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Actress Rebecca Root: 'Someone waved a wand over me'

As the sitcom Boy Meets Girl returns for a second series, Keeley Bolger chats with actress Rebecca Root to discover how a stranger's act of kindness changed her life

Published 02/07/2016

Rebecca Root and Harry Hepple in Boy Meets Girl
Rebecca Root and Harry Hepple in Boy Meets Girl

During a difficult period, transgender actress Rebecca Root experienced an unforgettable moment of kindness.

Growing up in Surrey, Root says she was certain of two things: "I wanted to be a girl and I wanted to be a professional actor. I was born both but my flowering, if you like, was slightly circuitous."

It was, at times, an overwhelming journey, and, looking back, there's one particular moment, in early transition, that really sticks out. Root was on holiday in the Aegean at the time.

"I was having dinner in a restaurant on the beach," says the 47-year-old star of BBC Two sitcom Boy Meets Girl, who is also a specialist speech therapist for trans people.

"I was slightly p****d and feeling overwhelmed by the stars above, the lapping of the water, the warmth of the air and just feeling incredibly isolated and lonely for all of the beauty around me.

"I started crying and the waiter, this charming guy in his 20s who spoke broken English, didn't know what I was going through, but could see I was in distress. He put his hand on my shoulder and said: 'Don't worry. It'll be okay. Be strong. Be brave.'"

Those words have formed a bedrock for Root, who draws on them in the diversity talks she gives on behalf of charities Diversity Role Models and All About Trans, and recently at a speech for a Home Office conference.

She acknowledges not all trans people have the "amazing" circle of family and friends she has (nor, she adds, does every trans person "elect, desire or can afford to have full gender confirmation surgery"), and as such, the kindness of strangers is even more "powerful".

Not least in proving there is tolerance, witnessed, she says, in the global displays of support following the murder of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando earlier this month.

"There is good in the world and even if you don't see it on a daily basis, it is there," says Root, who played a nurse in Academy Award-winning The Danish Girl.

"It's overwhelming when you see the outpouring of love that rises up in the face of such evil and violence like in Orlando, or with [MP] Jo Cox's murder. Love is overwhelmingly the stronger of the two emotions."

Graduating from drama school in 1990, Root's rise to public prominence - cemented in 2015 with being placed 11th in The Independent's annual Rainbow List, which celebrates the most influential people in the British LGBTI community - has been a gradual one.

Until recently, she taught at the East 15 Acting School, peppered with "at least one acting job a year, even in what I call my hiatus".

Sheer "bloody-mindedness" fuelled her to persevere.

"Why didn't I give up? Because I'm Taurean. I'm stubborn. I'm really like a dog with a bone. I refused to give up," says Root, with a hearty laugh.

"The industry is competitive; I can't get every job, that would be ridiculous. But it's like what people say when they buy a lottery ticket: 'You've got to be in it to win it'. You can't wonder, 'What if?' unless you actually engage with the process."

Last year then felt like her numbers had come good. She had the lead in Boy Meets Girl (gaining an Attitude Award for best breakthrough performance), a trip to The White House for a Champions of Change screening of The Danish Girl and was a guest at Number 10 for a garden party for members of the LGBT community.

This year isn't looking too shabby either.

She's thrilled Boy Meets Girl, the UK's first transgender sitcom, is back for a second run.

Set in Newcastle, the series centres around the relationship between Root's character Judy and 20-something Leo, played by Harry Hepple, charting the sweet highs and lows as the loved-up couple adjusts to each other's circle. Series two sees them making plans for their future.

"Nothing is plain sailing in life, least of all in romance, so it's a tricky path ahead for Judy and Leo," she teases.

"I'm very flattered if people think the success of the series is anything related to my performance, but I think it's down to the fact the characters are likeable people, you want to be on their side."

Though Judy is a transgender character, what is really heartening, she says, is cisgender roles (that is, people who are living the same gender as they were born in) are coming her way, too.

"It's part of the growing understanding, not only in the audiences but in the industry, that people are seeing me as an actor," she says.

"It totally validates my ability as a performer. It means people are, hopefully, seeing me as a competent if not good actor. That's a really exciting development because 10 years ago, I was only playing trans parts, and now that's changing."

"I'm in an amazingly happy place at the moment," she says. "My 2015 was like somebody had waved a wand over Rebecca Root's life, and they're still waving it."

Boy Meets Girl, BBC Two, Wednesday, 10pm

Belfast Telegraph

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