Actress, singer, author, teacher, and HIV activist Alexandra Billings has long been blazing trails. She became one of the first out trans actresses to play a trans role on television, in the 2005 TV prequel Romy and Michele: In the Beginning. She’s appeared in numerous films and TV shows throughout her career (including How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy) and received critical acclaim for her scene-stealing role as Davina on the hit Amazon series Transparent. She also showed her musical theater chops when she starred as Madame Morrible in the Broadway mega-hit Wicked in 2019.
Arguably her work in Transparent has been some of her most groundbreaking. In addition to being the first out trans actress to do a full-frontal nude scene on TV, she also influenced the show’s writers to include HIV narratives in the series.
“[Transparent costar Trace Lysette] and I don’t have to join the revolution. We are the fucking revolution,” said Billings in a 2018 interview with Plus, commenting on Hollywood’s responsibility to tell queer and trans stories. “We’re loud. We’re big. We took up enormous space. What are you going to do?’”
Billings and her Transparent castmates (including longtime HIV advocate Judith Light, in white) in the show's musical finale
In person, Billings is a funny, frank, and charming woman whose razor-sharp wit and undeniable wisdom makes you want to sit and listen to her speak for hours. Even in her most off-the-cuff and humorous remarks, you feel there is always something to learn — which makes sense since, in addition to building a remarkable career across screen and stage, she’s also been passing on her knowledge, in one way or another, for over 30 years.
However, Billings, 60, says she wasn’t just magically born with all that wit, wisdom, and charm (OK, maybe the charm). It mostly comes from living a life so rich in experience, with amazing highs and traumatic lows and everything in-between, that it makes your average telenovela seem like Leave It to Beaver. And now she is detailing much of her fascinating story — from her past sex work to living through the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s, to the harassment allegations on the set of Transparent — in her new book, This Time for Me: A Memoir.
“I actually didn’t come up with the title,” says Billings with a laugh. “I had a whole other one. I wanted to call it The Accidental Revolutionary. I wanted to call it that, but it sounded kind of weird…. I had a couple of ideas, which everybody hated.”
Fortunately, she says her co-editor, Joanne Leslie Gordon — “really, the organizer of the whole book” — eventually came up with a title for the memoir that all could agree on.
“It was out of nowhere” she recalls. “We were having a meeting and she said, ‘This time for me.’ And I went, ‘Holy crap. That’s it!’ Because it’s a line from Gypsy. Gypsy is a very important show in my life, where my dad and I sort of came back together as a family. You know, it’s a role about familial life and…obsession. And so, it was perfect.”
Alexandra Billings tells all in her new memoir, This Time for Me
She explains that in her upbringing, she often felt caught between two worlds — the joyously queer world of art and theater that surrounded her through her father’s work, and the harshly rigid reality of cold war America.
“This was back in the late 1960s,” a time when being “anything except white, cis, and male was just bizarre,” she recalls. “If you were anything other than that, you were marginalized — which is still sort of true to this day. But back in the ’60s, gender norms were very specific, clear-cut containers in which you lived, and you did not vary…. And if you did, you were ostracized in a way that usually resulted in some kind of violence, whether that was emotional, spiritual, or physical. And this was taught to all of us, to everybody, especially in this country.”
“When I went to [see] my dad during those college musical days, those summers were spent around queer people who were in eyeshadow and who wore dresses, and the women dressed like Marlene Dietrich and were in top hats. And people were giving each other hand jobs under pianos. It was insane. And, you know, I was 13, 14 years old, going, ‘Well, this is the way to live! Obviously, this is the way we need to do things.’”
“So moving out back into the world…the judgment was not only shocking, it simply didn’t compute. It didn’t make sense to me,” she continues. “It was like going to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Everything was upside down. Everything was spoken in gibberish. I didn’t understand what anybody wanted me to do…. It was complete madness. So, to be honest with you, it was traumatic, of course, but I think early on I developed a way — as most marginalized people do and certainly queer people — I developed a way to survive.”
Though Billings has historically been very open about many of facets of her life, including being a long-term survivor of HIV, this memoir will be the first time she’s put it all down in one place. A process, she admits, that was at times more painful and less therapeutic than she’d anticipated.
“You know, the funny thing is,” she says, “I had all these wonderful friends that were very kind and holding space for me in a way that was filled with such grace and kindness. And they would say to me, ‘Oh wow, Alex, [writing the book] is going to be so cathartic.’ And I would say, ‘OK, because right now [it’s] painful and achy. And I don’t like it.’”
