Where’s Jai Rodriguez? Amanda’s got ’em

by Jim Halterman

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday March 20, 2011

While people still recognize him from his stint on the uber-successful reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Bravo, Jai Rodriguez has never stopped his true passion - singing and acting. Lately, it seems tough to turn anywhere and not see Rodriguez popping up in movies (Oy Vey My Son Is Gay), music videos (Lady Gaga's Telephone) and lending a hand (and singing voice) to various benefits and charities.

This week, we see a different side of the Brentwood, NY native on the new NBC hit legal series Harry's Law, starring Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates and Brittany Snow. On this week's episode, Rodriguez plays Amanda, a transgender man-to-woman, who has wrongfully been fired from her stage show due to an affair with her straight (and married) boss. While this isn't the first time Jai has donned a dress (he appeared as a drag queen in a recent episode of ABC's Detroit 1-8-7 and, of course, played Angel in Rent), EDGE's Jim Halterman asked about the challenges of playing a trans character, how he had to fight to correct some discrepancies in the Harry's Law script and, after spending more time in the gym, whether he's single or taken.

A huge challenge

EDGE: A lot of people still know you from Queer Eye but that wasn't really your ambition since you had been acting and singing long before that, right?

Jai Rodriguez: It was more than an ambition. My profession was an actor in New York so if you lived in New York and you went to theater you knew about me. If you weren't seeing a play that I was in or seeing me in the local magazines then you'd see me performing at the benefits. I didn't have aspirations to be on television [and] reality television was not what it is today...but Queer Eye put me on the map on a global level.

EDGE: You were just on Detroit 187 as a drag queen and now you're playing Amanda, a transgender character, on Harry's Law. How did these roles come about?

Jai Rodriguez: Amanda came first, but I was always like 'I don't really want to play a drag queen in anything so don't even submit me.' Then, Amanda came up in Harry's Law - singing live, David E. Kelley's new show [Kelley produced huge TV hits like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal] with Kathy Bates...and I was like 'I played a drag queen in Rent but I'd never played a transgender woman and I thought of Felicity Huffman in Transamerica.

Trying to play a woman is way harder than trying to play a drag queen. She was basically a heterosexual woman and the subtlety of that was a huge challenge and I liked that. After 3 hours of hair and makeup with latex on my face and the taping of my boobs and the whole thing. By the time I was Amanda, nobody saw Jai anymore. I'd get ready at my trailer and then they'd send me off in a golf cart to set and it was six soundstages away so the crew never met me as a boy! They never got to meet me as a dude! It was such a cool experience. Then, when Detroit 187 came along, there was a good scene as a guy and I thought 'I'll use the scene as a guy on my acting reel and make that work for me' but then that scene got cut and I was like 'What?!' But all it reads on your resume is 'guest star' so the goal is to build up your guest stars on different shows and that helps you move forward.

Story continues on following page:

Watch Jai Rodriguez's video for "Broken":

Watch this interview with Jai Rodriguez on the Fran Drescher show:

Not a drag queen

EDGE: When you are first seen in Harry's Law, your legs are the first things shown and I was like 'Look at those gams!' You looked hot!

Jai Rodriguez: You want to know something? That was 15 lbs ago. I was really leaned up then but then I had just gotten out of a break up and I was doing the cleanse and I was at about 150 pounds but it was so perfect. I was so little but now there's no way I could pull off looking like I did then. I'm 15 pounds heartier now! There was a stunt double woman who they thought they might have to put in hair and makeup because they had not seen my legs before and they thought maybe I'd have man legs and not be able to pull it off but we shot it once and they were like 'You can send [the double] home. We don't need you!' That was kinda funny.

EDGE: Talk to me about doing Amanda's voice and not just when she was singing because I was really wow'd by how feminine you sounded without it coming off as phony.

Jai Rodriguez: Thanks! I'm real good friends with Candis Cayne and have been since I was 20 and I just think that she's just a normal person. When I met her it was in dance class and I didn't question it. She had boobs so what did I know? I think when I've seen transgender women before, they have low voices and then I met others and they have this other voice that they're capable of producing that's more feminine and it comes from the most feminine place. With Amanda, the director told me she's very introverted but she only really comes out of her shell when she is onstage so they wanted her really timid and shy so that's where that voice came from.

