Whatever else might be said of a neck tattoo, it makes for a terrific icebreaker even, and perhaps especially, when that tattoo is “einfühlung”, the German for “empathy”. For Asia Kate Dillon, the word – with a beautifully elongated “f” swooping under the first consonant – functions as an invitation. “Because it is on my neck and it is in a foreign language, more often than not people ask me what it means and then I get to engage in a conversation with strangers,” the actor explains as we stab chopsticks at a plate of pan-fried shrimp dumplings one recent Saturday morning in New York. The dumplings are steaming hot, and as I fan my hand over my mouth, Dillon generously schools me on how the tattoo may have saved me from my awkward entrance.
Arriving five minutes late (blame the obstacle course of New York’s disrupted weekend subway), I’d let the manager know that someone was waiting for me. “Is it a lady or gentleman?” he asked, throwing me into a mild panic. Dillon identifies as neither a man or a woman, and uses the gender-neutral pronouns they, their and them but, put on the spot, I struggled to think clearly. In the absence of man or woman, what noun should I reach for? In Finland, I could have used the gender-neutral “hän”, or, in Estonia, the word “ta”. In 2014, the school board in Vancouver voted to use the pronouns “xe, xem and xyr” for students who requested it. But none of these were especially useful in a restaurant in New York’s Upper West Side. Instead, I stared dumbly back at the manager until he gave up waiting. “There’s actually only one person waiting for a guest, and it’s a lady,” he said finally.
Dillon seemed excited, even grateful, when I explained my encounter with the manager, and suggested that next time I simply describe the person in question. “They have a shaved head,” I might have said. Or “They have an interesting neck tattoo that translates as ‘empathy’.” Instead of trying to find a word that was neither man nor woman, I could dispense with that approach altogether. It’s all so obvious once you think about it, and that’s the point. We are so used to not thinking about it, or have been until now. “We’ve been socialised and told that there is a way to describe people, and that way is by their gender or their sex,” says Dillon. “Ladies and gentlemen are not the only words – we’re just making assumptions about other people. It’s about allowing life to be so much more diverse and mysterious and beautiful than when we just assume we know all these things about total strangers.”
As Ellen DeGeneres learned when Dillon appeared on her show last year, we are all capable of rethinking language. “People assume just because I’m gay I understand all of this,” DeGeneres told Dillon. Having established the actor’s preferred use of pronouns, she had stumbled by asking about their boyfriend. “I have a partner who is a self-identified man,” Dillon gently clarified. In Britain, where partner is a widely used proxy for husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, we’ve already shown how easy it is to establish a gender-neutral alternative. What nouns and adjectives might we tackle next?
If you’ve watched the TV drama series Billions, you will be familiar with this question. Dillon plays Taylor, a non-binary intern elevated to full-time staffer at Axe Capital, a hedge fund leviathan in the gun sights of New York’s ambitious attorney general with the killer instincts of a dragon slayer. If the white-collar boys’ club of Wall Street seems like an odd match for someone like Taylor, you are right. “Maybe being the way I am, just breathing the air here can be discomforting,” they confess in an early meeting with Damian Lewis’s poker-faced Bobby Axelrod, a “nouveau riche brawler from Yonkers, using hedge fund billions to bully his way to the status his name itself cannot afford,” to quote the New York Times. Axelrod agrees with his young protégé – “The air is thinner,” he says – but he persuades Taylor to take the job because: “You see things differently.” That’s useful in a place where most people are straight white men from privilege.
The fact that Billions is such an unlikely vehicle to explore gender identity is also what makes it so perfect. There’s a Trojan horse quality to the way it entered the gates of primetime television under one guise, while concealing another. It presents itself as a high-octane drama about rivalry and betrayal among New York’s rich and powerful yet simultaneously illuminates our assumptions and biases about gender. “In terms of representation of non-binary characters on television, playing a character who gets to go on a whole journey like that is extraordinary,” says Dillon, who (after a recurring role as a racist skinhead on Orange is the New Black) begins season three as a series regular for the first time, newly promoted to chief investment officer.
