How 'Billions' actor Asia Kate Dillon uses their platform as 1st non-binary TV star to help others

Dillon is an advocate for The Ackerman Institute's Gender & Family Project.

March 19, 2019, 11:38 AM

As one of the stars of the hit show “Billions,” Asia Kate Dillon has been cast in a role that’s breaking barriers in the high-stakes Wall Street drama steeped in money, power and politics. Dillon’s character, Taylor Mason, is the first major non-binary character to hit American television.

"I'm Asia. My pronouns are they, them and theirs," the actor told ABC News special "Nightline" correspondent Adam Rippon.

Not only is Dillon playing the first non-binary role on television, but the 34-year-old actor shares something in common with their character. Like Taylor, Dillon identifies as non-binary and was assigned female at birth.

PHOTO: Asia Kate Dillon attends the Season 5 celebration of "Orange is the New Black" at Catch, June 9, 2017, in N.Y.
Asia Kate Dillon attends the Season 5 celebration of "Orange is the New Black" at Catch, June 9, 2017, in N.Y.
Taylor Hill/FilmMagic via Getty Images, FILE

"Playing Taylor has -- has changed my life in that they have really shown me how to live in one's freedom," the actor said. "And for that, I'm eternally grateful."

"Non-binary is a term used by some people, myself included, who experience their gender identity as falling somewhere outside the boxes of man or woman," the actor explained. "Some people use it because they identify as both or neither, or simply are experiencing their gender as being fluid."

Dillon said that gender identity is "really important" and appreciates starting conversations by addressing that up front.

"It's really important -- to be the first person in a room that says your pronouns. Because you are then, as an ally, helping to create a safe space for everyone to feel comfortable," they said.

"We all are assigned a sex at birth," they continued. "And then a gender identity is placed on top of that -- [they] are two different things."

“Billions” navigates the testosterone-driven world of finance and Dillon, who was previously featured on “Orange Is the New Black,” said that their unlikely leading role as Taylor Mason has been life-changing.

"Taylor Mason is a fully-fleshed out human being, and that their gender identity is just one part of what makes -- up their full person," Dillon explained. "If Taylor had been created as a character where their non-binary identity was the main focus, and every point of their storyline focused on that, it's not a part [that] I would have wanted to play. "

Growing up, Dillon said they never quite understood their gender.

"I always felt ambiguous about my gender identity," Dillon explained. "But I didn't have the language for it."

It wasn’t until first auditioning for the role of Taylor that they saw the term "female, non-binary" and understood their gender identity.

"The first time I saw those words next to each other in a way that made me curious and therefore led me to researching those words," they said. "But then, looking them up -- it all just clicked into place."

They continued, "here was someone who identified as non-binary, is a trans person but hadn't changed their body. That's not part of their journey. And it felt so true -- for me."

Dillon said one trait they "really admire about Taylor is their ability to be straightforward and say exactly what's on their mind."

PHOTO: Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor in "Billions."
Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor in "Billions."
Jeff Neumann/Showtime

Dillon's co-star Damian Lewis, plays Bobby Axelrod on “Billions,” who is the ruthless epitome of Wall Street masculinity.

"They think that they are going to be able to exist side by side within the hedge fund space, but it turns out quickly that that's not possible," Lewis said. "That's mostly because that's not the way Axe works."

Dillon's character first appeared as Axelrod's protégé in the second season of the series, but now in the series’ fourth season, their relationship is in shambles.

Lewis said it became clear as they got to know Dillon as gender non-binary actor playing a gender non-binary role, "what a statement that was."

He called it "a moment" in "commercial mainstream entertainment" that has helped bring the conversation into a broader context.

"A lot of us are meeting gender non-binary people for the first time let alone gender non-binary actors. So we have been introduced to new pronouns people slip up all the time and say she and her and they are forgiving which is quite right as they should be," Lewis said. "It’s an interesting time. And again the most important thing is Asia’s terrific as a person and as an actor."

Showrunners and executive producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien auditioned actors from across the spectrum of gender identification before Asia got the part.

