April 23, 2018 • Communications
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By: Katherine Matuszek ’19
Photographer: Jai Lennard (Asst: Matthew Cardinali)
Less than a year after graduation, Manhattanville alum Ellie Desautels ’17 is making a mark in the television world on the NBC show, Rise. Desautels, who is non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns, is also making strides for the LGBTQ community in their role as Michael, a trans-male who is in the process of his social transition.
Rise focuses on a Pennsylvania working class town’s theatre program whose director, played by Josh Radnor, decides to put on a production of the musical, Spring Awakening. New students join the cast and begin to find themselves within the story’s provocative subject matter. The show depicts the social/personal issues that characters face and the repercussions that follow the development of the program.
Before Desautels began starring on the show, they were an active member of the Manhattanville theatre department. Initially a music major, Desautels declared theatre as a major in their sophomore year. The change in major caused Desautels to stay at Manhattanville for an additional year. Their time in the program invigorated a passion for acting.
“Being valued as a theatre major gave me a lot of confidence. I learned how to be pretty independent, strong, and confident about where my career could go. And without that confidence...I wouldn't have thought, ‘Oh I could do this,’” said Desautels.
The theatre department’s faculty encouraged Desautels’ self-expression, impacting the way they approach acting. Former professor Valerie Clayman Pye was the first person Desautels told that they were non-binary. With their permission, Pye disclosed the information to the rest of the department, specifying their preferred pronouns, making Desautels’ experience “a breeze.” Additionally, Professor Jon Huberth, who Desautels calls “the closest thing [they] have to a mentor,” was a huge influence during their time at Manhattanville. Once Desautels finished Huberth’s Acting for the Camera courses, he adapted and expanded, at Desautels’ request, the courses, which the aspiring actor pursued. Desautels credits Clayman Pye and Hubert with helping them improve critical acting skills and positively affecting their time at Manhattanville.
While a senior at Manhattanville, Desautels booked the role of Michael for Rise’s pilot. Desautels had to learn how to balance being a student with time on the set. Luckily, the pilot was filmed in White Plains at Archbishop Stepinac High School, which was a quick trip from campus. Despite the difficulties, they made it work and completed both the pilot and the semester. Desautels believes in devoting oneself to their craft, so they recommend students interested in a career in acting get a manager.
“Find somebody who is going to put you out there as soon as you can. You can find auditions on your own for sure, but it is really helpful to have somebody who knows how to find auditions doing that for you, so that you can focus on your job as an actor,” said Desautels.
Even after earning their role on Rise, Desautels is still trying to get used to the experience. The part came along at the perfect time for them. It was the first call back they received, first paying gig, and was a job lined up for them after graduation, which they know is not the case for everyone. Desautels enjoyed the whole experience, despite it being nerve-wracking the first few rehearsals. Working with well-known actors like Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez, and Auli'i Cravalho and acting under the direction of Tom Kitt and Jason Katims, whose work Desautels admires, has been an exciting and “insane” experience. Their time working on this project solidified their choice in making acting their career.
“I loved every time I had a scene,” said Desautels. “I loved every time I had a line! I would just get so excited and be like, ‘Yes! I get to act!’”
Desautels’ character is extremely valuable in portraying the trans experience on prime-time television. Their character is in every episode of the season and has more prominent storylines about their experience and time in the department.
“It’s very important work I’m doing, and I’m so lucky to be doing it,” said Desautels.
In the show, they play a character named Michael Hallowell who has just joined the theatre department. He finds that he’s comfortable there and discloses to the group that he would like to be called Michael, marking his social transition. He is a talented singer and actor, and coming into himself during the show. While having different labels for their identities, Desautels sees connections with themself and Michael. Both have been lucky to be in safe environments, where they can just be themselves “unapologetically.” Desautels talked to Jason Katims about their own experience, so together they wanted to make Michael confident and to see him “flourish” during the course of the season.
“I think it’s one thing that we haven’t seen much of yet with trans characters on TV, is a trans kid flourishing, not getting beaten down, not struggling, flourishing beautifully... Giving that representation that trans people can be happy, I think rewrites the idea of what people think being trans is,” said Desautels.
Similar to casts in college or high school productions, the young cast of Rise shared a common rapport with each other both on screen and off. Each character has their own story to share over the course of the season, and they all work together to tell them completely. The show relies on the students’ experiences as they find themselves and each other, as well as the connection formed during rehearsals.
As Desautels did not graduate with their original class, they struggled in their final year making new friends after so many graduated. After making some connections, they made friendships that they have carried into post-graduate life. As with Michael, Desautels found a troupe of their own.
“Just value who your friends are now. Some might stick, some might not, but there are very valuable relationships,” said Desautels.
Rise airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST on NBC.