Nicole Maines’ character in “Darby and the Dead” is a lot of things. She’s quick-witted, addicted to texting, absolutely brutal in her insults — and she just happens to also be trans. That wasn’t always going to be the case, but, according to Maines and director Silas Howard, the opportunity to have that representation came too naturally to pass up.
The movie, now streaming on Hulu, follows Darby Harper (Riele Downs) as she navigates through her teenage years, all while running a side hustle serving actual ghosts. Thanks to a near-death experience as a kid, Darby can not only see dead people, but communicate with them, so she helps them take care of their unfinished business so they can move on to the great beyond.
Unfortunately, a freak accident at school results in the death of Darby’s former best friend and current popular mean girl Capri Donahue (Auli’i Cravalho), which means Darby now has to reluctantly help her frenemy knock out her unfinished business. In Capri’s case, it’s executing what would’ve been her 17th birthday party, and that requires Darby getting close with the friends Capri left behind. Among those friends is Piper (Maines).
And it’s thanks to one of those one-liners that we learn Piper is in fact a trans woman, like the actress portraying her. While in the locker room with her friends, one of the girls asks Piper for a tampon, after unexpectedly getting her period while wearing white pants. Without missing a beat, Piper deadpans “Still trans,” and the story moves right along.
According to Maines, the original plan was just to make Piper a cisgender woman, who happens to be gay. But, in discussing it with Howard — who is also trans — the two decided that it was an easy opportunity to have real representation.
“Silas and I were talking about that, and we sort of decided, you know, we were in a very special position as two trans people — being, you know, principal cast and director — we are both in positions where we can make that decision for representation,” Maines told TheWrap. “And we can make that push. And we sort of decided, you know, it does not change the film at all, it does not change your character at all. It literally gives us a window for representation and one tampon joke. And we were like, ‘Are we going to make this character trans for one joke? Yeah.”
For Howard, who has directed four feature films now and a whole lot of television, it was a moment of “complete freedom,” and one that he didn’t take lightly.
“I think this is the first time I just had the, the complete freedom with myself and the actor to decide,” Howard told TheWrap. “We knew her character was queer, but we got to decide if her character was out, and if so how? And I really — it was a real conversation between us. It wasn’t like, ‘This is what I want, you figure it out.'”
Maines was particularly fond of the placement of the joke in the movie, remembering just how big of a thing it is for young women to discuss their periods in early adolescence.
“It’s just such a good place because I mean, for young trans girls, the whole tampon conversation is always — it’s such a thing,” Maines said. “It’s such a — I remember being in high school, surrounded by my friends talking about their periods and talking about like, just the whole kind of culture behind it, and the bonding aspect of that for the girls, and feeling that otherness. And for Piper, I was like, that’s such a right place for a joke, there has to be a joke there.”
According to both Maines and Howard, there were a few versions of the punchline that they tried together. Maines noted that there was a ton of room for improv on the set, and she really ran with the opportunity. But, in the end, they opted for the two-word throwaway line, and are pretty pleased with that call.
“Total throwaway! It’s great, because people — I figured people in the know would get it,” Howard said. “But I’ve even had some of our post people who are, like, cis guys in their 50s, 60s, or whatever, say that they love that moment. But it’s just so perfect. And it’s funny, but it’s also very real.”
At the end of the day, Howard had a lot of important conversations in directing “Darby and the Dead,” and he enjoyed the chance to have every one of them.
“I think these moments that we found — including the glow up, you know, where by design, Darby goes from her hair straightened to her hair natural. Like, all of these were conversations we had, and the trust that I had with the actors,” Howard added. “And I just say that because I think, for directors and producers and stuff, and to collaborate with the cast, I mean, they are the demographic of the movie and so it was really just such a great treat to have these honest conversations, and just sort of talk it through.”
“Darby and the Dead” is now streaming on Hulu.