Stepping Into Her True Self Led Cassandra James To GH
In some ways, Cassandra James’s journey to show biz is perfectly typical: Born in California and raised in Vancouver, Canada, James caught the performing bug early, earned a degree in theater acting (at Ryerson University in Toronto) and moved to Los Angeles a few years later to pursue work in TV and film.
But in other ways, her story is uniquely her own. James, who was born a biological male, “lived androgynously for many years after school. And I started having the real conversation, the harder conversation, about a transition, asking myself, did I identify as transgender?” After a two-year process of soul-searching, James, who today describes herself as a “proudly out transgender woman,” came out as a woman to her family, and in 2016, she began her medical gender transition.
During this challenging and exhilarating time, she put her acting aspirations on the back burner. “I took a break from my creative life,” James explains. “I’m thankful that I did. It was always my intention to do film and TV, and it just became inevitable that a move back to California was in the cards for me. But if I had moved to L.A. prior to my transition or during those first years of my transition, I really think I wouldn’t have been ready. I think I really had to get my ducks in a row before coming back to California.”
Breaking into the business is rarely an easy proposition; a scarcity of transgender characters and the reluctance of some casting directors to consider transgender performers increases the challenge for transgender actors. “There’s absolutely a lot of adversity that the trans community faces,” James says. “It’s something that I dealt with coming into it and something that I deal with day-to-day. I have fired people from my team who didn’t understand and didn’t value my trans identity. I learned the hard way. But I choose to focus on the positives and celebrate the wins. And I think Terry is a win.”
Terry is Dr. Terry Randolph, James’s Port Charles alter ego, an oncologist and the childhood BFF of Liz Webber, who made her on-air debut in June. Terry is also GH’s first transgender character — and the show was committed to having a transgender actress play her. As a result, James saw a lot of familiar faces at her audition. “All the girls in the trans community that are working, we’re in every single [audition] room together. We’ve had to become good friends and we help each other out.” Initially, she read with Casting Director Mark Teschner; at her third audition, she recalls, “[Executive Producer] Frank Valentini was in the room, and I guess the people at GH liked me and they were ready [to make a decision], because I got the call from my agent when I was in my car heading home. It was pretty special.”
Booking GH was a milestone for the actress. “This is my first [recurring role], so it’s a really big and exciting step in my career. And I can’t help but think about the trans community and the impact that these kinds of roles have on the narrative that’s being told about our community. I was just really excited that a trans woman was going to be portrayed on such a long-running show.”
She admits to nursing some apprehension about how authentically the show would represent Terry. “I think that’s inevitable,” she offers. “I’m hyper-defensive of my community and read through all of the scripts very, very critically. I was so pleasantly surprised that the writers are approaching Terry with a lot of thoughtfulness and a lot of care.”
Terry detailed her transition to Liz and Franco when she first arrived in Port Charles, but her transgender identity has not been a huge focus of James’s subsequent screen time. “What I’ve come to understand is that there was a decision made that Terry might not talk a lot about her transition,” the actress shares. “It was obviously important for the audience and for Elizabeth to meet her as her authentic self, but moving forward, her transition seems incidental, which is its own kind of revolutionary act, I think. A lot of times in Hollywood, when it comes to casting, the only time [transgender actors] are really being considered for roles is when the narrative is trans and when the character is struggling with and facing adversity specifically related to their transition. Trans people deal with everything that cisgender people” — individuals whose gender identity corresponds to the biological sex with which they were born — “struggle with: holding a job, falling in love, family drama. Our experiences are so diverse. So it was really exciting when I began to see Terry unfold. The writing is really about her work at the hospital and her relationship with Liz and now with Kim. She did allude to the fact that her family doesn’t accept her and we will find out together if that will ever be addressed or if it’s something she quietly carries. As of right now, she’s thrilled to be at General Hospital — and so am I!”
Being embraced by viewers has made the experience all the sweeter for James, who says that the positive response to her first episode “was a really exciting moment for me. This is a bit of a coming out for me in the industry. To be welcomed by the fans, for them to be excited by Terry … There’s kind of this lovely ease around my own trans identity and also Terry’s. There’s been very little negative feedback. I think people are really seeing her as a woman and they’re picking up on the storylines that she’s a part of. They’re really just seeing her as Terry, the new doctor in town.”
James is proud to be part of a shift in the cultural tide that has seen increased transgender visibility on television. “POSE on FX really jump-started the conversation in an entirely new way,” she praises. “It talked about our transitions and our identities [as transgender people] in ways that have never been discussed before, that were nuanced and thoughtful and heartfelt. A few years ago, TRANSPARENT was a big moment, obviously, and before that was ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and having [transgender actress] Laverne Cox on that. I believe that Terry is one of those moments, as well. There are trans doctors in the world, and it’s so important to show young trans people that there are so many things that you can become. To have Terry be accepted by the audience is really exciting to me. There are wonderful, amazing things happening for our community and we just keep fighting.”
Arriving In Style: In September, James walked the runway during New York Fashion Week in the Marco Marco show. “The designer is a friend of mine and he sent 35 transgender models down the runway. It was kind of a revolutionary moment in fashion that I didn’t want to miss,” she beams.
Video Dame: James recently starred in the music video for RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE fave Aja The Kween’s (l.) “I’m Kawaii/Ayo Sis,” directed by Assaad Yacoub.
Just The Facts
Birthday: July 17
Hometown: Pasadena, CA
Background Check: James has Ger-
man roots on her father’s side, and her mother was born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents.
Stay Tuned: “I just got into GRACE AND FRANKIE and UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT. The new season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY just started and I’m thrilled! I love Ryan Murphy’s work. I think he’s extraordinary. He’s on my bucket list. If he’s reading Soap Opera Digest, hit me up!”
Kitchen Confidential: “I love to cook for people. I make a really mean French onion soup from scratch.”
Hit The Floor: “I’m a Cancer; we’re notorious homebodies. But I do like to go out dancing. I am a big fan of a good nightclub twirl.”
Strong Start: James says of her first GH scene partners, Rebecca Herbst (Elizabeth) and Roger Howarth (Franco), “Both of them were super-thoughtful and lovely and warm. I felt very welcomed.”
Doctor Speak: James hasn’t gotten tripped up by Terry’s medical dialogue — yet. “To be honest, they’ve taken it easy on me so far.”
Did You Know?
- James was part of the onstage performance of “This Is Me”, the Oscar-nominated song from the movie The Greatest Showman, at the 2018 Academy Awards.
- She is pals with YouTube superstar Gigi Gorgeous.
Check out our new podcast, Dishing With Digest!