Julie Kalceff, the writer-director of Hulu’s new limited series First Day, about a 12 year-old transgender girl starting middle school, and its star, Evie Macdonald, talk about the process of making the miniseries. That includes Evie’s process as a trans actress playing trans character Hannah and her goals as an actress. Plus, we talk about Julie’s technique as a director in creating the role of Hannah. She also reveals her hopes for the future of the character.
Awards Daily: Evie, as a first time actress, how did you prepare for the role?
Evie Macdonald: Well, I practiced the script as much as I could. I didn’t get it as soon as I could. How would you say it, Julie? You know how I would probably rehearse it in my head and how it would be different on set.
Julie Kalceff: I didn’t want Evie to have the script too early because I didn’t want her to learn it by rote. I wanted her to learn it more organically so I didn’t send it through to her as early as I might an adult actor. I sent it through to her not long before we started shooting, just so she could become familiar with the script, rather than learn it by heart.
EMD: Yeah, but I think preparing for the role was pretty easy for me seeing as I am trans, and I have a lot of knowledge on being trans. I felt that I could relate to Hannah a lot, so it wasn’t hard to prepare.
AD: Is acting something you want to keep pursuing?
EMD: Absolutely, yes of course. I really want to pursue acting. I feel like it’s really a passion of mine since I was a little kid and hopefully I get more roles. But since COVID-19 there has been a big shift in auditions. A lot of movies haven’t been getting filmed. So hopefully when things get back to normal I can get a few more jobs.
AD: Julie, you have done several TV shows. What has attracted you to that medium?
JK: The thing I like about TV is that you have more opportunity to explore character and the content I’m interested in making is very character-based and character-focused. So something like First Day, making the series really allowed us to go deeper into Hannah’s experience and explore that character in greater depth. I think that’s what’s really appealing because, for me, characters are why we watch screen content. The character is the audience’s way into a story, the emotional heart of the story. It’s a real opportunity to explore different aspects of character and so, with Hannah’s story, we try to show not just that she’s transgender but there are many aspects to her life and her personality, and in the series we are better able to do that.
AD: First Day was a short film first. What was the process turning that into a miniseries as an actress and creator?
EMD: When I first auditioned for First Day I never anticipated it was going to get this big but to see it go this far really shows how much of a good story it is and how much it needed to be shown. Filming the pilot compared to filming the actual series was so different, yet so amazing at the same time. It was like when you watch your favorite movie and then you get to see behind the scene videos and deleted scenes. It’s like “Yes, I get more of it.”
JK: Big shout-out to our producer Kirsty Stark, because Kirsty and I have been on this from the beginning, and to go from the stand-alone single episode to a series took two years of hard work. Getting the financing together is a big job and so during those two years we worked hard to find the right format and the right platform for the series. In terms of story, it was a really great opportunity, as I said, to delve into character. The response to the first stand-alone episode was really positive so we knew there was an audience out there that wanted to see more of Hannah’s story, and we thought it was a great opportunity to look deeper at her experiences and to give an audience what they wanted. There are not a lot of trans stories on screen. This is the only one in Australia with a trans actor in the lead role.
AD: Speaking of delving into more character. The character of Isabella (actress Isabel Burmester) is a villain, but you create extra levels to why she is the way she is. Julie, how did you go about trying to create her? Evie, how did you deal with interacting with her in such intense scenes?
EMD: The best thing about Isabel and I is that we got along really well. We were so close we hung out every weekend and we would text each other all the time. Even to this day we still talk. Filming those scenes honestly I always had to keep holding in my laughter. It was always just so funny; it was like making a video with your best friend and trying not to laugh. But I loved how Julie captured Isabella and you see the things that she goes through, the small little cracks in her personality, and sometimes she has her guard down and can be a bit more vulnerable. I also like with her character that you can see that she’s struggling. I like their growth, and how they start off hating each other and end up being in an actually good place.
JK: Isabella is cast in the role of the villain, but it was important for us to show that all people are three-dimensional. There are reasons why people act the way they do. Just as Hannah is more than just being a trans character. Isabella is struggling with her own issues and to some extent that is common ground for her and Hannah. There’s a connection between them that creates an empathy between them. We didn’t want to create a character that was one-dimensional. There is a chance for characters like Hannah and Isabella to mend their fences and to come together.
Another part of that relationship was the incredible performances by the child actors. First Evie in the role of Hannah, she’s in every scene, she’s carrying the weight of this series on her shoulders. As a then fourteen year old, her performance is incredible. Then you have Isabel playing Isabella bringing so much depth and nuance to that character. It’s one thing to put it on the page, but it’s another for a child who’s fourteen to be able to express that and bring it across onscreen. But, as Evie said, they were all good friends and there were scenes where they were supposed to be fighting and they actually started laughing.
AD: One thing I noticed, expanding on the Hannah being more than just trans, you show a lot of scenes of kids just being kids. The skater park scene, the obstacle course, and the swimming at the end. How important was putting those scenes in for telling your story?
JK: It was crucial. The character of Hannah is a 12-year-old girl and so she does things that twelve year old girls do. We wanted to show that she is more than being trans, and if people allow themselves to see that, they will see that she’s a beautiful, emotionally intelligent person who has many aspects to her character. And Evie brought that across on screen.
AD: I wanted to go back to something you said earlier about waiting to send the script to Evie. Was that something about the character specifically or something about her bringing herself into it more?
JK: It was just from an acting perspective. My experience working with non-actors and child actors, their instincts are very strong. Evie is a natural actor, her instincts are spot on, she’s such a natural performer and she brings so much to the character. I thought that giving her the script too early, learning it too early and by heart, that might stifle those instincts. Obviously she needed to know the story, and I sent the script to her mom very early on so her mom could look at it and make sure there’s nothing in there that is problematic. It wasn’t that we were hiding aspects of the story from Evie, it was truly just from a performance perspective so she could be familiar with the story, then bring that energy and freshness to the shoot.
AD: Evie, did you find that process helpful?
EMD: Yeah, I have seen a lot of people practice and practice a script and then sound like a robot. They say it like they’re reading a book and I hate that, I want to read it and say it like I’m actually saying it. These are my actual words and are coming straight from my head out my mouth.
AD: You mentioned not being able to do many future projects due to COVID, but do either of you have any particular projects in the works or anything you want to explore next?
JK: We are in development on season two of First Day. We feel like we’ve just scratched the surface of Hannah’s story. Obviously season one was about her coming out and telling her friends that she’s trans, so for a lot of people they think well, that’s the end of the journey and everything’s fine now. We want to show more of the story, that it is a day-to-day process, and that a character like Hannah would still experience micro-aggressions, and things that would complicate her life. We want to explore that further so, ideally, we would love to shoot a season two. And we also have a couple other projects in the works. We’re looking to do a spin-off series that we think would be a really great way to explore the character of Hannah but also other characters from the series.
AD: I thought it was just a miniseries; I didn’t know you had gotten a second season.
JK: Well, we are in development, we haven’t been commissioned yet. COVID has kind of disrupted our timeline, but we are hopeful.
AD: Anything for you, Evie?
Evie: Just before COVID-19 hit us there were a couple big roles that I actually got, and I was really excited. But COVID-19 did happen, and I guess everything happens for a reason, but just to see that I did actually have the potential to get something actually gives me hope. And if we do get a season two more people will get to see the show.
First Day is now available on Hulu.