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.”
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.
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.