How ‘Spider-Man’ star Zach Barack shed his own secret identity

Nicole Blackwood
Chicago Tribune

Chicago – –

If you haven’t been living under a particularly obtrusive boulder for the last two decades, you know Spider-Man’s story by heart.

The Marvel Studios franchise has seen three separate actors in the titular role since 2002 (four if you count the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse”), and even as special effects makes leaps, the basic puzzle pieces remain the same. Say it with me: teenage nerd Peter Parker turns web-slinging hero, juggles pop quizzes and a secret identity, learns the definitive correlation between great power and great responsibility. There’s a timeless divide in Peter’s life, one he tries to straddle but can never quite breach: what the world thinks he is and what he knows himself to be.

It’s an old story. And according to actor Zach Barack, it’s a uniquely transgender one, if on the level of incidental metaphor. Barack, who stars in Peter Parker’s latest adventure, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” will be the first openly trans actor featured in a Marvel film – his character, also named Zach, is a classmate of Peter Parker’s. An Evanston, Illinois, native, 23-year-old Barack saw himself in Peter’s story long before he was cast: he grew up with a secret that he feared might be hurtful, to himself or to those around him.

After he graduated high school, Barack split his time between working at a queer youth organization in Washington, D.C., and a cookie store. No one knew or discussed his trans identity at the store, but it was all he talked about at the organization – a double life not unlike Peter Parker’s, albeit one with less earth-shattering stakes.

“The story of having an identity that is hidden, or difficult to pick apart, goes hand-in-hand with a lot of superhero stories,” Barack said. “There were moments throughout my whole life where I thought: I have to be a kid, but there’s this other side of myself that everybody else doesn’t know about. Do I share it with them or do I not?”

It’s not uncommon for comic book movies to be recognizable analogs to queer experience — the X-Men come to mind (Barack cited a scene in “X2: X-Men United” in which Iceman’s parents ask their son, “Have you tried not being a mutant?”). But this is one of the first times metaphor has taken tangible form.

According to Chicago therapist Casey Tanner, who specializes in working with LGBTQ individuals, tangibility could make all the difference. Her hope is that the children watching the film, especially those struggling with their gender identity, will see Barack onscreen and realize that their narrative doesn’t need to match Peter’s confusion and strife.

“We know from research that the No. 1 factor influencing outcomes for trans youth is support from other people,” Tanner said. Though a mainstream film reaches millions, Tanner said that representation might still feel personal, as “it’s one thing to see another trans person out on the street or in your community and a whole other thing to see a larger culture celebrating a trans person by casting them in a film.”

Chicago trans and genderqueer actor Lars Ebsworth said that this celebration is particularly important to bring to young people, as Ebsworth said that “every single child I’ve talked to about gender identity gets it right away.” If you introduce inclusivity in a major motion picture, Ebsworth said, a child absorbs the lesson without an adult’s tendency to question what they’ve seen. And because the “Spider-Man” franchise has been such a prevalent part of the 21st century, Chicago casting director Catherine Miller, who advocates for inclusive casting, said that Barack’s role is monumental; everyone recognizes the franchise, and many have an emotional stake in it.

And in a moment when tension over cisgender actors playing transgender roles runs high, Barack’s casting is particularly significant. His coming out as trans coincided with his decision to pursue acting professionally, and at first, the two seemed incompatible.

“I used to have three specific thoughts,” Barack said. “I’m really short, and girls don’t date short guys. I have to tell my parents, and my mom really wanted a daughter when I was a kid. And then my third thought was: I don’t know if I’m going to get any jobs.” One of the only trans individuals he’d seen in the media was Laverne Cox in “Orange is the New Black,” and to be transmasculine in a film marketed to youth, one that didn’t end in tragedy, was almost unheard of. Enter a last-minute audition for “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” and the rest is history in the making.

Gavin D. Pak, a nonbinary actor-writer working in Chicago, said that when opportunities like Barack’s roll around to the trans community, it alters the playing field for everyone, as it “signals to an audience member, actor or otherwise, that a space has been carved out for you as well.” Agender Chicago actor Kelsey McGrath concurred, saying that “so often, it’s folks that we see onscreen in front of us that inspire us to do what we do.” After all, Ebsworth noted that actors, like studios, must be practical – a career has to be financially feasible, and a film has to make money. Once performers see that mainstream representation is possible, and once studios see that it doesn’t hurt their bottom line, everyone benefits.

Still, not everyone agrees on what that representation should look like. Barack’s character in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is not identified as either trans or cisgender, and according to Barack, identity is up for interpretation. Though some argue that this lack of specificity is less-than-ideal representation – trans Chicago actor Delia Kropp said that she would have preferred Barack’s character be explicitly transgender – Barack believes that there’s an inherent value in playing a student whose biggest problem is not their gender identity.

“How many times do you see a trans person on TV and it hasn’t been discussed? We don’t know, because it’s almost always discussed,” Barack said. “There’s power in a character existing in a universe where there are bigger things going on — there are monsters and superheroes. The hope is that for a trans person, the thing that is their biggest issue is the same issue others have: the monster you’re all going up against, not people who want to hurt you or don’t want you to have rights.” He laughed. “I mean, I get that the monster’s not ideal.”

But let Spider-Man face that monster head-on, and let Peter Parker worry about his pressing secret. Barack is, for once, simply along for the ride.