Rainbow List 2015: Interview with No 1 Riley Carter Millington

Riley Carter Millington has just made his debut in ‘EastEnders’ – the first transgender actor in a leading trans soap role. It’s a trailblazing move that could change lives – and it’s why he tops 2015’s Rainbow List

Sarah Morrison
Sunday 15 November 2015 01:07 GMT
The 21-year-old is the first trans man to top the Rainbow List
The 21-year-old is the first trans man to top the Rainbow List (Peter Macdiarmid)

For Riley Carter Millington, this has been a year of many firsts. The 21-year-old from Manchester had his first audition, for his first TV role, and is now the first transgender actor to be cast as a continuing trans character in a British soap. This is also his first interview.

I have heard a lot about the actor before we meet. When his casting – as Kyle – was announced, writer and Rainbow List judge Paris Lees said it was “the biggest thing to happen for the transgender community in Britain this decade”.

Today, we announce Millington as the first trans man to top the Rainbow List – our annual celebration of influential lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Britain. By being open about who he is and appearing in one of Britain’s most-watched television shows, our judges believe Millington will transform lives. No pressure then.

But, as I talk to Millington – who describes himself as a “normal lad from a working-class background” – I realise the significance of his casting is slowly dawning on him. The naturally shy and private man now tells me about what it is like to embark on a “whole new world”.

“It can be quite daunting, the prospect of everyone knowing about you. When I was thinking I could potentially get this role, I was quite apprehensive,” he says. “[But now] I feel it’s an honour. You see other people that have made such a huge difference, and to be a part of that, it’s incredible. Yes, it’s a bit of pressure, but it’s what needs to be done, for us to move forward.”

In the past few years, and as a result of tireless campaigning by groups such as All About Trans, there has been a sea change in the representation of transgender people in the media. Sensitive portrayals of trans experiences, including Rebecca Root in BBC2’s Boy Meets Girl and Bethany Black in Channel 4’s Cucumber and Banana, seem to suggest a greater understanding in the media.

‘I want to help make a difference.  I want other people   to feel like they can  come out’

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Millington thinks this change is “fantastic” and is surprised at just how much he now wants to be a part of the fight. “I want to help make a difference,” Millington says. “You know it’s me. It’s a part of me and I want hopefully to make other people feel like they can come out, like they can feel that they’ve got support.”

Millington’s life changed the day he read in OK! magazine that EastEnders executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins wanted to cast a trans actor in a trans role. The acting student immediately sent an email to the show’s casting director.

“I said, ‘I’m at university, I’m training to be an actor, I’m transgender’, and I just put a little brief bit in about my transition. Then I completely forgot about it,” Millington said.

That was in March, and in June, Millington heard he had been invited into the studios. Treadwell-Collins tells me he knew right from the very first audition that Millington was the right actor for the role. “We saw Riley and we said that’s him. One, because he was a brilliant actor. And two, there’s a warmth in him that just comes through. I defy someone not to fall in love a little bit with Riley.”

Our judges felt his decision to play the character Kyle in EastEnders could help trans people – even save lives – and represents a landmark cultural moment (Peter Macdiarmid)

The significance of the casting was not lost on Treadwell-Collins. “It’s the duty of big shows like us to tell stories like this. I think people aren’t as forward-thinking as we’d like to think they are. The more we can show the trans community on the television, the more people will understand.”

Millington was driving home with his father after his final audition when he found out he got the job. “[The casting director] said, ‘Is your dad driving?’ She said, ‘The reason I’m asking is I don’t want you to have a car crash, because I’d like to offer you the job.’ I just kind of cried. But a holding-back cry. I was, like, ‘Dad, I got the job’. He burst into tears as well.”

Millington, the youngest of four children, has always been close to his father, and indeed his whole family, who he describes as the “best family ever”. When he started transitioning, five years ago, he said his family was always there for him. “It was new to them and the fact [is] that people sometimes don’t like what they don’t understand, but at the end of the day – and I know it’s not as simple for everyone – they love me.”

He adds: “My dad drove me everywhere – to London, to the Tavistock Clinic, when I was a minor; to Leeds, when I was an adult, and even to my auditions for this. So, I couldn’t have done my transition or even this without my parents and my siblings and even my aunties and uncles and everything.”

Millington, who was not really aware of the trans community when he was going up, says it’s “amazing” how things have changed since his transition.

“As a child I was expressing myself [by] wearing clothes, and suits – wearing my granddad’s suits and things like that – but everyone just thought I was a tomboy. But again, I think because there wasn’t much out there, I couldn’t really go, ‘Oh, I know, I feel like that person on the television’. As a kid, I couldn’t really describe it.”

He came out to his best friend first – a gay woman who introduced him to the LGBT community. He is thankful to those who paved the way before him. “It’s amazing to think that people a long time ago have come out and done it, considering the environment,” he adds. “I might not have been able to feel like I could come out if it wasn’t for those people.”

His message to any young trans people who might be reading is one of support. “I get that it can be hard; I’ve been there, but regardless, there is always someone there,” he says.

He is happy that trans men are getting represented on television – until now, trans women have been more visible on our screens – and says: “It’s come to that point where it needs to be shown more.”

Millington wants young trans people to be careful, and seek support, when transitioning. “Don’t try to skip any steps. It’s a long journey, but as cheesy as this is, it’s true, the quote – a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – is true. Every step matters.”

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