Comika Hartford and Skyler Cooper first met at OutFest in Los Angeles. Hartford was there with a series that she’d worked on called Dyke Central, and Cooper was premiering his short film, Hero Mars.
The film had a profound effect on Cooper. It was while working on the film that he came to terms with his trans identity, and the film spoke to Hartford. Upon seeing it, she had to meet the man behind the film.
“I loved what Skyler had done,” Hartford said. “I ran up to him, punched him on the arm like we were on the playground, and said ‘We’re friends now!’ Then I turned around and ran away.”
As it turns out, it was the beginning of a beautiful working relationship and friendship. Speaking to the two during an interview for Pride Month, there is an unmistakable affection and respect between them, but also a genuine humor that is infectious.
Hartford, a long time horror fan, saw something in Cooper, a gravitas if you will, that she knew was perfect for a project she’d been working on called The Grey Area, an epic dark story of mystery and angels.
“She sent me the script, and it was amazing,” Cooper said. “It has this urban, paranormal depth to it. Comika is attacking good and evil in a modern setting. She is an amazing writer and she wrote a brilliant story.”
Hartford is currently working on funding for the next chapter of the project, but neither are resting on their laurels in the meantime. As I write this, Cooper is preparing to make his debut as the first trans man, so far as we know, who has ever stepped into the role of Shakespeare’s Othello. The performance will take place at the Livermore Shakespeare Festival in California.
Stepping into the horror space was something more recent for Cooper. It was only in 2018 that he appeared in Lasso, a film by Evan Cecil. It’s the story of a devilish rodeo and the evil men and women who run it.
Cooper admits the first thing he did when he was cast in the film was look and see how long he survived.
What he was not expecting was the validation he found while making the film. It was the first film he’d taken after coming out as trans, but he was playing a cis-woman in the film. One of his co-stars just happened to be Karen Grassle who played Caroline Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. Grassle overheard a conversation Cooper had with the director early on in the shoot and approached the actor asking how he preferred to be addressed.
As it turned out, Grassle has a trans son so she had some idea what Cooper was facing, and she wanted to make him as comfortable on set as possible.
“It was incredibly moving to have that validation from Karen,” the actor said.
***SPOILER WARNING: Cooper’s character was a survivor in the film, a rare feat for characters of color in most horror films where tokenism has thrived, especially in mainstream big screen releases. That’s just one of the things that Hartford, herself, is working to dispel. END SPOILER***
“Representation matters. As we have more characters who are not a punchline, as we have more real characters that are not jokes or a token inclusion, what we create is a tapestry that is not only brighter, but we have stories that resonate and are truly haunting,” she explained. “With The Grey Area, I’m creating characters who are just being themselves and are a part of the story without being a parody. That’s the great thing about the genre. There’s room for my kind of story right alongside Rob Zombie films and 80s slashers.”
This opened a door that took us back to classic horror films and the ones that were not only groundbreaking, but that also meant something to both Hartford and Cooper.
“That’s why Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was so amazing,” Hartford said. “Look at what Duane Jones did with that role. Look at what that final sequence does. Look at that commentary. It messed me up! That’s some storytelling! Romero messed me up, man. I was a normal child, I saw that, and now I’m weird. I blame Romero.”
“Let’s go to The Omen and The Exorcist,” Cooper added. “Those films have serious character background. They allow you to get closer to the characters so when something happens to them, you really connect to it and it effects you. Like with Rosemary’s Baby…”
“Yes! It’s about humanness,” Hartford jumped in. “Her husband basically sells her into sexual slavery out of avarice and greed for a better acting career. I think there’s so much room for that kind of storytelling. I’ve always had a romance with horror. I’ve never been much into gore, but I recently saw a film called Baskin and I just had to be still in my room afterward. It was fucking beautiful and terrifying!”
As for seeing ourselves in genre films, both Hartford and Cooper are working toward that with The Grey Area and beyond. For Cooper, that starts with the audition process.
“I think the most important thing for black actors, trans actors, and so on is to show up,” he said. “There may be layers you can bring to a role that they didn’t consider when they placed casting notices. Respectfully request that audition and if you secure it show them what you can bring to that role that might not have been written for you.”
“When I was working on my own feature script,” he added, “a friend who works at Dreamworks told me if you’re writing a script and you want a character to be cast as black, then you need to write that in, because if you don’t then they will be cast as white. I think that’s just a year ago that I heard that.”
“That’s because ‘white’ is the default,” Hartford said. “If Clint Eastwood and Tim Burton create predominantly white films, it’s not a big deal but when Jordan Peele says that he only wants to cast black leads there’s an uproar. White and straight are the defaults.”
“It’s not only in film, though,” Cooper pointed out. “We live in a country that is trying to erase trans people. Being a trans person, it’s life or death. They’re trying to erase us from existence.”
Sadly, what Cooper says is true.
Nationwide, we’ve seen the rollback of trans rights, from the ability to serve in the military to general protections against discrimination when seeking healthcare. Trans women of color are being murdered at a devastating rate, and law enforcement is doing little to stop it.
When we bring this up, we’re often accused of being political, but that stigma did not come from us. Politicians politicized our identities when they made broad laws condemning our existence. Politicians politicized our identities when they made us the “other” through which they could distract voters from more important issues.
This is why normalized representation matters and why tokenism is so terribly destructive. People of color, trans men and women, queer men and women exist. Seeing ourselves represented not only bolsters our own confidence, but validates that existence to the rest of the world.
Yes, even in horror filmmaking.
Thankfully, we have men and women like Skyler Cooper and Comika Hartford on the front lines in this quest.