Eike Schroter/ABC via Getty Images
Patrick Gomez
January 10, 2017 02:56 PM

Ivory Aquino never thought there would be roles for a transgender girl from the Philippines, so she was prepared to give up on her childhood dream of being an actor.

“I didn’t feel at that time that there were any roles I could do,” Aquino tells PEOPLE exclusively about her despair.

So, with acting seemingly out of the question, Aquino decided to try her hand at becoming a singer.

“With androgynous figures like David Bowie, I thought I could do music without thinking about gender,” she says in the upcoming issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

But after moving to the U.S. in her teens, and undergoing her gender confirmation surgery out of the country at age 26, Aquino had a revelation.

“My outsides finally felt like my insides,” she says. “The first thought that came to mind was, ‘I can act again!’ ”

Omar Amador

What followed was a stage career that has been more than she ever dreamed possible.

When playing Juliet in The Drilling Company’s Romeo and Juliet for Bryant Park Shakespeare in New York City in 2015, Aquino recalls, “I would look out into the audience every night — I tear up from the love I felt from them,” says Aquino. “They didn’t know I was transgender and it didn’t matter because they were invested in the story and the character and for me, as an actress, that’s what matters.”

Being transgender is not something Aquino usually brings up in her professional life. But after auditioning to play real-life transgender activist Cecilia Chung in ABC’s upcoming miniseries When We Rise, she went out of her way to make sure the casting director knew she is trans.

“I wrote them a note saying, ‘Thank you for having me. It would be an honor to be part of the project,’ ” she says. “And I inserted in there, ‘I just want to make sure that you know that I’m trans.’ ”

The next day she was told she had a callback. And after being cast, the miniseries’ writer Dustin Lance Black revealed to Aquino that he didn’t know she was trans when he watched her audition tape.

“He said he loved what I did, but was a little pissed at casting because he was very committed to having a transgender actress play the role and had asked them to send him tapes of transgender actresses,” Aquino says of her phone call with Black.

Aquino — who gave a sigh of relief through tears as she opened up publicly about her transition for the first time on Tuesday at the Television Critics Association conference at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, California — says she had to pinch her cheeks during the phone call — and hasn’t really stopped since.

“You spend your whole life dreaming of these things,” she says. “And it’s really humbling when your dreams come true.”

When We Rise is slated to premiere Feb. 27 on ABC.

  • With reporting by CHRISTINA DUGAN

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