Jared Leto is getting kudos for playing a transgender person in “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” out Friday. But wouldn’t it have been better if the starring role had gone to an actual trans person?
Trans people are portrayed in movies and on TV more and more these days, and that’s a positive development. Yet most of these characters are played by actors who are not transgender. It is no longer acceptable to cast cross-racially, so why is it acceptable to cast someone who is not transgender in a transgender role?
As playwright MJ Kaufman says in the online theater journal Howlround: “I think that casting trans actors in trans roles is important not only because we need to make our bodies visible but because many transpeople’s lives are materially impacted by transphobia.”
Diversity in entertainment can be a crucial tool for helping dismantle this phobia. Just look at the Netflix program “Orange Is the New Black,” which not only manages to portray a diverse set of complex female characters -- a rarity in television -- but also features Laverne Cox, a transgender woman of color, in a prominent role.
Speaking to NPR over the summer about the lack of trans people on the big and small screens, Cox said: “The industry historically doesn’t think that we [trans people, women, black actors] are marketable, or they want to cast us in very limited ways. But I think that the wonderful lessons that ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is teaching us is that it shows our industry -- the entertainment industry -- that you can cast women of different races, you can cast different ages and body types, and folks will tune in and be interested. And the public is craving that.”
Some of you may ask whether there are enough trans actors to play these roles. Surely this is an issue of supply and demand. As soon as more trans actors are cast in roles more complex than “hooker” or “transexual prostitute,” we’ll likely see many more trans actors come into the fold.
And adding some much-needed diversity to the casting of transgender roles may also push writers to think differently about their lives and the kinds of stories audiences want to see beyond the same trope over and over again. Typically, transgender people are portrayed as tortured, veiled in secrecy or unlovable, and that can perpetuate the real-life violence they experience.
As Shawna Virago, artistic director of the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, told The Times: “Too often we are invisible in film, or we’re portrayed as violently unwell. It is important that transgender directors, producers, writers and actors are given opportunities to dispel these stereotypes and tell authentic transgender stories.”
Perhaps the hype around Leto in “Dallas Buyer’s Club” is warranted. I’ve yet to see it, but The Times’ film critic, Betsey Sharkey, calls Leto a “revelation” in her review of the movie. And Leto certainly seems to have put a lot of work into the role by interviewing trans women to help him build the complexity of the character. He even reportedly went to Whole Foods near New Orleans in costume.
Still, Hollywood missed another chance with its status quo casting choice. Instead of casting a transgender person, we have yet another straight actor gaining accolades for portraying an “edgy” or “fascinating” character.
As Virago put it, “the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ missed a great opportunity to give a starring role to a talented transgender woman actor.” But with the upcoming CW show “ZE,” about a transgender teen in Texas, there’ll be another chance to tell complex and authentic stories about transgender people. And hopefully a transgender actor will be cast in the lead role.
Now wouldn’t that be cutting edge?
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.