From Depot Town to Showtime: An Interview with Actor Leo Sheng, 2022

Photo by Alister Mori

“The roles I’ve taken so far have all been trans characters. And so, they are innately trans stories,” said Leo Sheng. “And with my job comes this joy of getting to be this type of representation that I didn’t have growing up. So maybe [the reason I’m an actor] is a little selfish, but I’m excited I have this opportunity to tell stories, period.”

Sheng, a Ypsilanti-native-turned-LA-actor, is still awaiting news that his Showtime drama, The L-Word: Gen Q, is getting a green light for a third season.

Sheng’s character, Micah Lee, is laying some crucial groundwork for other transgender-Asian stories to be told. Micah is soft-spoken but determined. He’s masculine but sensitive. He’s humble but he’s also one of the show’s queer Casanovas.

The result is a complex, queer character whose story lines are the sum of more than just his gender identity. Micah is all of these things while also carrying some of the show’s more emotionally heavy scenes as a budding young therapist. Genuinely, he wants his friends and family to be happy—a word the show explores through the filters of a diverse L.A. friend group of 20-somethings who are discovering the complexities of who they are and what happiness means to them.  

Season two of Gen Q evolves the character of Micah into a relatable, deeply sensitive, and at times, messy human being, who is exploring love, sex, and life like the rest of us, one moment at a time. But as a queer Asian trans man, the lens is uniquely focused on these moments in a way not represented often on the screen. Sheng, having lived through certain parallels, is uniquely aware of how special the character is. 

He credits Micah’s complex story lines to the writers of Gen Q, but it is as much of Sheng’s own willingness to tell a human story, not just a transgender story, that really makes Micah’s character transcend queer stereotypes on screen. Micah’s transness does not define him as much as it propels him.

During the interview, a baby, not Sheng’s, will coo in the background of his apartment. He explains, “My household is four adults, and one baby. One Christmas, one of the gifts between us was a set of shot glasses of the Golden Girls. All the adults have one we relate to the most; I am Rose. I think it’s my Midwestern naivete.” Underlying the L.A. sparkle is Sheng’s Midwest charm.

Sheng giggles when asked if he had held any jobs around Ypsilanti he wanted to talk about, before his acting days on the set of Gen Q. “None that lasted very long,” Sheng confessed.

Before sharing the screen with Jennifer Beals and Rosie O’Donnell, Sheng did what most college students around here do: work a few months at Bob Evans (or some Bob Evans equivalent), dabble with various student jobs around campus, and put in 20,000 steps a day collecting shopping carts as a Whole Foods employee.

“I just graduated in 2017 with my bachelor’s in sociology [from the University of Michigan], when I was messaged on Instagram by a casting office in New York, and they were looking for trans actors to play trans characters,” Sheng said. “At that point, I had no acting experience, and they decided to take a chance on me. I read for the role from Michigan from the Charter Multicultural Center. Actually, one of my co-workers helped me audition.”

Shortly after that, Sheng flew out to New York to read with the director for an indie movie called Adam, where Sheng would land the part of Ethan. This was Sheng’s first acting role.

“I never really thought acting was going to be the path I took,” said Sheng. “I actually used to think I was going to be a writer or a director. As an Asian person, and as a trans person, there were so few people who held my identity, doing that kind of work. At the beginning, I just didn’t feel like there was space for me. It’s still hard to believe that I’m here doing this.”

In high school, Sheng would develop a love for writing fan-fiction. Essay-writing projects would delight him. Said Sheng, “I’ve always felt like stories were really important—to be able to tell our stories any way we can.”

Where does Sheng’s story begin?

The story where Sheng grew up in Ypsilanti began around age one, when his mom, who was living in Texas at the time, adopted him from Hunan, China at six months old. About six months after that, they moved to Michigan, where Sheng lived until he was 21. Sheng went to school around Ypsi “before Ypsi consolidated schools,” noting that he went to Estabrook Elementary, then West Middle School, and was the first graduating class of Ypsilanti New Tech High. During his time in Ypsi, Sheng recalls being one of the only Asian kids in his classes, one of the only kids to be raised by two moms, and one of the only kids he knew who identified as queer at that time.

 Locally, Sheng said, “there’s a lot of acceptance [around being queer], but I think there’s very separate spheres. Kind of a “you mind your business and I’ll mind mine” mentality. I don’t know how much has changed since I went to school there, I think the student body was predominantly black and brown, then white students and East and Southeast Asian students or South Asian students. We were maybe on the lower end of the demographic. That was definitely challenging—to kind of find a place where I felt like I really belonged, though I did have friends,” said Sheng, noting that when he got to U of M, it was like a whole different world had opened up.

