By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
Photographer: Ken Weingart
Groomer: Paige Davenport for Exclusive Artists using Laura Mercier and R+Co
Stills Courtesy of Heart, Baby
For the role as the trans woman Crystal, actor Shawn-Caulin Young, a cisgendered, gay man, immersed himself in the trans experience by representing as a trans woman for six months. Goliath’s Mikkel Hyldebrandt spoke to the actor about the world of make-believe, the power of a love story, unlikely bonds, the trans experience, and the imminent need to support the trans community.
Growing up as the youngest of four in a double-wide trailer in the desert outskirt of Farmington, New Mexico with hard-working, middle-class parents, Shawn-Caulin Young always knew he was different. With that knowledge he turned to the land of make-believe instead and spent most of his childhood daydreaming he was someone else.
Surrounded by toxic masculinity, he was relentlessly bullied for what was considered feminine traits, like his sensibility and hyper-awareness of his surroundings, and because he wasn’t into sports like the other boys, he was teased and labeled f****t because he would hang out with girls without dating them. So, Shawn would erase his true self and depended on his talent for pretending to be like the other guys in order to survive.
It wasn’t until high school that Shawn learned that he could embrace his survival trait as a gift and a talent, and he used it to feel significant in the world. In a way, his pretending switched to being acting, and that’s when he knew what career path he wanted to pursue – making a living as a storyteller.
After graduating with a BFA in acting from The Hartt School at the University of Hartford, he moved to New York City and quickly landed his first film, and his career as an actor took off.
Now, he plays Crystal in the film “Heart, Baby” about the unlikely prison romance between a trans woman and a boxing champ. To fully immerse himself into the role, Shawn lived as a trans woman for six months, and once again turned to the world of make-believe to experience how living and presenting as your true self can be a matter of survival.
‘Heart, Baby!’ is about the unlikely prison romance between a transwoman and a boxing champ. How did you come across this story?
A few years back, writer and director Angela Shelton spoke at the 140 Conference in New York where she met Andy “Doc” Dixon. They quickly bonded and became fast friends. Doc was in prison with George, and the two had been best friends since childhood. A few months later, over some wine, Doc told Angela the story of George and his transgender cellmate Crystal. By the time he was finished, he and Angela were crying, his wife crying, even the dogs were crying! Angela told Doc this needs to be a movie. He agreed, saying only she could do it. Angela began to research and craft the remarkable love story of George and Crystal, and in the summer of 2015, she sent me the script for Heart, Baby!
Crystal. She was a remarkable human being. I was fascinated by her innate ability to love beyond her given circumstance. Crystal was an Evangelical transgender woman who found the freedom to be herself inside the confines of a men’s prison! She was a devout believer in Christ who could quote the Bible three ways from Sunday while turning the fiercest look. She was beautiful and complex. Unfortunately, she was literally erased by her family. They concocted false drug charges and locked her away under a fake name to protect the family’s reputation. Despite this, Crystal was filled with love and loyalty to those around her. Crystal’s story is the heart and soul of the film. That being said, there are so many elements of Heart, Baby! that apply to today’s world. It’s not very often that you come across a story that is filled with such heart. When I read the script for the first time, I couldn’t believe it was true. How could an epic love story like this not be known? I couldn’t put it down. I read it three times in a row because I was so moved by their love. I knew I had to do whatever I could to help bring their love to the big screen.
What is it about the unlikely bond between a trans woman and boxing champ that is so powerful?
I’ll be the first to admit that their bond makes no sense, on paper. They were polar opposites. I think what makes this story so powerful is that these two human beings were able to find love in such a hopeless place. It shows the depths of the power of love. It was the 80s. This was a time where people could barely understand the concept of transgender, let alone accept it. Throw in the fact they were of different races and religious beliefs and their story becomes even more compelling. The idea that a straight, African-American man fell in love with a white, Evangelical, transgender woman and gave up his chance at freedom to protect her blows my mind. It’s one of the greatest examples of love of which I’ve ever heard. You can’t make love like this up! It transcends time and space. For me, it’s biblical.
In preparation for the role as Crystal, you decided to live as a trans woman. Why did you think that was necessary for the part?
