Growing up, Heath V. Salazar fell in love with how art allowed them to connect with their roots. The award-winning Latinx trans nonbinary actor cultivated that connection throughout their career while focusing on projects that center intersectional forms of queer and trans representation across all disciplines. To Heath, the arts are more than a platform for expression and connection — they’re a springboard for potent change.
Heath recently recurred on HBO Max’s critically acclaimed series Sort Of as Arrow, and I had the privilege of chatting with them about their role, what fans can expect for Season 2, what they learned from Arrow and more.
This interview is condensed for length and clarity.
Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s your origin story? How did you get into this industry?
Heath V. Salazar: I studied musical theater at Randolph College for the Performing Arts, a musical theater program in Toronto. My family’s Latinx, so art is very tied to our culture. My parents taught art to me in a way that was independent of capitalism. Not even on purpose, but in a way where they were like, “This is a part of life. This is a part of what makes us people; it’s part of how we learn about each other.”
I fell in love with how it allowed for connection intergenerationally, how it allowed me to connect with my roots that are in an entirely different culture, in a different country, and allowed me to feel like I was home.
Once I started working within the industry, I didn’t know or understand my transness. I was annoyed at having to either play female roles that weren’t multifaceted and whose only purpose was living for my husband. So, I was like, “I’m going to start auditioning for male roles because they’re more interesting right now until I find things and writers I’m excited by.”
The more I started learning and understanding my gender, I was like, “Oh, we could work across the gender spectrum and base it on the interest in the character and storytelling.”
MM: Let’s talk about Sort Of. Can you tell me what it’s about?
HVS: Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo are the show creators. The show follows a nonbinary character who’s South Asian and genderfluid called Sabi Mehboob. It follows their different relationships and the different aspects of their life. Something beautiful about Sort Of is that it has different characters of different experiences and generations and shows their perspective in a way that’s not through the main character’s lens. You get to hop into everyone’s brains.
When I watched Season 1, it was part of what made me fall in love with the show. Not only was I seeing the different people I interact with in my life and my communities, but it was like getting to see them in private.
So, the first season introduced us to those characters and the situations they were navigating. Season 2 is expanding on it. I’m coming in as Arrow, which I’m giddy about. It’s fun to be a fan girl of a show and then to get to join it.
MM: Oh, I imagine. That sounds like so much fun. How does Arrow fit into Season 2? Can you talk about your character?
HVS: Arrow is involved with 7ven, Sabi’s best friend, played by Amanda Cordner. Often when I read for nonbinary and trans characters, depending on how they’re written, people think nonbinary, and they think of plain clothing and boxy silhouettes. There’s no spice.
The cool thing about these creators is they recognize the difference in identities that exist within genderfluid and nonbinary characters. So, they’re an incredibly colorful character. They’re a character that’s wonderful and exciting but also flawed. Quite often, when we have nonbinary and trans characters, it’s similar to what happened in the ’90s when gay characters started to be integrated into sitcoms. For example, they were the friend that was usually alone or funny, but they weren’t always fallible. As nonbinary and trans people, we are flawed, and we mess up, and we are also lovable.
The thing about Arrow is they’re like this ripple effect that comes into these people’s worlds. That energy is exciting to see, mainly how it affects pre-established relationships. They’re incredibly colorful and fiery. The first time I read the audition, I was like, “Oh, wow, I haven’t seen a character like this on television.” This is a testament to our writers because they create these incredibly fleshed characters.
MM: Describe Season 2 using three words.
HVS: Love. Family. Discovery.
MM: What can audiences expect when watching this season?
HVS: The season has been described as the “season of love.” It also asks the question, “What is love?” When it comes to family dynamics — for example, a modern family — what is that? When we say love, we think of romance. But what is love in the way it works between siblings, best friends, and the people in our lives that are basically family? We talk a lot about chosen families in queer circles. It’s the people who stand by you. It’s the people you trust. It’s the people who carry you when you’re at your lowest. The people who celebrate you when you’re at your best.
When we think of love as an action, what are the ways family and love tie into each other? How can we become our best selves around other people? When it comes to Season 2, I think we can expect to sit with the characters in a new way. A lot of these characters are people that audiences have fallen in love with. This season gives more breadth in getting to know them while exploring the nuances that love and families bring into our lives.
MM: Your career objective is to center intersectional forms of queer and trans rep across all disciplines. Can you expand on how this role accomplishes that?
HVS: It’s something I’ve been passionate about from early on in my career. I started when transness wasn’t a topic of conversation like it is now. When the importance of diversity implementation was coming into play. There are all these technical terms, but at the end of the day, I’m like, “These are people who exist in the world. I want to see them on television. I want to celebrate them.”
It’s about genuine representation. Getting to see ourselves in the possibilities that are in the world for us. Also, for our loved ones to understand the options of joy life offers. [Our] movies have been largely tied to suffering and struggling. Yes, these can be elements of our lives. But if they’re going to be told, I encourage the telling of the stories by people with that lived experience. It’s the best way to influence nuance and genuine storytelling within it rather than the idea of a person.
There are a lot of beautiful aspects of this community. The experience I’ve felt, this joy and euphoria, is exciting. I think people should know that’s an option through watching media. This role (Arrow) shows not only is joy possible but the messiness that’s possible. I love some good mess. When we talk about representation and nuance and all this stuff, I’m like, “Are we representing ideas of people and of lives and experiences, or are we showing genuinely wholehearted, multifaceted people on the screen?” When I look at the work these writers have done, they’ve made space for nuance but also space for humanity. And humanity is messy.
I know my body, physically, as a trans nonbinary person who has transitioned in a way where I don’t desire to be perceived as cis. It’s not a goal of mine. For some people, it is, and I think that’s great. I feel thankful for a team who’s genuinely unfazed by that in me. They were like, “Yeah, you can adjust this to fit,” for Arrow to exist in a way that is in harmony with how I, Heath, present as a person.
It’s not a matter of presenting a character that’s like, “Oh, they’re in transition getting to this other place,” or anything like that. It’s them existing in the world. This is them being messy, happy, all these different things. When the team spoke to me about that, I genuinely cried. I was like, “Oh, I don’t have to be edited.” I exist in the world but not on television. Now, I exist on television. That’s really meaningful.
MM: What do you hope viewers take away from Sort Of?
HVS: I hope viewers permit themselves to extend compassion to themselves as they readily extend it to others. As people, we’re ready to love, celebrate and forgive people around us, but we seldom extend those things to ourselves. Sort Of does a beautiful job of allowing us to fall in love with characters who teach us about experiences outside our own. Seeing characters like that, we realize humans are learning, growing and stumbling in genuine ways. We get to love ourselves in the way we love these characters.
Something Bilal has been talking about that has stuck with me has been that transition is this universal experience. It’s not necessarily something exclusive to trans people. Yes, transness is a term that describes something specific. But all of us experience transition, whether we’re moving cities, changing friend groups or careers. Whether we as people are messing up in life and having to learn. That’s transition. I hope audiences embrace the idea of transition within their lives.
You always hear, “Oh, I’m bettering myself and trying to learn about myself,” which is fantastic. But you’re always going to be changing and growing. You, as a person right now, are already wonderful. In this moment, you’re already great, lovable, worth celebrating and worthy of the love you’re working toward.
I’m really flawed, but I will also be flawed 10 years from now. I hope people embrace that. Embrace that we’re beautiful throughout our transition as people in life.
MM: You’re going to make me cry. I needed to hear that. Thank you.
HVS: Honestly, learning from these creators on this team and how they approach storytelling has taught me so much about being a person in the world. I greatly respect the development team, creative team and our creators, Bilal and Fab.
MM: Do you share any similarities with Arrow?
HVS: We are different in terms of our relationship with being extroverted. Arrow is incredibly extroverted. I’m introverted and shy. Part of what excited me about them is they jump in and sparkle in scenarios where I would hermit really hard. They’re someone that’s like, “That’s a pool? Awesome. I’m already in the water; I don’t need floaties; let’s go.” They’re unabashed in their embrace of joy and new experiences. I’m like, “What’s the plan? How’s it going to work?” I need to know the steps. Whereas Arrow’s like, “I don’t know the steps. We’re going to make them up.” That enthusiasm for life is something I’ve learned from playing this character.
The thing we have in common is we both love people in a similar way. We both love quickly, but in a way that’s genuine. My friends always laugh because I tell people I love them within five minutes of meeting them. Life is short. I feel fortunate to have had experiences showing me that people are genuinely good. That is something I carry every day when I meet new people.
MM: What else is on the horizon for you, career-wise?
HVS: I’m in a basement writing a show. It’s funny. I’m an artist in residence at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the world’s largest and longest-running queer theater. Here in Toronto, it operates as a theater, club and community hub. It holds so much history. I’ve been in residency in my fourth year, and I’m developing a musical.
I’m developing it with my collaborator, Katelyn Molgard, who is in the band, Bad Waitress. This spring of next year, I’m going to be in a production called The Ladder with Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg.
Apart from that, I’m auditioning and connecting with queer writers and developers. There’s incredible work happening in our industry right now. A lot of new voices and new ideas and approaches to storytelling, which I find exciting.
MM: Have you watched anything interesting lately?
HVS: Nailed It! I thought it was fabulous. I watch it while I get into drag. The pressure of it all makes me rush to get ready. I re-watched Queens recently, which is on CBC Gem. Call Me Mother, which is a drag competition show. And it has a bunch of local drag performers from Toronto in it.
MM: Name your top five favorite films.
MM: Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Heath! I look forward to seeing what the future holds for you.
HVS: Thank you, Melody!