'A Kid Like Jake' And Gender Silas Howard directed the new film A Kid Like Jake, a movie about a family grappling with their preschool son's preference for dressing like a girl. Howard talks with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
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'A Kid Like Jake' And Gender

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'A Kid Like Jake' And Gender

'A Kid Like Jake' And Gender

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If you are a parent, you know children are their own universe, and they'll always challenge and surprise you. In the new movie "A Kid Like Jake," Greg and Alex Wheeler, played by Jim Parsons and Claire Danes, have a sweet son Jake. Jake's in preschool. He prefers playing with the girls in his class, inventing games about princesses and dressing up in girls' clothes. It's something Greg talks about with the head of the school, Judy, played by Octavia Spencer.


JIM PARSONS: (As Greg Wheeler) He asked once - we were having dinner and he asked why boys can't wear skirts, you know, because girls can wear pants.

OCTAVIA SPENCER: (As Judy) What did you tell him?

PARSONS: (As Greg Wheeler) We told him the truth, I guess, which is there is no good reason, really.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Director Silas Howard joined us to talk about the movie. But it's funny - it's called "A Kid Like Jake," but that kid, Jake, barely appears in the film.

SILAS HOWARD: It's tricky that way. It's a little misdirect. You know, this was based on a beautiful play written by Daniel Pearle, who also adapted the screenplay. And, you know, when it was a play, Jake was an unseen character. And at first for myself as a director, who is also out as a trans person, it was counterintuitive to not show the gender expansive character. And Jake being 4 - and that age is such a tender age. And I think that, you know, it really became one of the more political decisions I felt like I made as a director - was to not focus the camera on Jake. And as a way for the audience to decide what Jake was or wasn't, to more show that any child that's not conforming - just how the societal pressures start to take shape and create tensions perhaps in the family and the way that those can start to work against us when we're trying to do the best by those we love.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You used that phrase, gender expansive. Can you tell me what that means to you?

HOWARD: Sure. You know, even though I'm trans, I don't rely on my own singular experience or such. There's such a diverse group within the trans and gender nonconforming LGBTQ community. And so I consulted with GLAAD. GLAAD Media has been amazing. And, you know, I've worked on shows where we've had new characters who happen to be trans or gender nonconforming. And I just thought Judy, played by Octavia Spencer - she just knows all the latest and greatest terms. And I realize I don't always know all the latest and greatest terms. So I called GLAAD. And I was like, you know, gender nonconforming I love - I'm a nonconformist - but that has certain connotations. And so Nick Adams at GLAAD had said gender expansive was a term that was really in favor. And I thought it sounded wonderful. And I loved that Judy - it made sense to me that Judy would choose that term.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Expansive - it captures the horizons, as opposed to the limitations.

HOWARD: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As the Wheelers struggle to understand who their son is, they're also trying to find a school where he will fit in. And here's a scene with Judy, Octavia Spencer, who is a friend, but she also runs Jake's preschool. Let's listen.


SPENCER: (As Judy) You know that I care very deeply about Jake, which is why I'm doing everything in my power to place him somewhere where he feels safe and comfortable enough to...

CLAIRE DANES: (As Alex Wheeler) To dress like a girl.

PARSONS: (As Greg Wheeler) OK.

DANES: (As Alex Wheeler) That's obviously what you're saying...

PARSONS: (As Greg Wheeler) Alex.

DANES: (As Alex Wheeler) ...And maybe the problem is that we all started pitching him some kind of...

PARSONS: (As Greg Wheeler) Alex, he had no idea what was in that essay.

DANES: (As Alex Wheeler) It doesn't matter. Obviously, it's going to affect the way that people treat him.

SPENCER: (As Judy) I'm talking about him feeling safe and respected.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about the casting. And The Globe and Mail put it this way - "A Kid Like Jake" stars a gay man playing a straight man, a straight woman playing a lesbian and a boy who likes to wear princess dresses playing a boy who likes to wear princess dresses. It feels like you're trying to say something with the casting.

HOWARD: (Laughter) I definitely am. I feel like, you know, I think still people are like, why doesn't this actor come out? And I really commend Jim for, you know, being out as a gay man in a very high-profile job. And I feel like I also loved that he wasn't afraid to play this character that wasn't playing a stereotypical masculine role. And I just thought that was amazing - yeah - that Octavia plays a character who happens to be a lesbian. Aneesh plays the therapist. She happens to be a trans woman. Her role has nothing to do with that. So I think I was excited about pushing casting where it's just like, we can play with these roles and sort of push back against the narrative of like who gets to play straight - who gets to own the right to play those roles - if that makes sense.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Do you think as a culture we are more comfortable now thinking and talking about this?

HOWARD: I think what we are is more aware of each other. I don't know that the comfort - I mean, it's a very tough time right now, so it seems like there's lots of backlash. But I feel like - you know, I feel encouraged by, you know, people who are my mentors who are older than me that role modeled for me and then the younger generation who just seem really ready to embrace stories that are either their own and underrepresented or not their own, and they are curious because they want to see those stories centered. So I think it's an exciting time. I don't think it's a very comfortable time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As someone who is trans, did this speak to you, the story of Jake and some of the things that the parents went through?

HOWARD: Yeah. I would say, you know, even though I don't know that I would label this movie a trans film, you know, it's really about the family, the parents and the sort of larger society around this relationship, I felt compassion for all those involved. And it spoke to me in terms of letting ambiguity exist, not labeling and how difficult it is to not label - to not label Jake but exist in the in-between state that Jake wants to be in. And I think it's still a challenge in how much gender is policed, especially for boys who want to be feminine. I think it's still quite punishing in our society. So it did speak to me in that way to sort of carve out room and go into the very minutiae of what could be challenging or scary for these parents around this issue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Silas Howard is the director of "A Kid Like Jake," out now. Thank you so much.

HOWARD: Thank you for having me.

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