“The Fosters” Interview: Tom Phelan On Playing Trans Teen Cole



Rosie O'Donnell, Tom PhelanRosie O’Donnell as Rita and Tom Phelan as Cole in The Fosters

ABC Family has quickly become one of the best networks on television for finding a variety of LGBT characters in shows like massive hit Pretty Little Liars, where gay teen Emily (Shay Mitchell) is front and center.

We knew the network’s latest entry The Fosters, from out creators Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg, was breaking new ground when it premiered last summer and featured a household headed by a lesbian couple, played by Teri Polo and Sherri Saum. But since coming back for the second half of its first season, the series has added a trans teen to the mix.

In the current storyline, troubled teen Callie (Maia Mitchell) has been placed in group home (run by Rosie O’Donnell). There she befriends Cole, a trans boy with his own set of problems and issues.

17-year-old trans teen Tom Phelan was picked to play Cole and has brought a great level of depth (and great, curly hair!) to the role. We can only hope that once Callie gets her issues figured out and returns to the Foster’s home, we will continue to see Cole’s journey.

TheBacklot talked with Phelan last week to find out about how the role came to him and how it has been working with iconic actor/comedian Rosie O’Donnell.

Tom Phelan, Maia MitchellAfter a bumpy start, Cole and Callie (Maia Mitchell) have become friends.

TheBacklot: How did you land this part?

Tom Phelan: I had heard through a friend that they were looking for a trans actor to play a trans character. She let me know, and we called them. They said they would love me to audition. I went and it happened. It was all really fast, really awesome.

How did you approach playing Cole? He’s definitely a character with a lot of issues.

For a lot of it, I drew from my own experiences, because as a teenager, you go through a lot of turmoil, especially as a trans teenager. You go through a lot of stuff. It was surprisingly easy to access the character and access the places that Cole goes to.

How was it working with Maia, who I’ve talked to a couple of times and also is playing a character with a lot of issues?

It’s awesome. She’s such a pro, and she’s the funniest and sweetest person you’ll ever meet. It was just so incredible to go from laughing about something one second to go straight into a really serious scene.

When the writers and the producers talked to you about the role, did they give you any direction, or did they let you find your own way?

When we were shooting the episode, I came in with the idea [that] Cole was a lot angrier than I think he did seem right now on the show, and they just told me that I needed to access a more sensitive side of him and not let the wall in front of him be so big. I think that was a really, really good note. I think it really made Cole a lot better than what I would have made him.

In one of the recent episodes, Cole takes Callie’s phone and starts texting her boyfriend and telling him that it’s over. I was worried Cole was going to be a villain!

I think part of it was actually trying to protect Callie. I think all the kids in the home know how bad the Brandon/Callie relationship can be, or could be. I think it was also a little bit of acting out, and definitely just trying to mess things up.

Daffany Clark, Tom PhelanDaffany Clark (Daphne) and Tom Phelan in a scene from The Fosters.

Can you tell me anything about what we’ll see moving forward?

You’ll definitely see a little bit more of the Girls United family…

Were you aware who Rosie was when you found out you were working with her?

Yeah, of course, who doesn’t? Going in, I was so nervous. I don’t know. My first day ever shooting anything on a TV set…[Rosie] came in, and there was so much anxiety in the room, but she was really, really incredible, and so sweet and down to Earth. It was such an amazing experience to get to have that on my first TV show. I think she grounded us and rallied us around the story we were trying to tell.

What are you hearing from fans? I know you’re on Twitter and all the social media stuff. I’m in my 40s, so of course, just the fact that this storyline’s on TV, and it’s just a part of every other story, I think it’s so great, but what are you hearing from the fans watching the show?

I’m hearing a lot of really good things. I’ve gotten a lot of people coming to me, and being like, ‘Thank you for telling this story.’ Then of course, I’m like, ‘It’s the writers who are telling the story. It’s the words on the page.’ I’ve had such an amazing response from fans and from trans kids who’ve been watching the show. It’s really, really incredible to see the outpouring of love that I’m getting.

Did you get a bite of the acting bug doing the show? Do you really want to be diving into this more as a full-time career?

I’ve loved acting my whole life. This has just given me a bigger platform to do it on, because I’ve always been in school plays, and always wanted to be an actor. This has given me such great opportunity to do so many more things.


I personally love Cole’s hair in the show. Is that how you wear your hair, or is that just more for the show?

[laughs] I went into the audition with that hair, and I think they really liked it.

Do you like watching yourself on TV?

I can’t. Honestly, I do, because it’s so weird to see myself on TV. It’s very, very strange. It’s very weird, even the way that my face moves and the way that my voice sounds. It’s a little freaky.

What do you hope people take from your part in the show?

I don’t know. I just really hope that people know that there are people like Cole out there, and there are people like me out there. We’re people like anyone else. We should be treated with the same respect and love as anyone else.

The Fosters airs Mondays at 9pm on ABC Family.


Tags: , , , ,