Samy el-Noury is a renaissance man. A well-respected actor, Noury is also a musician, a brown belt in Shaolin Kung Fu, does pretty well on a trapeze, speaks a smattering of French, Arabic and Spanish, is fluent in Japanese and knows his way around a puppet. Not bad for someone who hasn’t turned 30 yet.
Noury is currently starring in Inis Nua Theatre Company’s premier of “Swallow,” a beautiful, character-driven show running through May 14.
PGN: Where do you hail from?
SeN: I was born in Silver Spring, Md., so I grew up in that area for most of my life.
PGN: Tell me about the fam. Any siblings?
SeN: I’m the second-oldest; I’m one of four. Mom and Dad both present. They both worked often when I was growing up so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on my mother’s side. They lived in Puerto Rico but there were periods of time when they would come stay here to help take care of us. My paternal grandparents were in Lebanon, so it would have been a little hard for them to babysit.
PGN: What’s a fun memory with your siblings?
SeN: Oh God, well this is silly but in the county where I grew up they have this little light festival each year in Watkins Park. As children, it was tradition that we would go every year. My older sister especially loved it because Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday, but as we got older we kind of let it go until one year when my sister reinstated the tradition. As adults, we realized that it was kind of cheesy; they weren’t even real Christmas lights and there were things like dinosaurs with Christmas hats stuck on them. It was just really ridiculous but that kind of endeared it to us and we still try to go each year.
PGN: What were you like as a kid?
SeN: [Laughs] It depends on who you ask! I wish I was sportier than I actually was. My parents would tell you I was a stubborn kid. I sometimes feel like I’ve aged in reverse. I definitely had a more serious mindset when I was a kid. I was more withdrawn and introverted but the older I got the more open and sillier I’ve become. I have friends who start panicking as they hit 30 and I’m like, This is great! I’m now getting to have all the fun I didn’t get to have before.
PGN: Why so serious?
SeN: There were a lot of things. Though we get along now, I didn’t have the best relationship with some of my family members, so my childhood was a bit fraught. A lot of it was not being comfortable with myself and my identity and body and as a result I was also bullied a lot. I think the first time I went to therapy was in fourth grade. I was bullied and depressed and it almost never seemed to stop.
PGN: At school?
SeN: Largely at school but I didn’t find the support and relief from it at home that I needed. I’d come home from having horrible things happen and not be able to seek comfort at home because they just didn’t understand, and as a child I didn’t have the language to express what I felt about my gender identity. And when I did find language for who I was, most representations of trans people in the media were the jokes, the punch lines. The first time I ever heard a trans reference it was being used as an insult, so I thought, Well, I think that’s what I am, but I guess it’s a bad thing. I realized that if I expressed how I felt inside, it would invite more bullying and more ridicule.
PGN: I presume as a child you were presenting female; what was the bullying about? Were you a tomboy?
SeN: For some reason I got teased because they thought I looked like Prince!
PGN: [Laughs] OK, that’s not what I was expecting!
SeN: I know! I had short, really curly hair, mainly because at one point I decided that I hated having long hair, so I cut it myself. It really pissed my mom off because I did such a bad job of it. So she took me to a salon to fix it and everyone was like, “You look like Prince! That’s so gay.” It was considered a big insult until I got older and realized that Prince was awesome! But the flip side was, when I hit puberty, I developed pretty quickly and boys started sexually harassing me at a pretty young age, like 9. So it was like, OK, you made fun of me because I looked androgynous but now you’re going to objectify me for the ways that I do look feminine? It felt like there was no relief.
PGN: That sounds like the Neneh Cherry song “Kisses on the Wind,” which is about a girl entering puberty.
SeN: Yeah, I know that song! You’re right.
PGN: So what kinds of things were you into?
SeN: I was really into reading and illustrating. I wasn’t very verbally articulate. I was very withdrawn, so if you asked me how I felt I wouldn’t be able to tell you but I could draw it. Art became an outlet for me. I loved reading so much that I was the only kid who would assign myself reading projects! It was such a retreat for me. I even thought about becoming a librarian at one point.
PGN: What was your first inkling that you were different? And did you realize that it had to do with gender identity or did you, like a lot of people, go through a lesbian phase first?
SeN: I did! In hindsight, I think it’s because that’s what a lot of people labeled me, so I thought, Well this must be it. Which is interesting because now I’m primarily attracted to men, I’m not not attracted to women — I’m fairly fluid in my sexuality — but in the beginning I’d think, Well, everyone thinks I’m a lesbian, so I guess I am. And I found a lot of solace in the lesbian community. As an androgynous individual, I found acceptance there so it was very painful for me when I finally came out as transgender; a lot of people stopped talking to me, which was sad.
PGN: What was the first clue?
SeN: I’d heard and read a little about gender identity but the first person I ever met face-to-face that openly identified as a trans person was in college, my freshman year. It was a real wake-up call because it wasn’t like what you see on TV; it was a real live person with a full life. But I immediately asked all the questions that you’re not supposed to ask, “So, do you have a penis or a vagina? How do you have sex? What bathroom do you use? But you don’t look the way I thought a trans person would look!” All the questions I get now. But they really took me to task and explained why it was offensive and straightened out the misconceptions I had. It was shock and awe but they were great about taking the time to educate me and I realized how much the narrative of their life identified with my own. It prompted me to start reading about the subject again with a different lens and I began to realize that it all resonated with me, everything clicked. It was a very liberating but also sad and terrifying moment.
