As a child, nonbinary actor E.R. Fightmaster vividly remembers the sound of hearing themselves addressed by “she/her” pronouns. “I describe it now as this feeling of sharpness — it hurt my ears,” Fightmaster (who uses they/them pronouns) tells Yahoo Entertainment, adding that they didn’t have the language to describe the feeling of being misgendered for quite some time.
“I never felt fully attached to womanhood, and I don’t feel fully attached to manhood,” they say. “I’ve always felt in the middle.” (Watch our video interview above.)
As an adult, it was Fightmaster’s partner who provided the crucial piece of their identity puzzle in a surprisingly casual way. “She referred to me as ‘they’ offhandedly to someone else. I heard it, and I felt it immediately. It was like, ‘Oh, this is the answer to all those bad constant feelings that I have,” they recall. “Then I started to come out to family and friends [as nonbinary], and it’s been a really interesting journey. And for the people closest to me, it really makes sense.”
With that kind of personal history, it also really makes sense that the producers of Grey’s Anatomy picked Fightmaster to play the first nonbinary character in the ABC drama’s 18-season history.
The actor made their debut as neuroscientist Dr. Kai Bartley on the second episode of the current season, which aired on Oct. 7. At that point, Dr. Bartley was slated to be a guest-starring part, but Fightmaster had a good feeling about the role right away. “It felt like one of those opportunities where they say — without having to say it — ‘Do your best and we’ll see.’ I knew I had an opportunity to maybe make it go a little further.”
And Fightmaster absolutely made the best of that opportunity: On Oct. 27, ABC announced that Kai would become a recurring character when the show returns with new episodes on Nov. 11. The actor joins a cast that’s already one of the most diverse on television, feeling a sense of belonging not always experienced in childhood. “Grey’s Anatomy has this incredible reach, and when you look back at the beginning of the show, it had more representation across the board than any show on television for a longer time,” they say. “It was really exciting for me to see in the description of [Kai], ‘This is what they’re looking for — they’re looking for you.'”
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In a wide-ranging conversation, Fightmaster discussed getting their start in the comedy world, ignoring the online haters and why they’re also rooting for the Kai/Amelia romance that Grey’s fans are already shipping.
What was the process behind your getting cast on Grey’s Anatomy?
I got an audition script for Grey’s and it genuinely looked like a fun audition, but I had a concert that I was supposed to do with my band Twin in New York and they were shooting on the same day. So I almost did not do the audition because I’m dumb! [Laughs] Once I shot the audition tape, I watched it back and was like, ‘Oh, this would be like such a perfect fit.’ And then once I got the phone call the next day, I felt like it was meant to be.
Was there a particular aspect of the character that appealed to you right away?
I think the opportunity to play a nonbinary character that’s so high-status. I’ve been on shows like Shrill and Work in Progress, where I played the love interest, and I love that stuff. But this added an extra element that was a stretch beyond what I had done before, and that made it extra exciting for me to do. I also get to play across from Peter Gallagher in this specific storyline, who I just love so much. He’s so funny and so great. I really cannot say much more, but their arc is fun! A lot of reasons to keep watching.
How have the writers been handling your character specifically? Are you happy with what they’re doing?
What I’m really thrilled about is that they’ve handled being nonbinary so casually that it feels like I’m getting to just be a person. And that is very thrilling to me that they’re basically acting like in this world you say that your pronouns are “they/them” and everyone accepts it. Of course, that’s not the way it happens [in real life], but we have an incredible fanbase and the minute I was referred to as “they/them” they followed suit. All the videos and all of the comments and all of the support has been really gender-affirming and really positive.
It feels like by handling nonbinary so casually, the writers are showing a much wider audience that it’s not that big of a deal. I also think all the writers that I have worked with so far have had the beautiful gift of empathy, which all the best writers have. It starts with empathy first and foremost, so my advice to any writer is to lead with your heart.
Speaking of the fans, they’re already shipping Kai and Amelia Shepherd. Are you into that?
I didn’t know what shipping was until I started getting tagged in all these videos — which I love by the way! I watched too many of them; it’s going to my head. [Laughs] I love the excitement about it, and I get it as a viewer. You watch things and if you get even a whiff that you could possibly have your love life represented on TV, there’s something that’s so genuinely exciting about it. I also love playing across from Catarina [Scorsone], so I’m genuinely right there with the audience. I am also shipping Kai and Amelia!
You mentioned that you liked that the writers are just treating Kai like another doctor. Is that how you’d like to see Hollywood in general approach non-binary characters?
