In the first episode of Love, Lies & Records, Mark Stanley’s character James McKenzie makes an announcement to his colleagues, his voice trembling: “I know this might come as a bit of a shock to you all,” he says, “but as of next week, I will be coming to work dressed as a woman.”
Stanley says “the most attractive thing” to him about his character James – who later becomes Jamie – in Kay Mellor’s new BBC1 drama was that he is transitioning from being a man to a woman.
As a straight male, Stanley is aware of the backlash against cisgender actors playing trans roles – the most famous being Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. Many believe that it’s a wasted opportunity to represent the real trans community on-screen, others argue that casting should simply come down to who’s right for the role, regardless of gender or sexual identity.
“Both arguments hold water,” Stanley says. He accepts the potential advantages of a trans actor taking the role, as they would have first-hand experience to draw upon, and admits that he “personally wouldn’t ever get to a point of knowing what that feels like”. However, he adds that by “stretching my imagination to empathise with it and portray it”, he can at least come at it from a totally “fresh and new” perspective.
Logistically, as well, it seems that to match her vision of the character Mellor needed to cast somebody who looks like Stanley – “I’m built like a rugby player and I’ve got a chin like Johnny Bravo” – and who hadn’t yet begun transitioning. “Kay wanted to explore the difficulty of having someone with my build who wasn’t able to blend in in a dress,” he explains. “I’m up for making sure that casting is equal across the board, I don’t want it to feel like I’ve taken a trans actor’s job, I just want it to feel like they chose me for a reason – and that’s the reason.” Whether he was up against trans actors for the role, he doesn’t know.
Love, Lies & Records is set in a registry office in Leeds, and follows registrar Kate Dickensen (Ashley Jensen) and her colleagues as they struggle to balance their personal and professional lives. Stanley’s character James is not someone who’s experimenting with cross dressing, he is eager to point out, but “someone who’s totally trapped in the wrong body, who’s terribly uncomfortable being who they are and has realised that through their own cowardice and pressure they’ve signed up to a life that doesn’t really belong to them”.
James is in his mid-30s and married with two children, and what interested Stanley was how his coming out would not only impact himself but also those around him. “It’s that element of cost… he’s torn about inflicting this pain on his family even though it’s the right thing to be doing,” he says.
Stanley took a rather unorthodox approach to researching the role, effectively attending a trans support group in Leeds under cover, in the guise of James. He toyed with the idea of telling the group that he was an actor, but says he didn’t want people “to behave any differently knowing that someone’s being a bit voyeuristic and looking in on them”.
The whole experience was quite intense. “I used James’ story in the support group, when I was talking to people, and it was amazing to feel the empathy,” Stanley says. “There was a lady who transitioned to being a full woman, she’d had surgery and everything. And she leaned over to me and said, ‘You’ve been very quiet. Are you okay? Are you on your own?’ I couldn’t help feeling quite emotional and very lonely.”
It was very important to Stanley that his portrayal of a trans person wouldn’t “become some kind of piss-take or something to do with transvestitism”. He emphasises that James’s struggle is with his identity, not his appearance: “This is something far deeper than that, soul-deep.”
That said, there was a sense of humour about the situation on set – something that comes through in the show. “It’s an almost all-male crew, and I’m the only one that’s wearing a dress – I couldn’t take it too seriously either,” says Stanley.
And when filming got underway for episode two onwards, there were a few inevitable wardrobe malfunctions. “I am very proud to say that I think I only laddered about three pairs of tights in 14 weeks,” laughs Stanley. Then there was the time when his chicken fillets (bra-fillers) fell into his mug of tea. And at one point he was shaving his face four times a day for continuity. “By the end of the shoot my skin was just in ruins.”
In terms of what the future holds for James, he’s set to assume the name Jamie and begin taking hormones – we will also meet Jamie’s wife and children and see how their lives are affected by the transition.
Stanley himself will be starring in BBC1’s Little Women this Christmas, as the German love interest of Jo March, one of the sisters. And in 2018, we will see him playing his first lead role in a feature film, Dark River, opposite Ruth Wilson. He even gets to grow his beard out for that.