Stealth tells the story of Sammy, a transgender 12-year-old girl who is hoping to make a fresh start after a troubled year at school. But when she is invited to a sleepover and reveals her identity to her two new friends, their reaction leads her to wonder whether she can ever trust anyone with her deepest secret.

We caught up with Stealth director Bennett Lasseter this week. The film is being screened as part of the TIFF Kids Film Festival.

SDTC: Can you tell me about where the initial idea to do the movie came from? 

BL: The story was inspired from an article that told the story of identical twins born as boys. Within a few years, it was very clear that one of the twins was transgender. The story sparked the producer’s interest, so she approached me with the idea for Stealth. While the idea was sparked from the article, Sammy’s story was always about a girl and her mother trying to find their way after Sammy’s transition.

How did you go about selecting Kristina Hernandez to play the role of Sammy? 

Casting was a difficult process. I was afraid that casting a boy to play Sammy might lead to a performance that was played more flamboyant than natural. There is a difference between sexual orientation and gender identity that many child actors and parent coaches might not understand. By casting a girl, I felt that we wouldn’t be telling the story honestly. I was afraid the audience might feel cheated and that it would have come off as false. So we tried many avenues to reach out to trans communities in LA. As luck would have it, it was a shot in the dark that led us to Kristina. We reached out to a trans kid support group by email and they posted on they’re Facebook page for us. Kristina and her mom responded to the post, contacted us and sent in an audition tape. While Kristina had no experience acting in film, her performance had the honesty that we were looking for. It took some negotiating with AFI to bring Kristina out from Las Vegas, but we had found our Sammy.

Was it difficult to strike a balance between being a film that educates as well as being a piece of art?

From early talks with Melissa, it was clear that our story was not about bullying, depression or suicide, which are all serious issues that many trans kids unfortunately face. We wanted to tell a simpler story that focused on the conflict of who can you be your whole self with and finding true friends. There was feedback from peers to include more dramatic elements, but this story called for a lighter touch and a hopeful message. The film didn’t need to be preachy to have something to say and, from the get go, we worked hard to protect it’s positive voice. In regards to education versus art, I like to reference a Walt Disney quote. “I’d rather entertain and hope they learned something than educate and hope they were entertained.” Because people can enjoy a story on an emotional level, the message of the story stays with them much longer.  It’s a true testament of the power of storytelling, how the story of a little girl trying to make friends can help people understand and become more accepting.

What was your research process like for the film?

We reached out to many families across the country who had kids that were transgender. We didn’t have the budget to travel to meet the families, but we’re able to video chat with them and hear their stories. We asked questions and put the kids in Sammy’s shoes to see what they might do. After hearing some of the positive experiences of these kids, we knew that our film had to reflect the difficulties of being a trans kid, but maintain an optimistic view. It also helped us see places in the drafts that were fake and clearly constructed from an outside perspective.

What do you hope comes of this film? 

I hope that we can show this film to classes and schools to help promote acceptance. From what I have seen with Kristina and the other actors on set, this young generation is already very accepting. I hope that the viewers will understand that meeting and knowing someone who is transgender isn’t any different from meeting anyone else. In addition, a simple act of kindness can really help anyone feel better about themselves, regardless of their gender identity.

What has been the response thus far?

The overall response has been very positive. The film has received very high compliments from kids and adults alike. It seems like we might have actually pulled it off.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of making this film, for you personally?

Seeing the honesty of the story connect and grab people. The viewers seem to feel with Sammy and walk away with a better understanding because of that connection.

What were specific challenges you faced?

There were a lot of kids on set. This wasn’t difficult in the sense that they were not professional, all the talent were superb. It was limited shooting hours per day, with schooling required to take place on set too. Handling the kids was great fun though. I am the second oldest of five boys and never really grew up, so I was able to goof off with the kids when we weren’t working. Coming from a world of boys though, it was difficult to accurately portray the mysterious and forbidden world of preteen girls. I made it happen with the help of my three lead girls, Asia, Keely and Kristina.

What did you learn from making this film?

In general, I learned so much about the transgender community, from the research, from Kristina and her family and from a few audience members as well. As a director, I have worked with many actors of various ages, but not with this many children before. I learned a great set of tools to help get young actors where they need to be to bring the scenes to life. They also taught me a couple really cool secret hand shakes.

Catch Stealth at TIFF Bell Lightbox: April 11 @ 3:45 p.m. April 13 @ 10:00 am. & April 15 @  12:30 p.m. Bennett Lasseter will be in attendance for screenings on April 11 & 13. For tickets and information, visit here.