“We need more sweat!”
On that command, a production assistant takes a spray bottle filled with glycerin and scurries over to actor Michael D. Cohen, making his bald head glisten as a crew stands by at a studio in Burbank, Calif. They’re filming the fifth season of Henry Danger, a farcical superhero saga that is Nickelodeon’s longest running live-action sitcom. In it, Cohen plays a character named Schwoz, a quirky genius who aids the show’s good guys much as Q aids James Bond. In this scene, as a goof, Schwoz is leading some of the show’s younger actors through an aerobic workout. Cameras roll as Cohen, clad in spandex and now suitably sweaty, breaks into action. “Your life begins where your comfort zone ends!” he barks while huffing through the routine.
It’s just a line that Cohen is delivering in his character’s silly accent. But it also expresses an idea that the actor has come to understand intimately, one he is ready to embrace again, whatever it might mean for his future. Spurred in part by the political climate — which in recent years has seen fraught public reckonings around issues related to gender — Cohen wants to publicly disclose a private fact that he has been sharing with colleagues on the set of Henry Danger: Nearly twenty years ago, he transitioned from female to male.
“I was misgendered at birth,” Cohen says. “I identify as male, and I am proud that I have had a transgender experience — a transgender journey.”
Today, there are more actors than ever who are open about having had, as Cohen puts it, a transgender journey. This is in part because there is a proliferation of shows, including Pose and Transparent, that are portraying nuanced transgender characters. But Cohen is rare in that he worked in the entertainment industry for more than two decades before he chose to make this disclosure.
In many ways, the environment is far more welcoming than it was when Cohen first transitioned, back when issues of gender identity were largely relegated to spectacles like The Jerry Springer Show. In Hollywood, figures like Laverne Cox and Asia Kate Dillon have nabbed major roles, helping to shift mindsets among producers and audiences alike. More broadly, there is unprecedented awareness about LGBTQ issues, in courts and legislatures as well as the cultural zeitgeist. Yet that visibility has also spurred backlash from conservatives who cast transgender and gender nonconforming people as a threat to societal norms.
Cohen does not use the word transgender to describe himself, but he does view himself as part of a community that typically embraces that label, and he didn’t feel he could be an outspoken advocate until he made his history known. The actor has grown restless while watching the Trump administration roll back protections for transgender people in schools and the military, as Republicans have fought bills that would protect them from discrimination in public spaces.
“This crazy backlash and oppression of rights is happening right in front of me. I can’t stay silent,” Cohen says. “The level of — let’s be polite — misunderstanding around trans issues is so profound and so destructive. When you disempower one population, you disempower everybody.”
It’s a chilly April evening in L.A., and I’m sitting with Cohen on the otherwise empty patio of a sleek restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. One of the first things you notice about him is the same thing casting directors do: he’s short, just over five feet tall. Tonight, his big eyes are framed under a flat cap and he’s sporting salt-and-pepper stubble that will be shaved before filming starts the next day. As we talk, Cohen has a tendency to fiddle with the cuff of his blue blazer. The Canadian-born actor also has a tendency to crack jokes, displaying the comedic talents that have propelled his career. When asked about how it’s been having the name Michael Cohen lately, for instance, he says that he’s had it: “I’m thinking of changing my name to Paul Manafort.”
Today, a central struggle for openly transgender actors is combatting the expectation that they should play transgender characters. If Cohen has been hemmed in, it’s only by the perception that he’s a character actor — a type of thespian he defines as “not good looking enough to sleep with a leading woman.”
He recalls watching The Carol Burnett Show as a kid in Winnipeg, marveling at the way that television can be unifying for people laughing together on a couch “regardless of whatever else is happening in that family unit.” Though Cohen always wanted to be an actor, there was a time early in his career when he focused on behind-the-scenes work and voice acting instead. “I think I loved acting so much,” he says, “that I didn’t want to do it as a woman.” Eventually, his love of acting won out. Cohen played female roles until he transitioned in 2000, a process that, in his case, involved medical treatment as well as changes in how he presented himself socially.
Some years later, Cohen left the studios of Toronto for Hollywood and started landing roles at a greater clip. In 2014, he began appearing on Henry Danger. Today, more than 750,000 kids tune in to watch the sitcom each week. According to Nickelodeon — which, along with parent company Viacom, shares wholehearted support for Cohen and “diversity in all its forms” — it’s the number one live-action kids’ show on basic cable. Adults may have seen Cohen elsewhere, on sitcoms like Powerless, in films or commercials like a Wendy’s “Biggie Bag” spot that has been airing recently.