Despite the relentless and well-meaning promises from others that the “catharsis train” would be pulling into the station at any moment, Billings jokingly admits, “Well, I don’t know, I’m still waiting for that damn thing.”
Still, she says that recalling her many life experiences in the book has been eye-opening in many ways, and has given her a new sense of self-awareness.
“I think what’s interesting is that now, years later, I’m giving these interviews and talking to people like you and talking about pieces of my life in a way that gives me perspective — I don’t know if maybe this is the catharsis, but for me this is very self-reflective. And I’m able to look at my behavior, good and bad, and finally take ownership of it.”
While Billings doesn’t want to spoil all the juiciest parts of the memoir, she did reveal that she would go into greater detail about what she witnessed and experienced on the set of Transparent, in terms of the sexual harassment allegations against former costar Jeffrey Tambor.
Billings admits she "still loves" former Transparent costar Jeffrey Tambor
“The horrifying thing is — and horrifying because it’s so painful — is that I still love him very much,” she recently confessed in an interview with The New York Post. “I don’t love his behavior, but that’s true of a lot of people. He still hasn’t totally admitted to everything that he’s done. I don’t know that he ever will, but that’s up to him. That’s between him and his god, not me.”
Billings also goes deep into her life as a sex worker, which she says was important to her to help destigmatize the profession and humanize those who participate. She also wants to illustrate that every person’s story is different when it comes to sex work. Not all trans women are sex workers— and while she acknowledges many are forced into it for survival purposes, that is not the case for all.
“There’s literally like three chapters dedicated to that [period of my life],” Billings says with a laugh. “When I was a sex worker, I didn’t have anybody running my finances for me. I didn’t answer to anybody. It was a decision that I made.”
Billings adds that she kind of “fell into” the profession, “because it didn’t even occur to me that someone would pay you to sleep with them,” she continues. “I was just sitting at a bar. And this guy…dressed kind of like he was going to Disneyland — in his 40s, white guy, a little balding, tubby, [wearing] a big, white, flowered Hawaiian shirt with shorts on. And he goes, ‘How much?’ I was completely confused. Finally, I figured out, Oh, he wants to give me money to go have sex with him! I thought, OK, I mean, it’s 3 o’clock, I got a couple hours to kill. Why the hell not?”
“So it literally happened by accident,” she explains. “I wasn’t starving. And I’m only speaking for my story. I don’t mean to make light of anybody’s trauma, but for me I made a very clear decision that, OK, yeah, I can do this. And when it stopped serving me, I stopped doing it. And the only reason I say this is because we hear a lot of people talking about sex workers; about how we were forced to do this…. In the grand scheme of things, were there other elements forcing me to do this? Yes, probably. But…if you put a microscope to each event that happened in my life, this was a decision that I made.”
Cover girl: Billings has graced the covers of many mags over the years
In This Time for Me, Billings also recalls some of the darkest times of her life, which occurred during the ’80s and ’90s and at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
“By now, my closet was crammed with more and more black dresses,” she writes. “Because, you see, all the queers were dying— much to the relief of many in our country.... At numerous press conferences, Larry Speakes, Reagan’s press secretary, was asked about the president’s plans to address the AIDS crisis. In each exchange, his derogatory tone and dismissive remarks were underscored by the snickers and laughter of the press corps, the vast majority of whom were cisgender white men.”
These days, Billings is excited about her role in Amazon’s new sci-fi series The Peripheral, costarring Chloë Grace Moretz, Jack Reynor, and Gary Carr. In the cyberpunk series based on William Gibson’s novel, she plays Detective Ainsley Lowbeer, an ancient, artificially altered (and transgender) being.
Ultimately, she says part of the reason she wrote the memoir is the same reason Hollywood needs to keep producing narratives around POC, LGBTQ+, HIV-positive, and other marginalized people — so we can simply understand one another better, and therefore create a better world.
“Art is a reflection of the human experience,” she says, “We’ve got to start talking to each other, even when we don’t agree with each other. It’s about an exchange of ideas, not, ‘You’re wrong, I want to change you.’ You don’t deserve that…. We’ve got to talk to each other in a way that is about what your accomplishments mean; about who you are on this planet and that what you’ve done so far means something. And now we just want to add to it.”