As most mothers can only dream of setting their child up for career success like Dillon’s, it is even more applaudable—and quite frankly necessary—that she managed to raise Dillon with a genuine understanding of what needs to change in America.
by Angie Palmer
photography by Cornelius Johnson
Asia Kate Dillon made a huge splash in popular culture when they played the first non-binary main character on US television in season 2 of Showtime’s hit series, Billions. With a show centered around the money hungry white men of Wall Street, this character’s entrance was anything but predictable. Dillon themself will be the first to admit that their initial reaction to the script, or more specifically, Taylor Mason’s self-identification as “female non-binary” raised a few questions for them. But after a bit of research Dillon explains that non-binary and female are two labels that can coexist, as one is related to gender identity and one is related to sex. It was then that a lightbulb went off in their head: this was the language that Dillon had always been lacking during their own quest for self-discovery.
As a self-identified non-binary person themself, Dillon had a better understanding of this character and the role that their gender identity played in their complex character development, “one of the reasons that I wanted to play Taylor, and the dominant reason that I said yes, was that I was this character and this identity while a unique part of who they were was not going to be the predominant storyline for their character. And to me that was really important. If their gender identity had been a joke or the character was a one off, I would not have been interested.” It would have been all too easy to insert a non-binary person as a sort of tokenistic outlier in the straight male centered world of finance, but Dillon explains that “you have a character that comes in and says look, actually what you have to do to be successful here is be the best at the job. And the job is nothing to do with my identity or what my body looks like…I think that there is a mirroring of that, of me, Asia, saying, actually, it doesn’t matter what my identity is or what my body looks like, I’m an artist, that’s what’s important.” And important is exactly how one can describe the major ripples that Dillon’s splash has continued to send throughout the world.
Asia Kate Dillon has made it abundantly clear that they want conversations surrounding this character to continue offscreen. With this role, Dillon has earned a Critics’ Choice Television Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2017, 2018 and 2019. When it came time for Showtime to submit Dillon for an Emmy Award nomination, Dillon took it upon themself to go straight to the Academy to raise questions about how they would navigate the categories of “actor” or “actress” in regards to their submission. The academy responded that they could choose, but nevertheless, Dillon has sparked yet another conversation: why do we still rely on a binary system like this in award shows? And in response to their efforts, MTV Movie & TV Awards did away with the gender segregated categories and shifted to a more all encompassing gendered system in 2017, where Dillon was honored by presenting the award for Best Actor, which no longer only included male identifying actors. It’s no secret that the entertainment industry continues to fall behind in terms of inclusivity and diversity, but Dillon has already managed to generate major concrete progress in entertainment award shows.
And as most artists use press interviews to promote their current films and projects, Dillon has always taken it as an opportunity to reach a large audience and raise awareness for social justice issues. Most people can only imagine the risk that comes with playing a character like Taylor Mason or speaking publicly about being a trans person on mainstream television shows like Ellen, Live with Ryan and Kelly and Fab TV. But look up just about any interview clip of Asia Kate Dillon and you’ll be amazed at how they seem to do it with such a valiant and unapologetic ease. As I’m sure Dillon has experienced their fair share of internet trolls, they have also expressed the immense outpouring of support they’ve received from other queer and nonbinary youth, as well as more conservative individuals who cite Dillon as a major influence for gaining a better understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s safe to say that both of these demographics could use a face to put to a label. Nonbinary? Yeah, like that cool actor Asia Kate Dillon.
