By Matt Kailey
The idea of trans people playing trans characters on television, in films, and on stage comes up time and time again, and will probably continue to do so as more trans characters are appearing in mainstream story lines and more trans actors are moving into the mainstream entertainment world.
When Boys Don’t Cry came out years ago, my first thought was “They couldn’t find a trans man to play this part?” The thought came back when Transamerica graced the big screen and I wondered if there really weren’t any trans women out there to play this role. But the truth is that if they had found trans actors to play Brandon Teena and Bree, the films would not have taken off the way that they did.
Hilary Swank and Felicity Huffman were box-office draws. At the time, and still today, no trans actor would lure mainstream audiences to theaters the way that Swank and Huffman did. Since the benefit of both of those films was letting mainstream audiences learn a little bit about trans and gender-diverse experience, the impact would be lost.
On the other hand, wouldn’t trans actors have been a better fit? Wouldn’t trans actors be able to legitimately portray these experiences so much more realistically than non-trans actors who had to learn the ropes from the ground up? And wouldn’t casting trans actors in roles like these give them the exposure that they needed to gain some traction in the tough and competitive acting world?
Yes and no.
There are a lot of good things about trans actors playing trans characters, and I believe that it should be done whenever possible. But there are some downsides, too.
I love the show Modern Family, and I love Eric Stonestreet in his role as Cameron, a relatively stereotypical gay man, but with far more depth than a simple caricature. When Stonestreet won an Emmy for his role after the first season, I was happy about it and I thought that he deserved it. But the truth is that the other actors on that show are just as talented and just as good in their roles (and many of them were nominated and have gone on to win awards as the show has continued).
I think that Stonestreet won, in part, because he is a straight man playing a gay man – something that is seen as “acting.” His on-screen partner, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, is gay. For some people, the assumption is that a gay man playing a gay character isn’t really “acting” – he’s just being himself, with no credit given to the fact that “himself” is probably nothing like the character that he is portraying.
And so it might very well be with a trans actor playing a trans role – “Oh, that person isn’t acting. That person is just being him- or herself.” And that’s one of the downsides. If a trans man had played Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, no matter how good of an actor he was, he would probably not have gotten nearly the credit that Swank got. And he probably would not have won an Academy Award, as Swank did. The assumption would be that he wasn’t really acting.
So while I’m completely in favor of trans actors being cast in trans roles, and while I’m also in favor of trans characters appearing in mainstream film and television without the plot or subplot revolving around some hideous or hilarious thing going on in their life with regard to being trans, I also want to see trans actors playing non-trans roles.
This will not only showcase their wide range of talent, but it will help prevent typecasting. If trans actors only play trans roles, then when the perfect part comes along for a particular actor, and that part happens to be a non-trans character, the casting director won’t even think about the trans actor for that role. But if that actor has played many parts, both trans and non-trans, then his or her name is more likely to come up as a possibility.
And there are certain films in which getting the experience out there to mainstream audiences is more important than casting a trans actor in a trans role. In that case, I say let the actor who will draw the biggest audience play the role, even if that actor is not trans. In the long run, this will help us, because as our community gains more visibility and more acceptance, trans actors will benefit as well.
But overall, I think we should support trans actors for trans roles (if they fit the role), we should support trans actors for non-trans roles (if they fit the role), and we should work to make sure that mainstream audiences understand that trans actors playing trans characters are still acting – this is talent, not just “being themselves.”
Readers, what do you think?
(P.S.: If they ever make a movie of my life, I want Peter Sarsgaard to play me. No, he’s not trans, but they’re not going to make a movie of my life, either, so it’s pretty much a moot point.)
This post originally appeared on Matt Kailey's award-winning website Tranifesto.com. Republished with permission.