Note: This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Please introduce yourself, what you do, why you do it, and what you want people to know about you?
I’m an actor/writer/director and an acting teacher. I do it because I love it all. I can’t imagine just doing one of those things. My background is a bit unusual for this industry. I transferred out of theatre in my first year of university and went into science.
My undergrad degree is in Cell Biology. Then I got a Master’s degree in adult education because I wanted to explore the role of a director as a leader/educator and also how to create workshops where performers can transform their craft.
What qualities make you different and unique from everyone else in the industry?
I have a science head, so I’m highly analytical, but I’m also very sensitive and have the heart of a creative. I’m a comedic actor, but I also go deep into dramatic material. It’s hard to lump me into a category. I’m born right on the cusp.
Am I Sagittarius? Scorpio? I was assigned the wrong gender at birth, but I don’t use the word “transgender” to describe myself. You know, that kind of thing. I’m a happy oddball with feet straddling different worlds.
Describe THAT moment when you realized you wanted to do what you do now. Who did you tell first? What has it been like since that moment?
Carol Burnett coming down the steps in “Went With the Wind” and the brilliant line “I saw it in the window and I couldn’t resist” – I heard that laughter from the audience that went on forever, and I was hooked. It inspired me so deeply. I realized the power of laughter and entertainment, and I knew that’s what I was supposed to do.
You have also been an acting teacher for many years. What makes how you teach unique?
I have taken many acting classes over my lifetime, and I know what works for me and what doesn’t. So, I teach the way I want to be taught. Students tell me that they feel safe, seen. and guided in a way that’s hard to find. That’s the biggest compliment I can get. I believe that in order for us to do our best work, we need to feel safe to fail.
I look at acting in a holistic way – it’s mind, body, and spirit. We have to learn technique of course, but a lot of acting training for adults is more of an UN-learning process. It’s about how to get out of our own way and allow our innate freedom and spontaneity to express itself.
The way to do that is to a) deeply understand the character and the story and b) transform blocks to our own expression. I teach techniques for all of that. I also bring my own experience from being a working actor in the business. And now that I’m also writing and directing, I can offer students a pretty thorough perspective on how a show runs behind the scenes.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge was dealing with being an actor of trans experience during a time when there was far less awareness about what that meant. Then there was the fact that I was on a kids’ show and eventually feeling the need to disclose publicly. I had transitioned genders two decades earlier – it wasn’t a new thing to me – but it was to the network and producers. I didn’t know how they would react, but it turned out great.
You play Schwoz in the Henry Danger spinoff Danger Force. What do you enjoy most about bringing this character to life?
I love doing physical comedy and playing a total man-child. Inventing the accent is also part of the fun; it’s like vocal physical comedy.
What is your favorite memory from filming the show thus far? What is the most challenging part?
My favorite memory wasn’t from filming, but more from the cast. It was right after the article in Time was out where I disclosed that I had transitioned. The support I got from the cast and crew will stay with me forever.
You’ve also directed 5 episodes of the show. Can you explain how you prepare for directing an episode?
I do a lot of homework. I read through the script multiple times and make a list of questions to get answered from the production/tone meetings. I track the arc of each character, make lists of props and what sets we’re using, and take notes on how the episode fits into the bigger arc of the season.
I talk with the heads of each department, and we collaborate on decisions that need to be made. I block each scene knowing that it will probably change once we start rehearsal… there’s way more to it but that’s the gist. I absolutely love the process – it feels very natural to me.
All the episodes I’ve directed, I’ve also acted in, so I make sure I get off book early. My dialogue always changes with re-writes, so I make sure to stay on top of it.
You have guest-starred on many well-known shows. Which has been your favorite and why?
My favorite was Powerless. It was an NBC show that starred the amazing Vanessa Hudgens. I played a mean human resources boss, so I got to work a totally different set of acting muscles. It was a big guest star role, so I was in every day of shooting and got to know the cast more than I normally would as a guest star. They were all so welcoming, and I was blown away by Vanessa Hudgens. She is one of the nicest, thoughtful, and most talented people I’ve ever met.
As an actor of trans experience, what would you say is the biggest shift you’ve seen toward positive representation of the LGBTQ+ community in the entertainment industry and on-screen to date? What other changes do you hope to see in the future?
Some shows are doing great work by not focusing so much on a character’s transness to lead storylines. Instead, these characters are drawn as fully realized, 3-D people. That’s huge. I hope more shows continue in that direction.
I also hope to see more actors of trans experience get hired for non-trans roles. Of course they should be hired for trans characters, but not solely.
I’m fortunate to have a career where I’ve always been hired for non-trans roles and that’s continuing, but I’m an anomaly. Real progress will be made when an actor being out about their trans experience doesn’t fence them in.
