Zoe Terakes On Queer Privilege, Knowing Our History & Casting Trans People For Trans Roles

In Monica Zanetti’s Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), a young girl named Ellie, trying to muster up the courage to ask her classmate, Abbie, out to the school formal, is visited by the friendly ghost of her dead gay aunt, Tara.

But, unlike other queer narratives, Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw) and Abbie’s (Zoe Terakes) high school romance isn’t scarred by a traumatic coming out experience, but told by the awkward interactions and emotions of being a teen and falling in love for the first time—like every other coming-of-age story. It’s a coming-of-age film that’s genuinely a celebration of queer joy and that shows what it’s like to grow up with a supportive queer family.

Before her death, Ellie’s aunt, Tara, played by Julia Billington, was an out lesbian activist, fighting for the rights of all types of people marginalised by their sexuality and gender. Whenever she appears on screen to guide Ellie through this period of angst and frustration, we are met with her goofy sense of enthusiasm and compassion, and her, at times, overbearing willingness to help Ellie with all of her emotional needs. But, Tara’s attitude towards Ellie isn’t just the trait of a joyously camp Fairy Godmother or a loving aunt, it’s a reminder that she is proudly seeing that her efforts to fight for a better future for the next generation have paid off. 

It’s hard not to see parallels of Tara and the queer rights movement depicted in Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) and that of the trans people of colour and 78ers, the original members of the first Mardi Gras who bravely protested against the police brutality and criminalisation of queer identities and same sex relationships. ICYMI, Mardi Gras wasn’t always a commercial parade and entertainment festival, it started as a riot. While it’s still not easy to be queer, people our age, like Ellie and Abbie, do have it easier than our queer forefathers before us. Including the non-binary heartthrob of Zanetti’s local teen rom-com, Zoe Terakes. 

“We couldn’t have that freedom if it were not for people like Tara,” explains Terakes, praising director Monica Zanetti. “This freedom was earned by the people before us, we are standing on their shoulders, and a lot of them are not here to reap the benefits of their hard work because they died or were killed.”

“Ultimately, it all comes down to the fact people like Tara wouldn’t be able to do that if it weren’t for the trans women of colour who had fought before her. Those are the ultimate shoulders we are standing on when you really boil it down. Yeah, it was a really cool nod to tie in just to show the film is aware of its privilege, and aware of the freedom that was fought for by people before us.”

It was an interesting moment in our half-hour conversation, where we tackled casting representation, influential queer cinema, the portrayal of trans people in the media and how we can continue the fight for queer justice. Unlike Tara and the politically charged teen activists of our generation, Ellie and Abby aren’t marching down the streets fighting for equality, they’re living in a world that’s already let them, as queer cisgendered women, be.

At 20 years old, Terakes knows a thing or two about recognising and using your own privilege. Much like Ellie and Abby at their school, they attended an all-girls school but “had fucking great friends,” were “happy and liked.” When they came out, they were distressed at first but then discovered that they weren’t alone. “So many of my year came out,” they admit. And, as someone in a self-described “queer trans bubble,” they don’t often witness transphobic or homophobic comments from their loved ones, and admit that that can make it easy to forget about the fact that trans and non-binary people still don’t feel safe in this country. 

“It’s certainly been easier, you use that word and we should all use that word,” they add. “There’s no way in any version of any world that I could have had the growing up experience I had, if it weren’t for the people who fought for it.”

“Being your queer self is a form of protest in its own right, like walking out the door and being authentically yourself as a marginalised group is political, but I also, to an extent, disagree that it should stop there. I can’t speak for everybody and I won’t speak for everybody, but for me, I feel a great sense of responsibility that comes with that, to give my respect and thanks to the people who fought before me and to fight for the people who were going to come after me.”

“I’m motivated by my identity,” they explain. “I don’t feel obligated to be an activist because of my identity. But I’m certainly motivated to be an activist because of my identity.”

Last month, Terakes, among other high profile people in the performance space, called out the Sydney Festival for a production of The Hedwig Musical that saw to cast a cisgender man for a transgender role. In response, some right-wing Australian publications—which I’ll refrain from naming here because they don’t deserve the airtime—labelled them and the trans and non-binary community “bullies.” “Suddenly, when a minority speaks up for itself, it’s bullying, but when the majority shits on the minority, that’s… it’s a paradox and it’s so hypocritical,” Terakes said, their frustrated and defeated sigh loudly carrying through my phone as if it were on loud speaker. 

