This LGBTQ-affirming acting class is fostering ‘the new Hollywood’

Morgan O’Sullivan darted into a diner and sat across from Jasmine Linforth. Linforth began to eat oatmeal out of a cup, using it as an opportunity to seduce O’Sullivan by rubbing her leg against theirs.

The diner scene from David O. Russell’s 2012 film “Silver Linings Playbook” became a tennis match of sorts for the two actors, who played the parts of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence in the movie) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) in the middle of the Broadwater Studio during a weekly ActNow class led by its founder, Rain Valdez. As the actors volleyed back and forth, so did the tension.

Valdez paused the scene. She leaned forward and spoke from her theater seat in front of the black-box stage. Fellow students watched in anticipation from their own seats. Valdez encouraged the two actors onstage to raise the stakes.

Beginning again, the scene took on a new, playful energy that erupted in a passionate connection between the two. Valdez turned to Linforth and said that what she saw onstage was good enough to be in a Hollywood film, explaining that Linforth was clearly not holding back and that she was giving her all.

“You gave me permission,” Linforth said. “Thank you.”

For Valdez’s students, this class’ potency goes beyond the talent of its instructor — it also allows queer and trans actors to be themselves. “The space is more home than home feels like, because at home, we haven’t been able to be ourselves,” Linforth says. “This is why it’s so healing. It’s like, finally, we have the permission to completely be ourselves.”

Valdez says it’s common for acting classes in Los Angeles — and across the nation — to foster a cisgender, heteronormative environment, where they assume gender instead of letting students perform characters they connect with. ActNow, which is part of Rainbow Entertainment — a queer and trans production company led by Valdez — creates a rare communal space for LGBTQ talent, where they can grow as performers without judgment.

“As someone who’s been in the industry for 15 years, I’m coming into this space and realizing that what I’m here to learn is how to let go of all of the commentaries about what you’re doing wrong,” O’Sullivan says.

They add, “It’s just finally safe.”

‘It’s not just a class, it’s a community’

Rain Valdez, the founder of ActNow, coaches a group of LGBTQ thespians in an acting class in Los Angeles.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

When Brynn Allen came to Los Angeles, she struggled to find an acting class where she felt comfortable. Many promised the “right way” or the “Hollywood secret” — for a whopping $500 per week or month.

Allen’s co-worker and friend Linforth told her about ActNow, which Linforth had joined in March 2020, and she decided to give it a chance. Allen joined the Zoom version, and after receiving feedback on her initial performance, “I turned my camera off and bawled my eyes out,” she says.

Allen posted the emotional moment on social media, writing: “Just had my first queer acting class.”

“I got so many responses from people being like, ‘Queer acting class? I didn’t even know that was an option.’ Because it’s not,” she recalls. “Whereas anyone can walk in this room and Rain will give you everything she has, and we will all applaud every single time.”

Transgender and nonbinary actors are often subjected to roles that the industry assumes for them. But students say the class allows them to subvert traditional norms of gender and sexual identity within the characters they embody.

“I never really performed a feminine role seriously,” Linforth says. “It was always for comedic effect. So [ActNow] was the first time that I could be taken seriously and be seen as an actor.”

O’Sullivan says this ethos opened a new world of characters for them. And when they perform, “Rain doesn’t flinch,” they say.

“We’ve been told certain things about ourselves, whether it’s because of our identity or our circumstances, and she gets us to stop believing in that and start believing in ourselves,” Allen says.

Valdez pinpoints exactly where students are holding back, which helps them bring out the confidence she knows they hold. Every student has that moment they can recall. For Allen, it was when Valdez encouraged her to accept the praise she received after performing well in a scene. For O’Sullivan, it was about taking up space onstage. “‘If you can’t take up space, I do not want you holding space for anyone else ever,'” they recall Valdez saying.

“I needed that,” O’Sullivan adds. “That’s part of what’s so magical about this class that, yeah, it’s about being queer and celebrating queer joy, and being trans and gender expansive, but it’s also about how we’re all just humans.”

Ethan Alexander, center, and Kliff Svatos practice a scene from the show “Succession”at ActNow, an LGBTQ acting class/company in Los Angeles.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Students enter the class with lived experiences that are often etched with discrimination. But during class, “we can be creative, we can find joy from that,” says student Maze Felix.

