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Jesse James Keitel: ‘Drag not only saved my life, it gave me an acting career’

The non-binary actor found the freedom to explore their gender identity thanks to NYC’s drag scene. As their show comes to the UK, they talk to Clémence Michallon about big breaks and getting out of your comfort zone

Tuesday 23 February 2021 06:30 GMT
Jesse James Keitel as Jerrie Kennedy in Big Sky
Jesse James Keitel as Jerrie Kennedy in Big Sky (ABC)

Jesse James Keitel is happy. Why wouldn’t they be? They give the must-see performance of Big Sky, a thriller series created by David E Kelley – the man behind such successes as Big Little Lies and The Undoing. Their character Jerrie Kennedy, a transfeminine singer and sex worker, is thoughtfully written, with a captivating backstory. To top it all off, Keitel and I speak on the final day of Donald Trump’s administration. In a few hours, they will appear in an inaugural event organised by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT+ advocacy group in the US, and playfully tell president Joe Biden: “Good luck, and don’t f*** it up.”

Of course, it’s still 2021. Nothing is perfect. But there’s joy to be found and Keitel is the kind of person who finds it – even if it comes with a sense of caution, too.

“I’m very relieved and very worried,” says the 27-year-old. “I’m very excited for the Biden and Harris administration but I’m very nervous for the ripple effect of what we saw [on 6 January] at the Capitol. To see how disinformation has blown things way out of proportion, it’s scary. And the idea that conservative voices are being censored and silenced, I don’t buy that. At all. Not for a second.”

For many viewers, Big Sky will serve as an introduction to Keitel – this is the highest-profile project they’ve been a part of, and so prominently – but for the past few years their career has been ramping up. After earning a degree in acting at Pace University in New York, Keitel (who is a distant relative of Harvey) made an appearance in the 2018 Netflix film Alex Strangelove and shone in an episode of Younger, the TV Land series starring Hilary Duff and Sutton Foster. The next year, Keitel was cast as Zion in Like Glass, a short film about a club kid whose exploration of the New York City drag scene leads them to question their identity – a role that wasn’t too far from their own experience. Their performance as Zion – nuanced, graceful – was the kind that leaves you checking in periodically on a young actor’s CV, waiting for the world at large to discover them too.

The exploration of gender through art marked a turning point in Keitel’s career. In 2016, they began performing as an avant-garde drag artist under the name Peroxide with the Haus of Femanon, a New-York-City-based collective. The experience was life-altering for Keitel.

“Drag not only saved my life, it gave me an acting career,” they say. “I would not be a series regular on Big Sky if I hadn’t started drag.” They remember a specific day in early 2016: “I wore an outfit that was completely duct-taped, stuck to my body. I wore antlers, the make-up looked terrible, but that night changed my life. There’s something about allowing yourself the freedom to leave your comfort zone behind, and getting praised for it.”

Drag, Keitel adds, “gave me permission to explore my gender identity. It gave me permission to explore fashion and make-up. It gave me permission to be myself.” As an actor, they were previously told by industry people to be “this really neutral version of myself” but also to be unique. All in all, they say, “it wasn’t until I did drag that I actually discovered who I was at my core.”

Keitel has also had roles in Younger and Alex Strangelove ( Jason Benson)

After Like Glass, Keitel’s career continued in a similar direction. There was Miller & Son, a short film about a transgender woman working as a mechanic, which won a Bafta Student Film Award and a Student Academy Award. There was Fluidity, a movie about millennials and their sex lives in the age of social media. And then, finally, there was Big Sky, a crime thriller about a series of disappearances in Montana. Arriving in the UK on Disney+ today, the show recently earned praise from Stephen King, who deemed it “the best drama on network television”, “tiptoeing into Emmy territory”. For Keitel, Big Sky is a big break – one that almost didn’t happen.

As Keitel recounts, they were booked for Big Sky, a “dream job”, on a Friday, right before the pandemic brought the entertainment industry to a standstill. They travelled to New Mexico, where the show entered pre-production. Within a week, they were sent home to New York. For a while, nothing was certain – or, as Keitel says: “I went from having a life-changing opportunity to being like, ‘OK, maybe not.’”

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In July 2020, production moved from New Mexico and Nevada to Vancouver, Canada, where Big Sky has been able to film with safety measures in place. “I truly feel like I won the lottery five times over, having a job like this during the pandemic,” Keitel says. “There’s not a second that goes by that I’m not immensely grateful.”

Being deprived of Keitel’s performance as Jerrie would have been a considerable loss for the world of network television. From the very start of the show, she’s a presence to be reckoned with. Nine minutes into the pilot, we see her in a leopard-print minidress and high heels, sauntering up to the open window of a truck, weighing whether the man behind the wheel (Brian Geraghty) might be a potential client. “How are we doing? Wanna party?” she asks. Then, when the man fails to respond: “I don’t bite. Unless you’re looking for that.”

Jerrie makes it onto the truck, where – this isn’t a spoiler, but the setup to the show’s entire premise – the man incapacitates her with a taser. When Jerrie wakes, she’s being held captive with two kidnapped girls (played by Natalie Alyn Lind and Jade Pettyjohn). For the next few episodes, the show toggles between the trio’s attempts to survive and be set free and the investigation taking place outside.

Keitel’s portrayal of Jerrie is both subtle and playful (ABC)

Through it all, Keitel’s portrayal of Jerrie is at times playful, often vulnerable, and always subtle. A particular scene in episode two sees Jerrie forced to shower in front of her captor. He doesn’t want to look at her, but she urges him to do just that, telling him to “Look at me!” – until he finally lifts his gaze to her naked body. The moment is intensely raw, and it wouldn’t be a reach to suppose it was heavy to film. But when Keitel discusses the scene, it’s mostly with delight and levity.

“It was honestly really fun,” they say. Yes, they were “scared of that scene”, but “purely because I was scared of doing it wrong”. There were logistics to worry about too, such as how to keep a wig on while standing under a stream of water before slipping it off. The scene itself, though? “That was one of my favourite days I’ve ever had on set. As actors, that’s the stuff we want to do. I never thought I would be shackled, being forced to take a shower in a cow stall. There was something really magic about getting to do it. I would do that scene again in a heartbeat.”

Keitel, like Jerrie, identifies as non-binary and transfeminine. “Labels are helpful, but also not helpful,” they say. “I’m just doing my thing.” When I bring up headlines that have highlighted Keitel’s status as the first non-binary actor in a leading role on network TV, they say they “cringe a little bit at claiming the first of anything”.

“When we get into narratives of ‘first this, first that’, I feel like we avoid the larger issues surrounding those marginalised groups of people,” they say. “When it comes to things like gender identity, I don’t know how people before me might have identified, maybe less publicly.”

One of the most powerful aspects of Keitel’s portrayal of Jerrie, which has earned praise from both viewers and critics, is their sense of comfort with themselves, which shines through both on the screen and in conversation. When Keitel discusses the character, it’s clear that Jerrie means a lot to them. Throughout the show, Jerrie is brave, kind, protective of the two girls who are held captive with her. It’s impossible not to like her, and equally impossible not to want to see more of her.

“The most exciting thing for me was how broad a character she was, but also how specific,” Keitel says. “It gave me a lot of opportunity to dive into very different aspects. That was fun, getting to explore someone who’s very multifaceted.”

‘Big Sky’ will be available in the UK on Disney+ starting 23 February. In the US, it airs on ABC and is available to stream on Hulu

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