EDGE: You come into these shows as a guest star but do you have much say in the representation and that things are accurate?

Jai Rodriguez: I picked and chose my battles on this one and there were some things that weren't right. One is when I'm on the witness stand and talking to the judge. Nate Corddry's character would say 'Amanda, tell us why your job is important to you?' I'd look at the judge and one of my opening lines was "Well, I've always been different. I'm gay but I consider myself a woman" and I was like 'No, that's not right.' I said that transgender women are not gay. They identify as trans but you don't say 'I'm gay.' That's inaccurate. That was really hard for them to wrap their brain around.

But interestingly they also wanted this Crying Game moment and this is the moment I lost out on. I didn't want Amanda without her brown hair. There's a scene where I'm wigless and I didn't want that scene because transgender women wouldn't have short hair unless she had somewhere to wear that short hair. She'd grow her hair out and so the peace that I made with it was that Amanda was newly trans and was at the beginning of her transition. But essentially they were like 'We need this Crying Game moment where we really see her as her former self before she became Amanda.' So, we did it without the wig and I said 'You're looking for the drag queen moment and she's not a drag queen.'

Working out again

EDGE: Having seen recent pics on the Internet, you're so beefcakey now. Have you been working hard on your body these days?

Jai Rodriguez: I had just gone through a breakup this summer and I wasn't really working out and wasn't focused on that and then I was just trying to get really lean. I wasn't eating what I should be eating so I lost some weight and I think the big part of it if I'm being candid with you is the reason I gained so much weight is seeing the pictures and being so believable as Amanda. I couldn't get it out of my head and I think that lit a fire under my ass at the gym and I started eating everything. Finally I'm at a place where I love where my body is at but I'm also in a healthier place.

EDGE: And you recently changed management teams. How is that affecting some of your choices and your career?

Jai Rodriguez: The consensus for a long time was to do one thing so if you hosted, that's what you did. Hosts should not act. When I first moved out here to LA, I had been with the same agency since I was 17 and I never left them but then they told me 'We see you more as a host now so we're not going to push you for acting' and I was like 'What?!'

EDGE: With this team behind you and even doing these roles and gay-themed films like Oy Vey My Son Is Gay, are you concerned about being typecast?

Jai Rodriguez: My guess is the good actors of our day - Al Pacino and all the rest of them - probably don't wake up every morning thinking 'I need to get a gay role today to validate myself as an actor.' In the same way, this last year taught me one of a couple of things. I did this pilot that ended up not getting made at the CW. I played a Harvard Med student. He was gay but he was whatever you and I would think as our level of gayness. No affected speech, they didn't have the gay punch lines and I thought 'That's movement in the world where you being gay is the D story.' One of the people in the production office brought her dog to work everyday and it was this huge beautiful German Shepherd and I thought 'Carlos needs a dog because he's not going to have a boyfriend and he'll be the one all the girls come to with their love problems.' Our show runner was Ilene Chaiken from The L Word and she said 'Oh no. If this show takes off you're dating.' And I thought 'Wow! I get to be part of who I am as a person sexually but to also have these great storylines!' For the first time I was really cool with it.

EDGE: And are you dating now or are you single and available?

Jai Rodriguez: I am single and I'm actually really enjoying it. I was seeing someone for a couple of months and probably the nicest, kindest boyfriend I've ever had but I think we were in two different places and I needed to keep walking my path. I'm very single and I'm just focusing on working, staying busy and keeping up with my Twitter.

You can follow Jai on Twitter @jairodriguez, check out his music, news and tour dates at www.myspace.com/jairodriguez and this week watch him on NBC's Harry's Law Monday at 10/9c.

Watch Jai Rodriguez sing a duet with Michelle Williams (of Destiny's Child):

Watch Jai Rodriguez and Cheyenne Jackson sing the Elephant Love Medley from Moulin Rouge:

Jim Halterman lives in Los Angeles and also covers the TV/Film/Theater scene for www.FutonCritic.com, AfterElton, Vulture, CBS Watch magazine and, of course, www.jimhalterman.com. He is also a regular Tweeter and has a group site on Facebook.