Watching Taylor walk into a conference room of alpha males pumped on adrenalin, and quietly assert control, is like watching a John Hughes high-school movie in which the weirdos triumph over the jocks and cheerleaders. Before long we get to see Taylor sweating it out with a colleague in a Russian bath house – much to the chagrin of a patron who takes offence. The scene is not far removed from Dillon’s actual life. “I go to those Russian baths because they do have co-ed days,” they say. “And when I’m there I don’t wear a top, I either wear a towel, as I wore it in that scene, or I don’t wear anything, just shorts, because I feel safe and comfortable and something about the environment works.” Recording the scene, Dillon took some pride in being treated like their co-star. “Typically, if there are female breasts, or a woman doing a topless scene, someone will run on with a towel to cover them up once it’s done. “If someone wants that, they should have that, but it’s not done for cis men – shielding their breasts – and I don’t want that either. I don’t want to be treated differently in life that way.”
Viewers have taken notice. “People tweet at me,” Dillon says. “I got one fairly recently from someone who said, basically, that Taylor was their first encounter with a non-binary person.” Scrolling through their Twitter feed, Dillon quickly finds an example: “I was a stupid misinformed southern Conservative and now totally obsessed with Asia Kate Dillon. I understand and I didn’t before, I’m so glad you created Taylor, it really matters.” Such messages, and there are lots of them, are gifts for Dillon, who believes that art is strongest when it creates empathy.
“Whether it’s a song or a television show, or a book or poem, art is the thing that cracks me open and encourages me to go on a deeper journey to find my own compassion and empathy and humanity,” they say. The fact that Dillon is in a show about the 1% is an irony not lost on them. When I ask what single thing they would change if they had the power, there is only a slight hesitation as Dillon assembles their words. “Well, I want the United States to be having a much larger and more public conversation about racist capitalism,” they say. “We need a radical reimagining of the economy in this country. Capitalism in and of itself is based on the monetising of human labour, and the first evidence of that is slavery. And that has never changed. We are all participating in that.”
This kind of full-throated socialism would not be out of place in Ithaca, in upstate New York, where Dillon spent their childhood. Aside from its claim to fame as the birthplace of the ice-cream sundae, it’s the home of Cornell University, and among the most liberal towns in the US. During the Democratic primaries in 2016, the news website Vox dubbed it “Bernieland”, after Bernie Sanders. Dillon describes it as a smaller version of New York City, although this didn’t save them from being tormented through high school, largely because of their skinny frame, but also perhaps because other kids are so adept at detecting and stigmatising difference. Often it was art that came to the rescue, in large part thanks to Dillon’s artist mother, Wendy, who raised her child alone. “She really was the north star of my cultural upbringing,” they say. “She is an artist in everything she does – she writes, she paints, but also in the way she arranges a home, or just a dinner plate.”
An early epiphany – as young as two, Dillon says – involved the Rob Reiner movie Stand by Me. “I remember being so taken by it and really falling in love with River Phoenix in particular,” they recall. “He seemed to have such wisdom and grace, but also to be so deeply broken and vulnerable, and able to cry on screen. He made me care about him because he tapped into the humanity of the character, and I think that was something that resonated with me before I even understood what that meant because I was so young.”
The movie also illuminated a world of young male camaraderie that Dillon desired but was excluded from. “Looking back, that’s one of the reasons I loved that film, because I wanted that, I wanted the boy best friends, I craved the platonic romantic love, and I think it had a lot more to do with gender identity than I ever thought.” When Phoenix died in 1993, Dillon filled pages of their journal with soliloquies to the young actor.
