Ellie Desautels, Manhattanville Alum, casted in NBC Primetime Show
THOMAS IAN JOHNSON
On Mar. 13 2018, NBC released a new musical series, Rise, depicting a small-town school’s drama department being ripped on its head by an ambitious new drama teacher. One of the teen students, Michael Hallowell, a “socially transitioned” transgender male, is played by Ellie Desautels, a Manhattanville graduate of 2017. Alongside Desautels stands television and lm stars, Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), Rosie Perez (Fearless), Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), and others.
In the show, Lou Mazzuchelli (played by Rad- nor) replaces Tracey Wolfe (played by Perez) as the director of the school drama club, choosing the controversial Spring Awakening as their musical. Desautels described Spring Awakening to be a musical “that has many dark themes and the combination of the teenage narratives and the mature content truthfully acknowledges that some teenagers go through trying times. Some have to work hard to push themselves through immensely difficult situations,” such as teen pregnancy, incest, and a character who falls victim to suicide. The parents attempt to change the musical, but the students fight for it. As dark and appalling as some of these themes are, they’re real struggles that teens deal with today, and the characters find it vital to bring the story to life.
“I feel that [Spring Awakening] is an important show for many people and it’s certainly important to the kids in Rise. For Michael, being in the musical is a huge step for him and allows him to be part of something meaningful. The show pushed him to be himself, his true self,” Desautels said.
They scored the role for the pilot while studying at Manhattanville and filmed the pilot in the midst of their senior thesis. NBC had later picked up the show as a full series before their graduation. Balancing the show and graduation was difficult enough, individually, but in tandem was a completely different story. “I felt very ready to start my career while still working on school. It came with its conflicts, like having to reschedule senior thesis rehearsals and missing or arriving late to some classes, but I was lucky to have such supportive and understanding professors,” explained Desautels. “I would say the ability to go with the flow prepared me for that wonderfully turbulent time in my life.”
Beyond a stellar work ethic, Desautels attributes much of their success to their four- time Acting for the Camera professor.
“The person at Manhattanville who supported [my] aspiration is ‘The Man,’ the closest thing I have to a mentor, Jon Huberth, known by his students as ‘Hubie.’ After taking the only two levels offered, Hubie encouraged me to take the sections again and ensured that he would give me all new assignments and challenge me more with camera work. He kept pushing me further and further, and because of that, I was able to grow. I will always value his guidance,” said Desautels.
The representation of trans characters on television has morphed so much in the last decade. More often than not, television programs depict trans characters with rough backgrounds and loads of trials and tribulations that help to highlight how strong the characters are. However, the programs do little to give the impression that trans people can be happy or let alone grow up happy. With Michael, Desautel’s character in the show, the representation is shifted in a more positive light rather than in a negative connotation.
Desautels explained their character, Michael Hallowell, who “is first and fore-most a musician, and he is passionate about singing. He identifies as a transgender boy, has socially transitioned, and is supported by his teachers, peers and family. What I love about Michael is that he is intelligent, strong, and an advocate for himself. He’s inspired by music and I think that’s what makes him such a happy kid. He gets to do what he loves and express himself within a safe space,” said Desautels.
Desautels has been flooded with messages from LGBTQ kids across the country saying that Michael gave them courage to come out.
“The outpouring of positive responses to Michael has been so overwhelming and amazing. So many trans ‘folx’ have reached out thanking me and telling me that they’ve never been rep- resented on prime-time TV. Tons of ‘folx’ have disclosed their transness to family and friends because of the confidence Michael and I have given them. A lot of cisgender folk have reached out on behalf of their trans friends and relatives and it has been so beautiful and humbling,” said Desautels.
As a pioneer for such a unique character on prime- time television, Desautels explained that “I’m so happy, lucky, and privileged to have received this chance to play a happy trans teen. It is a character that I have been waiting to see on TV, so I’m humbled to have been able to bring Michael to life. So many trans people from around the world live normal happy, healthy lives. It’s time for society to start accepting that and for networks to show trans characters more commonly in mainstream media.”
There isn’t much that can be revealed about the upcoming season of Rise, however, Desautels was able to reveal a few tidbits about what is to come.
“Looking forward in the season, you’ll get to see Michael stand up to transphobia with the support of the drama troupe. You’ll also get to see him grapple with a difficult situation that his best friend gets in. You’ll witness a beautiful and real friendship deepen through the hardship. I’m excited for everyone to see what’s to come,” said Desautels.
Beyond Rise, Desautels is just excited for what will come next. They is just 23 years old, and already thriving on primetime television.
“This is just the start of my career, and it has been so amazing already. I can’t imagine what’s coming next.”
Rise episodes premiere on Tuesdays at 9:00p.m. EST, and previously premiered episodes are available to watch on NBC.com/Rise.