Aneesh Sheth plays Jessica Jones’s new transgender assistant in the new, final series. She talks visibility and identity with Darren Scott
Marvel’s Jessica Jones has such devoted fans that its third, final series had to be filmed in New York under a code name. The noir drama about an ex-superhero who opens a detective agency has blazed a trail with its feminist lead and nuanced explorations of issues around sexuality, rape and post-traumatic stress disorder.
This last series arrives on Netflix this week, concluding the streaming platform’s four-year collaboration with Marvel but continuing its commitment to change the way that people from the LGBTQ community are represented on TV and how their stories are told. Krysten Ritter’s super-powered private investigator will be joined by a new assistant, Gillian: a transgender character played by a trans actress.
When we meet on set, Aneesh Sheth is dressed head to toe in sleek, shiny couture. “It has been exciting for me,” she laughs, “I think this entire wardrobe probably cost more than my rent!”
Originally from Pune in India, Sheth moved to America as a child and soon turned her attention to the arts, studying piano at the age of six. A classical singer, too, she attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to study musical theatre, and went on to star in the Broadway national tour of Bombay Dreams.
She later returned to studying, completing a Master’s degree in social work at the university, which she put to use working as a youth counsellor helping LGBTQ people at the suicide-prevention charity The Trevor Project, while continuing her acting career. Her recent television work has included roles on Outsourced, Difficult People, High Maintenance and New Amsterdam.
“I started when I was very young,” Sheth explains. “When I was a teenager I booked my first professional show. Since then I’ve just been working. I would say I’ve been in the business for about 20 years. This is my first recurring [role], so it’s kind of a big deal for an actor like me.
“I am transgender and the character of Gillian is also trans. But there’s no mention of her being trans within the show, nor a narrative around her identity. Which I think is wonderful because trans people exist in the world and it’s not always about their [trans]narrative.
“I had a big discussion with Melissa Rosenberg [the creator of Jessica Jones]about where we thought Gillian came from, and her background. That’s very exciting as an actor, to be able to have a say in where I want this story to go. Marginalised actors are getting the power to create narratives within shows like this. I think that’s really important.”
Marvel’s movies have been criticised for their failure to include LGBTQ characters. On the small screen, though, they have quietly been getting on with it for some time. “I have had friends who are trans who have been on the show before,” Sheth points out.
“They were talking about their experiences and it was wonderful to hear. Shakina Nayfack played a pawn shop clerk in the last season. And then MJ Rodriguez, who is playing Blanca on Pose right now, was in a couple of episodes of Luke Cage.”
I suggest that, like Gillian, Nayfack’s character was interesting because she was simply there.
Sheth nods her head enthusiastically. “She was just a character that existed in the world. How about that? We just exist. It is absolutely groundbreaking. I don’t know if many people have done that before. I think that’s something that’s necessary.”
Trans visibility on TV, Sheth thinks, began in 2013 with Laverne Cox’s Emmy-nominated role in Orange is the New Black (which is also on Netflix). And it keeps getting better. “If you think about every year that came after, trans people have gained exponential visibility since then.
“I think it’s important in terms of representation to have people recognise that you’ve got a South Asian trans person on television, but also how wonderful it is for that person to exist in a show without having to hit it over the head, ‘This is what we’re talking about’. To avoid sensationalism.”
Sheth describes Gillian as “sassy”. “She has snarky comments all the time” she laughs “and is definitely not the quiet type.” How do she and Jessica fit together? “‘Complement’ might be a little generous,” she considers. “I know that Gillian does care for her. And it probably goes vice versa. There’s definitely moments that Krysten and I have played where there’s some kind of empathy for each other, but it’s mostly, [from]what we see, at arm’s length.”
Aneesh Sheth (Photo: BILLY BUSTAMANTE)As she prepares herself for another scene in the Alias Investigations office, Sheth runs her hands down her skirt. She jokes that the wardrobe department staff are thankful that they have finally got someone “glam” to dress – Gillian’s style is not too far removed from her own.
“I tend to be very high femme,” she says. “I tend to wear dresses and skirts and heels all the time, so it fits right into what I usually wear. But not couture!” she chuckles. “In episode one, I had a Gucci cowhide skirt!”
When she makes her debut tomorrow, one person in particular will be blown away: her brother. She explains that he is “a big comic-book nerd” and gave her the back story on the wider Marvel Universe – but wasn’t even aware why she was asking.
“He just knows that I’m working on TV,” she says with a grin, “because I can’t say anything. So I’m just like, ‘I have a job on television’. We talk about comics all the time. I think he’ll be a little bit excited.”