Another reason Cohen wants to publicly talk about his history now is that he is preparing to put on a new production, a play about his life that has been in the making for the past fifteen years. In the one-man show that he wrote and stars in — called “4 Cubits Make a Man,” a reference to Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian specimen — he chronicles how he came to grips with his identity, as well as how he navigated family, romantic relationships and widespread ideas about what makes someone a man.
“It is not random, it is not arbitrary, it is not chosen,” he says of gender identity. “It’s like trying to negotiate with gravity.”
The play, funny enough to get the audience through the raw pain of many scenes, centers on this tension. “In my experience, I was born male. What my body said about it was irrelevant,” Cohen says. “No matter how hard I tried, it was not up for negotiation. Believe me, it would have been so convenient if I was actually a woman.”
People like him are not, as some social conservatives have suggested in fiery debates about LGBTQ rights, the product of “radical ideology” spreading around the Internet or a figment of anyone’s imagination, he says. “My chromosomes do not dictate my gender. I’m a man,” Cohen says. “It’s not that hard.”
In the play, Cohen also explains why he does not describe himself as transgender.
He understands that this word is commonly used by people who identify with a gender other than the sex they were assigned at birth. Many people “feel that does reflect their identity and they’re very comfortable with that, and that’s completely valid,” he says. But, for him, the term feels off, and he does not want to make compromises about how he describes himself at this point in his life. “I have worked so hard to get to the truth and I’ve taken on labels in the past that didn’t feel true for the sake of convenience at that moment,” he says. While the word transgender may describe his past or his transition, he says, he has always felt his “core being” was male, and so that is the language he uses.
Cohen knows that may seem complicated. But that comes with the territory. He believes that animus toward people like him — however they identify — comes in part from the fact that their existence complicates simple maxims about gender. That is part of what has made transgender people a target in political battles over issues like the sports, religious freedom and civil rights. And Cohen wants to stand with them. “These are my people. I belong to this group,” he says of Americans who have been affected by policies like the Trump Administration’s guidance on Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
Though Nickelodeon has been supportive, Cohen knows this is a complicated time to be making this disclosure in Hollywood, too. The entertainment industry continues to grapple with what it means to be inclusive, and while LGBTQ issues are intermingling with kids’ programming more than in the past, sensitivities remain. Cohen is hopeful about the message that his continued presence on the show — which has filmed more than 100 episodes and was recently picked up for 10 more — will send to young viewers who are attuned to issues of gender identity. Yet he is also prepared for backlash from parents.
“People don’t understand. They think this has to do with sexuality and it doesn’t. They think this has to do with pushing an agenda on kids and it doesn’t,” he says. “What it does is send a message to kids that whoever they are, however they identify, that’s celebrated and valued and okay.”
There’s something about Cohen that kids respond to, the producers of Henry Danger say. Maybe it’s his small stature. Maybe it’s his talent for physical comedy. Maybe it’s the feeling that Schwoz is a fantastical bridge between the grownup and kid worlds.
Chris Nowak, the showrunner for Henry Danger, says that colleagues respect what Cohen has told them but continue to see him as they always have: “Just a guy who’s real good at his job.” Jace Norman, a teen heartthrob who plays the show’s protagonist, Henry Hart, says in an email that the news “didn’t change anything about the high level of respect and admiration I have for the guy,” and thinks “it’s in the best interest of the entire world to have every type of person represented on TV.”
On set, Cohen’s news seems to have been processed with little hubbub. Of far more concern is the timing for delivering jokes as he flees, still in his spandex getup, from a frazzled woman who has traveled back from the future to warn everyone that humanity will be enslaved by robots. As she pursues him, Schwoz zips frantically around the show’s secret superhero lair like he’s in a Benny Hill chase scene. In between takes, he jokes that, for this particular episode, he has been drawing inspiration from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
However frivolous it is, when the episode airs, it will reflect a serious reality back to the actor: that the world sees him as he sees himself, a guy who plays another guy on TV. And he hopes that sharing the fuller picture might make the idea of disclosure less uncomfortable for others. “If I tell my truth,” Cohen says, “that gives other people permission to tell theirs too.”