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Photo by: Ben Laird Photography

Ari Rombough Takes To Stage And Screen As They Transition Openly

The Calgary-based actor recently landed a guest role in The Last of Us as they continue a nearly 20-year career in the performing arts…

By Tim Ford

Ari Rombough has been acting since they were 21. For 15 years, they took to the stage in female-presenting roles. Then, in 2021, they came out as trans masculine, began taking testosterone, and underwent top surgery. They worried their acting career might change, but with a friendship with singer-songwriter and actor Jann Arden through the show Jann, along with support from friends and family, and a guest spot as “Joyce” in HBO’s smash hit The Last of Us, they’re in their prime. 

We sat down with Ari to talk about what it’s been like transitioning in the public eye as an actor, and how the industry is evolving with publicly out trans and non-binary actors like Bella Ramsey and Elliot Page.

When did you – and how did you – get into acting? 
My dad was a theatre technician. He was always really interested in introducing me to influential films that he wanted me to see, taking me to the theatre to watch things, bringing me backstage. The first play I ever saw was Peter Pan at the Shaw Festival, because that’s where my dad was working when I was four or five, and then I ended up playing Wendy in Peter Pan as one of my very first professional gigs, at Alberta Theatre Projects.

What year was that?
It would have been 2005. I was about 21. I wished I was playing Peter. And I was playing Wendy. I put on all of the gendered things that I knew that would trigger someone into thinking this was a good performance, in the way I spoke and how I carried myself. I leaned into the really apparent femininity of Wendy, because she feels very strongly about gendered roles. It was just another part of the gender performance I was basically doing in life and on stage. Getting the role solidified for me that I was going to have to lean really heavily into my femininity in order to work.

When you were getting going in acting after this first big role, was there was an element that you were adopting a persona and physicality that would lead to you getting cast?
Oh yeah. I was essentially told in school and throughout the casting process, as I was a young person: ‘You have to stay in your lane.’ Embrace these hyper feminine, ingenue, vulnerable woman, femme fatale, dead sex worker, whatever, and you’ll do great. In fact, most actors would say, ‘I want to play totally outside of myself.’ That’s what’s fun. But at the same time, I constantly got told to just accept that I was small, that I was petite, that I had a certain look to me, that my voice range was in a certain place, and that if I tried to work outside of that, I just probably wouldn’t get cast.

A big breakthrough was Jann. This was 2019 to 2021, and you were going through your own changes at the same time. What was it like working on that show?
Ultimately, getting that has totally changed my life. I met Jann [Arden], and we became really good friends, which, like…who thinks they’re gonna go on a comedy show, and meet a pop star, and then end up friends? My friendships have shifted in the last couple of years, and it was like she just came right in, in a way that really fulfilled a void that was missing for me, like not having a best friend.

Photo by: Ben Laird Photography

You’ve come out now as trans masc. And you mentioned, just now, evolving friendships. What has it been like going through this process, still ongoing, and seeing where the shifts have occurred – personally, but also professionally?
When I started taking testosterone in 2021 and putting myself on the waitlist for top surgery, I really didn’t know how far I was gonna go with my transition. I hate to admit this, but I do think that the industry itself still impacts how much testosterone I want to take at a time. If I did lots of testosterone injections, plus my surgery, grew a beard, and passed as a cis man, they’d be like, ‘great,’ but because I don’t look like that, they don’t see me as a trans character yet, even though I am, and so I’m still auditioning for a lot of women. That confines me in terms of what I feel I can do with my transition.

With The Last of Us in particular, was this an exception to what you just said about being a binary kind of split?
Joyce is a woman. Joyce is a mother. And Joyce is also part of a fundamentalist Christian cult. So, no, I’m not playing a trans character. What is interesting is that when I cut my hair all off, I thought: ‘Well, that’s it. I’m not gonna book any more of the vulnerable women parts that I had before.’ Literally three months later, and I’m working on the show. I don’t know if cutting my hair helped or not, but it was interesting that I had this fear for like 16 years about cutting my hair, and then I cut it, and then I book one of the biggest shows on the planet. 

Bella Ramsey, who just came out as gender fluid, has been hugely supportive of me since working with them, so I’m very, very grateful.

Was there anything unique about The Last of Us’s production compared to other shows you’ve worked?
This is not to call out HBO, The Last of Us, or anybody in particular: we don’t think about bathrooms. I was very lucky because being that this was such a small cast, I was so high on the call sheet that I had my own trailer and I had my own bathroom. But it did mean that I always had to travel back to my trailer in order to use a genderless washroom. I pointed that out to [the production team] and they were super grateful and said, ‘This is something I am going to take from this point forward and consider.’ 

I got a really great message from a mother of a background performer on The Last of Us who told me that her son is transgender, and looked me up after seeing me in the scenes and found out I was trans, and that really changed for him his ability to see a future for himself. I couldn’t believe it.

How has public reaction to Bella Ramsey’s coming out affected you? Do you see a shift happening where there is a little bit more acceptance, but also, that element of inspiration?
Someone like Bella, after we left that set, could have given two fucks about me, but they chose to take an extra step to show me additional support. I think what that shows is how important solidarity is as a community. When someone does publicly acknowledge who they are, it does have deep impacts on people they may never meet and who you may never know you’ve affected, and those things are all really magical.

Ari Rombough played Joyce in Episode 8 of the first season of The Last of Us, entitled “When We Are In Need,” which originally aired on HBO on March 5, 2023. They will also be playing a guest role in the upcoming Netflix series My Life With the Walter Boys.

TIM FORD is a writer and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. He has previously written for publications such as CBC News, the Toronto StarPolygon and Beatroute Magazine. You can find him on Mastodon Canada @TimFordWrites.

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    Alyson / 09 March 2023

    Love this article. How can I get in touch with Tim?

    Taylor / 06 March 2023

    Fantastic article! Ari is wonderful. Just a quick correction, Bella identifies as non-binary, rather than trans.


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