As they are most celebrated for their role in Billions and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, television is just the beginning of what Dillon has set out to do in this lifetime. This past March, Dillon released their first EP, Handsome Hands, in which all proceeds go to The Marsha P. Johnson Institute. It was actually Dillon’s makeup artist and colleague, Theo, who connected them with non-binary music producer Barb Morrison, “Barb and I got on the phone and we just hit it off, you can’t write stuff like that. But we just got on the phone and it was like our musical references were the same, our tastes were the same, we both felt excited about working with another non-binary person, making an album inspired by queerness, for queer people. I mean the album deals with major themes, right, and I certainly hope that anyone can connect with it and I hope that queer people, non-binary people especially, can know that the album is speaking to them specifically as well.” Right off the bat, the first track off this EP, “Consent,” pulses with a heavy bass and a groovy beat while Dillon sings that “Your consent is so sexy, baby. Is it okay? Can I touch you here? Yes, you can touch me there, too. Just tell me when you’re ready for me. And I’ll give you what you need, it’s true.” The beat, the lyrics, everything about this track is erotic in itself, something I didn’t see coming in a song about consent. The conversation around consent has typically been that it’s important, it’s necessary, it’s required, but Dillon is adding a whole new connotation to the word: it’s sexy. “I mean, I remember I was sitting on the subway and that song just like came into me and I was like, oh my god, and I literally was like, I have to get a pen and paper and I have to write this down right now…And I thought, gosh, if this was a song that came on the radio, I’d want to hear this. If I turn on the radio and I hear a song say that consent was sexy I would be like, where has this song been all my life. And so, it was like, this is a song, this is a message that I wanted to hear, I didn’t know I needed to hear it, and I want other people to hear it. And you know I loved the idea of like picturing sixteen year olds blasting “consent is sexy” out of their car.”
Every track on the 6-song EP brings something a little different to the eclectic album. In fact, the fourth track, “N.B.B (Non-Binary Baby),” is almost like an anthem for other non-binary listeners, while still maintaining its cool and moody vibe. In addition to these bold and inspiring tracks, Dillon also writes incredibly honest songs about falling in love, “Liminal Space” is about, you know, I’ve been with my partner now for about over two years and “Liminal Space” is really about the fact that I continue to be amazed by everyday being inspired by them, impressed by them and just falling more and more in love with them even though we’ve been, as we continue to be together. “Liminal Space” sounds like a song about maybe the first time you meet, how do you do, watch you keep your cool, but it’s actually about having been together for a longer period of time and feeling like liminal space, we made the promise to be together before we arrived in this time and space.” When asked how they manage to keep their music so authentic, they responded “I mean I listen to my songs and I always think, gosh that’s really earnest, or there’s no really B.S. there and I crave the truth and I’m tired of B.S. and because I crave the truth and vulnerability, that’s inherently then what I’m putting out there”. And even though this EP is one of their most recent endeavors, music has always been a vital part of Dillon’s life, “I love music so much, and yes music was always a part of my life…it goes back to my mom. My mom has an incredibly eclectic taste, she sings, she dances, you know music has always been in the house. I was always surrounded by it and so I’ve always sang.”
The track “Liminal Spaces,” was inspired by Dillon’s partner Corrine Donly, a Brooklyn-based playwright who wrote Orchid Receipt Service which was produced by Dillon and cofounder Christopher Hersh’s production company MIRROR/FIRE. The play is centered around a transmasculine couple in their late twenties and chronicles their breakup through a recounting of their subconscious dreams, “We had a cast of predominantly trans people of color, a production team of predominantly trans people of color.” Founded in 2016, the company’s mission statement is “to create and or promote work that supports and uplifts historically marginalized and historically disenfranchised people”. This is a statement that seems to be consistent throughout all of Asia Kate Dillon’s art, and when mentioning this comment, Dillon modestly replies that “I feel really proud and really humbled. You know art is the thing for me that, I’ve said this, but that cracks me open and encourages me to go on a deeper journey to find my compassion and my own empathy for myself and for humanity and so if I can say, or if you’re reflecting back to me, that I’ve been a small part of what encourages other people to do that then as I said, I feel very proud and very humbled.
“To me activism and art go hand in hand.” But Asia Kate Dillon wants to be clear that the way in which one is able to be an activist varies based on a plethora of reasons. While actors like Jane Fonda are celebrated in the media for their commitment to activism (and rightly so, Fonda has been arrested five times for climate change activism) Dillon notes that not every person can risk arrest like cis gendered Fonda. “I’m a nonbinary person, if I get arrested and go to jail, where do I go? Into an environment where because of my identity, I might not be safe. Which doesn’t mean I’m not willing to risk my safety if the stakes are high, and that is what’s required in a given situation, I’m only bringing this up to illustrate that it’s much more complicated. And there are certainly spaces where I can put my literal body on the line because of the color of my skin, for example, that other people can’t. And if I can do that in a situation where that is what is necessary, because that is what will do the greatest good, then yes.”