You partnered with Nickelodeon on the Michael D. Cohen Trans Youth Acting Challenge in 2019-2020 to give opportunities to trans youth looking to get into the entertainment industry. What was the most meaningful part of working on this project for you?
There were so many things. I still hear from kids and families how much of a turning point the Trans Youth Acting Challenge was for them. The kids felt seen, included, and guided in a way that was so new and important for them. And then there was the database of kid actors that came out of the Trans Youth Acting Challenge and has become a resource for the casting community.
Many of those kids are seeing success as actors. They’re getting auditions and roles now that they wouldn’t have had access to before. It’s what I wanted for myself as a kid and couldn’t have, so it’s gratifying to be able to create that for kids now.
You’re also developing a writing project for writers of trans experience called WrOTE. What can you tell us about this and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
WrOTE is the acronym for WRiters Of Trans Experience. It’s like the Trans Youth Acting Challenge, only it’s for adults of trans experience who are or who are aiming to be TV and film writers.
I want to create opportunities for them in the industry, much like the kids in the Trans Youth Acting Challenge got known by casting and producers. The program design involves training, mentorship, and an eventual database that showrunners can draw on. I have support from a number of key organizations in Hollywood, and now it’s a question of timing.
What can you tell us about the one-man show you’re working on called Man, Interrupted (fka 4 Cubits Make a Man)? What can audiences expect from the show and what do you hope they take away from seeing it?
I wanted to create a show that would help audiences understand the trans experience from the inside out. There are stories about the physical transformation, but there’s not a lot of theatre that goes in-depth into someone’s psyche and the discord that occurs from your body basically lying to the world about who you are. Oh, and it’s a comedy but there are also poignant moments.
I want audiences to walk away from the show with more compassion for and insight into the trans experience. I’ve been working on this show for many years.
It was going to go up in May 2020, but then that virus thing happened, so my producer, Andrew Carlberg, and I are now talking about putting it up in 2024.
You recently attended Vice President Harris’s Pride Reception hosted by GLAAD in Washington DC. What did being at the event mean to you, and if you had to pick your top 3 memorable moments from the evening, what would they be?
I was so honored to get invited to the event and very grateful to GLAAD for creating the opportunity. My top three memorable moments would be of course actually meeting the Vice President and then finding out that she knew who I was! That blew my mind. Meeting her husband was also a thrill.
As the first Second Gentleman ever, he is setting a perfect precedent. Then there were the performances and speeches. Kamala’s speech was so galvanizing.
And, if I can have one more…so that’s four… getting to mingle with so many talented, inspiring people like Ariana Debose, Alex Newell, Michaela Jae Rodriguez, and people from GLAAD, PFLAG, The Trevor Project and so many more. It was surreal. A total celebration of Pride.
What is one interesting thing your fans don’t know about you?
Many of them don’t know that my Schwoz accent is made up. I don’t really speak like that.
What advice would you give to young people who want to work in the entertainment industry?
Study acting! Take classes that excite you and from teachers that treat you with respect. And eventually, develop a skill or craft outside of the entertainment industry that you love doing so you have a side hustle for those times when there’s no work in the industry.
What are your professional goals for the next year?
To finish the book I’m writing on acting called “The Art of Specificity.” I’ve been writing it for about a decade. It’s time to put it out there!
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
There are two TV series I have in development. One I wrote on my own, and the other I wrote with Andrew Thomas, my co-writer on Manlee Men. That was an episode of Danger Force that featured Nickelodeon’s first trans teen character. The episode was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award, so Andrew and I wanted to keep it going and develop more work together. But that’s all I can say about that for now.
If you had to pick the TOP 3 people you’d want to meet that could take your career (or business) to the next level….who would those 3 people be?
Chuck Lorre: I think he’s a genius. Like everyone else, I want to be a series regular in one of his sitcoms one day.
Ron Howard: His work as a director defines a whole generation. I listened to his audiobook and love his perspective on life and making movies. I just want to watch him work and learn.
Mayim Bialik: She’s a force of nature and so incredibly talented. Her production company does the kind of work I want to do, and her podcast is amazing. Then there’s the Jewish thing we have in common and that we both have science backgrounds. I hope I get to work with her one day or at least get to meet her.
List the direct links/URL to your social media profiles so people can follow you:
Acting website: http://www.michaeldcohen.com/
Teaching website: www.mdcohenstudio.com
Facebook fan page: http://www.facebook.com/officialmichaeldcohen
Facebook teaching page: www.facebook.com/michaeldcohenstudio
Photographer: Tim Schaeffer @timschaefferphoto