“We’ve come a long way but we are nowhere near where we need to be, as we’ve seen in the Australian media in the past two weeks. A lot of us trans people have been dragged through the actual mud.” Next to headlines that outright deadname trans people and erase their identities—and in papers and broadcast media that are telegraphed to millions around the country, mind you—the last few weeks in Australian media has been a harsh reminder that not everyone outside our queer bubbles is as respectful, understanding, compassionate and loving towards the trans and non-binary community. 

But, in that sense, the story of Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is truly quite special. Shot in Sydney in just under ten days and with a budget of $50,000, Terakes said “there was literally no time, you had to take about two takes each max per scene. It was so quick.” That hurdle was overcome no doubt by the fact the film boasts an incredible cast including Aussie TV legend Marta Dusseldorp and Thor: Ragnarok star and Kiwi comedian Rachel House. It first premiered at the Mardi Gras Film Festival this year as a headline act—days before we all went into COVID-19 lockdown—and is now airing in theatres across the country. For some venues, in communities where people don’t have a Tara-like fairy godmother to look out for them. Seeing yourself reflected on-screen is important, and knowing that the people behind those faces are like you makes it all the more special and personal. 

“I’m really glad it’s going to more rural cinemas and even city cinemas,” shares Terakes. “This is the film I wish I had at 13 or 14 [years old] seen. You can go with your family, you can go with your mum, you can go with your best friend, it’s so accessible to everybody.” 

Growing up, the Wentworth star fell in love with films like Pride, Blue Is The Warmest Colour and But I’m A Cheerleader—”I would pull sick days from school when I thought I was heartbroken over some girl, and I would just like, sit and I would watch it and just cry.” But, they say that not a lot of the films they grew up on were made by queer people. “All the movies I had, when I was younger, to watch, that were queer, especially about lesbians, they always died or broke up it ended in tears. And this is a movie where she does get the girl. Yes, of course, a traumatic coming out story is very much part of the queer narrative, it’s true and it’s historical, but it’s not all there is. I want to be part of things that tell stories of queer joys, just as much as I do stories of trauma.”

And, the fact it’s led by queer people infront of and behind the camera is why Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)—or, one they watched the other day, The Portrait Of A Lady On Fire—are so much more meaningful than they seem. In an interview with The New York Times, Kristen Stewart was asked about how she felt about the casting representation of Happiest Season, the new Christmas flick that stars a number of high profile beloved actresses as queer women. It raised an important conversation but, to Terakes, a hard one to answer. For someone who has witnessed the volatile conversation about trans people in Australian media, talking about the representation of one’s sexuality felt like a battle for another day.

“I don’t know, I really don’t know, I don’t have an answer for you,” Zoe Terakes confessed. “It’s something I think about a lot and I wish I had an answer. But to me it is more gray.”

“Personally, when I watch a queer film, and I know the actors are queer, I will enjoy the film, like tenfold more. It means more to me, because I know it means more to the actors, because it’s that truth. And so to me, it’s more impactful as an audience member when the actors are queer.”

“I know when it comes to my favorite films, a lot of them had or were played by queer actors,  but it’s not as much of a hard line in the sand to me, and I don’t know why. I don’t have words for it yet. I just think there’s something inherently different between gender and sexuality. But it’s not something I have the words for you. And I don’t have an eloquent, concise answer for you. Because I’m still figuring out what that is. For me.”

“In terms of having that conversation, like right now, my priorities are trans people telling trans stories. And if a couple of straights play a couple of queers along the way, it’s a bit distracting. I don’t agree with it but I don’t fundamentally disagree with that. I fundamentally disagree with cisgender people playing trans roles.”

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is currently airing in select theatres and out now on Video On Demand services like iTunes and Google Play.

Julian Rizzo-Smith is a writer and producer. He also claims to be a vine historian, avid connoisseur of low-fi beats, indie hip hop and Kermit memes. In a perfect world, he’d be married to Tyler the Creator, own an Arcanine and a Lapras, and don his own Sailor Scouts uniform. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster, which is also, coincidentally, how one might describe him.