One could describe African-American actor Skyler Cooper as a cross between Work Out's Jackie Warner and Laurence Fishburne, what with her day job as a personal trainer (she hopes to own a gym someday) and her signature role as a female (read: lesbian) Othello in Impact Theatre's 2005 production. But this hybrid definition leaves out one important, defining characteristic: butch.
In an industry where there are few out lesbians and fewer out lesbians of color, Skyler Cooper takes it one step further as an unabashedly proud butch. But if she had listened to her first acting coach, she wouldn't be where she is today — about to launch a new TV series called Don't Go that premieres at OutFest in July, as well as a new reality series on JengoTV.com.
"I had one bad experience that almost turned me away from theater altogether," she said to AfterEllen.com. "My first theater coach said to me, 'You know you're going to have to not work out; you're going to have to change your body. You're a little too muscular to do this work.' Because I was old enough and wise enough when I started [acting classes], I knew I should stop seeing her. She was trying to tell me I can't be who I am."
Fortunately for those of us hungry to see authentic representations of butches on the stage and screen, Cooper stayed true to herself and her love of acting.
"If I'm going to do theater, I need to be who I am to see if I even love the craft," she explained. "If the craft won't let me express myself and bring me and my talent to it, why would I want it in my life? I love this quote from [Russian actor] Stanislavsky: 'Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.'"
San Francisco Bay area audiences first saw Cooper on stage in a 2000 production with Liquid Fire, an erotic cabaret by and about lesbians of color. She performed a piece called "Butch Love," which caught the attention of filmmaker Debra Wilson.
Wilson then included Cooper in her 2003 documentary, Butch Mystique. Cooper recalled: "In 'Butch Love,' I was self-proclaiming myself as butch. Debra found me and asked if I wanted to tell my story. That was my first time on-camera." And the first time lesbians outside of the Bay area were introduced to Skyler Cooper; Butch Mystique later screened at film festivals across the United States and aired on Showtime.
Her working relationship with Debra Wilson continues with First Take, a reality series scheduled to air this fall on JengoTV.com, an LGBT of color media network. "Debra said she wanted to follow me as I was trying to break into film, but she also followed me in every aspect of my life: how I juggle my world so I can get to the stage at night, in and out of my relationship, going to auditions, interactions with actors," Cooper said. "She also came to L.A. with me when I auditioned for Don't Go."
Cooper won the part of Bone in Don't Go, Amber Sharp's (Triple Minority) show — billed as Melrose Place meets The L Word meets 227 — about the residents of a four-plex apartment building in Los Angeles. Bone is the best friend of building resident Jaden (Melange Lavonne, a butch who finds herself pregnant by her femme, intersex girlfriend (Guinevere Turner).
The pilot of Don't Go, which also stars Nisha Ganatra (Chutney Popcorn), premieres at OutFest in Los Angeles this July and is currently looking for an on-air home.
Bone was written as a butch character from the start. "I heard that when they did the audition for Don't Go, there were 30 women who auditioned for Bone; most of them were femme, and they all came in with bandannas on their heads," Cooper said, laughing. "There's definitely a lack of butch women in theater and films, and when they are there, they're not lead characters. So this is a refreshing change."
Cooper has some advice for casting directors about working with butch women actors: "With film and theater, they have to recognize that a butch woman can play another butch woman just like a straight woman can play another straight woman. For instance, there are different kinds of butches. I am not Bone. Producers should not be afraid of powerful women, not be afraid of showing the hotness in it. It's hot when a woman is strong — and not imitating a male. Strength is strength whether it's a man or a woman; strength doesn't have a gender."
But Cooper also doesn't limit herself to roles for the female gender. She recently submitted her head shot and resume for a part in B-Boy Blues, a forthcoming film based on the book by James Earl Hardy. There were no female roles in the casting call.
"I could pull it off, especially in film," she said. "They wouldn't even need any special effects. They did call me and asked me to come to New York to audition, but I couldn't and asked if I could wait for their Los Angeles auditions to get set up. But something must have fallen through. But you know, if I could handle the role, if I could pull it off, how awesome would that be? Why couldn't a queer black woman play a queer black male? My niche is genderf—, and I know that."