In a recent interview, Matrix series co-director Lilly Wachowski confirmed what has been a rumor for quite a while — the Matrix films always contained a transgender element, and were even supposed to feature a trans character.
It’s been over two decades since The Matrix was released, and it’s made a lasting impact on pop culture. Not always in good ways, either; the whole “red pill” metaphor beloved of the misogynist online “men’s rights” community wouldn’t exist without Laurence Fishburne’s portentous speech at a crucial moment in the first Matrix film.
Of course, in light of all that, it’s rather ironic that directors Lilly and Lana Wachowski turned out to be transgender women. They weren’t out at the time of The Matrix‘s release (Lana came out in 2010, Lilly in 2016) but as Lilly recently revealed in an interview for Netflix, there were transgender aspects of the film’s concept, from day one. Even if she and her sister didn’t think of it that way at the time.
“I don’t know how present my transness was in the background of my brain as we were writing it,” Lilly Wachowski told Netflix. “The Matrix stuff was all about a desire for transformation, but it was all coming from a closeted point of view.”
And of course, you didn’t see the transgender aspects of The Matrix on the screen in 1999 unless you were really looking hard for them. But that wasn’t the Wachowskis’ plan. The film was even intended to include a trans character.
“We had the character of Switch, who was a character who would be a man in the real world and a woman in the Matrix. That’s where both of our headspaces were,” Lilly said with a laugh in the Netflix interview. Of course, the character, eventually played by Belinda McClory, was more of an androgynous woman in the finished film, and there was no hint of transgender identity in the final version of the film.
“I’m glad that it has gotten out that that was the original intention, but the world wasn’t quite ready,” said Lilly of the cultural environment The Matrix was released into in 1999. “At a corporate level, the corporate world wasn’t ready for it.”
For Lilly and Lana Wachowski, their experiences as closeted trans and queer women were big influences on the sorts of work they created as filmmakers, as Lilly explains in the Netflix interview. “For me and Lana, we were existing in a space where the words didn’t exist. We were always living in a world of imagination,” she said. “That’s why I gravitated toward sci-fi and fantasy and played Dungeons and Dragons. It was all about creating worlds. It freed us up as filmmakers because we were able to imagine stuff at that time that you didn’t necessarily see onscreen.”
Digging into ideas that you don’t usually encounter onscreen has been a hallmark of the Wachowskis’ film work throughout their career. While the Matrix series has been their most successful work, they’ve been responsible for several other memorable filmic creations, including the sex-infused noir film Bound, the sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas, and the bonkers futuristic action-sports-comedy film Speed Racer. Both Speed Racer and 2012 space opera Jupiter Ascending were considered flops at the time of their release, but have since gone on to garner significant cult followings — always a sign that you’re doing something right, even if the mainstream of America isn’t exactly picking up on it at the time.
Ultimately, Lilly credits the perspective afforded her and her sister by their transgender experiences as a big influence on the Wachowskis’ tendencies to incorporate multiple film genres in their work.
“One of our things that we really enjoyed doing was genre-bending, where you would have stuff that felt like kung fu movies and anime and westerns,” Lilly said. “I think in our transness and queerness, we were always trying to incorporate as many things as possible. Trying to visualise within a much larger, infinite scope of the imagination.”
For the Wachowskis, both of whom struggled for years with their trans identities, it’s gratifying to hear that The Matrix films have reached transgender people in the manner the two of them originally intended, even if no overt trans content ever made it to the screen.
“I love how meaningful those films are to trans people and the way they come up to me and say these movies saved my life,” Lilly told Netflix. “Because when you talk about transformation, specifically in the world of science fiction, which is just about imagination and worldbuilding and the idea of the seemingly impossible becoming possible, that’s why it speaks to them so much. And I’m grateful that I can be a part of throwing them a rope to help them along their journey.”
Watch the full interview on YouTube below:
Images via The Matrix/Warner Bros