PGN: How long ago did you start your transition?
SeN: Five years this February.
PGN: When did you come out to the family?
SeN: Well, I’ve done it three times now! The first time was when I was 13 and I came out as gay. They didn’t get it at all so I buried it until I was 18 when I first mentioned that perhaps I was trans and that was even worse; they were definitely not happy with that. Then when I was about 23 I had a job that gave me the security to live on my own, in case they kicked me out. I then legally changed my name and informed them that I was going through with everything. They didn’t kick me out, but I did move just because it was time. Though I remember when I told them, “I need to do this so that I can finally and truly love who I am,” my father said, “Yes, but what if we don’t love who you are?”
SeN: True. It hurt but it was good because that was the moment when I realized that I needed to stop trying to find validation in other people. I hate to tell that story because now he’s “Pride Dad” and so supportive. He hates to even think or talk about the time when he was less-accepting. But I’m so proud of the leaps and bounds both he and my mom have made. I do a lot of outreach work with kids and they’re often afraid of the reaction they’ll get and my story gives them hope. If my parents could come around, then so can theirs!
PGN: What made you go into acting? To go from being a shy little girl to a leading man?
SeN: Yeah, it’s funny. I’m still a weird contradiction; I love people enjoying my work but if I meet people after a show I’m still uncomfortable with the attention. When I was in college I was into illustration but my fellow students were all these rich kids pretending to be the poor bohemian “artiste” and here I was: a queer person of color, and they were kind of, “Oh, we don’t actually want to associate with the real thing …” It was odd, so I switched to history — as a big book nerd, it’s a passion of mine — and graduated from a different university with a degree in Japanese studies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find something in that field and took an internship at a performing-arts center working in the art gallery and I got to see all their shows. In 2012, there was a play based on a Japanese playwright going up. I reached out to the production people and said, “I know him! Please, I speak Japanese, let me be a resource for you!” The guy said, “Why don’t you just audition for it?” So I did and I’ve been acting ever since. I’ve gone back and taken courses on the craft of acting and by 2015 I was able to quit my day job and pursue acting full-time.
PGN: It’s funny, I interviewed Chaz Bono and he was saying that he’d done some acting before transitioning and at one point was cast as a lesbian. He thought it would be a good fit because at the time he was identifying as lesbian but he couldn’t get into it at all. It wasn’t until he had to play a male role that everything clicked. Did you start acting before or after your transition?
SeN: Interesting. I was in a Shakespeare company and one time when I was performing as Juliet the guy who cast me said something about the fact that it looked like I was “acting” for the first time. He said, “You’re trying so hard to play this woman, it feels like you’re just playing a role.” I was thinking, Little does he know … I’d started privately transitioning but was still presenting as female. It was a great role, though. I’d love to do it again if they did an all-male “Romeo and Juliet”! I just love what I do.
PGN: Let’s talk about some of the other things you do, like martial arts.
SeN: Yeah, that was one of the few athletic endeavors I was able to participate in. It taught me a lot of discipline, which I like. I’m better at meticulous things. I have trouble just letting go. For instance, I play the piano but I’m best at regulated pieces, I’m no good at jazz or even doing improv when acting, but I’m working on it.
PGN: Tell me about “Swallow,” without giving too much away.
SeN: It’s a three-person show and each person is going through their own personal struggle: One character has locked herself in her apartment and hasn’t left in ages, another has been going through domestic issues and my character goes through his own gender transformation. The three of them meet and interact and it’s one of those things where everyone wants to fix someone else because it’s easier than fixing yourself.
PGN: I found it very moving with a good bit of humor as well. Looking at your résumé, most of your roles seem to be traditionally male; was this your first time playing a trans man?
SeN: You know, I think it is! At least for a mainstream role. I’m really excited about it. I think it’s important that the director chose a trans man to play a trans man. I’ve had the debate with people over whether or not we have to have trans actors play trans characters and I fall on the side of yes, because we want those employment opportunities and also because we want to elevate the trans voices in our community. There’s a lot of talent that doesn’t often get a chance to do good roles like this, so I’m excited for the opportunity.
PGN: Your character has a lot to face throughout the course of the show. What did you draw from personally to help you with it?
SeN: Yes, there are some dark parts as well as triumphant ones. The director, Claire, will tell you when we were rehearsing the tough parts, I had to get up and dance when we were through just to lighten it up a little.
PGN: I read that this was a delicate balance because you tried to be very careful to play a fully nuanced character and not just the same story we’ve heard before.
SeN: I fought this at first because there’s a lot already in the media, be it news or TV or films about trans people being victimized. It’s a delicate tightrope because you don’t want to be stereotyped but at the same time, this stuff really happens. It’s happened to me, it happens to a lot of us and I was able to draw from a personal well of experience to do the role. Especially at a time where we have laws being enacted to prevent us from going into bathrooms, the reality is that there are people assaulted for just wanting to pee. I’m really proud to bring this story to light.
PGN: There was a lot packed into the show, from the difficulties of disclosure to the joy of friendship — and all done with an accent to boot!
SeN: Yes, that was a challenge trying to get the Scottish accent down, but it’s a great script. Very poignant. I’m so proud to be a part of this and I hope people will come out and see it!
“Swallow” runs through May 14 at Proscenium Theater at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. For more information, visit www.inisnuatheatre.org/swallow.