Interview: Hulu Miniseries First Day’s Julie Kalceff and Kirsty Stark

Two filmmakers on their deft and emotional narrative exploration of the life of a trans youth in Australia

Recently, in an atypical project, CH editors teamed up to guest host a virtual writing class at SUNY New Paltz, where I am an adjunct professor. The focus of this particular class was conducting successful interviews (and all the preparation that goes into one). The resulting project proved quite unique: Every student was given the opportunity to interview Julie Kalceff and Kirsty Stark—the creator/director and producer, respectively, of an important new Australian show (streaming on Hulu in the US) called First Day.

The tenderly made show (funded by Screen Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Company) tells the story of Hannah, a pre-teen trans child who has courageously entered junior high as her true self, after presenting as a boy during elementary school. Through the four-part series, Hannah (endearingly portrayed with care and craft by young activist, model and actress, Evie Macdonald) deals with regular tween life—new experiences, friendships, bullies and beyond—all while navigating her gender identity, and attempting to manage other people’s understanding.

Kalceff and Stark graciously offered their time and sat for a very early morning (Sydney time) WebEx chat where the 13-person class conducted interviews and worked the story from a variety of angles. Some students have minors in film, TV, communications or PR, and their questions reflect that. Each interview fell into place differently, and we have created a composite version here to share insight on the students’ thinking, Kalceff and Stark’s insights, and what First Day is all about.

Ezra Baptiste asks why did you want to create a show about trans youth?  Julie Kalceff: A six-year-old family member was transitioning and I saw her mother struggling with what to do. Right there I thought, “It would great if there was a children’s television episode about a transgender girl.” We wanted trans children to be able to see themselves on screen, but we also wanted their families to be able to sit down and watch.

Also on viewership, Dana Halladay asks what the desired takeaway for viewers is.
JK: Our hope was that a show like this could start conversations for people who weren’t able to talk about these things. We didn’t want to convey misinformation and we certainly didn’t want to put anything out into the world that was negative, or that could negatively impact transgender children or adults.

Emma Cariello asks to hear about the casting process.

Kirsty Stark: A big priority for us from the beginning was casting a transgender actor in the lead role, but it did narrow down casting options. We only had a pool of 12 people to choose from at first. From that point, Julie had a one-on-one conversation with each of their families explaining what the repercussions may be of being on TV as a young trans person, what kind of backlash they might face. From that point there were only four girls, and we chose Evie. I don’t think the show would exist in the form it does without her.

Kyle LaBossiere asks, regarding casting, is being trans more normalized for the younger generation in Australia? 

JK: Yeah, I certainly think so. When we were auditioning, our casting agent knew a lot of the children that were auditioning, and she only sent through kids who would be supportive of the subject matter. But all of the kids that we spoke to—we would talk to them about the content beforehand and ask them, “Do you know what this story is about? Do you know anyone who’s transgender? What are your feelings about it?” For the most part, the kids don’t care; it’s not an issue to them at all. And I think that that was really heartening for me as an adult and as a lesbian who grew up having to hide who she is. The next generation really embraces people and they’re so open. It doesn’t faze them.

Also on that topic, David Joo asked about casting Evie specifically, and what that meant to the story. 

JK: Once we casted Evie, we realized the show could be used to empower her and to tell her story. Kirsty and I are both cisgendered and were aware that it wasn’t our story to tell. However, we knew a 14-year-old girl can’t tell that story on her own so our job became giving her the tools and support she needed.

On the aforementioned backlash, many students, including Endy Cepeda asked about the negative response to the show. 

JK: We were preparing for the worst, but expecting the best. When the series aired here in Australia, one of the conservative newspapers who is very anti-trans… actually wrote a really positive review of the series. They called it “wholesome” which made me laugh because I never did anything wholesome before. Once it aired in the UK however it was slightly different. The backlash died down once people got to watch the show. They realized that it’s just a show about a girl. It’s not brainwashing and it’s not pushing a certain agenda.

Images courtesy First Day / Screen Australia