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Under My Skin is an important and moving tale of one person’s non-binary experience. Denny is a free-spirited artist, but when they fall for Ryan (Alex Russell), a by-the-books lawyer, both their limits are tested.
Throughout the film, Denny is portrayed by four separate non-binary-identifying actors – Liv Hewson, Bobbi Salvor Menuez, Chloe Freeman and Lex Ryan. As their journey progresses, we see it from Denny and Ryan’s side as the two find themselves, and each other, in this very modern love story.
An insightful, heartfelt and compelling film made almost entirely by an Aussie cast and crew in Los Angeles.
Under My Skin is written and directed David O’Donnell produced by O’Donnell and Raynen Bajette O’Keefe and stars Liv Hewson, Alex Russell, Alexis Denisof, Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Lex Ryan and Chloe Freeman.
Here, creative producer Raynen Bajette O’Keefe writes exclusively for Cinema Australia about casting four actors to play the role of Denny.
“When I first proposed this idea of the refracted Denny, I asked David to give it time, let it sink in, and then I explained it. Some things you know deep in your gut.”
by Raynen Bajette O’Keefe
Creative Producer, Under My Skin
Sometimes it requires the access and resources afforded by privilege to bring certain stories to light for mainstream audiences. It is never easy to be queer, non-binary, or a person that is realising new orients to their gender, whilst in a relationship with a cishet (cisgender heterosexual) male that is on the trajectory of pursuing life partnership. This is the beginning of the story of Under My Skin. Many who experience shifts in their gender identity wrestle with this in their partnerships, and come up against the limitations of their partner’s fixed sexualities.
Under My Skin is a film that began it’s writing in 2013, but actually began much earlier. Director David O’Donnell and I had known each other from what I now refer to vaguely as ‘film school’, which was really a Writing for Performance class that coincided with David completing a BA following acting school, and me, just trying to finish any degree possible, following six years of floundering about. I’d washed around through sciences, arts criticism and theory, and fine arts along the way.
We had one of those brief romances of the time, and that seeded a story. Fast forward three years and I’m in Alice Springs on hot earth, telling David what’s up. Fast forward seven years and here is a feature that explores just how thoroughly confusing it is for cis people to be confronted with change that seeds questions in them. Generally David’s been a good sport, and taken many trans 101 lessons from me ever since. This is how cisgender people learn enough in turn, to teach this vital unit. It’s a method of dispersal that starts from within trans stories.
Under My Skin follows four wonderfully gender diverse such humans, all rolled into one – they inhabit the same role. Where it is still an uphill battle and obstacle to argue for the sake of actors to be able to play characters who, at least in part, represent them, casting four seems like a feat – and one I’m proud of. If you watch the film they glisten, and that is the glow and authenticity excuded from experience, of which no skillful actor without these knowledges, can replicate. It is a divine inhabiting.
So, why cast four?
Ask any person of a minority experience who has ever been asked to represent their stories, outside of the communities from which they are often situated, and they can attest to the pitfalls of representation that is others essentialising their story and extrapolating it to every member of their community indiscriminately. In short, no non-binary person is the same. We make different choices, we have different lovers, sometimes we use different pronouns, we don’t all have this hair, or that opinion or abc hormonal make-up or whatever. The list goes on. It was a push back.
When I first proposed this idea of the refracted Denny – the main character which the film follows – I asked David to give it time, let it sink in, and then I explained it. Some things you know deep in your gut. This became the signature that revolves a story of young lovership amongst a myriad of gender fractions, and a breadth of inhabitations. Each of those cast -Liv Hewson, Bobbi Salvor Menuez, Chloe Freeman, and Lex Ryan – bring part of themselves. Not all of themselves, but the shards we may relate to as commonalities. And then a whole lot more.
As a trans and non-binary person myself, seeing them on-screen still moves me. Seeing them on set was warming, and it’s a beautiful bond that can be shared when we respect and acknowledge the iterations and individuations of the lives we cross and bring together. The Denny of the story is an artist and a musician, ‘cos god knows, we all need a muse. The trajectory of Denny’s relationships to their music changes as we see them move more and more towards themself. They increasingly find new voices.
The adjustments of musicians through hormonal transitions and changes, I have seen many times in my close circles – the musician attempting to keep lineage with themselves through time. It’s hard, and we see that. It’s an obvious metaphor, though the voice places a distinct moment in the lives of many trans people and how they express themselves, or do not wish to. It can signify distress, unsafety and be the difference between how we see ourselves, and how others read us, and so it remains pertinent. What happens when we lose that continuity with ourselves, if indeed there ever were such a thing?
This seems to be the question Ryan, Denny’s partner through the film, is asking. Played by Alex Russell, Ryan represents the quintessential, and a bit clueless, white straight male. So then what happens? It’s a painful film to watch at times, and those that have navigated such pain interpersonally know this well. It’s never nice or healthful to be the receptacle of the expectations of someone that cannot continue to love who, and what you are. And here I’ll stop from giving too much away.
Filmed in pre-covid Los Angeles when actors could still socialise off set, outside of their bubbles, the film brought together many people who came for the love of telling this story.
Some had relatives, friends, children, or make-up students who were trans, gender-diverse or newly gender questioning. Some of us used different pronouns on set to those we used at home, or in our more private contexts. And we learned to bump around each other in the way that sets do when they’re integrated with people new to being exposed to trans experiences, or quite rickety with terminology. And parts of it were lovely to reflect were a steep and whirlwind upskilling that people seemed to be keen for. I gave a pop quiz at the end.
The filming in LA was stemmed from residual inhabitants, including David and Alex, who once went over for pilot season and just never returned.
The flow of the actors playing Denny, as they spilled from form to form, collides with Ryan’s unwavering but unhelpful commitment. There is a chemistry that sustains to erode them.
The film watches, with the audience, as we see Denny rise and fall and rise with new certainty of their needs and direction. A considered attunement accompanies, as non-binary multi instrumentalist and film composer Evelyn Ida Morris, arranges and composits audible reflections.
As a non-binary person myself, it is a difficult film to watch – despite its incredible depictions by the lead ensemble cast. For a cisgender and non-LGBTIQA+ audience, it illuminates what we hold interpersonally, that falls from the systemic to the personal. If I were to take something away from the film, it is to call on the criticality of film audiences to see the gaps between our stories and how we are received. How we are received is often the default story that governs, and generates how we are permitted to move about the world, and with whom, and with where. Be critical of what you ask trans people to hold, and be the viewer that sees four people glisten and see how inherently valuable and unbreakable they are.
Under My Skin will have its Australian Premiere on Friday, February 26 in Sydney. Tickets and details here.