In the pilot episode of Rise, Stanton High School's passionate English teacher/theater director Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radner) looks down at his roster of students and sees the name "Margaret (Michael) Hallowell." "What shall we call you?" he asks. "Michael," responds the character, portrayed by Ellie Desautels. It's a small but powerful moment, as we're formally introduced to a starring transgender role on primetime network TV — which is still a rarity in 2018 — played by a non-binary, trans-masculine actor. Who plays Michael on Rise? Ellie Desautels is the talented performer behind Michael.
Rise, which premiered on March 13, marks Desautels' first major television role. If you watched the debut episode, you probably heard Ellie's stunning voice during a rendition of Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe." We don't know much about the character just yet, though we do learn he'll take on the role of Moritz in Stanton's controversial production of the musical, "Spring Awakening." Before we get more familiar with Michael as the show progresses, you can also get to know Ellie Desautels.
This Is Ellie's Big Break
According to IMBD, Ellie's only prior credit is the 2013 short, Missed Call. Desautels spoke to Slate regarding what the producers were looking for in Rise, revealing,
They were looking for someone who hadn’t medically transitioned, and I’m not on testosterone, haven’t had top surgery. I don’t know about everyone else who auditioned, but I know that they wanted a trans person. And essentially, that’s what made me want to play Michael so bad—just knowing that the creators wanted a trans person for the role. It was crazy for me to think that I could be part of improving trans representation in TV.
Ellie's Own Identity Experience Helped Develop the Character
"I identify as non-binary and I also strongly identify as trans-masculine, which to me means that I have a strong connection to my masculinity. My trans experience had a big influence in the development of Michael," Desautels remarked in an interview with GLAAD. "But I can only ever know my own experience. I can't replicate someone else's. I feel that Michael and I coexist in the same trans experience, but we use different terms to label it. Plus, Michael is more than his gender identity, and our high school experiences are pretty similar!"
Ellie Is a Songwriter
One look at Ellie's Instagram further proves the star is a skilled crooner, ukulele player, and writer.
Ellie Wishes There Were More Michaels On TV When They Were Growing Up
“When I was growing up, there was no truthful representation of a trans person on TV, let alone a major network,” Desautels told Billboard. “If I had a character like Michael to relate to and if there had been a show like Rise that doesn’t shy away from queer vocabulary, I would have found out that I was trans at a younger age. I never got to know that person that I could have been.”
Benedict Cumberbatch Fan Alert
In addition to citing The Fosters' Elliot Fletcher as an inspiration and Asia Kate Dillon as someone they admire, Ellie calls Benedict Cumberbatch an "idol." I mean, the person who made me want to act on screen was Benedict Cumberbatch. That had nothing to do with being trans, and everything to do with being an actor," Desautels told Slate.
Michael's Story Is More Than Just About Being Trans
"What's really great that people are going to see in the first season is that his story is not just about being trans. He rekindles a friendship that has fallen apart a little, and when that friendship is rekindled, he realizes that his friend is kind of going through a rough situation in her life," Desautels teased to Bustle on the character's trajectory this season.
We can't wait to see more of Ellie on screen as Michael. Rise is already shaping up to a be a weekly inspirational favorite and we're gladly gearing up to have "Mama Who Bore Me" in our heads all season long.