When Nava Mau first twirls onto the screen as Ana in HBO Max’s Genera+ion, she’s a vision in pink. Her character’s niece needs help with her makeup for a party, and Ana eagerly rushes over in a robe with her curls pinned up around her face. She cranks up Paulina Rubio’s 2000 hit “Y Yo Sigo Aqui,” before spinning her niece around and applying a tint to her lips. “Tonight we’re going to have a little kiki [chat] about toxic masculinity,” she jokes when gunshots from her nephew’s video game interrupt their fun.
It’s a perfect introduction to Ana—the cool tía, someone whose maternal instincts are complemented by her nonjudgmental attitude. She’s the kind of person you’d rush to for advice that you’d never ask of your mom. And though the core of the show’s drama lies in its teenage characters, Mau, 29, fills each scene she’s in with so much heart that it’s hard to ignore her.
Genera+ion, which premiered in March, revolves around a diverse ensemble cast of queer high school students and their family members in Orange County, California, as they navigate their identities in a conservative community. The show has inevitably drawn comparisons to HBO’s smash hit Euphoria, another teen drama filmed in California that explores sexuality, love, and drugs. But while the two shows grapple with many of the same subjects, they strike very different tones: Euphoria is dark and intense, while Genera+ion aims for humor. Viewers will come away with a picture of Gen Z that’s sometimes chaotic, often hilarious, and ultimately sincere.
The show marks Mau’s first major role, and it’s one she would’ve never heard about if she didn’t regularly check her Instagram DMs. The San Antonio–raised actress had been working toward her big break for years, twice moving out to L.A. between stints with her parents back home, where she would work part-time jobs that afforded her the flexibility to complete late-night indie productions with her friends.
Back in 2019, she had just accepted a job at a nonprofit in Los Angeles when a casting agent sent an Instagram message to gauge her interest in auditioning for the role of Ana. Early in the morning before her third day of work, she drove across the city, putting on her hair and makeup in the car, trying to become Ana, before driving straight back so she wouldn’t get fired.
This was the kind of role she couldn’t pass up. It was also the kind of role she couldn’t have even imagined existing growing up, when the only trans characters she saw on TV had bit parts or storylines that revolved around their pain. “As a trans woman in this conservative community, Ana is set up to face judgment and rejection on a daily basis,” Mau says. “But she chooses to meet that prospect with joy and generosity.”
Hollywood’s longstanding diversity issues are no secret, but trans representation in the entertainment industry is especially abysmal. A 2020 study from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that while 2019 saw an increased percentage of LGBTQ characters depicted in film, it was the third year in a row that there were no transgender characters in a major studio film. GLAAD has also found that in television since 2002, trans characters have often been cast as victims, villains, and sex workers, perpetuating a limited view of the trans experience.
“Oftentimes trans people have to sacrifice big pieces of their youth,” Mau says. “It can feel like you have to catch up to the rest of the world while simultaneously feeling like you’re just waiting and begging the rest of the world to catch up with you.”
Genera+ion was trying to do something different, and that’s what drew Mau in. Ana isn’t a stereotype, and this role isn’t about her trauma or even her transition. She’s a character who just happens to be trans, and that’s still a rarity on TV. To her niece, Greta, and Greta’s friends, Ana is a role model, a supportive, joyful character who’s there to guide them through the growing pains of understanding their identities with a tender, careful touch.
“Our most important goal with Ana, and with this show in general, was to avoid tropes of queer suffering,” says executive producer Ben Barnz, whose daughter is a co-creator of the show. “Her identity is an important part of who she is, but we never want to dramatize LGBTQ+ identities in our show; we just want to present people as they truly are.”
In May, Mau and I decided to bond over our shared interest in tarot by logging on to a virtual session with a reader in Barcelona. The reader, Maria, doesn’t know anything about either of us, and because it’s her first virtual reading, Mau isn’t quite sure what to expect. In the past, she sought out card readings when she needed guidance on her career or was unsure about the path she was pursuing. This time around, she says, she feels confident and fulfilled, something she’s been working toward for a long time.
It’s a strange way to get to know someone, but as Maria begins shuffling her deck and explaining the placement of the cards, we settle in, paying attention while she asks our ancestors for guidance on our lives and our futures. She starts with me before moving on to Mau, who nods her head as the reader hints at her passion for her career. “When you do what you love, it’s like you’re on fire,” she notes as Mau nods in agreement. “I see myself as very peaceful internally,” she tells me later. “But other people look at me and see fire and passion.”
Though it’s only the second time we’ve spoken, it’s easy to get that impression of her. While Mau’s goals range from writing and acting to producing and directing, creating art is her singular, all-consuming focus. Growing up in San Antonio, she acknowledges that she was always loud. She’d recruit her two siblings to take part in music videos or skits she was directing. “I wanted to be a pop star,” she says. “I would do lip-synch performances with me and my sisters singing to Selena or the Spice Girls for our family and friends. All I wanted to do was dream of other worlds and characters that I wanted to be.”
Her mother, a counselor and teacher, and her father, an accountant, encouraged Mau to apply to Health Careers High School, a magnet school for students interested in going into the medical field, while also nurturing her creative side by signing her up for community theater programs.
Acting was always a dream, but one that felt impossible to achieve. Not only had Mau never seen trans characters on a stage or screen, she also didn’t have a role model of a successful trans professional of any kind. “I never considered [acting] a potential profession for me because I didn’t see anybody in the media, anybody in leadership, in school, in my own family, who I could relate to or emulate with regard to my gender identity,” she says.
During her senior year of high school, she came out as gay. “People had been waiting for that,” she laughs. But the next year, thousands of miles away from home for the first time at Pomona College in Claremont, California, she felt safe enough to experiment. Surrounded by a small, thriving queer community on a progressive campus, she learned and grew, first identifying as genderqueer before coming out as a trans woman. “There was never any second ‘coming out’ conversation with my family,” she says. “At the end of the day, we’re held together by love and that’s enough for me.”
She took acting classes in the evenings, and wrote and performed in a student-run comedy program. Still, she couldn’t convince herself that acting was a viable option, so she stuck to jobs in the nonprofit world while pursuing her creative dreams on the side.
In 2019, she started production on Waking Hour, a short film she wrote, directed, and starred in. Over its thirteen-minute run time, Mau dives headfirst into the nuances of dating as a trans woman, as her character, Sofia, struggles to decide whether or not to go home with a man after a party. It’s a simple piece, but the emotions it brings up are honest and raw. The film was screened at twenty-one different festivals, including NewFest: The New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival. It was enough to prove to Mau that she could take herself seriously as an actor.
The following year, Mau landed a fellowship on the set of Disclosure, a Netflix documentary about trans representation in film and television. One of nine fellows selected from a competitive group of aspiring trans filmmakers, Mau worked in the grip and electric department. For the first time, she was on the set of a major production, surrounded by trans talent on both sides of the camera. “When stories about trans people are created by trans people, it opens up a world of possibilities for the nuance and intimacy of these characters and their experiences,” she says.
Toward the end of our tarot reading, Maria intuits that Mau has so much on her plate, but that her passion—her desire to express herself fully and creatively—is what keeps her fulfilled. Her role as Ana has been a blessing, and a major opportunity. But Mau is still hungry to write and produce the kinds of stories she never saw growing up. This is just the beginning.
“I remember feeling very lonely at different times throughout my life, so it’s such a blessing to have an opportunity like this where I can play a character that can make someone feel less alone,” she says. “And even when I play characters that are complicated and maybe not always so nice, my hope is to always portray humanity and to create an invitation for people to identify their own humanity within me.”