A Conversation with Tom Phelan
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Written by Helen Schultz
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Emma Pratte
October 27, 2016
A year ago, Taylor Mac’s Hir became the buzziest show off-Broadway: extensions, sold-out runs at Playwrights Horizons, and Critics’ Picks from virtually every publication in New York. At the center of it all: a TV actor who had made history playing a transgender teen on ABC Family’s The Fosters. Tom Phelan would again make history by playing the genderqueer Max – a young person whose preferred pronoun, “hir,” inspired the title of the new American classic.
A year later, Tom is no longer onstage at the Peter Jay Sharp. These days, he’s a college student by day, working actor by night. And, of course, a rabid fan of theater. We sat down to talk with him about the historical resonance of Hir, the power of unlikable marginalized characters, and his hopes for the future of a more empathetic theater.
Helen Schultz: How did you discover the role in Hir?
Tom Phelan: I got an email from the team and a message on Twitter. It was the most gobbledigook, millennial casting process ever. They asked me to put myself on tape, so I did my audition in my high school auditorium, and had my high school drama teacher be my reader. I practiced for days with my dad going back and forth, doing it over and over. I happened to be in New York because I was auditioning for Juilliard, and they were like hey – can you come in and do it with us? I went into the room and it was Taylor [Mac], Niegel [Smith], and Bailey [Koch] and one other casting person. I freak out and I do it and I don’t remember a second of it and I leave. I’m shaking and I call my mom and I’m going to Chipotle because I haven’t eaten, and then they call me back and they say, hey, can you come back? We need you for one more thing! Niegel had been giving me these notes, and I was kinda getting it but I wasn’t quite there, and I walked out feeling a little weird about it, and they called me back, and I finally got it, and I walked out and it was just the craziest thing that’s ever happened. Off-Broadway was the dream of all dreams and I don’t know…I just love theater so much, and for it to be Playwrights Horizons, and for it to be Hir, a play that I literally read in American Theatre Magazine and was like, oh! I’ll see that when that comes out! It was the craziest thing.
HS: Did they give you sides to read from?
TP: It was about four pages of sides, and they didn’t change at all from audition to the show.
HS: What was it like to go into a play that you loved so much, and so wanted to be a part of? And being DM’d on Twitter about being in a show you’d dreamed of being in?
TP: It was crazy. It was the first time I’d done a project that I cared so, so, so deeply about, which radically changed the experience. It made it so much more difficult to work on, honestly, because I cared so much about how it turned out, and I knew that I could sink the play. It’s a pretty evenly-balanced play in terms of how much every character gets to play and be, and I really wanted to do justice to Taylor’s play. The pressure was on.
HS: And you got to work with so many incredible actors.
TP: You should’ve seen me when I found out Kristine Nielsen was going to be my mom. I hit the floor. I dropped. Just the talent and the level of expertise – I was so daunted and so terrified and felt so horrible after so many rehearsals…but I learned so much. I can’t imagine ever touching an experience like that.
HS: Did you see something on Backstage at all? I know that Hir lead to a real rethinking of their casting calls, and the binary in so many casting notices.
TP: No. And I wasn’t even looking at the time – I was in high school, taking Calc AP and freaking out. They reached out to me.
HS: Had you wrapped The Fosters by then?
TP: I had, I think so. The last thing I shot was on my high school graduation day. I couldn’t make it – “I’m sorry, I’m working!” They were like we might bring you back, and they’re always sort of “maybe.”
HS: That’s amazing to have both of those experiences at the same time – filming a TV show and living your life in high school. Were you doing school plays and amateur stuff as well?
TP: Oh yes. Oh god… what’s the worst thing I did in high school? [Laughs] I was in a production of In The Heights – #InTheWhites – as my high school was predominantly white. That was very shameful and it was horrible. It was horrible. I was in School for Scandal; I was in Sweeney Todd as Beggar Woman as a freshman. I did this play by Richard Greenberg, this short play, that originally starred David Hyde Pierce, Patricia Clarkson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I was Philip Seymour Hoffman. And that really solidified “this is my type, this is how I’m typecast, as a Philip Seymour Hoffman.” It was about a troll, and I played a troll, and I was like, this is it! This is who I am! Finally! [Laughs]
HS: Was it a magnet school?
