Everything you need to know about Ash Palmisciano, the trailblazing trans actor making waves in Emmerdale

Hilary Mitchell
·4-min read

Lately, partially fuelled by the phenomenal success that was Russell T Davies’ groundbreaking ’80s-set queer drama It’s A Sin, debate has been raging about the issue of straight actors playing gay characters.

Russell T Davies specifically chose to only cast gay actors, and has been outspoken about the fact that he believes non LGBT+ actors should never, ever play LGBT+ roles.

He said: “I’m not being woke about this… but I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint… they are not there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for a performance.

“It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020.”

He added: “You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t Black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”

Matty Barton and Cain Dingle
Matty Barton and Cain Dingle in a recent episode of Emmerdale (ITV)

In light of this very timely pushback, it’s very refreshing to see soaps doing things right, ie, actually casting a trans actor to play a trans character, as Emmerdale did in 2018 when they hired Ash Palmisciano to play Matty Barton, a marked departure from rival soap Coronation Street‘s decision to hire a cisgender actress to play trans character Hayley Cropper in 1998.

Ash Palmisciano took over the role of Matty Barton – formerly Hannah – from Grace Cassidy, who portrayed the character from 2009-2012. When Matty returned to the village, the character was described as having transitioned in his years away from home.

Palmisciano was thrilled to be offered the role, saying: “I’m very excited to be joining the very welcoming Emmerdale family. From nervous auditions to now working alongside the team daily has been truly amazing. Matty’s a groundbreaking character to play and I can’t wait to see what’s ahead for him.”

He appeared on an episode of Lorraine in 2018 and discussed his casting with everyone’s favourite breakfast host, saying: “It is crazy. There’s an amazing charity called All About Trans. They work with positive representations in the media of trans people.

“They said to me, ‘We’re doing an interaction with Emmerdale, they’re thinking of doing this storyline, they’re looking for some advice on positive reps.’ They said, ‘Do you want to come?’ And I said, ‘Sure, cheeky day out.’

“I went along and the next thing they said, ‘Do you want to audition?’ Being an actor I said ‘of course!’ And here I am.”

The show hasn’t shied away from tackling issues related to Matty’s identity as a trans man. For example, in April 2019, viewers saw Matty have top surgery, although Palmisciano has also stressed how important it is that the character is also shown as a “regular guy”. In a 2020 interview with the Metro, he said:

“Showing a positive representation of someone who happens to be trans helps normalise what it is to be transgender and makes it less scary and more acceptable in our everyday society.

“Having a trans actor play a trans role not only gives a real authenticity to the part, but also we still don’t know that much about being transgender so its crucial we get the representation correct and change old fashioned images of what that might be. It also shows others trans people that they can grow up, have careers and a normal life like everyone else.”

In January 2020, he also presented an excellent, moving and hilarious TED talk about his experiences of being a transgender actor, titled Why Your Truth Is Your Superpower, where he speaks about the issues he faced when he was younger, including the discomfort he felt having to use female changing rooms at the age of eight and being given pink napkins with his packed lunch. He described feeling like his body was a “bit of a prank” played on him by the universe.

Before Emmerdale, Ash Palmisciano previously wrote and narrated a short film called The Lady That Dances, which was shown on Channel 4 in 2018 as part of their Random Acts programme.

He also had some more unusual jobs, telling Lorraine: “I’ve worked as a peasant before.

“I wore tights and peasant boots every day, that was my job before Emmerdale!”

Ash Palmisciano has also worked for the Royal Shakespeare Society and was the first transgender actor to appear on the RSC stage. Other credits include Summer In London at Theatre Royal, Stratford East and Boy Meets Girl for the BBC.

The trailblazing actor also has his own YouTube channel where he posts short poetry videos and gives advice to his followers. You can subscribe here.