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Back in 2016, fans of the critically acclaimed Netflix dramedy “Orange Is the New Black” were introduced to the character Brandy Epps, a member of the prison’s white supremacy gang. Actor Asia Kate Dillon brought Brandy to life and, over the course of the show, portrayed a character that couldn’t be further from their real self. However, eagle-eyed fans may have noticed that the producers snuck part of the actor’s true identity into the character, through Dillon’s real neck tattoo—lettering that reads “einfühlung.” “The tattoo means empathy or one feeling,” Dillon explains. “I discovered that German was the first to translate the word empathy out of Greek. It was translated in the 1860s by a German philosopher who was trying to come up with a word for the experience that people have when engaging with art.”

Dillon felt an empathy for art at a young age and was raised by a single mother who filled their home with music, films and books. At 6 years old, Dillon found acting in kindergarten through a Hans Christian Anderson play. And despite being cast as a townsperson and not having a single line, they fell in love with the stage. “It’s an age-old thing, but I got bit by the bug as it were and I never stopped,” Dillon says. “My mother sensed that I had artistic instincts and followed my lead when I joined the school choir, did the spring musical and the fall play. I’ve been so grateful to have a mom who really supported me and always encouraged me. In our household, being an artist was as noble a profession as being a doctor.”

Dillon went on to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Theater and acted in "The Mysteries" at The Flea. From this role, Dillon was spotted by an agency who helped them turn the corner into the world of television. “My first one-liner was on the TV show ‘Younger’ and I played a normcore flea market shopper,” Dillon says. “That experience was particularly thrilling because it was my first time on a real TV set and I remember feeling like I was right where I’d wanted to be working. It really all clicked for me in the same way it did when I was 6 and on stage for the first time.”

Booking “Orange Is the New Black” changed Dillon’s life overnight, catapulting them to stardom. Despite playing a relatively minor character, it wasn’t long before Dillon was snatched up for a much bigger project. “For ‘Billions,’ like ‘Orange,’ I got an email from my agent saying they had this audition appointment for me,” Dillon shares. “I auditioned with the casting director and she said I was going to come back to meet the producers. It was one of those moments that I feel like I watched in movies when I was younger and that’s how people magically got the part. I didn’t think it really happened that way.”

Dillon made a positive impression on the show’s producers, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, booking the part a day after the Season Four premiere of “Orange Is the New Black.” And unlike their last television part, the role of Taylor Mason hit much closer to home. “It was the first time I’d encountered a fictional or nonfictional character who identified as nonbinary but hadn’t undergone a physical or medical transition,” Dillon says. “[This] certainly was the catalyst for me coming to a full understanding of my gender identity. Taylor Mason is also important because they represent a queer, trans, nonbinary character in a predominately cis world. They’re a character who’s integral to pushing the story forward and that story is not focused on their gender identity.”

Photos by Shirin Tinati

Photos by Shirin Tinati

The character Dillon plays made history as the first nonbinary main character to be portrayed on a North American television show and one of the first things the character addresses is their use of gender-neutral pronouns. Mason’s presence in television history and Dillon’s portrayal of the character as a nonbinary actor shows tremendous progress is being made in queer storytelling. “[Cinema] has done damage to the queer community for a very long time and more recently we’re seeing representation that is more truthful,” Dillon says. “We’re seeing trans and nonbinary stories told by or with the consultation of trans and nonbinary people, which is relatively new. Taylor Mason being part of that history is important to me and I feel proud to be one part of that history.”

Honest and dimensional representation of trans and nonbinary characters is integral to helping LGBT+ see themselves on screen, but also allows the rest of the world to understand and empathsize with these communities. Despite the progress our society continues to make, only 30 percent of adults know someone who’s trans or nonbinary, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center. “I’ve had people say they were homophobic or transphobic, but have loved ‘Billions’ and my character and I’ve really changed their hearts and mind,” Dillon says. “The hope is that a person falls in empathy with a trans or nonbinary character on screen, so that when that person meets a trans or nonbinary person in real life, hopefully that love, understanding and empathy translates to the person in front of them.”

But Dillon’s fight for nonbinary representation doesn’t only adhere to the fictional world of high finance. Growing up, Dillon rejected the word actress and the separation of genders at awards shows long before they came to understand their nonbinary identity. Then in 2017, Dillon was contacted by Showtime, who wanted to know how they would like to be submitted for the possibility of being nominated for an Emmy. “At that time, they told me any performer could enter either category for any reason,” Dillon says. “Being told that I could submit in either category felt like progress to me and when I was nominated for best supporting actor at the Critics’ Choice Awards, I felt really respected and seen in my identity.” However, not every awards show offers the gender-neutral category of best actor, such as the SAG Awards, which honors outstanding female and outstanding male actors. Dillon realized there was more work to be done and will be meeting with the SAG Awards to discuss making this change. “I’ve come to an understanding that allowing nonbinary performers to enter either category for any reason is actually not progress because it still denotes between men and women,” Dillon says. “As a nonbinary person, I’m not a man and I’m not a woman. Nonbinary people have always been here and it’s time for Hollywood to acknowledge that and embrace it. The time is past due, and it’s now.”

Asia Kate Dillon has their work cut out for them, both on screen and off. Changing the traditions of an institution is no easy feat, but if anyone can rise to the challenge with tenacity, charm and empathy, it’s this tattooed trailblazer.