When Theo Germaine was a teenager living in a small Illinois community, they considered running away from home because they weren't getting the support they needed.
"I really care for members of my family a lot, but there was a lot of dysfunction that was happening; I didn't really feel like I was being accepted for who I was," the transgender and non-binary actor tells Metacritic.
Germaine didn't run away then, instead learning to trust their own instincts and rely on themselves to stand up for what they knew was right.
"Whenever people have been like, 'Nah, you're not that way,' I have always been like, 'Yes, I am. You might not be that way, but I am,'" they explain. "When I was a teen, I came out more publicly, and when I was met with people telling me that I must be that way because of sexual assault that didn't happen, or because of this, this, this or this, I basically was just like, 'F--- you, I know who I am and you cannot tell me who I am; that's not how it works.'"
That experience, while undoubtedly incomparably challenging, turned into fuel for Germaine in the moment, and years later, it lent itself to character traits for their lead role in John Logan's feature film directorial debut, They/Them.
Germaine plays Jordan in the Blumhouse Productions film, who, like their portrayer, is transgender and non-binary. Jordan comes from a family that doesn't quite understand their child, so Jordan makes a deal with their parents: If they attend Whistler, a conversion camp, they will be allowed to legally emancipate if the conversion doesn't "work." Also like their portrayer, Jordan is steadfast in knowing who they are, independent, a leader, and always willing to help those around them.
"If I have to defend somebody else, I have the tendency to be a lot more assertive. So, I had to think about how badass I actually kind of was when I was a teenager," Germaine says. "I just used my own past and I just really looked back and I was like, 'You did good, kid. You really survived.'"
Jordan steps off the bus at Whistler not expecting to be challenged by the camp experience because of how well they know themselves, but they end up being surprised, perhaps in some small part by how insidious the camp leader's (played by Kevin Bacon) methods are, but also by what they are asked to do when confronting a killer who is slashing their own way through camp.
Germaine, who loves the horror genre personally (and previously starred in Night's End in that vein), is thus far best known for lighter but still poignant fare, from Ryan Murphy's The Politician, to Abby McEnany's Work in Progress and The CW's reimagining of 4400. Stepping into a slasher film would have been complicated enough on its own, but because They/Them deals with such triggering topics as deadnaming, withholding hormones, and electroshock therapy, the process was extra weighted.
"The subject is really, really serious, and it is a daunting and challenging task to try to make media about it that doesn't just really, really mess a whole bunch of people up," Germaine says, adding that Logan was extremely collaborative during the screenwriting stage and asked Germaine for their thoughts on various drafts. "He said, 'I'm a cis gay man. There's lots of things that I don't know, but there's lots of things that I'm trying to learn and I really, really want to write something that truly does make people feel more empowered to be who they are afterwards.'"
Germaine also credits executive producer Scott Turner Schofield, who they call a "vibe checker on set," asking the cast how they were feeling with the emotionally complex story, with easing the process.
"During filming, sh-- did get hard sometimes," Germaine admits. "There were a lot of boundaries that I had to set for myself when I was younger in order to just survive and not be affected by that. I'm not 17 anymore, obviously, but you remember who you were when you were that age, and you've got to be careful to make sure you have some protection set up so that you don't get too overwhelmed by the subject or material."
While some audience members might worry a movie like They/Them is just setting up marginalized characters to meet violent demises, Germaine says Logan was very much interested in subverting tropes with the film, as well as being honest about its portrayals of various characters within the LGBTQIA+ community.
Aside from his own character, one who stood out to Germaine is Stu (played by Cooper Koch), who presents himself as the stereotypical jock who is eagerly living in his father's shadow, trying to keep the fact that he is gay a secret because he fears he won't be able to achieve certain things (such as membership in a fraternity) if he comes out. This internalized homophobia also exhibits as transphobia toward Jordan.
"That's a real thing that happens in the gay community a lot, but also, that character is also suffering a lot at the same time and experiences different things in the movie that are horrific. That character in particular is very interesting to me because he's very much an imperfect character: He's being kind of bigoted, but it's also because he is not dealing with himself," Germaine says.
Since there are still so few mainstream films and television shows centering a diverse cast of LGBTQIA+ characters (GLAAD's Where We Are on TV report from early 2022 found that only 11% of regular and recurring characters were of that community, with only 6% being trans), Germaine also admits that considering the responsibility of representation is always on their mind.
"I've experienced a lot of tokenization over my career thus far, I think. And also, there are people who have said to my face that me being on screen has helped them come out. And that is really important to me: It's really important to me to try to help other people out. But also as an artist, I don't think it is my responsibility to tokenize myself all the time," Germaine explains. "People will sometimes look at your work and see something about representation in you in a specific way. But I am not a representative of my community. I'm literally just one non-binary person in this sea of non-binary people, but in a sea of industry people. I just happen to be here working and also, while I'm here, I want to be a good citizen. I want to live a good life, I want to have good ethics, I want to do the best that I can to be a good person."
They/Them is aware of its own responsibility with representation, starting with centering queer and trans characters in its narrative and casting queer and trans performers to embody those roles, but also with how paints them: The film doesn't shy away from conflicts between characters yet also makes a point to celebrate them bonding, finding moments of joy, and surviving the horrors of the camp's ideology, in addition to the mass murderer slinking around the grounds.
"A big question in the film is, how do we combat conversion therapy, how do we combat bigotry, what is the right thing to do? It really is, what do you do when you have been systematically oppressed and hurt? I think about this all the time, honestly," Germaine explains.
For Germaine, making people feel seen is essential, but so is extending opportunities beyond what has come thus far.
"There's an intersection that I'm dealing with, which is that I'm a white person, so there's a lot of privilege that I have and there's access to spaces that I'm understanding I may have because of how messed up society is, but I also experience this marginalization. I need to be able to have a career that as diverse as somebody else's who doesn't experience the stuff that I experience and is different from who I am," they say.
"I'm always thinking about, how can I write for underrepresented voices? How can I write for my friends who are really, really talented queer and trans actors, who maybe are not getting the opportunities that I have gotten yet? And then I'm also like, 'Well, I also just want to be able to write whatever the f--- I want to write.' I love acting, I love being on camera, but I do not love hogging the spotlight," they continue. "It can get really tricky because there's still overall a lack of representation and a lack of normalizing a lot of us in films. So, sometimes that makes me personally feel like I really have a responsibility to try to specifically help representation."
Get to know Theo Germaine:
In 2019, Germaine had two breakout roles: the feature film Adam (Metascore: 64) and the first season of The Politician (62). In the three years since, Germaine has taken part in a few other important television projects, including Work in Progress (78), 4400 (65), and the documentary Equal, and also returned to film for Night's End (49).