TV

HBO’s new swashbuckling, non-binary pirate is ‘reclaiming our stories’, actor Vico Ortiz says

Patrick Kelleher March 17, 2022
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Vico Ortiz in Our Flag Means Death.

Vico Ortiz in Our Flag Means Death. (HBO Max)

Early on in HBO Max’s new comedy, Our Flag Means Death, one of the pirates loses their fake beard.

In the new feel-good series, Vico Ortiz plays a gender non-conforming character who’s credited as both Jim and Bonifacia.

When the show starts, Jim is presenting as a man so they can live their dream of being a pirate in the 17th century. That all changes when their fake beard and wax nose are foiled, but they go to lengths to make sure their fellow pirates still see them for exactly who they really are.

“They’re not trying to act like a man or act like a woman, they just are,” Vico explains.

So rare are authentic non-binary stories on television that it felt “historic” for Vico to explore that experience on screen, they tell PinkNews. When the series starts, it’s not entirely clear how Vico’s character identifies – but they were eager to make sure their portrayal of Jim accurate right from the start.

“When I got the part I was like, I want to make sure that Jim is Jim throughout, with the beard or without the beard.

“Having the beard doesn’t make them more masculine or less feminine, or not having the beard doesn’t make them more feminine or less masculine, they just are the same person regardless. It was really cool to explore that on my own terms.”

It’s not exactly what you might expect to see on a show set in the 17th century, and that’s part of what makes it feel like such a revolutionary piece of television. By slotting a visibly and openly non-binary character into the mix, it interrogates gender norms and shows that life can be full and jubilant when you’re living your truth. 

“Honestly, it’s such an honour,” Ortiz says. “It felt like I was reclaiming some of our stories.

“Unfortunately throughout history a lot of the trans, non-binary, queer stories try to talk about the person as much as possible without acknowledging that they’re queer. When I read for the part and got to interpret Jim, it was like, oh yeah, I get to actually fearlessly embody this journey of somebody who [gets to explore] their identity.” 

Vico Ortiz tried to fit a ‘cisheteronormative’ binary before Our Flag Means Death

A role like this one has been a long time coming for Vico Ortiz. They were born in Puerto Rico where they were raised by parents who were embedded within the theatre community. They’ve been heavily involved in the performing arts since they were a child – they remember doing their homework backstage in the theatre and getting to watch the magic unfold in real time.

They took a slight detour from acting aged 11 when they took up fencing. By the time they were 13, they were on Puerto Rico’s national team. Little did they know the sport would help prepare them for their future role as a pirate on Our Flag Means Death. 

“I loved it, but I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Vico says. “I was always drawn to acting, to performing, to storytelling. Even when I was fencing I was always trying to tell a story… I was very entertaining to watch.”

Vico Ortiz
Vico Ortiz. (Val Vega)

When they turned 17 and finished high school, Vico retired from Puerto Rico’s fencing team and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. Twelve years later, they’re thriving – and they’re finally getting to play the non-binary roles they’ve long craved.

They’ve also relished the opportunity to play authentic Latinx characters – even if they haven’t always felt emboldened to be proud of their heritage and culture. 

“It’s really interesting to see how I’ve grown as a human being as well as an artist through all of this,” Vico says. “When I first moved to LA, I wanted to Americanise myself and try to fit the heteronormative, white-normative idea of what a Latina should look like or act like. I was trying to bend and morph into what I thought they wanted, and then I was like, this is weird. I don’t like this. Why can’t I just be me and show them what I can bring to the table?”

Gradually, Vico started to carve out a space for themselves. As they became more confident, more roles started to appear that allowed them to express themselves and their characters more authentically. 

Vico Ortiz photographed ahead of the release of Our Flag Means Death
Vico Ortiz. (Val Vega/Provided)

That led them to Our Flag Means Death. Once they read the pilot and realised just how groundbreaking the character was, they submitted an audition tape. Within days, they had been cast in the show. 

Making sure Jim was realistic was important to Vico from the get go. Luckily, they didn’t have much to worry about – there were three non-binary writers working on the show, which Vico says was “incredibly helpful”.

“Most of the time I am the only [non-binary] person across the board, especially with something as big and mainstream as this,” they explain. “Most of the time I’m the one actor fending for themselves and I’m like, ‘I want to say something but I don’t know how.’ Thankfully, David Jenkins, the showrunner, was super easy to talk to and super open and was always like, ‘Hey, if you ever want to talk about this or that let’s do it.'”

Vico Ortiz in Our Flag Means Death.
Vico Ortiz in Our Flag Means Death. (HBO Max)

Their experiences on the set more broadly were great too – the entire cast and crew were “so warm and welcoming”.

“I had to come out to all of them – I was like, ‘We’re going to be here for almost five months, we’re going to get to know each other real quick!’ And they all were just like, ‘Wow, thank you so much,’ and we talked about what it is to be a man, what it is to be masculine, and all of the beautiful options outside of what is expected.” 

Hire more non-binary and trans people on TV sets, Vico Ortiz says

Sadly, Our Flag Means Death is still an outlier. You’ll probably have seen the joyous headlines proclaiming that there are more LGBT+ characters on television today than ever before. That’s true, and it’s something to be celebrated. The problem is that most of those characters are still overwhelmingly cisgender – trans and non-binary representation still lags far behind. The solution to fixing that is actually quite simple, Vico says. 

“Hire non-binary writers, trans writers, directors, producers, everyone across the board,” they say. “I think that right now they’re dipping their toes by being like, ‘Let’s hire one actor,’ but they can be doing more by hiring in other positions as well. The excuse mostly is, ‘We don’t really know anyone,’ but you’re just not knocking on the right doors. We are out here and there are a lot of us.”

Vico Ortiz
Vico Ortiz. (Val Vega)

Because there are so few non-binary characters on screen, people will likely come to Our Flag Means Death and see a gender non-conforming character represented in a positive light for the first time ever.

There’s no doubt that there’s too great a focus put on representation in the wider discussion about LGBT+ people’s right to dignity and equality, but it’s also true that representation can have a powerful impact. For some, it means they’re seeing themselves reflected back for the first time ever. What would Vico say to people watching Our Flag Means Death who might find themselves relating to Jim’s journey? 

“What I love about this question is that, when we talk about being trans and non-binary, it’s always about our issues against the system, and the fact is that the system affects all of us,” Vico explains. “It affects cis people, it affects trans people. The same structures that are trying to limit my authentic self, my expression, who I am, are also limiting cisgender folks. So when you start seeing that, you start opening up to the questions of, who am I outside of all these imposed structures? What makes me a woman? What makes me a man outside of what’s expected of me? I think that’s really beautiful and I encourage that.

“I want you to explore that question of, ‘What makes me me outside of what society expects?'” Vico continues. “You’re going to find some beautiful answers in that and come to yourself more authentically. It’s a real gift and I say, just don’t shy away from it. Continue exploring. Most humans are like, who am I? When you start really asking that question and start silencing all of the societal jargon, you’re going to find some really beautiful answers. So I say, have at it. Have fun.”

Our Flag Means Death is streaming on HBO Max now.

More: HBO Max

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