“We weren't gonna only cast the part with a non-binary person,” Koppelman said. “It seemed like that might have been too limiting. We thought we'd go with the best actor. And it just so happened that that was Asia, and that they lived their life that way.”

PHOTO: Asia Kate Dillon attends The 23rd Annual Critics' Choice Awards at The Barker Hanger in this Jan. 11, 2018 file photo in Santa Monica, Calif.
Asia Kate Dillon attends The 23rd Annual Critics' Choice Awards at The Barker Hanger in this Jan. 11, 2018 file photo in Santa Monica, Calif.
David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images, FILE

"The world of hedge funds has traditionally been very male and very white male, though it's changing a little," Levien said. "Somebody like Taylor Mason, as played by Asia, comes in there and completely upsets that apple cart."

Dillon's role was created in part to disrupt the norms of what “Billions” depicts as the dog-eat-dog world of Wall Street.

"We started exploring it and we thought it'd be a fascinating way to sort of put a mirror into Axe Capital and have somebody who was so different on the surface," Levien said. "[But they] had a lot of the attributes of Axe, and see what that did to the mix."

Dillon said the feedback from social media, specifically from young people, over their non-binary representation has been "really gratifying."

Dillon said young people tell them, "'I never thought I would come to an understanding of my gender identity. And then I saw Taylor on TV, and I understood something about myself, and I felt less alone.'"

They also said they've had feedback from people who admitted to being "homophobic" or "transphobic" and yet told them "'I love 'Billions' and I love your character. And Taylor's really changing my heart and my mind.'"

"That is affecting real change that is making the world a safer place. And that is a credit to this show," the actor said. "I'm so incredibly proud to be a part of it for that reason."

Despite the progress, Dillon said there is still work to do to conquer simple challenges they face every day with their gender identity.

"Airports are a place where from the moment you buy your ticket, you're selecting a prefix," they explained. "Whether it's Mr. or Ms. or Miss. And there are only a certain number of options -- and you have to pick a gender, male or female."

"I certainly don't want my travel experience to be any more complicated than it already is," Dillon added. So usually for ease and safety, they said they "choose female."

Dillon hopes that with their new-found platform they can become a role model for others and recently became an advocate for The Ackerman Institute’s Gender & Family Project (GFP) in New York.

GFP was founded in 2010 and empowers youth, families and communities by providing gender affirmative services, training and research, according to their website.

"Nightline" was there recently when participants including Dillon came together in a group setting to share personal stories about their families and how they came to understand their gender identities.

"I knew it never felt right to be a girl," Dillon shared. "I also didn't feel like a boy either and so I just, I just always tried to be me."

Many in the group were inspired by Dillon's story, but the actor said that hearing their stories helped them "feel less alone."

"I feel less alone having met you, you are my community," they said. "Isn't that amazing so can you help me feel less alone in this moment. And for every moment after this -- thank you."

The founder and director of The Ackerman Institute’s GFP said having Dillon speak to the group gives them hope.

"We support families every day of the week and there is a lot of hardship and there's also a lot of beauty," Jean Malpas said. He added that having Dillon as an ambassador "means the world to me that families get to fill that hope [and] get to feel that sense of a thriving future."

But for Dillon, the pressure to use their voice "keeps the fire inside of me burning" and uses their appearance and experience as an advantage to extend the message beyond the LGBTQ+ community.

"I was raised by an incredibly strong single mother and she has always been an advocate as well, and so it's part of me, part of how I was raised," Dillon explained. "I am part of some marginalized communities, I am trans person, I’m a queer person, but I carry white body privilege."

The continued, "I don’t believe the burden of explanation should be on the oppressed. And I think there are many places that because of how I look, I am listened to. And so I’m conscious of that and take advantage of that."

The actor said they want to continue to speak their freedom to inspire anyone still struggling to find themselves. And what’s more, Dillon said they would tell their younger self "it's going to be OK."

"The things that come to mind that I would say to young Asia is, 'hang in there, it’s going to be OK,' and I don't mean that in there's a moment that it's going to be OK, but there will be a moment where you will be walking and you will see yourself coming towards you and you will say 'Yes!'"

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