Tommy Dorfman Knows Exactly What Makes a Strong Ally

“Honestly,” Tommy Dorfman says, taking a beat to mentally survey the course of their work as an actor, “my career has been shaped by amazing women.”

They begin to list them: 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford, and Selena Gomez, and Alisha Boe, and Kate Walsh; and Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan and Jamie Denbro; and Danya Tamor, who is directing the play Daddy, in which they co-star; and Gina Rodriguez, and producers and directors from any number of their projects. Their manager is a woman, they note, as is one of their agents. “They tend to be the people that I trust most, I feel safest with, the most supported by,” they say.

They concede that a lot of women have likely learned to be tolerant and patient as a means of survival, noting that while “you have to be a badass to find success, you don’t want to fall into the trope of the B-word or whatever,” especially if you come from a marginalized group (Dorfman is non-binary and uses both they/them and he/him). That B-word label, they say, is not the case for the women they’ve worked with. More often than not, it’s the marker of someone who feels threatened by a woman in power and reacts accordingly.

“Women are way better at communicating and diffusing situations and keep everybody focused … I feel like some of the men I’ve worked with have wielded their talents and brilliance as a weapon as opposed to a life raft,” they add. It’s a fitting analogy for our conversation in a sunny restaurant overlooking the Hudson River. That life raft can often feel like hope, like a buoy that allows the kinds of acting risks Dorfman wants to take.

The actor grew up in Georgia, before studying theater at Fordham University in New York City; their big break was 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix original series that dealt with suicide and sexual assault through the lens of teenagers. Dorfman played Ryan Shaver, one of the few out kids at the show’s Liberty High School. For all of the show’s controversy, they’re grateful for the opportunity to talk about important subject matter, and for the crash-course in being part of something that got people talking overnight. They were with the show for two seasons, and when their character graduated from Liberty, so did they.

Now, they’re working off-Broadway, in Daddy, a play by Jeremy O. Harris; they co-star alongside Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet, and their real-life best friend, actress Hari Nef. “I was a little nervous to work together, just because we live together in L.A. and we spend so much time together,” Dorfman admits, “but it’s been great. I’m really surrounded by powerful, exciting women who are writers, and who are storytellers, and who devote their lives to trying to help the greater good, in whatever way possible.”

To that end, they say they’ve “always had female role models,” and offer up their 97-year-old grandmother, who gave birth to and raised 10 kids, as the first in a long line of heroes. “She called a lot of the shots and she still does,” they say. “I’m one of the few queer people in a very large family, and she’s always been so loving and caring and affirmative. I look up to her so much in how to value relationships and friendships and family and self-care and being an ally to marginalized groups.”

When it comes to uplifting and supporting women and femmes, they aim to be “a person that asks questions, a person who lends themself to be supportive in whatever ways that are needed, and advocate for people when it’s appropriate to do so and when called to do so, and knows when it’s not.” The point of being an ally to people isn’t about riding in on a white horse and saving the day; it’s about building together, and knowing when it’s time to let the other person shine on their own.

For Dorfman, that work is a year-round endeavor, and a trait they picked up from their activist grandmother. “I feel it in my blood and in my bones because of her, because of the way she shaped all of her children who then shaped us, who are now shaping the next generation,” they say. Because in many ways, the work is never done. And in many ways, Dorfman and the women in their life are just getting started.

Ella Cerón is MTV News’s Director of Social Impact. She lives in New York, but please don’t hold that against her.

Photos by Paola Kudacki