It’s been three months since Taylor Swift released her record-breaking, insomina-inducing album Midnights, which promised to track “the stories of 13 sleepless nights” throughout her life. But even now, Swift is working hard to ensure the rest of us don’t get any sleep either. On Thursday, she announced she’d be dropping the long-awaited music video for the album’s opening track “Lavender Haze” at—you guessed it—midnight. The Easter egg-filled video features Swift lost in a “sultry sleepless 70’s [sic] fever dream,” dancing through purple fog and floating in a lavender lake, all because she’s fallen hard for her hot, half-naked music video lover: Laith Ashley, who hasn’t gotten any shuteye either.
“I’m running on almost no sleep,” Ashley tells ELLE.com, just hours after the video is released. “I’ve been on my phone going crazy over the video. I’m still in shock.”
Ashley is a trans model and actor who you may recognize from his many magazine appearances, the pit crew on RuPaul’s Drag Race, or his guest role on Pose. Ever since Swift teased this music video back in October, fans and advocates have praised the casting, especially at a time when trans rights are being attacked across the country. On Instagram, Ashley wrote, “Thank you @taylorswift for allowing me to play a small part in your story.” He continued, “Thank you for being an ally. Representation matters.”
Below, Ashley shares how he first found out about the project, the dance move that made it to the final cut, and why, ultimately, he sees this video as a celebration.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you first connect with Taylor about this project?
When I heard about this opportunity, I thought it was a joke. I thought someone was trying to play a prank on me. I was like, you’re freaking kidding. She doesn’t know who I am. Why would she pick me to be in her music video? My manager was like, no, this is real, this is serious. I was like, holy crap, okay, cool. I was so nervous. I obviously don’t know what to expect with something like this. I was just telling myself I have to be ready, my skin has to be on point.
So you knew this was for new music, but you weren’t given much else.
Initially I thought that it was about her redoing some of her old music. Later on, I learned this is a new album with new music. Either way I would’ve been excited but I was like, this is new stuff, this is going to be amazing. Her storytelling abilities are just incredible. She has this ability to connect with everyone through her music and lyrics, and then when she comes out with these visuals that are so thought out—I know the Swifties get crazy with all the little easter eggs and trying to find all the symbolism within the visuals, it makes it fun.
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Did you end up talking to her before you got on set? What was the process like?
I did not. When I did get on set, I knew that she was tall, so I was like, is she going to be towering over me? [laughs] As you saw in the video, I’m pretty much in bed the entire time, and one of the first ADs was like, this is probably the easiest gig you’ve ever had, you get to sleep all day. [laughs] While we were lying in bed waiting for action to be called, she filled me in on what my role would be. She made me feel included, as well as everyone else who was part of the party scene. As you saw in the photo she posted on her Instagram, we were all sitting together, and she had the monitor in her hand, and she was literally showing us what we looked like. It was amazing. I’ve done other music videos before, and usually if you’re talent on someone else’s music video, and they have full control of it, they’ll look at the monitors. You’re there as a model. You’re cast to be part of the video, but it’s their music video, so you don’t need to see the monitor. But she was really kind to take the monitor and bring it around to all of us and let us get a sneak peek of what it was going to look like. She was so sweet.
Did you ever find out how she thought of you for the video?
No, and I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to overstep any boundaries. I was like, you know what, if she wants to tell me later on, she will. Interestingly enough, I rewatched her with other love interests in previous videos, and I was just so afraid to touch her. [laughs] Like I know we’re acting, but I always says it’s the trans masculine urge to just be overly considerate of a woman’s body and her boundaries. So I was nervous and awkward and smiling the whole time, because I was so nervous.
Well the nervousness does not translate on screen. I do want to ask more about the party scene, and this one dance move, where you dip her back. I was like, wow, the coordination that’s happening here.
[laughs] I actually asked if I could do that. We were dancing with each other and spinning around, and I asked, can I carry you? And she said, yeah, of course, and she jumped on me. I asked, can I move you around? She was like, go for it. And I dipped her back and then back up, and we did that a couple times, and she was having a great time. I was like, great this is awesome, I hope it looks great on camera. And they ended up using that part.
It’s also you as the weatherman, right?
Yeah, yeah. When she told me I was going to do that, I was excited. I was standing in front of this blank screen, and they told me that they were going to superimpose the map of the United States. They were like, it’s gonna be raining a lot. So tell us how it’s gonna be raining. I’m like, okay, so it’s gonna be raining from California to New York! Precipitation in our nation, ladies and gentlemen. Make sure that you bring your umbrellas. It’s gonna be raining cats and dogs. I’m just saying all these things and making all these movements and gestures, and then after, they were like, oh we’re not recording sound. [laughs]
What did you think when you finally heard the song and the album came out?
When the album came out, “Lavender Haze” and “Midnight Rain” were the two songs that stood out to me the most, and with what we were doing in the video, I assumed that it was gonna be one of those two songs. Either “Lavender Haze,” because of the lavender fog everywhere, or “Midnight Rain,” because I was the weatherman talking about the rain. Those were also my favorites—and “Anti-Hero”—from my initial listen.
There has been so much discussion about your role and the trans representation in this video, especially in contrast to the anti-LGBTQ bills we’re seeing across the country. What do you hope people take away from this video?
I always say I don’t want to be put up on any sort of pedestal or be the only person that’s representing an entire community, because the community is so vast and diverse in and of itself. To say that I represent all of the LGBT community would be unfair to the LGBT community. But as far as visibility for trans people, this is huge, and it’s so important. Even on Instagram, I’ve gotten thousands of messages from young trans people and trans people of all ages saying how important and how huge it is that someone with the platform that Taylor Swift has, especially in the times that we’re in now, used a trans man as her love interest. And she had multiple trans people in the party scene. There were people of all different backgrounds, sexualities, and identities.
As far as legislation, if we look at what’s happening now, the latest bill in Oklahoma, for example, that bans gender-affirming care until the age of 26, there was rhetoric that all this anti-trans legislation was really about protecting the children. But banning care until they’re 26 years old proves that it was never about children. The horrible things that people say about trans people—and these are people that have political power—have real-life, real-world consequences. That’s our lives.
If you just look at the increase in violence against the LGBT community, especially trans and non-binary people, it’s increased tremendously in the last two years, because of this anti-trans rhetoric. It’s January and already 124 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced. This just proves that this is about criminalizing our existence and not wanting us to exist, but we exist despite all this propaganda. We’re just human beings. We want access to liberties and freedoms, just like everyone else. And we deserve them. We’re here, and taking away our access to health care, to housing, to employment isn’t going to make us disappear.
Growing up, what would a video like this have meant to you?
I would have seen myself being successful as myself. Growing up, there weren’t any images of trans people on television or in media, really. If there were, they were often being mocked or humiliated or made fun of or being cast aside, which would make one feel like, oh, you’re not supposed to be this, this is wrong, I need to hide. This is a celebration of diversity, of acceptance, of liberty, and freedom. And we need to see more of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.