It was around the time of Phoenix’s death that Dillon experienced their first crush on a girl – as well as the consequences of letting it show. At a gymnastic camp one day, lying on a trampoline with their friend, Dillon leaned over and kissed her on the cheek – a kiss that came, they say, “from a loving place”. After that, Dillon was not allowed to spend time with the friend again. “I will own and admit that I might have made her very uncomfortable, but I do remember that she was ripped out of my life in ways that were beyond my control,” they say. And there was another voice in Dillon’s head: would a boy be treated differently for kissing a girl on the cheek? Like watching Stand by Me, it was another insight into the limitations and exclusions created by the genders we are given at birth.
Acting, it turns out, was something of an antidote, a space in which gender became less rigid, more fluid. Not coincidentally, Dillon wore out a video cassette of NBC’s Peter Pan with the Broadway star Mary Martin as the eponymous hero. Similarly, a 1988 Grammy performance by Michael Jackson singing The Way You Make Me Feel, and Man in the Mirror resonates down the years as a thrilling moment of connection to a performer who defied easy assumptions (and paid for it throughout his life with relentless taunting of his racial and sexual identity).
Cast at the age of 11 as a townsperson in a school production of Li’l Abner, based on a popular comic strip, Dillon was ecstatic at the opportunity to play a man. “I was asked: ‘Do you want to wear a moustache?’ and I was, like, ‘Yeah, totally,’” Dillon recalls. “It was my first time gluing on a little moustache. I also wore a tie and a bowler hat.” The experience was a tantalising teaser of Dillon’s destiny. “I remember being on stage for a town scene, and we’re all there and something happened that was a sad moment, and I just took out a handkerchief and blew my nose sort of loudly, and there was a smatter of laughter. And I did it again, and got a bigger laugh. I was, like, ‘Oh, OK!’”
If you spend much of your life questioning your place in the society around you, it perhaps follows (if not inevitably) that you will start to appreciate the ways in which others experience stigma and exclusion, too. Dillon, who wore a #BlackLivesMatter hoodie to the 2018 Critics’ Choice Awards in January, characterises adolescence as a time of burgeoning political consciousness. There is the certificate they received at 13 thanking them for raising $37 for people with Aids, and there are the movies – Cry Freedom, Glory, Biko – that shaped Dillon’s understanding of racism.
“There was such a plethora of arts and humanity in my life and my upbringing, and also a real emphasis on understanding that no one is worse or greater than anyone else, that we should always stand up for the marginalised, that you’re inherently standing up for yourself when you do that,” they say. “No one is free until we all are free.”
In contrast to the familiar Oscars grandstanding, this is not simply self-serving lip service. When I ask what they have read lately, Dillon runs through a handful of books that show how deeply they think about the political and social issues that animate their Twitter feed. They include When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter; The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (“Everyone should read that book, every single person”); Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by the African-American essayist and prose poet Claudia Rankine; and the poetry collection There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker.
While grateful for being given a platform (and a job) on Billions, Dillon is acutely aware of the paradox of being lauded as a symbol of progress just because the entertainment industry is belatedly sensitive to being seen as inclusive and diverse. “Visibility for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people is increasing, and it has increased, thankfully, at a very rapid rate,” they concede. “But there is still so much representation and visibility needed for trans women of colour and gender non-conforming people of colour. For all of the incredible messages I’ve received, about how my visibility is helping people, those people who I follow on social media still receive daily death threats and the most derogatory, inhumane vitriol.”
We are back to that neck tattoo: empathy. It’s no accident that Dillon opted for the German word. It was in Germany that the concept first materialised, in a dissertation by the German philosopher Robert Vischer. “I researched the etymology of the word and I discovered that German philosophers in the 1860s were at the forefront of pushing the idea that empathy was necessary for interpersonal relationships,” explains Dillon. Vischer was trying to encapsulate the human ability to connect emotionally with a work of art, the way Dillon found themselves doing with River Phoenix and Michael Jackson and Mary Martin, or with the poetry of Morgan Parker, and the writings of James Baldwin. For Dillon, the sweet spot of being an actor is to make similarly transformative connections with the audience. That tattoo is no mere whim or folly. It’s an appeal for a better world.