Michael D. Cohen dishes on meeting the VP, happy places, and protecting trans youth

Michael D. Cohen dishes on meeting the VP, happy places, and protecting trans youth

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Photo Credit: Tim Schaeffer Photography, @timschaefferphoto

[Editor’s Note: The below interview was conducted prior to the actors of SAG-AFTRA joining the WGA on strike.]

On a show full of heroes, Danger Force‘s Michael D. Cohen plays Schwoz, a comic-relief sidekick who doesn’t have any superpowers of his own.

But the actor and activist has found a ways to be heroic in real life—without abilities like super-strength, flight, or telekinesis.

In 2019, Cohen collaborated with GLAAD to pen a groundbreaking piece for TIME, in which he spoke openly about transitioning and his experiences in the industry as a man of trans experience. Since then, he’s used his platform for trans talent in front of and behind the camera, and even partnered with Nickelodeon on the Michael D. Cohen Trans Youth Acting Challenge, a showcase for young trans and non-binary performers.

He’s also written and directed episodes of the family-focused series Danger Force, including the 2021 episode “Manlee Men,” which made history by featuring the first openly trans teen in a live-action Nickelodeon show, and went on to be nominated for a GLAAD Media Award in the Outstanding Kids & Family Programing category.

Beyond the Danger Force franchise (counting its predecessor Henry Danger, Cohen’s starred in over 150 episodes!), Cohen can also be seen in films like Whiplash and Sububicon, guest appearances on Modern Family and 2 Broke Girls, and so much more.

Fresh off a visit to D.C. where he was a guest Vice President Kamala Harris special Pride Month reception, we caught up with Cohen and invited him on as the latest guest of our rapid-fire Q&A series, Dishin’ It. In the chat, the actor discusses the book that helped him through his transition, the superpower he’s always wanted to have, and the queer musician he’s idolized since the ’90s.

Is there a piece of media—whether a movie, TV series, book, album, games, etc…—that you consider a big part of your own coming-out journey, or that has played an important part in exploring your own identity? Why does it stand out to you?

There is a book called Body Alchemy by Loren Cameron. I remember discovering it at Glad Day Books—a queer bookstore in Toronto in the gay village. I had just started living as a man a few days earlier and, as soon as I opened the book, I became obsessed. Cameron was an artist and photographer, and the book was all about men who had transitioned. There were before-and-after pictures along with bios and little stories. It was incredible.

I remember sitting down on the floor in the bookstore for a couple of hours flipping through the pages. I probably looked ridiculous, but all I could think was, “Is this possible… I can actually do this?!” I bought the book that day, and often would go back to it for inspiration as I went through my transition. It was my trans masc bible. It’s still on my bookshelf.

You’re part of Nickelodeon’s popular Henry Danger series and its spinoff Danger Force all about superpowered kids, so we have to ask: What’s your dream superpower and why?

Great question. My superpower would be to know the truth in every situation. I always want to know what’s really going on. Then I think of that Nicholson line in A Few Good Men…. but I think I can handle it.

You were nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for the 2021 episode of Danger Force called “Manlee Men,” which made history by featuring young trans actor Sasha A. Cohen. You co-wrote and directed the episode; can you tell us how it came about? How did you break the plot—it was set at a fashion show—and in what ways did you hope Sasha’s character might be a teachable moment for audiences?

It was my first official TV writing job, but I had actually directed an episode before that one. And I’m grateful I did, because that would have been too many firsts for one episode!

The way it came about was that I had done a staged reading of my solo show “4 Cubits Make A Man” about my transition. Our showrunner, Chris Nowak, and other crew members came to the reading and knew my story. They were tremendously supportive. One of the show’s writers, Andrew Thomas, brought up the idea to Chris of having a trans character on the show and Chris approached me about it. Of course I was all in, so Andrew and I wrote the episode together.

I felt strongly, as did Andrew, that the character’s transness had to give him some insight that no one else would have, and that it would somehow move the story along. When I was transitioning and in the process of buying new clothes, I noticed that shirts button up on different sides depending on whether the shirt was made for a man or a woman. So we placed the story in a fashion show so that a shirt could be relevant. Then Sasha’s character uses this piece of information to help solve a crime.

We were hoping that kids could see that being different has certain gifts and gives you different ways of seeing the world. The trans character didn’t have a superpower. He was just a boy who had a particular experience and used information from that experience to help others.

Where’s one of the first places/spaces you can remember that made you feel a part of a LGBTQ+ community?

I don’t know that I had this feeling early on. It’s more of a recent thing. I’ve been teaching acting for years, and lately I started including some workshops tailored for actors of trans experience. These past two summers I taught acting retreats specifically for trans masc actors. It felt like such an honor and privilege to be able to support these actors and to help foster community. It was a profound experience for me and gave me deeper insight into what community really means and how I’m a part of it.

We’re sure you’ve met all kinds of fascinating people throughout your career, but who would you say is the most famous person you’ve ever met? What was your experience like meeting them? Did they live up to your expectations?

It’s tough to choose so I’ll give you two of my favorite experiences. I got to work with George Clooney twice and both times he was as good-natured and friendly as he appears in interviews. His wife Amal was also so authentically radiant and full of love towards everyone.

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of attending Vice President Kamala Harris’ Pride reception co-hosted by GLAAD at her residence in D.C. I was blown away by her. She was so present, dynamic, committed, and approachable. I was so moved by her presence and her words. She is legit when it comes to defending LGBTQ+ people and I saw firsthand how committed this administration is to protecting our rights.

Image Credit: Instagram, @michaeldcohen

You’ve made great strides in making the industry a more inclusive place with the Trans Youth Acting Challenge initiative, what’s your hope for how we can continue to move the industry forward in terms of representation? And how can we best support LGBTQ+ artists and make this world more inclusive?

We have to start by reminding ourselves that we are so much more than what we represent. True representation is acknowledging everyone’s connectedness, not just our differences. So, we need more actors of trans experience playing non-trans roles on TV and in films. We need writers of trans experience not just writing for shows with trans characters but writing for all types of shows.

And in order to support LGBTQ+ artists, we need more mentorships and shadowing opportunities. We need more opportunities to get in the door. The Trans Youth Acting Challenge was successful because we were able to find kids all over the country who never would have been seen otherwise. We created possibility for them, and that’s what the community needs as a whole.

From the looks of your Instagram, you’re a big outdoors guy who loves a good hike. Where’s one of your favorite places you’ve ever gone to hike and what makes it so memorable?

There are so many to choose from. I suppose the most memorable was a mountaineering trip to Ecuador. I climbed a mountain called Cayambe that’s 18,996 feet high. It took a lot of training and acclimatization, but it was worth it. The views were spectacular. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re on a mountain knowing that there is no other way to get to the summit other than to climb it.

And then I also love hiking just about anywhere in California. Put a backpack on me and I’m in my happy place.

Who is a queer or trans artist/performer/creator that you think is doing really cool work right now? Why are they someone we should all be paying attention to?

I’m a huge Ani DiFranco fan. She came out as bisexual early on and is someone who, besides being ridiculously talented, has deep convictions and integrity. She started her recording career in 1990, has recorded over 22 albums, and is still touring. She’s fighting for our rights with her music and concerts. She really is the voice of a generation and is still so relevant and impactful.


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