Jesse James Keitel Says There Are 'No Rules' to Being Queer

The actor in the new 'Queer as Folk' reboot on the pop culture and community that influenced her.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Over Zoom, actor Jesse James Keitel laughingly describes her new character Ruthie, on Peacock's reboot of OG gay drama Queer as Folk (now streaming) as "50 shades of chaos." The 28 year old has had small parts in shows like Younger and was the lead of ABC's Big Sky, where she was the first nonbinary actor to to play a nonbinary series regular in primetime. Queer as Folk is a new acting playground for her, where she's become close with her castmates and found a richness in playing Ruthie—a trans woman who is just starting a family with her partner Shar (CG) as her best friend, Brodie (Devin Way), comes back to town and into their community like a wrecking ball when tragedy strikes.

The original Queer as Folk certainly had more than its fair share of cis, white, male blind spots wherein nonbinary, trans, disabled, Latinx, and Black characters didn't exist. But in a writers' room and with directors who were primarily queer, Keitel trusted them with her "whole being" in working on creating a character for the reboot where being transgender wasn't her whole identity.

"Ruthie is so unapologetic in not just her transness, but her queerness. Those are both small parts of who she is," Keitel says. "And we're on a big queer show, so it's big parts of the world, but she's a teacher. She's trying to be a better person. She's entering motherhood for the first time. There's so much more to her than just her being trans."

Ruthie is chaotic and messy, and parties too much with Brodie while also figuring out how to navigate becoming a mother and how to not fuck it up. For Keitel, playing Ruthie has been not only a learning experience personally, but also one professionally, "It's seldom we get to see a queer character who's as richly flawed. I think there's some really unique opportunities to tell some profoundly queer stories with Ruthie and where her heart is."

Keitel talked to Thrillist about Laverne Cox, drag, and how the never-ending coming-out process helped to spark her own gender identification.

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Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black was one of the first times I saw a trans person reflected in a way that was very humanizing on TV. At that point, I had actually known a couple trans men, friends of mine from high school, but it didn't feel like an actual reality that leaning into myself was a possibility. I feel like her character on Orange Is the New Black did give me permission to do that.

I'm sure she knows how impactful she is and the doors she has opened for other people. There's so many times where I think back and I'm like, "Some days I don't want to be an advocate. Sometimes I just want to be an actor." But I think being a public-facing trans person, I do feel a profound sense of responsibility to continue opening doors, just like my predecessors have. And I hope I can have a fraction of a legacy as Laverne, as Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, as Candis Cayne, etc. They've had a profound impact on me, and if I could do that for someone else, then I guess my job here is done.

Drag

I feel like my journey through gender was actively explored in [doing] drag for a few years. I was a drag artist, and a lot of my peers were inspiring. Just the creativity I found within myself from finding queer community and surrounding myself with queer people.

Throwback to the Haus of FemAnon [in Toronto]: We were this ragtag group of theater dorks who were really frustrated and felt this need to create and express ourselves in a way that acting and directing, etc., wasn't allowing us to do at that time. And so, I leaned on them and drag and my own creativity until it didn't serve me anymore and acting started to again. It gave me the tools to see myself in a way that I wasn't giving myself the opportunity to prior.

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Being reflected in media as an adult

I've always related most to these strong, resilient women, yet I don't think I ever really saw myself reflected in terms of my own queerness until my adulthood. I think the closest understanding I had to myself was these effeminate gay men, and that never really resonated with me. And I knew that, but didn't have the language for it.

As I got to see more people like me in the world, and more people like me on TV, like when Asia Kate Dillon played their character on Billions, I was like, "Wow, what a beautiful, nuanced thing." There are no rules. None of this is real. There's no rules to any of this.

Coming out again and again

I feel like coming out has been part of my experience since I was a toddler. I've been queer from the get-go. Look at any photo of me from middle school. People told me I was queer before I knew what any of that meant. People told me my identity before I even knew those words existed. So, I came out in middle school, then I came out again in high school and then I was outed to my family via a threatening letter that was put in our mailbox. And then I came out again in college, and then I came out again in college, then I came out after college until that led me here.

You look at characters like Brenda [played by Kim Cattrall] on Queer as Folk. It takes her until way later in her life to learn something about herself or to accept something about herself. Because I think as queer people, you always know. Even if you don't understand it, it doesn't mean you don't know it.

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Kerensa Cadenas is the Editorial Director of Entertainment at Thrillist. You can follow her @kerensacadenas.