TIME movies

Forget The Oscar: Jared Leto Was Miscast in Dallas Buyers Club

Jared Leto as Rayon in Jean-Marc Vallée’s fact-based drama, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit:  Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features
Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Anne Marie Fox—Focus Features

Imagine how many trans people could become stars if just given a chance

I didn’t need to glimpse even a single frame of Dallas Buyers Club to know that casting Jared Leto in the role of a trans woman was just plain wrong. I wasn’t interested in Leto’s acting capabilities, the portrayal of the character, or the quality of the film overall. I just couldn’t understand why another film had been created with a trans character that had no trans actor in that role. Now that he’s taken home the Oscar for best supporting actor for that role, the question matters even more.

As a trans woman, I’ve been watching movies that have major roles with trans characters for years. Film after film, I’ve sat on my couch or theater seat and wondered to myself why the directors almost never get it right. Why is the main or supporting character played by a cisgender person when they have plenty of other actors in the film that are trans, and giving a stellar performance? Did the investors of the film decide it was too risky? Was it the director who felt that the trans people who auditioned were not good enough? Did the director even audition trans people?

I found my answer when I listened with jaw dropped to what director Jean-Marc Vallee had to say on CBC Radio about casting a trans person as the role of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. “Never,” he said. “Is there any transgender actor? To my knowledge — I don’t know one. I didn’t even think about it”. When the interviewer interjected with, “Of course there are transgender actors,” Vallee answered with, “Which ones? There’s like five, or three, or what — two? I never thought of that. I never thought of hiring a real rodeo guy to play the rodeo Ron Woodruff. And just like in every film — we’re actors, we’re directors. I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing.”

(MORE: Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender ‘Mammy’)

Vallee’s response makes me wonder if he would ever take, or has taken, the time to search for a black person to play the role of an essential black character in any of his films? Would he find it prudent to dress up a white man in brown make up, teach him how to “act black” and put him in the role simply because he just didn’t think about it, or because he thought black actors were just not experienced enough?

It’s one thing when actors take on other races or genders in movies like Cloud Atlas. After all, that was a part of what that movie was all about, and it was equal across the board in terms of actors switching roles. But, not considering a minority to play an essential minority role? Not honestly searching for that breakthrough ‘undiscovered’ actor in an acting school, or local film and theater scene across this country?

Every year we have breakthrough performances by cisgender actors with relatively little experience. My personal favorite is Michelle Rodriguez in her role as Diana Guzman in Girlfight. Or more recently Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. ali in Captain Phillips. These four men with Somali roots were picked out of obscurity with little to no acting experience out of a casting call of around 700 men –Abdi was even nominated alongside Jared Leto for best supporting actor. Their superb acting abilities showed there are times when no previous acting experience is necessarily needed when one has authenticity.

How many trans people could become stars if just given a chance? How many more actors like Orange Is The New Black’s Laverne Cox are out there? Or are we to believe she is the only one? With the amount of time spent on Dallas Buyers Club, couldn’t the director have spent some of it on finding a trans actor? He could have come up with at least 10 trans actors within just a few minutes of a Google search, and way more if he actually thought about it.

(MORE: Hollywood’s Surprising New Character)

On Saturday I finally saw the film. It was indeed moving, as moving as all of the other movies that I have watched in the past that have tackled LGBT or HIV/AIDS issues and have had a trans character’s role played by a cisgender person. But I can’t shake the sense that this is reminiscent of when black roles in film were few to none. I can’t seem to shake how Laverne Cox hasn’t had an Oscar nominated role, no matter how admired she is as the only major American trangender actor, nearly reaching the status of Sidney Poitier to her fans.

Dallas Buyers Club also got me thinking about movies I loved, and one in particular: Haywire, starring Gina Carrano. After Gina’s run as an MMA fighter she moved on to secure acting roles in action films, which is quite common for MMA fighters with no acting experience. I wondered if there would be any such possibility for me or any other trans person on the face of the planet. Could I imagine that? A serious trans action star? Or a trans role in an action or SCI-Fi movie that wasn’t just there to be made fun of, or to redeem another character? I’d like to imagine a groundbreaking trans hero.

I’d like to imagine a writer and director with enough imagination, passion and guts to create a story that humanizes a trans character and is brought to life with the kind of vivid details a trans actor could bring to the role. Yes, in addition to the many missed opportunities for trans actors, having enough roles in film that positively portray trans people is another problem I often ponder.

Having the opportunity to play positive roles seems slim for trans actors when I look at the abysmal lack of confidence and intestinal fortitude of Hollywood. I can’t be the only one to have dreamed of such uplifting opportunities for our community. But that will never happen if no one sheds light on the absence of trans actors and no one dares to challenge the absence of trans actors and the unequivocal celebration of cis actors in trans roles.

Fallon Fox is a professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter, and one of only a few out Trans athletes competing on the professional level, her participation and unwavering determination to continue in her sport caused commissions to look into creating guidelines for trans athlete participation. Fallon’s story has inspired millions inside and out of the LGBT community.

TIME Media

The Wrong Way To Write About Trans People

Transgender Mixed Martial Arts Fighter
Fallon Fox trains at her local gym in Schaumburg, Ill., April 25, 2013. Sally Ryan / ZUMA Press

Mixed Martial Arts fighter Fallon Fox on what the media fails to understand

Editor’s note: Fallon Fox is a transgender mixed martial arts fighter. Last week, Grantland, an ESPN website, published a story about the inventor of a golf putter who committed suicide. In Grantland’s story, the author revealed that the inventor was transgender. The story’s treatment of the subject elicited criticism and drew a response from the site’s editor. Fox shared her response with TIME.

Dear journalists and editors,

I know that you are watching everything I post. So, pay attention. The “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” story is an example of what not to do. I just heard about this today and it just about made me vomit. It unfortunately highlights the ignorance, lack of empathy, and exploitation of trans people.

Time and time again I’ve been flabbergasted at the lack of understanding in media in regards to why trans people may omit or even lie in some situations about their past. As if the reasoning for protecting oneself in a country where violence and discrimination of trans people isn’t obvious. I’ve sat and pondered why some in media can be so cruel to us.

How could they be so blind? How could they not put themselves in another person’s shoes? And I’ve come to a conclusion. Many of you may get it–you may actually care, and many of you may not. However, it doesn’t really matter does it? In the end, it’s not really about treating the subject with respect. It’s about getting the most views, notoriety, and money. Editors need stories that will sell. And what sells more than controversy? We all know that if something is considered “strange” it’s likely to fall into the “controversial” category. And yes, because trans people are so few–and physical transition is so new–we are looked at as “strange.”

(COVER STORY: The Transgender Tipping Point)

The “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” story made me wonder if any of the journalist or editors involved paid any attention in their 5th grade history class. Did they even read the stories of mixed-race Americans who could pass as white shortly after slavery? Many of those early Americans omitted their past or even lied in order to protect themselves from harm. They faced discrimination, losing many of the friends and support around them, and even violence if anyone found out that they had even the slightest amount of black heritage. Those history stories were not just told to us in our youth just to show what happened to black people. We were supposed to take lessons from those stories and apply them to other groups in the future. We were supposed to not allow history to repeat itself. Some in media are failing miserably in this in relation to trans people. They reinforce the notion that trans folk are not as worthy of respect as other groups of people because we are oddities.

Much like my black ancestors who were of mixed race and could pass as white, I hid my trans status (unless confronted on it). Much like my ancestors I’ve had to deal with society telling me what restroom I could or could not use or what spaces I could not occupy. Much like my ancestors I lived in fear for my life or being physically harmed by people who hate on other humans for being slightly different. History consistently repeats itself because people consistently drop the ball–because of greed.

I could sit here and type away–I could write a book about what it’s like to have to deal with gender dysphoria. I could express what it’s like to have to spend loads of money in order to match one’s body to their gender. I could go on and on about what it’s like to deal with family and friends on this issue, or to lose ones livelihood. But, would that even matter? I think not. What really matters is your bosses’ perception of their ability to make money from a story. How many trans people have to be pestered and questioned about their past when they obviously want to not talk about it? How many trans people have to be driven to suicide or endure incredible amounts of mental torment because you just couldn’t help yourselves? I suppose we will find out.

And yes, I’ve been close to suicide myself over this. Fortunately, I had a support network in place, teammates and loved ones around me who actually care about me existing. They supported me, and it helped me stay here. But, what helps keeps me going the most is the opportunity to put a dent in all of this nonsense directed at trans people. Sometimes it feels like I am a tiny drop fighting an ocean. If that is the reality then so be it. But, I will not be taking my own life. I refuse to go out like that. If I’m going to go out, then I’m going out swinging. That is my way of dealing with all of the pain I have had to deal with.

This life is precious, as it is the only one that I get to live. I wish that I had it like the rest of you. I wish that I didn’t have to deal with the knife that some in media like to try to twist in my side, all for trying to experience happiness and success just like everyone else. But, that’s not my lot in life. No, the reality is that it’s more likely I was born ahead of my time. I may never enjoy the the acceptance that trans people are likely to have in the future. But, I can do my part to help change things for them. And that gives my life meaning.

If media entities want to avoid what happened to the editors of the “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” story they need to do something very important. They need to have transgender sensitivity training. They need to be educated on trans issues. They need to attempt to wrap their heads around what it’s like to be a trans person if they even suspect that the individual they are doing a piece on is transgender. The editors need this training even if they “think” they know about trans people. This goes for MMA media also. The journalist and commentators from ESPN to AXS TV also need training. A small investment like this would go a long way in ensuring that their company isn’t looked at negatively. It is all so avoidable.

Fallon Fox is a mixed martial arts fighter.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser