NBC’s new family drama Council of Dads, based on the best-selling 2010 memoir by Bruce Feiler, is a new drama in which family takes on a different meaning. When a loving father of five has his entire life’s plan thrown into upheaval by an unexpected cancer diagnosis, he calls on a few of his most trusted friends to step in as back-up dads to help guide and support his growing family – in case he ever can’t be there to do it himself. Together, they discover that there’s more to being a father than anyone could do alone – and more to being a family than they ever thought possible.
One of the kids is JJ, an 7-year-old transgender boy, played by talented young actor Blue Chapman, who is also trans. JJ is a charming, happy kid who is affirmed and accepted by his family. In the opening scene of the pilot, which premiered March 24 after This is Us, JJ is working up the courage to use the family’s rope swing to jump into a lake.
At the end of the pilot, the family is preparing for their dad’s funeral and JJ’s grandmother puts him in a dress saying “I just thought it’ll make everything easier today.” JJ’s family, including the council of dads, make it clear that even though he was assigned female at birth, JJ is a boy and they will not allow anyone to misgender him — even his own grandmother. As JJ’s mom takes him to put on his real clothes, one of the dads says, “I don’t think he decided to be a boy. I think he just is a boy. That’s how Scott explained it to me. And I think we should be thinking about what Scott would want today. We all should, you know, let JJ be JJ.”
Council of Dads is created by Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, who also produced the CBS series Doubt which featured Laverne Cox as a powerhouse defense attorney. For Council of Dads, Phelan and Rater drew on elements from their own family to create JJ and some of the other characters on the show. Their son Tom Phelan is an actor and a transgender man who has appeared on The Fosters and in several off-Broadway plays. In speaking about changes they made when adapting the memoir, including adding a transgender kid, they said “Joan and I have a transgender son and decided early on that telling JJ’s story would be a vital part of the story of Council of Dads. We’re committed to showing something you rarely see on network TV – a family loving their transgender kid. Blue was the first actor we saw for the role of JJ, and as soon as he walked in and started reading, we immediately fell in love with him. He’s a wonderful young actor and we’re so lucky to have him as a part of Council of Dads. Blue, his mom Jenn, and his entire family have been wonderful partners in bringing the character of JJ to life.”
We caught up with Blue Chapman and his parents, Jenn and Jay, to talk about their experience being a part of Council of Dads.
GLAAD: Jenn and Jay, you’ve provided the answers here, in collaboration with Blue. Thanks for chatting with us!
CHAPMANS: (Jenn) It is OUR pleasure to talk. Blue, Jay and I along with our other kids Ella, who is 16, and Kaiden, who is 14, are big supporters of GLAAD and feel so lucky to have been welcomed into this progressive and educational organization that advocates for families like ours.
(Jay) What we feel most appreciative about in talking with you is that Blue is able to tell his own story from the beginning.
GLAAD: JJ is a transgender character, and it was important to the show’s creators that they cast the role authentically. Blue was assigned female at birth, how old was he when he was able to tell you that he’s really a boy?
CHAPMANS: (Jenn) I think Blue knew right off that even though he was assigned female at birth, he wasn’t a girl. In kindergarten, outward appearances, such as clothing and hairstyle, are the ways most kids know if you are a boy or girl. Blue, who was still presenting as a girl when he started school, told me that all the girls in his class were wearing pretty dresses and that maybe he would like to try one on. Having had a style all his own since he could reach the drawers to take out his own clothing (his go-to outfit for a long time was a spider-man swim shirt and a hot pink tutu), dresses were not something in his repertoire any longer. Blue and I picked out a dress, he took a deep breath and pulled it over his head. With his little hightop sneakers on and his soft curly hair, he looked at me and burst into tears. He just started repeating “take it off, take it off!” I whipped off that dress as fast I could and hugged him until he stopped crying. Once he calmed down, I explained that all Dad and I wanted was for him to be himself. That he didn’t need to be like anyone else, he was his own person and whoever that person was, we loved and cherished him and would always support him.
(Jay) In first grade, Blue came home and just said to me, “I used the boys’ bathroom today.” My response was, “Awesome, let us tell the principal and your teacher so you can use it every day.” It was such a factual and easy statement for him to make. His confidence in himself showed Jenn and I that our responsibility as his parents was to follow his lead and to make sure he had all the support he deserves.
GLAAD: Blue’s in third grade now. Has he been accepted by the other kids at his school?
