SHAKINA'S STAR RISING
Storytelling by Ellen Ioanes
“I’m a seeker, that’s the way I’m oriented. I’m oriented to be a person who goes on quests,” says Shakina Nayfack. Perhaps best known for playing Lola on Hulu’s “Difficult People,” Nayfack is an out trans actress playing an out trans role.
While trans characters have made strides on TV and film (think Transparent and Dallas Buyers Club), it’s mostly cisgender actors winning accolades for playing them. Not so with Nayfack: “I identify as a non-binary trans person,” she said. “I most closely feel affinity for the role of woman,” but cites a talk by the gender theorist Kate Bornstein, saying she sees her gender identity as “footholds in a rock-climbing wall,” with her gender identity shifting and transforming throughout her life.
Nayfack’s earning plaudits for playing the hilarious but unlikeable Lola, but growing up in Orange County, CA, she couldn’t see her future as an actress. In fact, she couldn’t really see a future at all.
“I grew up as a sexual being during the height of the AIDS epidemic, so I equated love with death and sex with illness,” she said. At the time, she was an out gay man, growing up in a Jewish household. She was in and out of high schools— including two large public schools, where she was the only out, gay person. She self-mutilated, skipped school and took drugs, she said; “I never thought I would grow up to be 30.”
But with the help of alternative schooling Nayfack found her way to the University of California Santa Cruz, where she got her B.A. in Community Studies, with a certificate in Theater Arts. She went on to get her MFA in Experimental Choreography, and her PhD in Critical Dance Studies at UC Riverside.
As an academic, Nayfack studied a form of modern Japanese dance called Butoh, which often explores discomfort, pain and the grotesque. “I was in academia because of Butoh—‘How can I use this to feel my trans experience and my trans body?’ I ended up there because I was trying to understand this thing that was really special to me.” But she said the academy turned out to be harmful to her trans identity, so she left and directed her attention to performing.
“I’m first and foremost an artist. With acting, I found I could tell stories and effect change.” And it fulfills another essential part of her identity: her spirituality. “To create worlds is a sacred act, and to participate feels really fulfilling,” she said. Nayfack grew up Jewish, but, she said, “I had a profound teaching with a Buddhist monk and a Tibetan Geshe Lama. My way of moving through the world is very spiritual.”
Nayfack is now a Christian, citing her experience studying Butoh in Mexico as bringing her closer to Virgin Mary. Her baptism coincided with her gender confirmation surgery: “It was almost like a blessing,” from the Virgin, she said.
Nayfack has found mainstream success and artistic fulfillment as she’s explored her identity–as an artist, as a queer person, and as a spiritual seeker. She has a lot ahead of her; sitcoms, certainly, and perhaps her own vehicle or a badass action film. “I have this fantasy of myself, like, sliding across the hood of a car,” she said.
But she knows that whatever comes next, it needs to come from a sincere place of growth and exploration; she leaves the interview with the observation, “I’m of greater service to my community if I follow my path.”
You can learn more about Shanika at www.shakina.nyc.
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