TP: I went to an off-set of Cal Tech, which was an offset of the university, but they just happened to have a really great theater program.
HS: They were cool with you doing stuff outside of school?
HS: And now you’re in college and living that life! Do you think you’re going to work during your studies, or take some time off?
TP: I’m really going to try to! I have a reading tomorrow actually, whcih is awesome. Other than that, I’m going out on calls and, you know, the grind.
HS: Do you ever find it hard to balance all that?
TP: Telling my professors that I was going to miss my first day of classes because of a reading was not a fun task.
HS: I’m sure that they knew that going in, having accepted you as a student and as an actor. What work inspires you, and what are you most looking forward to this season?
TP: I have a list on my phone! I bought a subscription to the Signature, because their season is unbelievably exciting. All the Suzan-Lori Parks, the new Annie Baker, Will Eno, new BJJ, it’s going to be amazing. Obviously I’m excited for Taylor’s play – tickets are a lot. But I’m going to see if I can get my dad to go see it and ride his coattails and hook on.
HS: And the new Sondheim!
HS: Something that we really believe in at Stage & Candor is that theater is all about empathy. Hir feels that way too. They’re not the sort of characters you’d meet, point-blank – they’re so isolated. The entire play takes place in their home, this sort of world of their own creation. They don’t really leave their house. Could you talk about the process of that show, and a moment of empathy you’ve had as an audience member or an artist?
TP: I feel like I so often enter a room with hostility, and entering a rehearsal room, that’s not something you can do. The play really taught me a lot about that and not assuming anything about anyone. I think that identify politics is a little bit deaf, and I think… I think approaching people as human beings is the first thing you should do.
The play itself, everything I think about it, it just breaks me. It’s really, really brutal. Everyday it would shift and I would feel more for a different character. I would get so angry at the audience – the audience a lot of times would come out really hating Paige. I remember feeling so much anger about that, and being so furious that they refused to consider it from her angle. We had a lot of audience talkbacks that were horrible in that way.
HS: What do you think that’s a product of? Misogyny?
TP: Absolutely misogyny. A misplaced…I think people assume that because there’s a Capital T Trans Character that they are infallible and that they are, I don’t know, the “good ones.” It’s good representation, whatever that means, to have a perfect model of a trans character. I think a lot of times the audience would be l really feeling for Max when they should be feeling for everyone in the play. I just love the play so much, I love it so much.
HS: So much of that play is about misogyny – not just gender, but the idea of dismantling patriarchy from a very female perspective. The mother really is the one driving the action.
TP: Dream. That’s crazy. I read this interview with her where Young Jean Lee was like, I wanted to write a play. I went to my students and I asked them all, what do you think? How can a straight white man be a good person? She asked them all and then she wrote a play about that person, who would listen and didn’t speak over people and did all these things their students said they wanted. [Editor’s note: Straight White Men.] He was a loser and no one liked him. And I think that’s so fascinating, that the idea of the person we believe these dominant people should be is not actually what we want them to be.
HS: There’s definitely a parallel between that character and the dad in Hir. It’s sort of this immobilized person.
TP: You think you want that but ultimately that’s not what you want, and also incredibly dehumanizing and horrible. People are people, people aren’t monoliths. They’re not representative of their group.
HS: Your character really has the button at the end of the play – hir goes and forgives everyone and offers a way forward, this new cycle.
TP: It was a lot. It was a lot. I don’t know. Theater’s the best. Getting to do that play for so long and become a family with those people was transcendent. Like, just amazing.