When I came onto the project, I was solely a producer. I had no intention of playing the role of Crystal. Our casting director (John Jackson) combed the country for weeks looking for a trans actress. After a month, only ten were submitted. Of those ten, eight were African-American and obviously not a match – Crystal’s was a blonde, white woman. Unfortunately, the two actresses who remained were unable to portray her essence. We were backed into a corner. That’s when Angela suggested I do a makeup test to see if I could pass as a woman. When she sent the photos to Doc, he burst into tears. Angela was adamant that I was the best human to play the role. After much debate, I agreed with the condition that I live as a trans woman for the entire experience. I’m a cisgender, gay man who knew nothing of the trans experience. I had an obligation to Crystal, and to the entire trans community, to do everything I could to respect and honor them. The only way I knew I could do this was to live their life and see the world through their eyes.
Surprisingly, most of the backlash I’ve received has come from media outlets that are LGBTQ focused. Several prominent magazines and organizations won’t speak to me or review the film because I’m not trans. Ironically, I have several trans friends who have seen the film and said that only I could have played this part. Many have gone on record saying they approve of and fully support my portrayal of Crystal. The fact I’m experiencing discrimination from my own community shocks and disappoints me. My job as an actor is to find empathy and understanding of the human experience. Most of the time, the characters I play have lived a drastically different life than mine. I lived as a trans woman so that I could be an advocate, knowing for myself what it’s like to live in their world. It’s interesting to me that within the LGBTQ community and media there is discrimination and hate, especially toward other LGBTQ individuals. We need to be celebrating anyone who is willing to tell out stories. I understand that it may look like I’m just another cisgender man taking a role away from a trans person, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
What was your experience of living trans? Did you experience harassment?
I had no idea how difficult it was for a trans woman to live her life, just as herself. Words cannot truly express the hell I experienced. Our government marginalizes trans individuals more than any other demographic within the LGBTQ community. There are no laws to protect against the discrimination of trans people in housing, healthcare, education, and many other basic civil rights. I naïvely stepped into the trans experience thinking it couldn’t be that bad, quickly realizing society is severely tilted against trans people, not to mention women in general. I faced oppression, degradation, objectification, mental and physical harassment. Many people are quick to jump to hatred when they encounter someone they can’t place into a category with which they are comfortable.
For six months, I committed myself to the trans experience, and I’m forever changed because of it. I was in constant fear for my survival, and I believe this is how I trapped into Crystal’s truth. Sometimes it was “We don’t serve your kind here.” Other times it was much more dangerous. One time I was followed down the street by two men who demanded I give them the attention they felt they deserved. If they had found out, I was trans, who knows what they would have done. I also had a stalker who waited for me outside my apartment in New Orleans. The experience was so terrifying; I dealt with depression and anxiety daily. It got so bad that I couldn’t even deal with my own genitalia. It began to represent all of the danger that I was experiencing from the outside world. If everyone were to experience the struggle trans people live every day, the world would be much more loving and accepting.
What was the eye-opening experience from having a trans experience?
In a patriarchal, heteronormative society like the United States, life is built on the foundation of suppressing anything feminine. We’ve been living in a “man’s world,” and it’s bullshit. It wasn’t until I lived my life as a trans woman that I came to truly understand this. It’s an oppressive and violent uphill climb for a transgender person to have an equal playing field. It’s important for all human beings of this world, no matter how they identify or express themselves, to have the inalienable and legal right to be who they are without jurisdiction or ramifications. With federal and state laws currently designed the way they are, not much is going to change any time soon without loud vocal action. That’s why now, more than ever, we as a community and a nation must stand up against the oppression of our trans brother and sisters. We must unite and protect them. It’s the only way we are going to survive as a global community.
Where can we enjoy your talents – either as producer, director or actor – next?
My writing and directorial debut, Stand/Still, is currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit. It’s a psychological thriller about a middle-aged couple who turn to human trafficking in order to have a child of their own. It’s a terrifying look inside the minds of human traffickers. The short is a proof of concept for a feature of the same name which will hopefully be in production by next summer. We have been fortunate enough to have already won several awards including Best Direction as well as Audience Choice. As an actor, you can catch me on HBO in January 2019. I have an awesome role on True Detective opposite Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali. This season is going to be amazing. It’s a definite must-see!
Anything you’d like to add?
I am grateful for Goliath for giving me this chance to share my story. I wish more LGBTQ organizations and media outlets were like you!