CHAPMANS: (Jay) With open arms and admiration by his friends, his classmates, his teachers and the administration. Blue started his social transition in first grade. After he began to use the boys bathroom, he requested that we use the pronouns he/him and we slowly started to adapt his name from his given name, to an abbreviation of that name, to finally landing on using his given middle name, Blue, as his first name. Each step of the way that Blue led us on, we would check in with his teacher to ensure that the transition at school was going smoothly for him, and also those around him. The teacher’s most encouraging words to us were that Blue was educating her in such a special and different way about what it is to truly be a teacher and how lucky he was to have us as parents. But we always replied back, “It is us who are lucky to have him as our kid.”
(Jenn) What really cemented the deal for me that Blue was accepted at school happened when I was helping in his classroom one afternoon. When learning to use a new pronoun for your kid, sometimes a loved one will flub up and use the incorrect pronoun. I did this while assisting with a holiday craft project in a small group. Blue’s friend with great gusto said, “Blue is a he!” I thanked Blue’s classmate for speaking up, ensuring that Blue was respected, and I promised I would do better (and of course I don’t mess up pronouns anymore).
GLAAD: Is this Blue’s first acting job?
CHAPMANS: (Jay) Blue has done a short film, a few guest star roles, and a national commercial but this is his first series regular role. What a whirlwind it has been to learn the business in a heartbeat. It is apparent we have so much more to learn but we are so thankful we have been given the opportunity to do so because Blue LOVES acting.
(Jenn) I will watch him work and wonder to myself about how the heck does he know how to do this? Then I remember that filming a show is like playing a big game of make believe, especially for an 8-year-old. Blue has always been really good at that activity.
GLAAD: When Blue auditioned for Council of Dads, how did you feel when you found out that the show’s creators also had a son who is transgender?
CHAPMANS: (Jenn) I want to begin with how I felt about reading the pilot. Our agent came to us and said that she had a pilot script that she wanted us to read. If we thought this was a project, as a family, that would be good for Blue to audition for then she would get the ball rolling. I sat by myself in the family room, read the script and cried and cried and cried. Not because I felt sad but because the story and writing was so beautiful, gentle, real, and uplifting. How refreshing it was to see a trans kid loved and supported by his family like we love and support Blue. But I will admit that I was worried if that tone would continue for the whole series. My other motherly concern was, I knew this role HAD to be cast authentically and I didn’t know what would unfold in Blue’s life being in the public eye as a trans boy at such a young age. Now back to your question, finding out that Tony and Joan have a transgender son, put my heart and brain at ease. Not only would JJ be cast authentically, the writing would also be genuine and Joan and Tony could do that. To address my second uneasiness, knowing that the showrunners had been in the business a long time and had a trans kids older than ours, I felt like we weren’t alone in this experience. If we needed it, Joan and Tony could provide some guidance and share some of their own personal and professional experiences and that might help to guide us along our journey. They have been absolutely tremendous, encouraging, protective (when needed) and honest.
GLAAD: What was it like shooting in Savannah, Georgia?
CHAPMANS: (Blue) I miss Savannah, the cast and crew, the catering, our little cottage on the river and riding my scooter on the smooth cement of the production warehouse. I had so much fun filming and living in Savannah!
(Jenn) Savannah is a fantastic little town. It feels safe, accepting, and progressive. The food is scrumptious. The history of the city kept our interest at every square we passed. It was vibrant and young, and I attribute a lot of that to The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and its students. We felt an instant connection to Savannah and its people from the very start, we felt so welcomed. It was hard to leave but we are keeping our fingers crossed we get to go back. So watch Council of Dads, people, so that the Chapman Family can get back to Savannah and shoot another season!
GLAAD: What do you hope Council of Dads can help folks understand about raising a child who happens to be trans?
CHAPMANS: (Jenn) Something that I really appreciate about Council of Dads, is that this isn’t a story about a trans kid but about a family who happens to have a trans kid along with a daughter adopted from China, a bi-racial step child, an angsty teen and an “oops” baby. Robin is more than a wife who lost her husband, Anthony is more than a chef, Oliver is more than a gay man, and Larry is more than a recovering alcoholic, and being trans is not the only thing that defines JJ. If being trans comes into play in the Perry family’s everyday life, they will address it, celebrate it, adapt to it, but it won’t be brought up where it doesn’t naturally fit. That is the truth for our family too. There are so many different situations, different characteristics of people to celebrate, decipher, develop, and navigate, that Blue being trans is only one item on the list of what makes our family who we are and makes Blue who he is. I think Council of Dads will showcase that well.
GLAAD: Thanks for talking to us!
The Council of Dads pilot will encore on NBC at 8:00pm ET on Thursday, April 30, followed by the all-new second episode at 9pm.