HS: And it really started so many conversations about casting. What really sort of baffles me is that there’s so few plays about the LGBT experience, especially the “T,” and TV is blowing up with stories about queer people. It was really interesting for me to go on Instagram and go through and see these kids who are like 11 and are like, correcting each other and saying, No, you should ask somebody’s preferred pronouns and not assume, because of The Fosters.
TP: It’s really crazy, it’s really cool. TV is the new frontier and, I dunno, you just hope that it allows…I think there’s a lot more room for nuance in theater. Not to generalize, but I think theater oftentimes is just smarter and more thought-through. Just for the fact that these opportunities are opening up for all these actors is fantastic. It’s really great, the fact that people are finally being paid to do this. That’s a step forward.
HS: And you were involved on the new series, Doubt.
TP: Yeah, my parents created Doubt and I worked as a PA over the summer. I got lunches and printed out scripts and collated. It was the best job I’ve ever had. I love and trust my parents and I think it’s going to be a really good show.
HS: I’m so excited to see that Laverne Cox is just everywhere.
TP: Thank god!
HS: I was so upset that she wasn’t on the last season. Don’t keep her locked up, she’s the best part of the show.
TP: Honestly. She’s deserves all the opportunities in the world. Seeing her face on a bus is going to be mind-boggling.
HS: Was it at all strange to see yourself with ABC Family and The Fosters blowing up? You received a ton of press for you and your character, Cole.
TP: It was really weird. But it was really cool and I’m so lucky that I got to do that. I’m so glad that weird, awful, in-between part of my teen years is so well-documented. It’s amazing to see me in between figuring things out. It’s embarrassing but great. Nobody wants to be documented that well at 16.
HS: Your character now has so much weight too. It’s really very interesting to see how much backstory and importance is packed into a small character.
TP: They devoted a lot of time to Cole, which was really cool. I’m just so lucky that I got to be…I think there was, the pre-requisite capital T trans storyline, but after that I got to have a love interest, and be funny, and have fun, and have friends, and go to the beach. That’s the sort of story I think is the most important. Just normal people, doing people things.
HS: Where do you think it goes next? How do we start to create trans characters that just…are, you know?
TP: That’s something I think that Doubt is doing pretty well. Literally in the pilot there’s one or two lines about her being trans and it’s just a huge deal. I think a lot of that stems from having a trans writer on staff whose name is Imogen Binnie – she wrote a novel called Nevada that is mind-blowing. She’s the greatest. Obviously, having trans storylines about being trans is important because that’s just a fundamental part of our lives but having that be the smallest piece of the pie in storylines about losing your lottery receipt and taking your dog to doggy day care…I think that’s great.
HS: I thought it was interesting, what you said about likable characters. Because now, Shakina [Nayfack] is on Difficult People and she’s just an awful character.
TP: Oh my god, those scenes…I look forward to them so much. The scenes with Cole Escola and Shakina and Derrick Baskin, who is amazing…But I think it is really interesting in that being unlikable is something we’ve talked about with women, but not necessarily with POC or trans people and all these other groups that when they’re put into a story, have to be representative and perfect.
It’s so uninteresting. It’s so, so, so, so boring and un-nuanced. I mean, take it if it pays well but it’s not a story that I want to tell. And it’s not a story for people like me. It’s for other people; it’s for a different audience. And I think considering who you’re aiming your media for is really important.
Michelle Tse: Do you think that contributes to education of the general public?
TP: I think it does. I think people try their best and they mean well and they want to spread the word and get these issues out there, but it’s so often second hand information through a friend of a friend or through a fact page on Wikipedia. I don’t know. It’s just boring.
HS: And at the same time, I feel like there’s been…something that Black Lives Matter talks about a lot is that you need to educate yourself. It’s not the job of marginalized folks to do that for you. Do you feel similarly?
TP: There is just a huge pressure to be vulnerable and educate people using your own personal pain. That’s so coercive and awful. There’s pressure to put myself on display, and so often it’s unpaid and just expected of me no matter what. Expect people to educate you if you’re paying them to educate you. Other than that, do it yourself.
