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A Chat With Aneesh Sheth

By Brin Bixby

Perhaps the most tragic loss stemming from Marvel deciding to take all its characters and go home is that we will not see any more of Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” Season 3’s breakout character, Gillian, played by Aneesh Sheth. 

Gillian’s charm, sarcastic wit and wisdom serve to contextualize the wild and fantastic exploits and travails of Jessica Jones, Trish and Dorothy Walker, Malcolm Ducasse and Jeri Hogarth within the reality of a whole world full of normal humans trying to live their lives despite all of the superhuman madness that happens among them. Her adherence to legally-mandated coffee breaks and rushing out the door at exactly 5:00 PM to see a play or a museum exhibit or gather with friends is a refreshing counterbalance to Jessica’s trash fire of a life. 

“I love that. I love that she is this fully realized individual who has [a life]. She’s not just relegated to the office. We see that she is going to the museum and she’s going to the art show, all of these things that she has this huge character to her. Also, the way that the costume designer Liz Vastola and the wardrobe team and everybody in the hair and make-up team all make me look really puts the character of Gillian together, which is really great and that creates a story in itself. Rob Lugo did my hair and Emma Strachman did my makeup and they’re all a really great team. The whole room’s a really great team,” Sheth said. 

In addition to being the only seemingly normal person on the show this season, Gillian is also the very first openly transgender character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a credit to the filmmaker’s dedication to situating the blue-collar superheroics of Jessica Jones within a world that reflects the real world, Gillian’s character was intended to be trans from the start.

“[The producers said] ‘We’re not looking at necessarily a specific as ethnicity or specific gender. We’re looking at personality type, so when they initially came out with the breakdown for Gillian it just said that she’s trans, she’s sassy and snarky and she was an assistant so they really got to see a wide range of folks who could do this kind of [role]. They wanted to cast kind of a wide net and also, as a teachable moment for cis people (in the industry). I was lucky that I was a personality type that they were looking for and also I ended up being the specific look that they I guess ultimately had decided that they wanted to go with,” Sheth told me. 

Often when trans characters are included in stories, their entire narrative revolves around their transness. Refreshingly, that isn’t the case with Gillian.

“You saw as the season went on, other than the breakdown that we received as actors for the audition, there’s no mention of Gillian being trans at all. I think a lot, some people have been like ‘Isn’t that erasing your identity? Should you not declare it?’ and, for me, I think it’s really wonderful to see a trans person exist in the world and that their narrative isn’t about being trans and it’s very much reflective of the world that we live in. They’re also the people around us every single day working in all different environments and your identity isn’t necessarily a plot device,” she said.

“Melissa Rosenberg, the showrunner, and I had a couple of conversations throughout the season about where we thought Gillian came from, what we thought what her history was and where we thought she should go in terms of the relationship with Jessica and relationship with Trish and with Malcolm and things like that, so it was really great as an actor to be able to have that kind of input in creating this character and I felt really blessed. I don’t know if that’s, you know, this is my first recurring role so I don’t know if this is something that generally gets to be done. It’s very special when you get to actually have input on your character, which I was very very happy about.”

She recalled really diving into Gillian’s character and history to inform the way that Gillian is able to impact Trish and Jessica’s relationship.

“I think it was episode 5 where Trish and Gillian are kind of working at the desk and Jessica comes in and she’s like “Oh, great you’re a team now!” and then they get into a fight and Gillian’s response before she leaves the office (“I’m sick of people throwing away friends and family like there’s more where that came from. There isn’t. Work it out” – ed.), that whole scene was one Melissa Rosenberg and I had talked about at length, because we really wanted to show a piece of Gillian that wasn’t just the snarky, sassy person that we always see, but somebody who actually has been through maybe some pain and is trying to teach Jessica and Trish that there’s there’s more than just this fighting. You gotta work it out.”

Sheth was born in Pune, India, and immigrated with her family to the United States when she was a year old. Growing up  queer and trans in an Indian-American subculture presented a number of challenges for Sheth.

“[B]eing from a  mostly Indian family – a lot of my family is white and a lot of my family is not Indian – but the majority of the culture that dominated the family was this Indian subculture and, particularly when I was growing up, there’s this Hijra mentality and they were shunned by society in many, many ways. So, even though I was very very femme presenting from as early as I can remember – I think I was like four years old probably the first time I put on a sari – I remember hearing “you’re a Hijra your entire life” and things like that, so there’s this huge kind of like stigma that was put against me from the very beginning and to this day I don’t have the support of my Indian side of my family. It’s very interesting, because they’re all liberal in their own ways but when it comes to folks I guess within their own family, it’s a different story.”

While Marvel movies have set scenes in India, and there was an Indian man on the World Security Council, Sheth is also playing the first recurring Indian character in the MCU as well, let alone the first trans Indian character. Sheth values the ability to serve as a possibility model for young queer and trans South Asians through her work.

“Growing up queer and South Asian I had absolutely no one reflected back at me and, as you can imagine, that was incredibly difficult as a young queer person trying to validate my own identity. I think it was in my college humanities courses that I began to meet some other queer, South Asian folk that gave me some self-empowerment. However, in the long run, surprisingly, the South Asian queer community was not a part of my support system. In fact, I think I may be in a minority here when I say that up until very recently, my support system was entirely made up of cis folks and non-South Asians. Even in the beginning of my transition, I never felt like I had the support of my communities. Ultimately, I was happy to find my people-regardless of identity. I am thrilled at the idea of being a role model for other trans women, South Asian women and the intersection of those identities for the reasons I mentioned. Not having anyone reflected back at me in my very formative years and through the discovery of my own queerness makes me want to be that for others – it is so important that we have people we can look to and say, hey I am valid and my dreams are valid too.”

“It’s interesting, because as trans people, there’s a lot of similar narrative among me and my sisters is that growing up is very difficult and we didn’t have a lot of validation in terms of who we were as women, who we wanted to be in terms of our career choices, and I know even in show business, it’s very rare that you get the validation as an actor that you’re doing good work and that you’re on the right path, so being able to now, with knowing all my own insecurities, I watch that, and I’m like “Wow! You have a trans Indian woman in a Marvel show!” That is really something that I need to be proud of,  in terms of progress and my career. It’s really, really exciting!”

Photos provided courtesy of Aneesh Sheth.

Read Brin’s interviews with Magdalene Visaggio and Lilah Sturges.

July 17, 2019
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