Halfway through its first season, NBC’s Rise has already made history. Actor Ellie Desautels, who plays Michael on the drama, is only the second nonbinary person to appear in a primetime series on network television.
“I felt a little bit of pressure at first thinking that I was going to have to be the representation for all trans people, but I put it into perspective and realized I can’t be the representation for all trans people; I can only represent my experience,” Desautels, 23, tells PEOPLE. “That’s still great because people can connect to my experience. I feel humbled and happy to be representation for certain people.”
Michael, a trans boy, joined the high school drama club to take a male part in its version of Spring Awakening. While Michael’s fellow theater students immediately accepted him, some members of the football team weren’t as kind. In the April 3 episode, a few of of the jocks teased Michael at a house party, but quarterback Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie) — who’s also involved with the play — stuck up for him.
Desautels on Rise.
“The dynamic there is really awesome,” says Desautels, who identifies as non-binary and trans-masculine and prefers “they/them” pronouns. “That’s one of the coolest things about Michael, is he’s in this community where he can just be himself. I’m not even just saying that he could be trans — I mean himself, his whole entire being. He is free to express himself through theater and become an artist with all these people supporting him and respecting him as another classmate, another individual.”
Desautels felt the same kind of acceptance from their own family. “I knew that sharing that with them wasn’t going to be an issue,” the actor says of coming out. “I don’t know if there was one moment when I told my family, because figuring out I was trans was sort of a slow process. It happened for a couple years. It was very casual and my family is super accepting and supportive.”
As for what’s next for their character, Desautels teases that one of Michael’s old friends will come into the picture.
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“In later episodes you get to see a bit of a story with Michael and his old friend,” they say. “Their friendship fell apart a little bit, it fell through the cracks and they rekindle their friendship by going through something that’s really tough that she’s going through. He finds his role there as having to be a rock for her.”
In the meantime, Michael continues to bond with the drama kids. “You get to see a little more of Michael just blending in with the group and becoming one of them,” Desautels continues. “And also you just get to see him be a teenager and have a lot of fun with everybody. A couple of them go out and do something a little risky, a little dangerous as a group, and they have a lot of fun being mischievous together. That’s going to be really cute to see.”
The engaged star ultimately feels grateful to have this platform. “
I’ve always wanted to be a part of bettering trans representation,” Desautels says. “So the role of Michael was really going to be perfect for me to be able to act, do what I love and then do that activist work in improving representation. I’m so lucky that I got a trans role to be the spark that started my career.”
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Rise, also staring Auli’i Cravalho, Rosie Perez and Josh Radnor, airs Tuesdays on NBC at 9 p.m. ET.