HS: You love Sondheim a lot. Talk about that, because I feel like Sondheim isn’t someone we talk about much anymore, now that we’re in the Lin era.
TP: I have been in love with him. I listened to Assassins for the first time, it was the first Sondheim musical I ever listened to. I was in 7th grade, and I only listened to it because I was infatuated with Neil Patrick Harris and I got the revival cast recording for all of his songs and I was like, I actually like this, let’s listen to the whole thing. His work…I could try to pinpoint exactly what it is but it moves me so much, more than anything else. I think Sunday in the Park with George is the most…
HS: There are no words, honestly.
TP: It’s the best musical.
MT: Especially since it’s art, visually…
HS: It’s hard to articulate it in words. It’s theater.
TP: I know.
HS: I was listening to the new Carly Rae CD…
TP: Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Emotion Side B…queen of everything. It’s so good. I keep telling my friends to listen to it and they’re like, mmm, okay. But I’m like, you don’t understand. It’s the best pop album ever written.
HS: Sondheim and Carly Rae.
TP: I’m not kidding all I’ve been listening to is Carly Rae, a little bit of Sondheim, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, that’s it.
HS: Donna Lynne Champlin…did you run into her at all when she was working on The Qualms at Playwrights Horizons?
TP: Oh my god, no, but what an amazing, amazing person. I will go down with character actors until the day I die.
HS: In a lot of ways, I feel like TV is becoming what I want theater to be: a much more accepting, rich representation of all of these people whose stories we very rarely see in the mainstream.
TP: Me too, but I hope TV becomes more like theater. I was watching Horace and Pete, which failed in a lot of ways but was also incredible in a lot of ways, and seeing Annie Baker’s little touch on that, how she influenced it, was really cool. I think it accomplished a lot more depth than I’ve ever seen in TV. I hope the two can influence each other.
HS: Is there anyone on Doubt or on The Fosters who is a playwright on the writing teams?
TP: That’s such a good question…no. We have a lot of lawyers. One lawyer who is very New York and into the playwriting scene. We have a folk musician on the writing staff who is just a really good writer. A woman who went to Columbia and is really cool. It’s a diverse little room.
HS: It’s so interesting now that so many people we’ve talked to write for TV too, because it’s sort of the way to make a living. It’s usurping all our writers.
TP: I know. Literally.
MT: Playwrights know character development. They know how to do it and fit it into two-and-a-half hours, so imagine what they could do with 13 or 22 episodes.
TP: I do die a little bit whenever another one bites the dust and then gets taken away.
HS: Yeah. I mean, Jordan Harrison is on Orange is the New Black now.
MT: Hilary Bettis is at The Americans. Tanya Barfield is there too, I think. Carla Ching is at I Love Dick. Oh, there are so many. David Henry Hwang is working on The Affair…
TP: He is doing a lot. He’s head of the American Theatre Wing too?
MT: Yeah he’s the Chair. I believe ATW just started a diversity committee last year.
TP: Good for them, that’s awesome.
HS: It’s interesting. Sometimes I worry about diversity in theater because TV is producing so much and they can pay so much more…It’s like, you don’t say no to writing for Netflix, and when you’ve been standing outside in the theater world banging on the door for 20 years…
TP: You just hope that companies like Playwrights and The Public are able to work with enough money and really finance these playwrights and get them developing.
HS: It makes me so sad that Playwrights is the first company to offer even half of healthcare.
TP: And the amazing thing was that they paid Taylor to be in rehearsal every single day, which was really important. It was such a boon to us.
Tom Phelan made headlines becoming the first transgender teen actor to portray a transgender teen on a major network show, ABC Family’s groundbreaking series “The Fosters.” Credits with Pasadena’s Theatre 360 include Hair, Spring Awakening, The Authors’ Voice and School for Scandal. Hir is Tom’s Playwrights Horizons and New York stage debut.