Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series / News

Pursue Your Own Truth: Director Michael Del Monte and Star Janae Kroczaleski Talk “Transformer” [Exclusive]

Ever since Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski could remember, he’d had two desires in life: to be a strong and to be a woman. Growing up as what he considered “white trash,” Matt overdid the macho thing so he wouldn’t have to deal with his vulnerabilities. When he joined the marines, it was a way to challenge himself and to push those feminine feelings down. After the marines, Matt became a bodybuilder and then got serious about powerlifting. If you’re big and muscular, the vast majority of people won’t mess with you.

Being big and strong gave “Kroc” a sense of self and identity. But even as the strongest man on the planet for his size, Matt didn’t feel authentic and after his marriage failed he knew something had to change. It all came to a head in the summer of 2015 when Matt was publicly outed as being transgender.

The reaction was universal: her sponsors abandoned her, she was disowned by her parents, banned from competing, and she changed her name to Janae. This film follows Janae as she attempts to find her place in society and her efforts to make anyone else struggling with gender identity comfortable in their own skin.

I had the opportunity to speak exclusively to star Janae Marie Kroczaleski and director Michael Del Monte about how they met, whether or not to include Janae’s family in the film, people’s reactions to Janae’s story and more.

TV GOODNESS: Michael, you made a short documentary, Defined, about body building. Is that what lead you to Janae? Or did you hear about her story another way?

Michael Del Monte: “I had been filming some different characters in the body building world and had always been fascinated — just what the outer appearance can do for people’s inner self. You’re looked at a certain way, people perceive you a certain way, but then on the inside, it’s often not what you see. I found body builders are an interesting example of that.

So, a colleague of mine was the one who had been filming with Janae before Janae transitioned and was still competing and sponsored. My colleague told me about the story back in 2015 and that’s when I messaged Janae and went down to Ypsilanti. We met, we talked and got to know one another and that was the beginning of me telling her story.

TV GOODNESS: Janae, why did you decide you wanted to tell this story and let other people into your life?

Janae Marie Kroczaleski: Michael contacted me, we met and he explained his vision. The biggest thing is, I wanted to make sure someone was gonna tell it accurately and not sensationalize it. I got a really good feeling from Michael, I thought he was honest and sincere.

But the reason I felt it was important to tell my story was that there’s so much misinformation out there and so many misconceptions. I think that being visible and being open and honest is the only way to combat that. There needs to be education and I told Michael if we can educate people with this and we can inspire people like me, then I’m totally on board for doing this.

So, I really felt a responsibility to be open and honest about who I am because I remember what it was like when I was child and I had no idea that there were other people like me. I felt so alone and I was so tormented. Just being visible and just being out there can help so many people.”

TV GOODNESS: After you decided to work together, how did you decide where you wanted this story to go and how you wanted it to end? That ending was so powerful.

Del Monte: “I think for me, on our initial conversation, the idea was that we weren’t going to bring in any external interviews. We weren’t going to have any sociologists or politicians or professors or psychologists talking about transgenderism. The most inspiring thing for me in this whole story wasn’t a bunch of ideas, it was a person, it was Janae. It was her love for her sons and the challenges that she said she was having with her mom and dad.

That was the intriguing stuff for me as a filmmaker and so, from the onset, that’s what I tried to focus on throughout. We had a bit of a timeline. we didn’t know how it was going to end. She mentioned at the start that she was looking to have some operations done, but it actually ended up working out well in that we had a deliverable day for this.

So, we weren’t planning on filming this for years on end. I found that the ending leaves you with the question of what’s next? Which I always find a powerful way to end these films.”

Kroczaleski: “There was no scripting. There was no encouragement to do anything or to be anything other than what I am. So, they really just followed me for a little over two years and told the story of my life.

I think Michael and the guys did an amazing job with that, but I think that comes through in the film. It’s very authentic and real. They just let my life unfold and followed it and told it in a really amazing way.”

TV GOODNESS: I really appreciated that your parents were in film, even though their reaction is a complete counterpoint to how your sons have reacted to you living more authentically and starting your transition. Can you talk a little bit about deciding that it was important to include your family and did they take any convincing?

Kroczaleski: “Well, with my boys, I completely left it up to them. I said, ‘Look, I would never pressure you to do this one way or the other, but here’s what’s happening and do you guys want to be a part of it?’ My boys basically said, ‘Well, if this is a story about your life, we have to be in it. We’re a big part of that and it’s important that we’re there.’

I was really proud of them for that and I think that that’s one of the most important parts of the movie. You see the relationship I have with them. All too often, we see this narrative of how the kids are always estranged or angry at the parent, especially when you have teenage sons and a parent is transitioning from male to female. But that story seems to be told all the time. What you don’t see is stories like mine where there is an amazing relationship between the parent and the children. I was so happy that they wanted to be a part of it and felt it was necessary.

As far as my parents, yeah, they did take a little bit of encouraging — especially my mom. Her initial reaction was, ‘No. I don’t wanna be in a documentary. I don’t want any of this.’ But I was really glad that they agreed to do it.

