Meet Billions' Asia Kate Dillon, TV's First Non-Binary Star

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Photographed by Shirin Tinati/Courtesy of Asia Kate Dillon.

A couple of years ago, Asia Kate Dillon started removing the feminine pronouns from their online press material, replacing “she,” “her,” and “hers” with simply their name. “That felt really good,” Dillon recalls. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when Dillon was prepping to audition for Showtime drama Billions season 2, that they found the language to explain why that move felt so damn right.
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The role Dillon read for (and ultimately got) is that of Taylor, an exceptionally brilliant intern at Axe Capital, the hedge fund firm run by Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). What sets Taylor apart from their fellow financial analysts at first glance is the fact that they identify as gender non-binary, meaning they experience and express their gender identity outside of the heteronormative denominations of man or woman — a rigidity underscored by Axe Capital's hyper-masculine office culture.
When Dillon read Taylor’s character description, they had the sensation of reading about themselves. “I did some research into non-binary, and I just thought ‘Oh my gosh,’ like, ‘that’s me...that’s who I am’” Dillon tells me over the phone, a few days before the Billions season 2 premiere. “It’s interesting how labels can really box us in, but they can also be very freeing," they explain, "because they can help someone identify and put a word to something that they couldn’t put words to before.”

The mere fact that the writers of a popular prestige drama with an A-list cast (that also includes Paul Giammatti and Malin Akerman) created a non-binary character is in itself groundbreaking. The fact that a gender-nonconforming actor who hadn’t affixed that label to themselves yet ended up playing that role? Dillon calls it coincidence; I call it one of the most incredible cases of synchronous casting in Hollywood history.

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Photo: Jeff Neumann/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

“The best word I can use I think is that it felt right. Certainly it was a coincidence that this role for a non-binary character came my way, but the significance of it was certainly not lost on me. It felt very much like a congruence that was allowing this sort of miraculous thing to happen,” Dillon says, “even though, as I said, it was coincidence.”

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Non-binary gender identity may be one of the least understood labels falling under the LGBTQ umbrella, in part because it’s also one of the least visible. Of course, that changed in a big way Sunday night. In Dillon’s character-defining scene, they introduce themselves to Axe: “Hello sir, my name is Taylor. My pronouns are ‘they, theirs, and them.’” And in one breath, Dillon and Billions broke new ground for both TV and the LGBTQ community: A character has never spoken those words on TV before.

Dillon first realized the potential impact of Taylor's breakout scene after feeling it themselves. “When I read the script for episode two and I saw the ‘they, theirs and them,’ that’s when the tears started to well up in my eyes. Then when I read Axe’s response, which is, ‘Okay,’ and then the scene just continues, that’s what ultimately moved me to sort of full-fledged tears,” they explain. “Because it’s that exact kind of response that I think is such an important story to tell: ‘Okay, great. I respect you so I will use those pronouns, and now let’s get down to business.”

And that's what they do: Axe quickly comes to trust and rely on Taylor's analytical prowess, and and their gender identity doesn't come into play. Taylor is no tragic token genderqueer character in the midst of an identity crisis: They're a fully-fleshed out human being, one at peace with themselves. And, in an incredibly savvy move by the writers, the burden of coming to terms with Taylor's identity falls not on Taylor but the people around them. We get to watch their coworkers stumble through their own discomfort when they, for example, use the incorrect pronouns. (In one scene, Axe corrects one of his senior staff with reflexive nonchalance.)

Asia Kate Dillon understands much better than most people the power that art can have. Growing up, they connected with figures that expressed a rare duality of strength and vulnerability: River Phoenix’s sensitive, gold-hearted Chris Chambers in the 1986 coming-of-age classic Stand By Me, and Michael Jackson. It's no coincidence that Dillon was drawn to those two particular icons — both are regarded alternately as outsiders and leaders, freaks and heroes, depending on what light we hold them in. And those are the kind of pop culture figures that make art "the most powerful tool we have to help people find their own humanity, and then their common humanity," as Dillon puts it.

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“As Nina Simone said, ‘An artist’s duty is to reflect society,” Dillon explains. “There are places in the United States where you have a young person who is struggling with their gender identity or who is struggling with their sexual orientation — or is struggling in a way that we don’t yet understand — and they don’t have anyone in their community that they can directly identify with, [and] they don’t even feel comfortable or safe speaking to the people in their family, their friends, about what’s going on with them.”

Dillon continues, “I think for those youths and/or people in particular, the media has a really unique position to play. Because the media can infiltrate places where there may not be any visibility yet...just being able to identify with something outside of yourself, I think — I know — can save lives.”

Which brings us back to Sunday’s landmark moment. Just as Laverne Cox’s Sophia on Orange is the New Black (on which Dillon plays charming white supremacist Brandi) was the first trans woman to tread inside many Americans’ homes, Taylor was the first non-binary-identifying person many of Billions' viewers have ever met. “It’s the hope I have that a character like Taylor will mean something to someone else, like Taylor meant something to me before I even got the role, got to play the character,” Dillon explains. “[Growing up], having a non-binary character would have really meant something to me.”

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Photographed by Shirin Tinati/Courtesy of Asia Kate Dillon.

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