Finding Her Authentic Self, Tommy Dorfman is Happy at Last

Tuesday August 24, 2021

"I've never felt better in my life," explained Tommy Dorfman in an interview with InStyle, where she graces the magazine's cover. "I spent 28 years of my life suicidal and depressed and recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. I don't think I've ever been genuinely happy until this past year. I look at the Internet chronicle of photos of me since I started working, and I can see how fucking unhappy I was in every photo. It's wild."

Dorfman was speaking to the magazine just weeks after coming out as trans in Time Magazine. But for some it was expected, as she had been chronicling her transition on Instagram for the past year.

Dorfman, 29, told InStyle that she didn't think her transitioning would take place until she was older, despite always seeing himself as a woman. "I had to be in a more secure place in my life — in my career, financially, whatever — because I needed to take time off to do it. Someone just said to me that I had told them I was definitely going to transition, but I didn't know when and maybe it was going to be a 40s journey."

Dorfman was working in a bagel shop when she got her break-out role in Netflix's "13 Reasons Why" in 2016 after graduating from Fordham University's drama program. She welcomed success, but also felt inauthentic. She recalled how she did a Calvin Klein campaign that included a billboard on Lafayette Street in New York. "It was just, like, boy face, boy body, shot by Ryan McGinley. It was supposed to be something I was so proud of, this 'iconic thing.' And it was such an honor because it was Pride. But I was just so unhappy. I was looking at it, and it was the most dysphoric I've ever felt. Which I think ultimately helped push me along. I didn't have a choice. I was like, 'Oh, I have to.' "

She feared that if was genuine about herself, her career would end. "I had a weird amount of shame and internalized transphobia that was keeping me from coming out — not looking perfect enough and not having all my ducks in a row. I wanted to align my body with my spirit, but I didn't want to disappear for years to do that."

Her choice, she said, was "exciting and gratifying and powerful."

And, understandably, a bit frightening. "I also had never seen a body in transition before, and I think that's a scary thing as a trans person. It's kind of alien, and it's incredibly autonomous. It's puberty as an adult if you do it at my age — it's a second puberty, and I think you're supposed to go through puberty at an age when you don't remember it because it hurts. It's body-aching and emotionally wonky. But I had an opportunity to be of service. And for the most part, putting it into my work."

Asked how she felt before the Time Magazine story was published, Dorfman explained: "I didn't sleep. I thought maybe I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I had waited so long because I wasn't emotionally stable enough. After cocooning for nine months, I felt secure and grounded enough to do it, but I was still freaking out. It had nothing to do with people's reactions, because that's out of my control, but with the attention and conversations that come up around this topic."

Dorfman also discussed her supportive parents, recalling how she and her mom both wore the same size dresses and shoes. She explained how her mom sent her "hand-me-downs, which were clothes that I had chosen for her. So now at 29, I have a collection of dresses, skirts, tops, and jackets that I picked out when I was in high school."

What she did find surprising was her parents saying how their conservative friends were happy for Dorfman. "They were like, 'We didn't have time to call you because we were fielding calls.' They worked in the car industry, and they were like, 'These fucking conservatives are so happy for you.' [laughs] I was like, 'Really? Well, maybe there's a benefit.' There are some people that I grew up with in the South who I thought I was never going to see again. So it was nice to get text messages and calls from people I grew up going to NASCAR with or who you would expect to be incredibly conservative and not accepting. But to see me, someone they knew as a child, stepping into this space in a public way helped them wrap their heads around it."

She expressed her interest in playing a woman on screen. "I went to theater school and would always wish I could portray one of the sisters instead of the boy love interest. My brother and I played video games like Mortal Kombat, and I would only choose to be the female characters because the idea of playing a male character was impossible to me. I was talking to my other actor friends, and I was like, 'I can't believe I had any kind of career as a boy, because I can't imagine doing that now.' I would love to play a boy again in some capacity, but as a woman."

And how during her transition, she's been able to focus on her filmmaking career. "During my transition, I was also able to get grounded and focus on my filmmaking stuff. I am getting prepped for my directorial début. Now I can collaborate with people I've worked with in the past in a new way — and tell better trans and queer stories."