Alexis Arquette grew up in a commune with siblings Patricia, David and Rosanna Arquette

By Lindsay Kimble
Updated September 12, 2016 02:35 PM
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Tony DiMaio/startraksphoto.com

Alexis Arquettedied on Sunday, surrounded by friends and family – which is exactly how the transgender icon lived her life.

Breaking on the Hollywood scene at a young age, Alexis appeared in around 70 projects, starring in popular films like The Wedding Singer and Bride of Chucky. Likely destined for stardom, Alexis was one of many performers in her large and storied family.

Alexis was born Robert Arquette in July 1969. Family patriarch, Lewis, acted in commercials while Lewis’ wife, Mardi, was a stage performer.

Like their parents, all of Alexis’ siblings were involved in show business, including oldest sister Rosanna, brother Richmond, now 53, and Patricia and younger brother David, who was born during the family’s time on a religious commune in Winchester, Virginia.

At 12, after the Arquettes relocated to Los Angeles, she made her acting debut in the music video for The Tubes’ “She’s a Beauty,” Alexis told Index magazine in a 1999 interview. The role was of a “little kid who’s on a ride with all these women.”

A seed was planted as Alexis attended art school, though it was her siblings’ success that eventually drew her back into the acting world. Rosanna, now 57, had broken ground on early ’80s TV series Shirley before drawing award season praise for 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan. Then-teenage sister Patricia was not far behind, with parts in A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s third and fourth installments.

In fact, it was future Oscar winner Patricia who inadvertently launched Alexis’ career when she – then 19 and pregnant with son Enzo – dragged her along to her New York City audition for Last Exit to Brooklyn.

“I went with my sister Patricia to New York when they were trying to talk her into doing Last Exit to Brooklyn,” Alexis told Index. “She was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m pregnant.’ … And they wanted her – ‘We’ll get a nurse on set every day, blah blah blah.’ She just took me with her because she thought it would be fun.”

Only 17, Alexis had never been to the Big Apple. The film, which follows a group of prostitutes and drag queens living in a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood, was in need of someone to play transvestite Georgette, and Alexis fell into their lap.

“They asked me if I wanted to read for a role because they knew that I’d done a drag thing at one of my friend’s clubs,” she explained in 1999 of the drama, which had debuted a decade prior. “I ended up getting the job, basically through my sister. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have been in New York.”

Big parts quickly followed, including I Think I Do and Threesome. Alexis appeared as a male in some roles and as her drag alter ego Eva Destruction in others, including the low-budget Killer Drag Queens on Dope.

Alexis soon began to grapple with her gender and she told Newsweek in 2007 that she came out as a gay male early in her career.

She booked a steady stream of roles that included her turn as Boy George impersonator George Sitzer in Adam Sandler‘s The Wedding Singer – she would later reprise the character in Sandler’s 2014 comedy Blended, her final film.

That on-screen success led to public attention when Alexis decided to transition to female in her late 30s, a process she documented in 2007 documentary Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother.

“I decided to document my transition partly because I wanted clarification for myself,” Alexis told Newsweek that year, “but primarily because I wanted to challenge some of things that transgender people have to go through if they want to transition with a doctor in America.”

Of the transition process – and her family’s reaction – Alexis said on Larry King Live in 2009, “I was in a pretty liberal family. I wore makeup since I was 12.”

“They weren’t in denial so much as their fear was that if I came out as transgender and lived my life as a woman that I might receive a lot of flack from people on the street,” she shared, noting, however, that fame had helped her prepare to “deal with the press and media.”

She began to appear more frequently on reality television, even becoming a houseguest on the sixth season of VH1’s The Surreal Life.

Throughout it all, Alexis maintained that her last name never served as a crutch for stardom.

She told Index: “Nobody gives you a job, you’ve got to earn it on your own. I would never want anyone to think that there’s some kind of cachet to my name.”

Alexis did, however, use her prominence to support other trans men and women, asserting to King in 2006 that, above else, gender is “a very personal identity issue.”

Although earlier this year brother David, 45, said Alexis had spent recent months living instead as “gender suspicious,” her advocacy was still strong.

“What difference does it make what container we’re in? Am I who I am because I’m a woman? Or does it matter?” Alexis once asked Patricia, now 48, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Am I who I am regardless of whether I’m a woman or a man?”

The Arquette family said of her death – the cause of which remains unrevealed – in a statement, Monday, “As Alexis transitioned into being a woman, she taught us tolerance and acceptance. As she moved through her process, she became our sister, teaching us what real love is.”

“We learned what real bravery is through watching her journey of living as a trans woman. We came to discover the one truth – that love is everything.”