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Gender Bender

Stage star Jeffrey Carlson shakes up ABC's All My Children as transgendered rock star Zarf. logo
Jeffrey Carlson on All My Children
(© ABC Television)
It's among the darkest days in the more than 35-year-history of ABC's daytime drama All My Children. Twin coffins lie in the rain -- the two latest female victims of the town serial killer, the Satin Slayer -- as the characters file past, some crying softly, others murmuring tortured goodbyes. In a back row, a muscular man in a chic black dress, spiky but tasteful black boots, and blond hair tied back in a Grace Kelly-type chignon stands with proud bearing and sings "You Lift Me Up" a cappella in a tearful baritone. That man is Jeffrey Carlson.

Yes, this is the same Jeffrey Carlson who has starred on Broadway in The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and Taboo; Off-Broadway in Bach at Leipzig and Last Easter; and in such acclaimed regional productions as Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Lorenzaccio. And his is no one-day guest spot. Four months ago, Carlson joined the soap as Zarf, a flamboyant transgender rock star also known as Zoe, whose extravagant female attire, weepy suffering, and startlingly crisp British diction have created enormous buzz among soap fans.

Indeed, he is so much a part of the soap world that he'll participate in ABC Daytime Salutes Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a popular benefit to be held on Sunday, February 25 at The Town Hall. He'll be in good company, alongside such popular soap stars as Susan Lucci, Kathy Brier, Jacob Young, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Robin Strasser, all of whom have also starred on Broadway. "I don't know yet if I'm going to sing a Jeffrey kind of song or a Zarf kind of song," he says when we speak.

The Long Beach, California-born actor, who has worked practically non-stop on stage since his graduation from Juilliard six years ago, says he couldn't play this demanding role without his stage experience and school training, all of which has prepared him to play the constant emotional currents that run rampant everyday among characters in the soap opera world. "You've got to make a lot of choices in soap opera acting, just like in stage acting," he says. "But because of the camera and the daily pace of the taping, you've got to learn to make them fast. And no matter what the situation is, you have to play it with total honesty; that's the real similarity between soap acting and acting on the stage."

Carlson first appeared on All My Children as Zarf last summer for what was originally intended to be a very brief stay. "I was only on for a day as a rock star, and it was a blast," he recalls. "Then, a few months later, they asked me to come in and told me they were expanding the character. When I heard Zarf's story, I was just so incredibly moved." With input from GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), the show's writers had decided not only to revive the character, but to extend his story by having him declare himself to the audience as a transgender person with the eventual goal of having a sex-change operation.

If that wasn't enough, upon moving to Pine Valley, Zarf immediately fell in love with one of the show's most popular characters: lesbian Bianca Montgomery (played by former Les Miz star Eden Riegel), the daughter of Pine Valley's number one resident, Erica Kane.

Zarf's eventual coming out to Bianca as a transgender female wasn't nearly as difficult as getting Pine Valley citizens to accept him as a female. But soap viewers, accustomed to AMC's longstanding commitment to provocative storylines, have been more welcoming. "I haven't had one negative letter from anyone in the audience," says Carlson.

The actor isn't giving up his commitment to the stage. From June 5 through July 29, he'll star in Washington D.C. in the title role of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Hamlet, part of a capital city-wide Shakespeare Festival that is being staged by local companies during the first half of this year. But right now, Carlson is totally focused on doing justice to Zarf/Zoe.

"I've actually come to know a lot of people in the transgender community well because of this," he says. "They have determination and they have such heart. It's become very, very important to me to tell their story accurately."

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