“I’m suddenly in an environment where there’s a ton of East Asian students, international programs, and stuff like that. I actually didn’t join any of the Asian student alliances because I think as an Asian American person, who grew up very ingrained in, and close to whiteness, I had different views than some of my peers.”

The story where Sheng began to identify as trans began as a car accident that lead to a queer reckoning. “I always knew that I was not a traditionally feminine girl,” said Sheng. The accident led to a custody battle that led Sheng to therapy, where he discovered vocabulary like trans. 

“I remember telling a therapist that until I looked in the mirror, I forgot that I was a girl,” Sheng remembered, “It was like I always knew, in a way. I just didn’t have the tools to know what it was, until therapy. I hate the argument that doctors are teaching kids to be trans. They’re not; they’re giving them the language they can finally use to describe how they are feeling.” Sheng was 12 when he came out as transgender.

The story where Sheng became an activist for trans youths around the world began as a social media journey.

“I feel like I’m only recently kind of starting to feel the impacts of that,” said Sheng, who documented his trans journey from the start, when he was around 13 years old. “I think I’ve always just sort of existed in this online industry. I knew people were consuming my story, but I think it only really hit me after I started the show.”

For the last 13 years, Sheng had been providing “generous access to myself” which came with a certain responsibility.

“It wasn’t about teaching people,” said Sheng, “It was about connecting with other trans men and just talking about myself in a way that I didn’t think anybody cared about. When I had a YouTube channel, I didn’t feel like I was connecting with people.”

Through Instagram, Huffington Post Articles, and MTV Voices, Sheng found the community he was looking for. “People have connected with me, and reached out to me, and shared their stories with me over the years. Sometimes people tell me their deepest, darkest secrets. It’s a massive honor to be trusted with that.”

The story where Sheng ended up as a regular on a drama on Showtime began with a casting call. The L-Word was rebooting with a mix of old cast members from the original show, and a new, younger crew. The show was specifically looking for a trans-Asian male to play Micah.

While acting seemed like a fairy-tale profession to Sheng, he admitted that he had “loved movies and television my entire life. In fourth grade, my parents would get mad at me for watching too much T.V.,” he recalled.

“Part of my drive in this profession is fascination. Fascination, to be part of this world. I am always in a state of starstruck. I hesitate to even name-drop with my roommates because I feel like I’m never going to be in these spaces again,” said Sheng. “I mean, I remember the first season of L-Word... my first major project, I’m walking around set just like, “Oh my gosh,”… and when Laurel (Holloman, who plays Tina Kennard in the show) came to the table read, I remember I walked in and I just kept muttering “Oh my god Laurel is here….” and Jac “(Jacqueline Toboni, who plays Sarah Finley) is like, “Dude, be cool!” and you know, I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.”

Sheng describes playing Micah as a “dream” role.

“He’s not trying to be this perfect piece of queer or trans representation. We’re getting to see him be messy, and make mistakes, and he’s vulnerable. He’s just trying to do his best,” said Sheng. “I think he’s loyal. And I think that he really just wants people to be happy. He wants the people he loves to be cared for and safe. And I think that in this season in particular, we see him struggling with where his loyalties lie, and I think that’s because he loves all of his friends equally. I think he’s just got a really big heart and he doesn’t want to ever do the wrong thing. But, I think that he gets in his own way sometimes.”

Sheng is excited for audiences to see the kind of representation and storytelling on Gen Q that he had always yearned for. “For me, I’m not always talking about being a trans person, in everyday life. And I think that on Gen Q we, for lack of a better phrase, just want to normalize [transness], and make these conversations more common, especially among queer friend circles. Gender identity, gender, and sexuality are everyday parts of our lives. Even if we don’t always talk about it.

“The original show had some challenges portraying trans masculine characters. Our show addresses a lot of those challenges. And it asks questions like, “how do we write trans masculine characters so that they exist convincingly in a world full of queer women? And how do we do it in a way where he is still very much himself and owning his identity and not feeling ostracized, I think in a way that Max [a transgender character from the original show] often was, unfortunately.

“How do we balance these conversations while showing a whole human so that the audience knows who he is without making his story only about [being trans]? I think that we have touched on really important parts of Micah’s identity through the show’s run thus far. His arc in season two, where we get to see him exploring what his queerness means to him outside of his own internal sense of gender, I can relate to a lot,” Sheng said.

Watch The L-Word: Gen Q on Showtime or stream it on Hulu. For more of Leo Sheng, follow him on Instagram @ileosheng and catch him in the movie The Matrix Resurrections, now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.