QUANTUM LEAP: Shakina on Sci-Fi's 'Latent Queerness' and Shining a Light on Trans Youth Issues in 'Let Them Play' - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

QUANTUM LEAP: Shakina on Sci-Fi’s ‘Latent Queerness’ and Shining a Light on Trans Youth Issues in ‘Let Them Play’

February 4, 2023 by  

Quantum Leap Shakina Nayfack interview

QUANTUM LEAP — “Let Them Play” Episode 112 — Pictured: Shakina Nayfack as Dottie — (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

On the Monday, February 6 episode of QUANTUM LEAP, Ben (Raymond Lee) leaps into a delicate situation: He inhabits the patriarch of the Mendéz family, who are fighting to protect their transgender daughter, Gia (Josielyn Aguilera)—including their attempts to let her play on her high school basketball team.

“Let Them Play” was penned (and directed) by Shakina; though Shakina has appeared on shows like CONNECTING, LOOKING, and DIFFICULT PEOPLE, this marks her first time helming or writing an episode of TV. (She also appears in the episode as Dottie, a key figure in the show’s ongoing mythology.)

Here, Shakina talks with Give Me My Remote about the hour and digs into the importance of sharing trans stories on television.

How did you come to join QUANTUM LEAP?
It’s a long story, but I first met [writer/executive producer] Martin Gero when I was on NBC’s CONNECTING during the pandemic. When that show finished, I sent him some things I was developing and we started talking about creating something for me. We thought that it would be helpful if I had some experience in a writers’ room before pitching my own show, and so I wrote a sample. He was the executive producer [of QUANTUM LEAP] at the time, not showrunning, but I was like, “Hey, I wrote a sample. Can you help me get a meeting?” And so Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt, who were at the time showrunning, met with me and I basically floated this pitch of this episode at my interview.

I said, “I could give you a pitch on, like, Ben leaping into a coach of a…it was actually at a soccer team, at the time…with a trans kid, but really, I think the fact that I’m trans gives me a kind of expertise of walking a mile in another person’s shoes. I know a thing or two about being inside another body.” I think that point of view, that perspective of being inside otherness, just really lends itself to what QUANTUM LEAP is. So that’s how I got involved in the show. And then picked up this pitch and workshopped it with the room and got the episode together.

How did it come to be that you also directed the hour?
Well, I had definitely expressed interest in shadowing. [Laughs.] And, of course, I want to be able to direct—that was my career in the theater. But it was a really crazy circumstance. Our first director [had to briefly step back] on day one, and I just said, “Look, this whole episode is about, ‘Put me in coach.’ So: Put me in, coach.” You know what I mean? Like, I’m ready. I’ve done 30 episodes of television as an actor. I’ve trained as a director. I’m here. I wrote the story. It’s kind of based on my life. I’m the only trans person around—let’s do it. And so we made it happen, really quickly. And then thankfully, [the original director] was able to come back on the last day when I was appearing as Dottie and she got to direct that day, and then I just got to be an actress.

Directing is not easy, and you jumped into the deep end without a lot of the normal prep process. What was the most difficult portion of doing it sans the traditional pre-production time frame?
Well, I lived it, and I wrote it, and I produced it. So even through prep, I was hands-on. And then, in a strange way, it was sort of like just how it had to be, I think, especially to speak the nuance of the language of the script with these trans actors; it just fit. I directed actors for the majority of my lifetime, and I know how cameras are supposed to feel when they’re on you, so I felt like I could translate that into what I wanted to see.

And, yeah, it was definitely a whirlwind. But also, I had the best team around me and I could ask questions of anybody. My director of photography, Ana Amortegui, was just so incredible. And I literally just told everyone from the grip to the DP, “I’m going to be asking questions about everything I don’t know. So please help me out if I come to you.” And people were—the thing is, this episode inspired so much heart from everybody working on it…there was a sense of joyful collaboration every step of the way. And that’s from the network to the studio to again the shop car guy. Everyone felt like they had an extra stake in this because it’s such an important story.

Unfortunately, there are so many areas where trans people are being discriminated against. What made the school sports debate the story you wanted to tell and the right one for this show?
I’m not like a huge sports fan; sports are not my life. But a big part of that might be because there was no place for me in sports when I was a kid. And I kind of didn’t even realize that until we were on set and I was feeling the imposter syndrome—not being a director, but why am I doing a basketball episode? And then thinking about these formative moments that I had…when I was like, 5, 6, 7 years old, coming to understand my body and the way that I didn’t fit in with the rest of the boys on this team. So that’s how I found my way in, personally.

But I think what really locked it in for me, in terms of why it was the right story for QUANTUM LEAP, is because I’ve just seen the ways that trans kids have been used as a political bench issue. Especially in the last couple of years. And all the laws being passed, particularly around athletics and access to restrooms and access to health care. And I was like, first of all, I’ve been that kid. And second of all, these are children. And these are children who are taking their own lives. So there’s a sense of urgency, real urgency, in terms of not one more. What can we do so there are no more trans kids taking themselves out of the game? And that’s my big message with the show: they’re kids. Let kids be kids. And then QUANTUM LEAP is such an empathy engine. The original and our new version, that’s what drives the show—the sense of universal humanity. And I just wanted to show the world that trans kids are a part of that.

Sci-fi shows also have a history of tackling timely and inclusive issues—look at how many TWILIGHT ZONE episodes are still relevant today. What do you think is the importance of intermingling human issues within the sci-fi genre?
Well, I think my experience of sci-fi has always been outsiders creating the world we want to see or cautioning us against the world we don’t want to create. And so the fact that there’s always been a kind of latent queerness to sci-fi is just proof that we’ve always been here and we’ve always been trying to liberate ourselves. And that storytelling is the best way to do that.

Quantum Leap Shakina Nayfack interview

QUANTUM LEAP — “Let Them Play” Episode 112 — Pictured: (l-r) Josielyn Aguilera as Gia, Raymond Lee as Dr. Ben Song — (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Looking at the guest cast for a moment, there are several terrific trans actors in the episode. What was the experience like of getting to bring this many trans performers together?
I mean, it was so emotional. My first day on set, I ran into Trace Lysette and Josielyn Aguilera at the trailers, and we just sort of had a trifecta moment and laughed and cried and hugged each other and took selfies because it is groundbreaking. There’s very few opportunities…not only on screen, but just in life. We don’t get to be together. And so that’s something that I really wanted to show in this episode: that there is trans community, that there is trans history. And you get a kind of window into that intergenerational sibling, or, you know, Auntie relationship, that we have in the trans community, because that’s the only way we get to know ourselves.

You’re also in the episode. What can you preview about your character?
I mean, Dottie is a clown. And especially because I knew that this was going to be a heavy, emotional episode, and I was like, we need to bring a little light. And so we had some backstory/mystery to unravel. And we found a really fun way to do that.

QUANTUM LEAP, Mondays, 10/9c, NBC


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