How ‘Billions’ Star Asia Kate Dillon Is Redefining Gender in Hollywood
The non-binary ‘Billions’ actor talks acting and activism under Trump, and what it’s meant to help bring non-gendered acting awards into the mainstream.
I’m wading through a sea of delicately arranged curios and iPad-laden party staffers, looking for Asia Kate Dillon. The Domino Summer Pop-up in Brooklyn is just the sort of trendy, millennial pink function where one could—if it was one’s job—“catch up with Asia Kate Dillon.” But while there is no dearth of espresso sodas or floral-clad Brooklynites at the Maggie Gyllenhaal-hosted affair, the Billions and Orange Is the New Black actor is nowhere to be found.
When Asia finally arrives, it’s a minor revelation. The non-binary actor is, true to unspoken dress code, ready for summer in a floral print skirt. But, unlike the other photogenic people milling around the entrance, they’ve paired it with a #BlackLivesMatter hoodie and lace-up sneakers. While focusing on an actor’s apparel often feels beside the point, tonight Dillon’s outfit speaks volumes. It’s not just the effortless mixing of masculine and femme fashion influences, or the decision to make an anti-racist statement at a posh party. It’s something a little harder to articulate: the way that Asia Kate Dillon, a trendy up-and-coming actor and activist, is both in and out of place.
Dillon is widely and rightfully lauded as a trailblazer. On Showtime’s Billions, they play Taylor, a non-binary character, making them the first openly non-binary actor cast in a major television series. These strides have been celebrated through cultural moments like the MTV Movie and Television Awards, where Dillon was invited to present a historic non-gendered acting award. Still, this inclusion can’t make up for the fact that Dillon is, so far, an aberration: the first and the only. Due to this singular status, Dillon is often tasked with introducing terms like non-binary and gender fluid to a mainstream audience, whether that means explaining their pronouns on national television or politely calling out misgendering on social media.
At a time when trans and non-binary folks are more likely to be used as punchlines than cast as recurring characters, it’s hard to overstate Dillon’s importance. But if the weight of being the only non-binary identifying actor on television—the careful explainer of pronouns, the starter of vital conversations, the consistently misgendered or misunderstood—is weighing on Dillon, they don’t show it. Dillon is by far the kindest and most accommodating trailblazer I’ve ever met. They start off our interview by apologizing profusely for a mild cough, and swear it isn’t contagious. They’re quick to laugh but serious and deliberate in their language. Lingering outside the party, we discuss “educating” Emma Watson, inspiring the next generation, and the man they will only refer to as “45.”
So you played this really important role at the MTV Movie and Television Awards. I watched you present the non-gendered acting award to Emma Watson, a historic moment. What was that whole experience like?
I mean, the experience was extraordinary. It felt like I was a part of something that was bigger than me and also a moment in history. I got very emotional on stage listening to Emma Watson speak. Her speech was beautiful, and on top of that it was just really great to be in a room with so many artists I respect and admire. I mean Maxine Waters was there! It was incredible. Multi-generational and incredible.
When Emma Watson thanked you, she used this very specific language about how you educated her—
Yeah, educating, something…
Was that referring to a specific conversation you two had before the show?
Not at all! Not at all. I had no idea.
So she’s just a fan?
I guess! I don’t want to speculate what she specifically was referring to, but I certainly felt honored that whatever research she may have done on me, or whatever she may have learned… I’m just honored.
How did MTV approach you about presenting the award? Did they pitch it as some big, historic moment?
The news came out that they were doing away with the gendered categories to begin with, and then I got a call, basically, from MTV inviting me to help present this first award for the first non-gendered acting award. It wasn’t a call where they said, “Would you like to come and be a part of history?” But there’s certainly a gravity to the situation that felt really good and necessary.
And that wasn’t your first big awards show moment—you also got a lot of attention for a letter you wrote to the Television Academy, questioning the Emmy’s gender-specific acting categories.
What inspired you to start that conversation?
Well, when Showtime approached me about submitting before the nomination, they asked me, “How would you like to be submitted, as an actor or an actress?” And I’ve said it before, but it’s something I’ve thought about for a long time, and I didn’t have an answer to Showtime’s question. I felt like I needed more information to make an educated decision. And so that’s why I wrote the letter. Because I really was like, “What does this mean?” Based on what it means, I was able to make a decision for myself that felt right.
Were you surprised that you got such an open and inclusive response?
Um… It’s interesting. I mean, I’m really trying to remember the moment when I had the conversation with [the Television Academy] and put myself back there. I entered with a lot of hope, honestly, and I felt… even if the Academy’s response had been a negative one, as in, “It’s only representative of the binary gender identities of man and woman,” or “You have to show us proof of your anatomy,” like if it had gone as badly as it possibly could have gone, that would have become part of the conversation. It’s just that they happened to say, “We’ve always been inclusive, we strive to continue to be inclusive,” so that’s what the conversation was about. Ultimately, whether it led to me being submitted or not, my goal is just to begin a conversation.
Right, but I do wonder, even though it’s obviously so important, do you ever get sick of being at the forefront of these conversations? Does it ever get irritating, having to constantly talk about gender or educate others?
It’s naturally part of who I am. I’m always interested in, I would say, not only sharing my wisdom, but acquiring other people’s wisdom as well. So, yes, although I am sort of “the person” who’s at the forefront of some of these conversations, and it may appear as though I’m the one doing all the educating at times, I’m learning so much from everyone that I’m engaging with. That’s why I’m doing it. If I were just doing it because I felt like, “I have sooo much wisdom and I just have sooo much to share,” then it wouldn’t be fun and I don’t think people would absorb my message in the same way. Because like I said, for me, it’s a conversation.
A good example actually is I read you learned the term “non-binary” from Billions, when your character was described as “female non-binary.”
From the breakdown, yeah. I had heard the word “non-binary” before, and I had heard the word “female” before, but I had never seen them next to each other in a way that supposed that they were different in some way. And so when I looked them up in conjunction with each other at the same time, that was when I had that lightbulb moment of female: assigned sex, non-binary: gender identity. Sometimes they conform, sometimes they don’t.
And playing this historic non-binary character, and being non-binary yourself, I’m sure you’ve gotten so much amazing feedback from people who feel seen, because they’ve never really been represented on television before.
I think you’ve hit it. The most inspiring or gratifying messages I receive are from people of all ages all over the world who tell me that they are feeling less alone. Who tell me that they wanted to become an actor and never thought that they could, and now they feel like they can fulfill their dreams. And also messages from parents, talking to me about how their 9-year-old just came out as non-binary, and my pronouns have helped them take to their child’s pronouns at a quicker rate. I got a message from someone yesterday telling me that they work in an eating disorder rehab facility, and that a lot of the patients are using they/them/their, and because of Taylor, they were like, “I took to it right away!” That’s extraordinary. It’s extraordinary.
And I always have to give credit where credit is due—I am playing the part of Taylor and I am non-binary myself, but Taylor the character was created by these two self-identified straight, cisgender men, who weren’t doing it to make a social statement or have a token non-binary character. They really wanted it to be someone who was fully fleshed out, well-rounded, and was struggling in all of the ways that other characters on Billions struggle. And I think that’s another reason that people—including myself—are grateful for the representation that it’s giving non-binary people. If it were a token character or a one-off, I wouldn’t have wanted to play it.
So I know that in addition to being an actor you’re also an activist, and it seems like you try to incorporate activism in everything that you do.
Under this new administration, with Trump’s election, do you feel like that’s had an effect on your activism? Do you feel galvanized, or like some of your energy has been redirected?
It has not redirected my activism in a new direction! The day that 45 was elected and then the day after he was elected, for those of us who have been historically marginalized and disenfranchised, those days weren’t that different than the days before the election. The violence that’s being incited by his administration is particularly worrisome and dangerous, but the fights have been the same since we started fighting them, and I’m going to continue fighting them. If anything I’m grateful that my platform is growing at the same time, I suppose, that this administration is existing, because if there’s a time when my message is important, it certainly feels like now is one of those times.
We began by talking about these two different awards shows—MTV and the Emmys—which were big moments in terms of discussing and accepting gender nonconformity… really the whole spectrum of gender. In general, do you feel a sense of optimism, like we’re heading in the right direction in terms of inclusion and representation? Or do you think these moments could have been one-offs, and it’s too soon to say?
I think the change has already been building for a while, and I’m very hopeful. I think that the Hollywood archetypes, truly, they don’t exist anymore. And I’m grateful for that, and excited to be living in a time when what we’re doing is engaging and breaking down archetypes and stereotypes, having real conversations and telling real human stories.