I think there’s so much room for both ends of the spectrum here. There’s room for shows that are showing nonbinary people like actors and characters talking about how they got here, because I think that’s also helpful. I also think that you never want to be too normal, but to normalize something like this gives people the language and the tools to accept what they’re hearing. I do believe very strongly that when people see things on TV, they become real to them. If you’re not surrounded by nonbinary people — or you don’t have gay friends — then this is something that could take a lot longer than if you see it acted out onscreen and you go, “Oh okay, this makes sense.” That part is very exciting to me.
Does it ever get frustrating to be the one to have to educate people?
Sometimes it’s frustrating, but I feel very called as a person to give people the patience and the space to mess up with me so that the nonbinary people that they interact with afterwards don’t have the same time that I have. I feel the same way about playing Dr. Bartley on Grey’s — I really relish the opportunity for kids and adults to see me and maybe have that realization that there are other options, and to find a space of comfort in that because they’re seeing it represented on TV.
There’s a 2018 Chicago Tribune article about you that refers to you with “she/her” pronouns. What was your reaction?
That was the last time that happened, and I think it went into print before I had come out as “they/them.” It’s funny, I have that article framed in my house, and I love it, but I also look at it as a time capsule. It’ an homage to the me I didn’t know then, as well as the me I know now.
You got your start at the Second City in Chicago. Do you think you can change minds through comedy in the same way you can via movies and television?
Well, the sick little thing you have to do as a comedian is that you bring comedy to the acting world. It’s not like Grey’s is asking me to be funny on screen, but I do have a lot of fun with my castmates, so I’m sneaking it in! [Laughs] And I do think that comedy is one of the best tools [to educate] because it disarms people. All the comedians that I came up with in Chicago — especially the ones at Second City — actively understood when we were writing shows that we had the chance to put something onstage that an audience member might not like and find a funny way to basically pull empathy from them.
Sometimes that wasn’t even doing a sketch or a scene where we were talking about, for example, me being gay. I feel like when I was onstage, I could write scenes about me being gay and that’s great, but I also felt like me being there and being able to perform for them and connect with them and give them and their families a good time, that in itself is what makes people go, “Oh, I liked that comedian. Maybe I’ll like the rest.”
We do hear certain comedians complain about how you can’t say anything controversial anymore. Does that make you roll your eyes when you hear it?
My personal relationship to comedy is maybe different than some other bullies, but I do think comedy is a tool to bring people together. That has always been the way that I have enjoyed comedy. My least favorite memories of my life are the times I look back and I see that I used comedy in a way that excluded someone or made someone feel bad. It depends on what you want to get from comedy. If you want only a certain part of the room to laugh — and you want them to laugh at somebody — then I think that what certain comedians are doing is absolutely correct.
Even though most Grey’s fans have embraced the show’s diverse characters, there’s always a segment who get angry and sound off on Twitter. Do you try and just block that sort of negativity out?
I’m getting better at it! I’m stupid with social media, because like everyone else I’ll scroll long enough, and even if I’m not clicking on things I’m tagged in or comments, I will inevitably see something that is not exactly kind. And I would be 100 percent lying if I said it doesn’t hurt my feelings. But also I have a lot of sympathy for people who live so angrily about the happiness of others. And I wish them the best.
Is there any way to reach them in your mind, apart from the things you’re already doing?
I think when people have a problem with you based on your identity alone, that usually the problem is themselves. So for me to spend a lot of time trying to reach people who are inevitably not happy with themselves in some way would be a waste of my time. And I think it would set the precedent that when nonbinary people or anybody experiences some form of hatred or aggression that our role is to reach across the aisle. I am so happy to reach across the aisle for people who can be moved. I am very reluctant to reach my hand into a rat trap.
We’ve seen nonbinary actors join shows like Star Trek Discovery and Billions, and now yourself on Grey’s. Do you see a steady progression in terms of representation?
I think so. I think all the nonbinary actors that are out there right now are doing a good job. And I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve had non-binary performances for a long time. Not to misgender anybody, but if you look at Grace Jones or Tilda Swinton or Prince, we’ve had this understanding that gender is fluid before we’ve been able to put language to it. And now that we’re putting language to it, all these actors are coming up that are so talented and are doing such a good job. I think it’s inevitable that we will see more of this, especially if it’s supported.
Grey‘s will keep you busy obviously, but do you have a dream role that you’d really love to do?
I’m ready to do some action, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs] I’m trying to get buff for a role. Right now, I am kind of noodle-sized, but you put me in a superhero outfit and I swear to God, I will gain a hundred pounds of muscle!
Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC