As an industry, Hollywood (and film more generally) has made slow progress when it comes to telling LGBTQ stories. Although more and more transgender characters are now at the forefront of cinema, this isn’t necessarily enough – trans narratives are being told, but trans actors are not being given these roles. Within the last few years, films such as The Danish Girl (2015) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013) have included trans characters played by cisgender – meaning those whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth – actors Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto respectively. While it’s great that these famous names are bringing trans stories into the mainstream, there are many issues inherent in casting cisgender actors in transgender roles.
“we ignore a whole host of trans people who need jobs, who can act”
Firstly, it lacks creativity. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts next month, but that doesn’t mean he needs to be cast in every big role ever, especially a trans role. The Danish Girl was a box office hit, but it would have been even better with fresh talent: trans actors exist and should be given a chance to represent themselves. By limiting Hollywood to cis actors, we ignore a whole host of trans people who need jobs, who can act, and who should be able to seize these rare opportunities of trans representation in mainstream media.
On top of this, the arguments against casting trans actors in trans roles are very weak. One of the main ones brought up is “But that character is pre-transition!” which in itself has transphobic connotations. To say that a cis actor is better fitted to play a pre-transition character is ridiculous for several reasons: it implies that pre-transition trans actors don’t exist (which, they do), that trans people are only trans once on hormones (not true!) and that, even in the unlikely event that a pre-transition trans actor did not exist, a cis actor would still be better for the role than a transitioned actor. Ever seen Captain America? The editing they did on Chris Evans’ character pre- and post-transformation was very effective – are you really telling me they couldn’t change a trans actor’s body on screen to fit with the storyline?
“money is another issue that is mentioned a lot”
Money is another issue that is mentioned a lot, since cis actors are more well-known and usually have larger fanbases. The problem with saying that trans actors are “too much of a risk” because they won’t bring enough revenue to the film is that this becomes a vicious cycle: if trans actors are never given opportunities, how can they even begin to experience the same amount of success and fame that their cis counterparts do?
In television, trans actors are beginning to be cast more and it’s had an extremely positive impact, especially on Netflix: take Laverne Cox as an example. Her success playing a trans woman in Orange Is the New Black is evident from her Emmy nomination, and in 2014 she became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. This isn’t a fluke. Trans people obviously have the ability to be great actors; if we continue to have trans narratives told by cisgender actors with different haircuts, makeup and clothes, we encourage the harmful and transphobic belief that trans women are just cis men in costume, and vice versa.
“the film industry needs to start offering up opportunities to trans actors”
Like everything related to LGBT issues and awareness, this is a learning curve. The criticisms faced by Mark Ruffalo in his casting of Matt Bomer (a gay cisgender actor) as a trans woman in the upcoming film Anything were replied to with acceptance, although no apology, “The movie is already shot […] We are all learning.” (Ruffalo on Twitter). Still, notions such as these are passive and don’t do a lot to encourage trans actors at all. The film industry needs to start actively looking for and casting trans actors as trans characters; as fans, it’s our job to call out directors of films that cast cis actors instead. In particular, cis people need to make an effort to elevate trans voices whilst acknowledging the privilege that we have (myself included as a cis woman writing about trans representation).
It may seem revolutionary but it’s really quite simple: in a cis-centric world where trans people are already marginalised and some of the most likely to be unemployed, the film industry needs to start offering up opportunities to trans actors, not giving them to already established cis actors.