Ryan Baker says the class allows him to undo the physical and emotional trauma that has come along with being a trans actor. “I feel like taking a class that wasn’t so trans positive, which are most acting classes, I wouldn’t be able to go places in the same way,” he says.

“This is a space that’s not rooted in abuse, it’s rooted in care,” adds classmate Alexandra Velasco.

On joining the class, a student is invited to perform a monologue. After the performance, classmates help identify the student’s “character essence” or onscreen characters and actors they perform similarly to. As newcomer Coyote Park concluded their monologue, Valdez invited those in the class to share their ideas of figures that might embody the actor’s “character essence.”

Classmates shouted the names of actors Rami Malek and Riz Ahmed. Park smiled as the names kept rolling in, saying: “This is all giving me gender euphoria.”

O’Sullivan, along with many of their fellow artists, sees the class as “living in joy as resistance.” Trans and queer joy breathe through the room. “I, as a human, feel like I have been looking for this space my whole life,” they say.

The session not only exuded the joy Allen had been looking for in an acting class but it also offered a community of queer and trans folks that uplift one another.

“We are important,” she says. “Our stories are important. Our ideas are important. Our bodies are important. Our love is important. Our relationships with each other, our existence is revolutionary. And the existence of this class is revolutionary.”

Classmate Camila Camale?n adds, “The reality is in the next five years, they’re going to be casting for folks like us.”

New Hollywood in action

Danielle Squyres looks over a script before a group of LGBTQ thespians reads a play called “Jaja Hates California” to a live audience.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

After Sasha Forests uttered the first line of the screenplay “Jaja Hates California,” she realized that she’d forgotten to set up her phone to record. The surrounding friends and family of Rainbow Entertainment laughed off the misstep before hitting the record button and starting again. The script brought to life a dynamic lead character with vengeance on her mind and a world of violence ahead of her.

The reading of “Jaja Hates California” over the summer at Hollywood’s Quixote Studios marked Rainbow Entertainment’s return to public events since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — the last was held in 2019.

Moments like these fostered by Rainbow Entertainment are the beginnings of something bigger. It’s exactly how Valdez’s “Razor Tongue” blossomed into her first Emmy nomination for actress in a short form comedy or drama series in 2020.

Formerly known as Now>Ever Artists, Rainbow Entertainment relaunched with its new name in August on Instagram as a step toward a future with more works created and led by members of the queer and trans community. For many, it provides a sense of belonging in the industry and offers a beam of hope that there is space for LGBTQ stories.

Before “Razor Tongue,” “Jaja Hates California” and Rainbow Entertainment, Valdez looked for a change in how the entertainment industry treated trans people and their stories.

Sasha Forests greets audience members before a reading by LGBTQ thespians of Forests’ play “Jaja Hates California.”
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

It began with “Rub & Tug,” a film in which Scarlett Johansson was originally cast as a trans masculine character. At the time, Valdez spoke with the Hollywood Reporter and other media outlets about her response as a trans woman, and every time, the same question came up: “Where do we find queer trans artists? Is there a school specifically for LGBTQ actors?”

Her answer: “No, but we need one.”

In 2017, she began organizing readings at the then Now>Ever Artists. It wasn’t until spring 2018, after the “Rub & Tug” controversy made headlines, that she organized her first acting workshop.

“I remember just sweating buckets and being really nervous about it,” she says of the first workshop. “But then once I started doing it, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s like directing.’ I just needed to direct them and kind of speak in the language of how I learned how to act.”

When she first came to Los Angeles, Valdez says it wasn’t easy finding her people in acting classes and in film productions. “When I started [ActNow], I wanted a space that I didn’t get to have, so the younger me [could] find it and not have to be terrified of this scary city,” she says.

Bowie Starr, one of the class’ first members, who joined in January 2019, says they transitioned through the class. “When I came in, I had just come out as nonbinary, and I didn’t really have the strength to even advocate for myself in that regard,” they say. “I would let folks misgender, me and I would let it slide because I was afraid to hold space.”

Danielle Squyres, center, delivers her lines from the play “Jaja Hates California” with a group of LGBTQ thespians.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

That mentality changed throughout the class. More important, the trans visibility that Valdez brought into everything she did uplifted the students. “If I did not have that art, that form of creative expression to not only validate my existence but to keep me going, I may not be here right now, to be honest,” Starr says. “I just want folks to know about trans joy.”

Jen Winslow, who has been part of the class since the very beginning, says the classes have “impacted everything” in her life. Valdez notes a complete shift in Winslow’s performance, recalling that at first, she didn’t know how to breathe in a scene as she anticipated lines.

For Winslow, all her hard work was reflected in a newfound connection. She recalls seeing actress Jamie Clayton at Trans Pride in L.A. one year. Valdez urged Winslow to get a selfie with the actor; she did. The following year, after Clayton sat in and taught classes alongside Valdez, the actor was the one calling out Winslow’s name from across the pride event. Clayton continues to co-teach classes at ActNow from time to time. “I was observing students that I had observed years ago, and to watch them act now, from where they started, was mind-blowing,” she says.

“They’re doing the work,” Clayton says. “They’re growing, they’re finding themselves, and they’re finding their rhythm, their emotional well.”

Vico Ortiz, an ActNow alum, has taken what they’ve learned and put it into practice in such shows as “Our Flag Means Death” and “The Sex Lives of College Girls.” But before their recent projects, they first met Valdez at Outfest 2019, where their series “These Thems” premiered alongside “Razor Tongue.”

A panel at Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival’s fifth trans and nonbinary summit in August.
(Amy Sussman / Getty Images)

Although they came in with experience in the industry, they wanted to collaborate with Valdez and joined the class in 2019. They say ActNow taught them “my transness is my superpower.”

“I belong in all the roles that I could possibly imagine,” they said.

Before ActNow, Ortiz had stopped taking acting classes because they didn’t feel “truly free.” With Valdez, they felt seen and challenged as an artist.

There is a check-in at the beginning of every class, where students share the progress they’ve made in their careers, whether it be submitting inquiries for representation to agents or getting new head shots made. Through this, Ortiz was inspired to take the next step to be clear about their identity. “Having that really encouraged me to send emails to my representatives and be very clear about, ‘OK, this is who I am, these are my pronouns, this is how I want you to refer to me moving forward.'”

Their dedication to staying true to their identity in entertainment is seen in such roles as Jim Jimenez, a nonbinary pirate in “Our Flag Means Death,” and Tova, a nonbinary student who frequents the women’s center in “The Sex Lives of College Girls.”

“The company is still ahead of its time when it comes to traditional Hollywood standards,” Valdez says.

As the organization officially transitions to Rainbow Entertainment, Valdez hopes for more readings, classes and projects along the way — including the second season of “Razor Tongue.”

While she works to get the season financed, she sticks true to what the company centers on: trans and queer voices.

“We’re not going to ever center a cis, white man in any of our shows,” she says.

Rain Valdez coaches a group of LGBTQ thespians.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

When the pandemic began, Valdez thought she’d have to quit acting and move back to Guam. But her students and company members urged her to continue the class on Zoom.

“It’s not going away, because it’s something that loves me too,” she says. Just as much as the class has altered students’ lives, it’s altered her own too. “I get to be a mother,” Valdez says.

Although she may have anticipated the typical family unit to be a big part of her life, she says she’s gotten one 10 times as large through the class.

“Accepting my life as is, not as how I think it should be, has been a powerful transformation for me, because this class has given me everything I’ve always searched for. It just looks very different,” she says. “And that’s OK.”

Valdez knows her students are Hollywood-ready; it’s just that traditional Hollywood isn’t prepared. She says this often to students, reassuring them that they have talent.

“I get to witness the kind of talent that doesn’t really exist,” she says. “Traditional Hollywood could never with some of the stuff I get to witness in this class. The writing, the originality of it, the storytelling of it.”

Members associated with Rainbow Entertainment attended the 2022 Outfest, the 40thanniversary of the festival. Valdez noted that she felt most connected at the gala than before because everyone from the company was by her side.

Founders of the film festival stepped onstage to share how far they’d come since starting as UCLA students organizing such an event on campus. As they talked about all they’d accomplished, Allen recalls Linforth turning to her and saying, “That’s going to be us.”

“And I believe that that’s true,” Allen says, “because what Rain is building and what we’re all building is a new Hollywood.”

 

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