The Disney Channel has never featured an openly trans actress in a recurring series … until now.
Puerto Rican actress Juliana Joel joined the currently airing fifth season of Raven’s Home, the spin-off of the popular early ’00s series That’s So Raven, as Nikki, the assistant to Raven-Symone’s titular character. It’s a historic role for the Disney Channel, which only recently started featuring openly LGBTQ2S+ characters in its series. Now, with Joel as Nikki, the channel is showcasing an openly trans actress as an openly trans character for the first time.
We sat down with Joel for a Speed Date to chat about her work on Raven’s Home and her advice for other up-and-coming young trans actors.
How did you get to start working on Raven’s Home?
It was my first time doing an audition via live Zoom, which was pretty nerve-wracking. I’m used to in-person auditions, or as many actors know now, it’s the world of self-taping because of COVID. But I had a live Zoom audition, and I went and bought the girliest pink dress for this audition to match the character description. And the second Zoom turned on, the casting director just said, “That’s the character; the look is perfect.” But then asked to see the rest of the look, not knowing that I was wearing sweatpants under the dress. So then I frantically kept trying to take my sweatpants off without her noticing. But then I just showed her the entire outfit with the sweatpants on.
What’s it like working alongside a queer icon like Raven?
Playing Raven’s assistant is fun because I’m really bad at it. Well, Nikki is really bad at it. She has no idea what she’s doing, but somehow ends up saving the day every single time. And working with Raven is truly a master class. I mean, we all know Raven-Symoné has been on TV since she was teeny-tiny on The Cosby Show. And she just celebrated having done … I think it’s 200 episodes for Disney Channel between That’s So Raven, and now Raven’s Home. So she’s a master not just in her acting skills, but she also knows the cameras. She knows the lighting. She knows how to direct. She’s directed a couple of our episodes this season, and I could not have picked a better person to work alongside with on a sitcom than Raven because I feel like she’s now like queen of it. It’s been so much fun and she’s been so welcoming. It’s hard to stay serious on set because she’s just so funny.
Any particular fun stories from set?
My first time really having a moment with Raven was when we shot an episode where we’re both wearing matching disguises—these like horrible orange-dyed bob wigs and, like, a Carmen Sandiego coat. I expressed to her what a dream come true it was to be there to be playing Nikki, to be on the show with her, because growing up, That’s So Raven was my favourite show. And I always thought Raven was, like, my best friend in my fantasy world. So to be on that show, and to be playing Nikki on a version of my favourite childhood show, and to be able to do it as an out trans person with a character who is out and trans … it was just, like, an insane moment for me. But it was very hard to give this very intimate and personal story while we’re in these horrid orange bob wigs.
That’s the fun of being on a Disney show, right? You can get to have these deep moments and also have a horrible orange bob wig. Raven’s Home is a really fun show. What kind of shows or movies are making you laugh right now?
I’m one of those people who needs to be in a specific mood to start new shows. And I have not been in one of those moods lately, so I’ve just been stuck in watching literally reruns of The Golden Girls over and over because to me that’s like my feel-good show that always makes me laugh.
Who’s your favourite Golden Girl?
Sophia Petrillo. I want to be Sophia Petrillo when I’m older. I mean, I already kind of am anyway.
You played Sylvia Rivera on the Discovery+ series The Book of Queer. What was that experience like bringing such an important figure in trans history to life?
I was so excited when I found out I was going to get to play Sylvia Rivera, obviously an icon for our community and one of the people who I truly thank daily for everything that she did and went through that made my life possible, and so, so many of our lives possible, today.
I would love to play Sylvia Rivera again in a more serious way. Book of Queer was, obviously, a comedy sketch show, so it was a bit challenging to portray this person who really went through so much and had these moments of giving these powerful, emotional speeches. But then to play it in a light where you kind of have to be committed with it and not so serious, was a bit of a challenge. So I would love to play her again in a way that really, really opens people’s eyes to her true essence and story.
But Book of Queer was a lot of fun. It was just amazing to be in a room with so many queer artists who not only played the characters, but were working the cameras and costume and set design. When you walk into a space where it’s not just about being seen, knowing that literally everyone around you is living a similar experience and is a part of your community, it just allows you this freedom that you don’t even realize. We are able to just let go and be you and do what you love in a way that is a little bit more challenging when you’re on sets where you’re the only one. Because [there] you do tend to get in, in your head “are they talking about me? Are they looking at me a certain way?”
What advice do you have for young trans actors entering the industry and maybe navigating some of those challenging set situations?
Number one is, the trans part of your identity is an absolute beautiful, amazing, powerful, powerful part of of your identity that makes you who you are, and allows you to come from a place of truly honest, understanding of who you are, which you need to do and to be able to do in order to be a successful actor. Because, you know, so much of acting is rejection, we hear “No” way more than we hear “yes.” So, when you’re stepping into these rooms, or stepping in front of a casting director, and you’re going into it as somebody who’s already confident in who they are as a human being, and allows you to truly enjoy that moment on set, or in that audition to just have fun and enjoy yourself, which is the only way they’re going to enjoy what you’re doing.
But, on the flip side of that, I would also say, take away the trans part. Because what you don’t want to do is limit yourself, because you tell yourself, “Oh, this show would never cast a trans person. Oh, this movie would never try to catch a trans person.” Take that out of your mind. You know, if you get an audition and the person’s not trans, go for it. It’s a moment for you to do what you love. It’s a moment for you to be creative. It’s a moment for you to show casting directors and producers a version of the character that they might not have thought of that might be better than what they originally thought of, and then you’re in the show. So I would say absolutely embrace your transness and the beauty in that. But don’t let what you think is or is not possible—because you’re trans—hold you back from the things you want to do, or because you haven’t seen someone do it yet. We’re seeing so many firsts. Whether a trans person has done it in history or not, you might be the first.
Somebody’s always got to be the first family house. My last question: what does trans joy look like to you?
Trans joy for me, is being in a place of, of really seeing and understanding the power in being trans. So many people on this planet go to their grave, literally, not having been able to live their truth, or live the life that they dreamed up for themselves, whether that’s being in a marriage that they don’t want to be in, being in jobs they don’t want to be in, whatever the case may be. So, for our community to be a group of people who— despite society telling us at times that we don’t belong, or we’re not worthy of success, love life, whatever it is, besides people in positions of power, trying to strip our basic human rights—know that we are this beautiful group of human beings who choose to exist in our most authentic way.
Despite the hardships that we face, that is, to me, what makes us truly, like, probably the most amazing group of people on this planet. Because even if we feel like the world is being hard on us, us just showing up and being ourselves creates such a shift in this world. It doesn’t matter—the scale of your career and your life and how visible you are. The fact that you show up every day as who you are is going to inspire someone else to do the same. So, for me, trans joy is that—that thread that we share in choosing our happiness.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.