A few years ago, Michelle Hendley was just a girl in her apartment in Columbia, Missouri, making confessional YouTube videos and rambling on about her life. "I'm wearing clothes!" one is entitled. Hendley looks into the camera, narrating, "today was really warm out, it's kind of springy," muttering to herself as she tries to fit in the frame to display a floral skirt and a white top, telling the 8,000-plus eventual viewers that she hasn't been out for a while and was really excited to see her friend.
A few weeks later, on March 19, 2013, in a video titled "big news!!!" she coyly tells viewers about her cosmetology board practice exams, then pauses. "The director called me today and I got the movie part."
Hendley is 23 years old, and is making waves in her first lead role, as a transgender young woman named Ricky. Here's the groundbreaking part: Hendley herself is also a transgender young woman.
"Boy Meets Girl" is a movie of the type that we don't often see, a movie that revolves around a transgender character and is pointedly not a drama. It's a rom-com, of sorts: Ricky lives in a small town, where she is out as transgender and happy with herself. She works in a coffee shop, hangs out with her best friend Robby (Michael Welch) and lives with her father and little brother, designing clothes and running a YouTube channel where she displays her outfits. She dreams of going to fashion school. Along comes Francesca (Alexandra Turshen), a pretty girl who catches Ricky's eye. Will Ricky and Alexandra couple off, despite various obstacles (an engagement ring, for one)?
Hendley told MTV News that YouTube was actually key to her getting cast in the movie. "He did a Google search for, I think just 'transgender women' and my YouTube popped up and that’s how he contacted me," she said, laughing, of director Schaeffer. "I definitely thought he was some online creeper, for sure. I was like, you want me to be in a movie? Who are you? What are you talking about?"
After several Skype conversations and Google searches, Hendley agreed to meet with Schaeffer, then signed that contract she announced in her "big news!!!" video. Soon, she was not only the star of the indie movie, but had the chance to bring her own experiences to the script as well, consulting with Schaeffer on "practically every scene." The dialogue is very frank, touching on taboo topics: at one point, Ricky asks Robby flat-out what a vagina feels like, and what to do with one.
"A lot of these conversations that we had are conversations I’ve had with my friends and I think a lot of trans people have those talks with people in their lives because it is new for a lot of people," Hendley said. She said that there was one line in particular that she asked for major edits on.
"It was when Ricky was just coming out to Francesca and Francesca asked her, 'Do you like it?' in regards to her penis," she said. "Originally Ricky was going to say, 'Yeah! I love it! Oh my gosh, awesome! I’m so happy to have it.' And I told Eric, 'You know, some trans women might feel that way and they’re perfectly comfortable with that part of themselves, but generally no one’s really going to say they’re excited.' So we changed that."
Hendley also faced a challenge that would be daunting to any actress, but is especially charged when it comes to transgender women, whose bodies are the subject of such speculation already: a nude scene. At one point in the film, Hendley emerges fully nude from the water, facing the camera head-on. Hendley says that the scene was in the script from the beginning, integral to the film.
"It was really important to me that this is not going to be a scene for shock value, not to just be like, 'Oh look at that lady with the d--k.' After talking with him and hearing what he wanted to see with this scene, with the moonlight out on the pond, I felt like it was going to be beautiful and I was more than excited to be a part of it."
That doesn't mean it was necessarily comfortable though: Hendley describes the water as freezing cold, extra motivation to get the scene done quickly. She didn't ask for a closed set, knowing that eventually, film audiences around the world would see the finished work by the thousands (she admitted to ducking out of screenings before the scene, because "when it comes to that nude scene then I’m just like oh my god why am I in this room right now?"). Filming it, though, "it wasn't weird, it wasn't awkward."
And overall, as that girl growing up in the Midwest with that YouTube channel documenting both her explorations into gender identity and her day-to-day outfits, it was important to Hendley that "Boy Meets Girl" show an unflinching and realistic view of the girl next door, albeit one who might be a little less familiar to you.
"Pretty much all representations of trans people that we’ve seen in media are tragic and sad stories, they are valid stories because that is a lot of times what trans people have to say, but honestly I haven’t, before I came across the script of 'Boy Meets Girl,' I hadn’t really heard of a movie that just like positively was just cool with trans people," she said. "Growing up, really the only representation I ever knew of trans people were like crazy cross dressers on 'Cops.' Seriously. I was like, 'Oh, well, that must be a transsexual, I’m not a transsexual, of course not.' And then I went on pretending I was a girl."
Now, Hendley is on the move to New York City, and plans to continue acting. "I'm doing the damn thing!" Her dream, she said, is to lead a hardcore action movie.
"If I could be the star of a sort of 'Kill Bill' movie, that would be just the coolest thing for me," she said. "I know it’s not necessarily like positive trans representation and all that but it would be super cool. I’d love to just float around and kick some butt."
Whether she's kicking actual butt on screen or just spiritually kicking it in life, Hendley said that she knows what's most important to her: being real to herself. She's still that girl on the YouTube channel, hedging about signing the contract to star in "Boy Meets Girl" and looking forward to hanging out with her friends that night. Her best advice for other young actresses is not to abandon that truest part of yourself, she said.
"The thing I value most, I will tell you, is authenticity to myself," she said. "It’s what gets me through every single day. If you are doing right by you and you know that the decisions you’re making are best for you, I cannot even tell you how amazing my life is now that I am sort of living my truth and just embracing who I am and just saying,'f--k you' to anybody who isn’t cool with it. If I had to say anything to young artists is be true to yourself. It’s sometimes hard because you don’t know yourself entirely but just keep doin’ it. Keep being you."
"Boy Meets Girl" is available on demand from Wolfe Video now.