After departing an early career path as the U.K.’s youngest wildlife hospital and rehabilitation center owner, MJ Bassett ventured into the entertainment industry, first as a television presenter of nature and science programs, and then transitioned into writing and directing in 2002 with Deathwatch starring Jamie Bell, Matthew Rhys and Andy Serkis. For the next decade, MJ would continue directing films like Wilderness (2006), Solomon Kane (2009) and Silent Hill: Revelation (2012). In 2013, MJ shifted her focus to television, becoming the lead director and subsequently a writer, co-producer and finally executive producer on Cinemax’s Emmy-nominated series Strike Back in both of its iterations. MJ’s latest feature, Rogue, starring Megan Fox and co-written by MJ with her daughter, Isabel Bassett, released by Lionsgate on PVOD and digital on August 28. A South Africa-set thriller, it combines her passion for wildlife conservation with her love of filmmaking, delivering action and thrills while reminding viewers of the value of the animals we share the planet with. Coming out as transgender in 2016, MJ spends a lot of time shooting around the world and is currently writing her next two eco-thrillers for Lionsgate and prepping to direct Showtime’s Halo with Pablo Schreiber. You can follow MJ on Instagram at @emjaybassett. (Photo by Madaleine Bassett.)
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Last Tycoon, “There are no second acts in American lives.”
I think he’s wrong. In fact, I know he’s wrong; there can be so much more than a second act, there can be an entire second life.
I’m living it.
Having spent most of a lifetime as one of the most privileged members of society – a cis, white, middle-class and very male Englishman – I finally came out as transgender in 2017. In one fell swoop, I managed to fall from the perch of unassailable privilege to join one of the most vilified and misunderstood groups of people in the Western world. I don’t regret it for one moment and, in truth, I really had no choice; the road was rapidly running out on the life I was living. I couldn’t keep up the facade and illusion of being someone I wasn’t and my unhappiness was becoming toxic to everyone around me. Crippled with guilt and shame, coming out was a terrifying, emotionally traumatic and yet wonderfully liberating experience for me and also a hugely challenging emotional rollercoaster for my wife and children. I’m amazingly fortunate that after their initial shock and consternation, and a period of mourning for the man they had lost, I’ve had nothing but love and acceptance from the most important people in my life. Three years on from that day, and with their endless support, I’m able to live fully and happily as myself.
To say I always knew I was transgender would be mischaracterizing how I felt as a child. I didn’t know I felt different because I didn’t know there was any other way to feel. Growing up in the English Midlands in the ’70s and ’80s, I was a robustly rambunctious young kid who loved rough-and-tumble play and make-believe fantasy games; books, art and nature were my safe places, and I never connected to team sports. There were no people of color or of different sexual identities and preferences around (that I was aware of) and I had no idea what being gay truly meant beyond it being an insult that teenage boys hurled ignorantly at each other in high school. I was unaware of the challenges of other races in our society and had absolutely no clue that transgender people even existed. My body dysmorphia didn’t really kick in until puberty, and even then, I just pushed it down and away so I could get on with the life I felt I was expected to live. I had a passion for natural history and animals and had real ambitions to be a wildlife vet, so I focused myself on this. But then once internet took down all the geographical barriers and could connect psychographic groups with ease, I finally began realizing that I was not alone in how I felt. Of course, by then I was married with children and building a career – albeit very slowly – as a filmmaker.
Through my thirties and forties, I slowly made a career towards the middle of the B-list of directors and writers. I started by making a few horror movies and then proudly adapted the dark fantasy adventure Solomon Kane which, up to the release of my latest film, Rogue, was the movie I’m most proud of. In truth, though, I never really let myself go creatively or honestly explored my own sense of who I was – which I think true artists are compelled to do. I shied away from doing any truly revealing storytelling for much the same reasons I’ve never been a drinker or drug taker: I feared losing control and revealing something about myself that I couldn’t deny. During this time before I came out, I’d never knowingly met another trans woman, so had no circle of friends with whom to relate or share my feelings. I felt profoundly isolated and had no frame of reference for what I was going through.
Of course, I’m not the first trans director, nor am I the first to have transitioned after having lived a publicly male life. I looked to the Wachowskis for inspiration, but Lana and Lilly have been so private about their experiences that there was little to draw on. (In spite of that, their transitions were still an inspiration to me simply because they showed it was possible. And I hope they feel blessed that they had each other for emotional support.) The very few other trans women directors I’d heard of and admired have always worked as their feminine selves, so their experiences are different, too. What I have really learned is that the experience of transitioning is unique to each individual, no matter what their profession. So, even though I had an amazing wife and loving kids, I felt I could never share with them that I was trans. I figured I was on my own.
