'Henry Danger' Star Michael D. Cohen Is Supporting Trans Youth With an Empowering Acting Challenge
The Henry Danger star is aiming to help trans and non-binary kids feel seen through Nickelodeon's Trans Youth Acting Challenge, an acting master class for 12 talented aspiring actors.
Kids have loved seeing actor Michael D. Cohen play Schwoz, a series regular, on Nickelodeon's Henry Danger since 2014. But in 2019, fans learned more about the beloved actor's journey. "I was misgendered at birth,” Cohen shared in a Time profile. "I identify as male, and I am proud that I have had a transgender experience—a transgender journey." The article quickly gave way to a flood of messages from parents and kids who shared with Cohen what his story meant to them.
Cohen says he heard from kids who said they identify like he does in that they do not use the label "transgender" to describe themselves. He heard from kids who were scared that if they transitioned and lived in their authentic gender, the label will follow them and limit their opportunities. It inspired Cohen to share that "you can be whoever you want, and you can decide how you want to be in this world." And more specifically, given his lifelong craft, he aimed to show children who aspire to be actors that there's a space for them. Cohen's mission gave way to Nickelodeon's Trans Youth Acting Challenge.
The Challenge is a general casting call for trans and non-binary youth. Through January 11, kids can submit audition self-tapes online, and the top 12 submissions will be invited to participate in an online master class with Cohen. All applicants will also be able to participate in an online group webinar Q&A with Michael and the Nickelodeon casting team.
We recently caught up with Cohen about his passion for the initiative and how he hopes it will empower trans and non-binary kids.
How Michael Landed on the Initiative
As a cast member on a Nick show and an acting teacher and coach, Cohen felt that collaborating with his network to offer trans and non-binary kids an unprecedented opportunity was the way to go. And as soon as he approached them about the project, they were immediately collaborative and supportive.
"I've made the point that I want us to see these kids and think of them for roles that are not necessarily trans," says Cohen. "We just want funny kids. Their gender journey is part of who they are and is an important and valuable and hopefully celebrated thing, but it doesn’t need to be the focus or the reason that they're cast."
How the Initiative Is Already Helping Trans Youth Feel Seen
The mere existence of a casting call like this validates trans youth, explains Cohen. "Just the fact that we're doing this is creating visibility and recognition for a group of kids who have been—especially by this presidential administration—beaten down," he says. "We're saying, 'You're important.'"
In addition, Cohen says that the initiative is already having a positive effect in the industry. He shares that a casting director he knows came to him and said she wasn't sure how to work with trans youth or if there were particular opportunities out there for them, but now she knows that networks are interested. "It has already created that awareness," says Cohen.
How It Can Help Trans Kids Find Their Voice
While some kids are razor-focused on pursuing a career on the stage or screen, others might simply enjoy performing for friends and family or be curious about trying out for a school play. Cohen believes that no matter a trans or non-binary child's level of commitment to acting, they can benefit from the craft.
"There are a lot of different ways that this acting challenge can benefit kids who aren’t necessarily actors," notes Cohen. "The thing about acting is that you are the material. You need to know how to press your own buttons, shape your own clay, and you need to know who you are in order to do that well. What acting does is it creates an avenue to getting to know yourself better, and it demands authenticity. You really have to be willing to be authentic as a human being to be good as an actor. It requires a lot of strengthening your own relationship with yourself. It is a great thing for kids or adults."
Cohen adds that acting not only helps you get connected to yourself but to other people. "It's an amazing thing, especially for kids who are struggling to just have a voice," he says. "Acting can give them that voice."
What the Challenge Means to Families of Trans Youth
Cohen says he's heard from parents who are heartened to see Nickelodeon stepping up and standing behind trans and non-binary youth.
"These kids are hugely at risk in many ways," he points out. "It’s a very difficult path to navigate and even when you have the most support in the world from family, and you have access to medical resources, it's a moving target, and you're constantly having to navigate your own history, and there's always the pushback from people who are ignorant and don't understand."
Given those challenges, Cohen wants to reassure parents that they're not alone in their fight and that there's a network aiming to change the world for the better.
How Michael Would Like to See the Initiative Evolve
In time, the actor says he would like to see the effort expand to kids who are writing, directing, or otherwise working behind the scenes. "[I want to] create an avenue for kids to develop their talents and to offer mentorship opportunities so they can have access they wouldn’t have normally," says Cohen. "We have to start somewhere."
The Nick star is deeply committed to putting time and energy into equity initiatives for trans and non-binary kids. "The bottom line is: This is a group of kids whose very existence and the validity of their experience has been called into question because people don't understand that gender is something that is innate and that we’re born with, but it doesn’t necessarily always match up with anatomy," notes Cohen. "Through programs like this, we want to bring awareness and say these kids exist from birth on, and it is essential and important for the psychological health of your child to allow them to express their authenticity."
Cohen continues, "We need to give them a fighting chance to get in there and be seen for who they are. When they’re mixed into the general population, they’re not going to get the same kind of awareness, and they could easily get overlooked. They have a gift, they have something to give that I think is unique."