Honestly, my big concern was that when the cameras were there, my mom was gonna try to put on a different face or not be honest with her feelings. Even though it wasn’t necessarily very comfortable for me to hear what they had to say, it was nice that they were honest and open about it.

And with my mom, that’s the only real conversation I’ve been able to have with her. She’s known for over ten years and every time I try to talk with her, she immediately changes the subject or refuses to talk. So, it was really nice, at least, to hear her feelings even though it wasn’t really what I wanted to hear. But, it was nice to know how she felt. And nothing’s changed since the end of the film.”

TV GOODNESS: Michael, did you want to add anything to that?

Del Monte: “Fresh on my mind right now, we just had a screening and one of the questions was what surprised me most while making [the film]. The relationship Janae has with her boys was overwhelming for myself, in a positive way and, I think, for any parent to see the unconditional love demonstrated by the kids. It was fascinating.

It’s my job, obviously, to try and find all angles. There was nothing but [pride] and authentic joy for Janae. So, that was amazing to see.

I was the one who walked in with Janae when she met her mom and that was a bit uncomfortable. Obviously I talked to Janae, if she was alright doing this, and it took a few awkward moments. It was very important that what Janae’s mom said was very real and very honest and as Janae said, it was not exactly what she wanted to hear. But going to these screenings, it’s what a lot of people do feel.

M voice is somehow in this and that’s where we can begin the conversations. And that was one of our goals from the start — just that people who wouldn’t otherwise want to talk about this, they’re now able to do that. I think Janae’s mom played a big role in being the catalyst for allowing that.”

TV GOODNESS: What are you hoping audiences take away from this and if they see the film and want to do something in support of a family member, a friend, or even the transgender community, is there anything specifically they should do?

Del Monte: “I met Janae almost exactly three years ago and the biggest thing that I personally have learned is, try not to throw blankets over groups of people. You may think you have an idea because you generalize and you say all these big broad, almost political statements and whatever, but getting to know Janae has been one of the more amazing experiences of my life.

Just seeing the courage she’s had to go through this and confront this has been very inspiring. I find so much value in looking at each person as a human being and just listening to their story, hearing what they’re going through and just going from there. I think it’s a shame when we just cast a net over everyone and don’t take the time to actually appreciate who they are, what they’re saying, what they’re going through. You miss a lot of great things when you do that.”

Kroczaleski: “Hopefully people that see the film that never had an interest in what trans people go through or anything like that before, maybe they’re interested. Because of my power lifting background or the marine corps or something, just thought it was a fascinating story.

Hopefully education. Just that they have a greater understanding of what it means to be trans and how people struggle with it and that it’s not what a lot of people think. I mean there’s so much misinformation and incorrect narratives out there about trans people being perverts and mentally ill and all those kinds of things. 

Really, we’re just like everyone else. Other than our gender identity, we have the same hopes and dreams, you know? We want to be loved. We want to be successful. We want to be happy and the types of people we are ranges all over the place. I’m one extreme, but there’s trans people in every walk of life. I hope people understand that.

I hope people that are trans or have trans family members or someone close to them can find some inspiration in my journey and can encourage them pursue their own truth and be authentic and help them through their own life because I know I was really lacking that.

As far as what people can do if there’s someone in their life that’s trans that is struggling, the good thing now about social media and the internet is there’s all kinds of groups. They can find support from different communities. You can find groups in your area or sometimes even just online. But reach out for support and education and connect with other people because that can go such a long way towards helping someone that is struggling.”

TV GOODNESS:  Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you want to talk about?

Del Monte: “It has been amazing to see the audience’s reaction to this film, to be honest. I mean this was a dark time, a little, being beside Janae through this in the last couple years and then trying to put this together properly. It’s been very rewarding. The audiences resonate with it.

I think it was a big chance for both of us to make this film [and] in my mind it’s been a success. Being at these Q&A’s and hearing people deeply moved, it feels as though we’ve hit a nerve with them in a good way. It makes the whole thing feel well, well worth it.”

Kroczaleski: “Yeah, I would echo a lot of the same things. The interesting part too, that a lot of people wouldn’t realize or know, is that Michael and I and the rest of the crew too, we all became good friends throughout this. We spent a lot of time together over a two year period and really got to know each other even though we come from very different backgrounds and none of them are trans or anything like that.

There’s a lot of things we could relate. Michael and I are both athletes. We found a lot of common ground and became close friends in the process. That was really, really cool. And like Michael said, it’s been really fascinating. I was shocked. The first film festival we went to was Austin and we won the Audience Choice Award and the Critic Award and then we went to HotDocs and swept a lot of the awards there.

Just hearing people’s reactions and doing the Q&A’s afterwards and like Michael said, seeing how people were moved and emotional. And then people hanging around for an hour or longer afterwards to talk to me and share their own stories, that’s the kind of stuff that really matters. That’s what’s important and to know that you are affecting other people’s lives in a positive way. That’s just huge.”

Edited for space and content.

Transformer is in theaters and available on VOD now.

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