Clearly I did share it with them eventually, but those moments are a little too raw and personal to discuss here. One of the things my wife said to me after I came out was, “Can you still direct?” I think she was being facetious, but setting aside the question of whether anyone thought I could direct even before I transitioned, her query did make me think. It wasn’t a question of whether I could still decide where to place a camera, or how to shape a narrative, or relate to an actor – though God knows, the hormone treatment made a mess of my brain for a while – I wondered if, as a trans woman, I could still be the captain of the huge, awkward vessel that is a film set.
Almost from its inception as a craft, directing has primarily been the preserve of white men. Lucky for me, then, that I had been very good at presenting as that alpha straight white guy at the heart of it all. I’d enjoyed my privilege and authority, not giving it a second thought. I wasn’t arrogant enough to feel entitled to it, but nonetheless I had it all and accepted it without thinking – it was simply how things always had been for me. Now, most of that had been stripped away. Coming back to work as a transitioning person was pretty intimidating. It’s not even as though I could vanish and, like some magical caterpillar metamorphosing into a beautiful butterfly, emerge fully formed into the world as the woman I felt I was. No, I was and still am going through my transition in front of the cast and crew of any projects I’m working on.
Though I have always tried to maintain gender balance on my sets, the nature of my action-heavy genre projects often means they’re populated by strong alpha-male types – soldiers, fighters, stuntmen, etc. In my previous life, I could embrace this energy, with the illusion of my own toughness and confidence carrying me through; even though I was never really “one of the boys,” I enjoyed that world. But now I had none of that armor, I was just being me for the first time and though my enjoyment of high-energy action filmmaking hadn’t changed, other people’s perception of me had.
The first show I did after I’d announced I was transitioning was an action-packed HBO/Cinemax series called Strike Back. It was a super high-octane military production that I’d been involved with as director, writer and executive producer for several seasons and knew everyone involved very well. Initially, I didn’t tell people that I was transgender and setting out on the long road of transitioning. I was certainly looking different already by then; in no way feminine, but also not the man they’d known previously. My beard was gone, I’d started growing out my hair and was shedding muscle mass as the hormones kicked in. These obvious physical aspects were really too hard to hide and eventually I plucked up the courage to tell a few of my colleagues what they’d probably already guessed. I have no idea what was said after that conversation, but I saw the expected consternation and confusion in their immediate reaction. There was never anything cruel or thoughtless, but mostly just a lack of comprehension from people as to what being transgender actually even meant. Trans people had been more and more prominently featured in the news and media, with Caitlyn Jenner being the touchstone and object of ridicule for so many. I don’t know Caitlyn and I’m not really sure I’d like her if I did, but I remain grateful to her for putting trans issues front and center for a while.
What I realized very quickly, though, was that I had to set the tone during production. If I went in with an expectation of being judged and rejected by my colleagues, my energy would inform theirs. But if I was confident, proud and happy, then they would feel that energy and respond accordingly. It’s hard to be those things when you’re terrified inside, but I figured I’d lived one illusion for decades, so I could find the strength to create another until it was natural. In the end, everyone was full of support and ultimately (thank God!) indifference. I was just another person and no matter how I presented, we all had to make the show together. The production monster needs feeding and it doesn’t care what your gender or sexuality is, so long as you get the job done. Make your days, shoot good material and don’t go over budget – the rules don’t change just because I’m trans. I had a brief moment when the spotlight shined searingly on me, but I soon became very ordinary again. And that’s a perfect outcome.
That was three years ago. After Strike Back, I went on to direct numerous other shows, each time having to present myself to new crews and cast in different countries. Even in places like Hungary, where they have a very anti-trans government, I felt generally welcomed and treated with respect – and whenever I feel otherwise, I’m no longer shy to speak out. For my newest movie, Rogue, I shot in South Africa with some crew members who had known and worked with me in my previous guise and others who were meeting me for the first time. Without exception, I was given consideration and respect. When someone would occasionally say “sir” instead of “ma’am,” they were always more embarrassed than I was. Misgendering is simply part of the price I pay for getting to live this life that I only ever dreamed of in the most secret parts of my self. It’s easier to brush it off with a joke than turn it into an issue. Life is short, move on. I’ve travelled very widely for my work and, on the whole, found that people don’t really care that I’m trans. Sure, I get odd looks and going through airports is always a horrible experience, but I fought very hard to get to this second act of my life and enjoy some real happiness and a sense of completion, so I’m here to stay.
And what I’m really discovering is that transitioning is an ongoing process. In many ways, I’m still unpicking the threads of the fictional male persona I created from the fabric of the person I am now. It turns out that he and I are really not that different. I guess that’s because we are, literally, cut from the same cloth.