Harvie on stage
Ian Harvie on stage  

Ian Harvie, the trans comedian and actor best known for playing Dale on Transparent, is slightly abashed to share his earliest transgender inklings.

"The first time it ever dawned on me that you might be able to change your gender was probably Tootsie," recalls Harvie, 50, who will do stand-up at the Punch Line four nights next week.

"I mean, it's not at all the same; Dustin Hoffman's character, an actor, was dressing in drag to get an acting job. But at the time, I had a massive crush on Jessica Lange who was his love interest. It made me wonder if all the girls I had crushes on at school might consider me if I could just morph into a guy."

Harvie's childhood attraction to show business never subsided, but he kept it under wraps for longer than his male gender identity and his attraction to women.

In 2002, Harvie, openly queer but taken by many to be a butch dyke, was working as a self-taught graphic designer in Portland, Maine when he received a postcard in the mail promoting a local comedy workshop taught by a Daily Show writer.

"I was randomly on that mailing list," he recalls. "But for some reason, I kept that card on my desk and kept looking at it. Since I was a kid, I'd always been a storyteller. I wanted to do it, but I was fucking scared."

The night before the workshop started, Harvie decided to give it a shot.

"It was like the best drug I ever took," he recalls. "The first time I really understood the structure and set-up of a joke, I felt totally jazzed and jacked up. It was all I thought about. I was constantly writing down premises."

Ian Harvie  

When the workshop members had their final showcase performance in a Portland comedy club, Harvie made enough of an impression to be invited to emcee at the venue. Within a year or so, he was performing in Boston as well, gradually picking up bookings throughout the northeast.

"I knew that I was trans before I started doing stand-up, but at first, on stage, I just said queer. In 2004 or 2005, I started saying I was trans on stage, but back then, I had a hard time explaining what it meant. This wasn't San Francisco, it was New England, and it was like I had to teach them what trans meant before I could make jokes about it."

In 2006, looking to make performing his full-time career and starting to plan his physical transition, Harvie relocated to Los Angeles, where Margaret Cho took a shine to his material. He ended up touring with her as an opening act for five years.

"I went through my transition on stage," recalls Harvie, now 50. "In 2007, I started to take testosterone. And I kept doing sets as those changes were happening. In March 2008, I had my chest surgery and three weeks later, I was back out on the road with Margaret."

"I always secretly thought I would become an actor," says Harvie, who eventually started going on what he now admits were "terrible, terrible auditions." The collaborative, character-based work of playing a role proved dramatically different from the relatively unstructured creative process of developing and performing a stand-up act.

Harvie enrolled in classes at the prestigious Steppenwolf West acting school where he honed his craft. Ultimately, in addition to Transparent, he won parts as trans men on Mistresses, Young and Hungry and Will and Grace. He was also featured in Log Cabin, a stage production at New York's prestigious Playwright's Horizons last summer, under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, the artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.

"I was shitting my pants beforehand," he confesses. "About three weeks in I called my girlfriend and said I wasn't sure I could do it. I didn't know if I could memorize all the lines."

MacKinnon and his castmates, including Jesse Tyler Ferguson, were extremely supportive.

"I came early every morning and stayed late at the end of the day to run my lines with a stage manager and a production assistant. I worked my ass off. I don't think I was great, I think I was okay. I never let anybody down. And I learned so much."

In Log Cabin, as in his past television appearances, Harvie was cast as a trans man. But just last week, he says, "I auditioned for an episode of Blackish. They were looking for a comedian who could play a sportscaster, kind of a macho football guy, and my agents saw the call and sent me in for it."

"They never mentioned I was trans," says Harvie. "I went in as a man. I brought myself to the audition."
Addressing one of the issues that has recently roiled the queer community in regard to casting, Harvie notes that "If only trans people can play trans roles, does that mean I shouldn't play this cis male sportscaster? I'm an actor. I want to be able to play all sorts of roles."

But for the time being, he says, he supports casting trans actors as trans characters not because they're the only ones who can play such roles well, but because trans people face extreme prejudice in the job market.

"As actors, behind the cameras, in the writers rooms," he says, "we're just not fairly represented. To me, trans actors playing trans roles is strictly part of an overall employment issue."

Ian Harvie at the Punch Line Comedy Club, 444 Battery St. March 6 & 7, 8pm.
March 8 & 9, 7:30pm and 9:45pm. $25. 397-7573.


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