As a trans person themself, Dillon still never fails to address the immense white privilege they carry. In response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many other innocent black Americans that have fallen victim to racist police brutality, Dillon has been extremely outspoken about the Black Lives Matter movement across their social media platforms. With over 100,000 followers on Instagram, Dillon provided an immense amount of resources for people to use in order to bring the overdue change to the police system in the United States. They have also made sure to prioritize amplifying black voices, choosing to repost content from black individuals instead of the blackout square that many other celebrities with large followings opted for. But even in the current viral moment, Dillon is by no means new to this movement. Red carpet photos from their 2018 Critics’ Choice Awards nomination show Dillon dressed in a hoodie that reads “black lives matter” eight times. As most celebrities on the carpet were probably asked “what designer are you wearing?” conversation surrounding Dillon’s outfit choice probably looked more like “what does black lives matter mean to you?” Conversation has always been a priority for Asia Kate Dillon. This is consistent even with their neck tattoo which reads, Einfühlung, the german word for empathy. Dillon explains the tattoo’s significance in that it sparks important conversations about empathy everytime someone asks them about the undeniably noticeable ink. As most of us view red carpet looks and tattoos as nothing more than an aesthetic choice, Dillon continues to impress audiences with their ability to be intentional about everything they put on display.
And once again, this isn’t a recent characteristic of Asia Kate Dillon. Born and raised in Ithaca, New York, Dillon got their start at 16 when they attended The Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca, where they acquired the title of the youngest person ever admitted to the Meisner training program. They eventually moved to New York City to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and went on to work with numerous Academy Award and Tony Award-winning playwrights. It was their role as Lucifer in The Mysteries that really drew the attention and traction Dillon was destined for as an actor. In October of 2014, Dillon released an artist statement to YouTube when they were cast in The Tempest with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. “I believe, I know, that art is an extraordinary catalyst and perhaps the most powerful catalyst for the journey on which one goes to find their deepest compassion for humanity…I’m an optimist and an idealist but I’m also a realist so I know the things I strive for, no more war, and interraccial, sexual, gender and mental health oppression, no more homelessness. These things will not be achieved in my lifetime. But if I could say that at the end of my life that I was an artist, that through my work I fight for a just cause and that I was a part of the catalyst that urged people to find their humanity then I would feel very proud”.
At 35, it seems that Asia Kate Dillon has already achieved their dying wish. But where did this urgent sense for social justice and advocacy through art come from? This question is practically redundant, as Dillon has made it absolutely clear that they have their mother to thank for instilling these values in them at such a young age. “I was raised by an incredible single mother who instilled in me from a very early age that it was important to stand up for and support historically marginalized and historically disenfranchised people.” They go on to explain that, “we both carry white-body privilege but we also existed within certain margins of society. I got free lunch, we got food stamps, you know there were any number of ways in which I grew up experiencing what it was like to live on certain margains, whether it was socially or economically so inherently standing up for marginalized people was standing up for myself and also you know, and this comes from my mom too, when you’re working to make the world safer for other people, you’re inherently working to make it safer for yourself”. Even when it comes to their career path, Asia Kate Dillon has always thanked their mother. When applauding their recent EP, Dillon graciously states that “it feels like you’re acknowledging my mother.” Besides instilling a love of music in Dillon during childhood, it was also their mother who turned them onto the John Wick film franchise and in 2019, Dillon starred in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. But as most mothers can only dream of setting their child up for career success like Dillon’s, it is even more applaudable—and quite frankly necessary—that she managed to raise Dillon with a genuine understanding of what needs to change in America.
As many of us have been recently asking ourselves what we can do to help black communities in America, whether it be through educating ourselves, donating to bail out funds, calling our governors, and investing in black owned businesses to name a few, perhaps we also need to take a leaf from Dillon’s book. And no, I don’t mean that we all need to go out and get neck tattoos tomorrow or win a Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award, but we can all decide to incorporate more intention into what we put out in the world. And the truth is, these things start at home. People like Asia Kate Dillon aren’t just born with a passion for social justice, just like how people aren’t born with racist views, it is something that we all learn throughout childhood and adolescence. So as younger generations begin to start families of their own, let’s all ask ourselves what kind of person we want to raise up and into this world. Let’s strive to create a new generation of empathic leaders like Asia Kate Dillon.