Why aren’t trans roles going to trans actors?

Photo: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images
Photo: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

Earlier this year, Daniela Vega made history by becoming the Oscars’ first ever openly trans presenter, an accolade which she earned through her stellar leading role in A Fantastic Woman. Two years earlier, indie hit Tangerine became a surprise success, storming the awards circuit and proving that two relatively unknown trans stars could galvanise critics and win the hearts of new fans.

Finally, it seemed trans actors were - if only marginally - getting the Hollywood recognition they deserved.

But amongst these groundbreaking films were a series of others – The Danish Girl, 3 Generations, Dallas Buyers’ Club – which starred cisgender actors in high-profile trans roles.

Last week, the newly-released trailer for Anything, a film which stars Matt Bomer as a trans sex worker, continued this trend, again reigniting debates around whether or not roles like these should be reserved for trans actors.

Speaking to indy100, renowned actress Annie Wallace states in no uncertain terms that they should be:

If a role is that of a post-transition trans person, then that role should always be given to a trans person. We’ve gone past the whole, “but it’s acting, isn’t it?” argument. They wouldn’t cast a man as the mother of a family, would they? This isn’t about sexuality, or about ‘lifestyle choice’; this is who we are.

Online users responded with similar statements back when Bomer was first announced for the role back in 2016, with many penning op-eds and voicing their disagreement with the casting choices.

Tensions escalated to the point that executive producer Mark Ruffalo gave an official speech on the backlash, declaring via tweet that it was ‘wrenching’ to see the pain of the trans community.

He then responded to calls for a recast by stating simply that the footage had already been shot. It was too late.

According to Kate O’Donnell, the award-winning founder of theatre company Trans Creative, the filmmakers actually sold themselves short by missing an opportunity to at least seem superficially progressive. Speaking exclusively to indy100, she states:

The simple fact is that it’s more relevant and more current to cast a trans person in a trans role. When you don’t have that, it looks dated and out-of-touch.

Incidentally, the casting choice was defended by the film’s associate producer, Kylene K. Steele, herself a trans woman. Speaking to IndieWire, she claimed to be upset by negative reactions to Bomer’s casting and argued that many probably didn’t expect or account for her input when making their decisions:

I think, when the trans community said some of the things they said, they didn’t realise they were attacking an ally.

The credit was Steele’s first; she describes being on-set continually whilst Bomer was shooting his scenes, even consulting on the script in order to make it as true to life as possible.

But O’Donnell makes the valid point that consultants like Steele are often rendered invisible, essentially laying the foundations for other actors to win acclaim:

These films and TV shows are riding off of the back of the work trans activists and artists like myself have done over the years to improve trans visibility. That needs to be acknowledged by working to make these projects trans-inclusive. Casting feels like the minimum requirement of that.

It is fair to say that trans narratives are profitable; The Danish Girl, despite the controversy surrounding its release and Redmayne’s portrayal of its protagonist, made a grand total of $64 million against a $15 million budget. This ability to make genuine money needs to be considered, and arguably goes some way towards explaining why trans actors are often overlooked for high-profile parts.

“The Bank of Hollywood plays safe,” laments Wallace, highlighting that a break with expected casting could have worked in the film’s favour.

This could have been a golden opportunity to cast one of America’s many trans actresses, and to make her a star. They would have been held up as a glowing example of the new ‘wokeness’ that is purported to be taking place, but alas, no. Just like Dallas Buyers’ Club, they chose a man in a dress – which is how most people see trans women anyway.

She also highlights the all-important Golden Globe which landed Bomer the role. Back in 2016, esteemed actress and filmmaker Jen Richards revealed online that he had been precast, and that his award-winning reputation had essentially bankrolled the film.

No trans actors were auditioned for the role. Richards herself auditioned for another part, but ultimately lost out.

In a lengthy Twitter thread, the actress detailed the numerous ways in which the casting of cis men in trans roles is damaging, the first and most obvious of which is that it takes away the few roles specifically written with trans actors in mind.

But she then went on to highlight the more sobering fact that these characters reinforce the transphobic notion that trans women are mere impostors. This notion leads to violence, a fact which she neatly summarises in a series of tweets:

Wallace goes on to highlight that Bomer’s character is actually assaulted for being a trans sex worker.

This is often the distressing reality – as writer Shon Faye explains in this Guardian feature, trans visibility is a double-edged sword.

Despite the rise in trans visibility and the rising media profile of stars such as Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Paris Lees, Munroe Bergdorf and Faye herself, 2017 saw a 45% increase in transphobic hate crime and frequent media silence on important tragedies such as the murder of Naomi Hersi.

O’Donell also highlights that trans women in media are disproportionately portrayed as helpless victims:

When trans parts do arrive, we’re cast as sex workers, murder victims or targets of abuse.

In A Fantastic Woman, the trans character got to be happy for about 10 minutes and was then humiliated for the next hour. The parts are often clichéd; they fall into the ‘sad trans’ narrative.

She also highlights the pressure to conform to conventional beauty standards, stating that Hollywood needs to radically change the way it views trans women.

On the other end of the spectrum, Richards reveals that she is often told she isn’t ‘trans enough’ for a part, highlighting the veiled implication that directors often seek to aesthetically emphasise the ‘trans’ aspect of its narrative.

But there is hope to be found, it just rarely lies in Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters. O’Donnell’s Trans Creative theatre company is about to embark on a tour of new production ‘You’ve Changed’; she also points to emotive, award-winning short MUM as a stellar example of trans artistry.

Meanwhile, filmmakers like Jake Graf are consistently creating strong, engaging trans-inclusive work, whereas the rising profile of actors such as Riley Carter indicates that things are at least moving in the direction.

Bomer’s controversial casting may reiterate the fact that true change takes time, but the debates his role has reignited prove that the hunger for trans stars is more voracious than ever.

More: We asked 14 trans activists how cis people can be better allies in 2018

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