On the eve of his Oscar win for portraying a transgender woman in 2013's Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto found himself the target of criticism from an audience member at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
"Transmisogyny does not deserve an award," shouted an unidentified woman from the audience to the actor onstage. When asked for clarification, she responded: "You don't deserve an award for portraying a trans woman, because you're a man."
The accusation is rooted in what some in the LGBT community refer to as "transface" — a term that conjures the culturally taboo practice of "blackface" — in which a cisgender actor will "take" a role from a transgender actor.
The assumption tied to transface is that Hollywood is a discriminatory industry, which would rather cast a cisgender (nontrans) movie star who can be transformed to look like a transgender person through diet and cosmetics, than consider a minority actor with an authentic life experience for that role.
Leto is not alone in experiencing pushback from casting. Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, was also confronted by a trans activist during a preview screening of the series at Outfest, a prominent LGBT film festival in Los Angeles. The activist, Ashley Love, criticized Soloway's casting of cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) as the trans lead Maura, a character inspired by the journey of her own parent, who transitioned late in life.
"It's humiliating. We feel misgendered," Love said of the casting of Tambor, who she identified as a "popular male actor" chosen over a number of trans actresses who auditioned. She made a direct comparison to the actor's donning of a wig and skirt to "blackface, where white men would dress up as black men," according to Boing Boing.
In response, Soloway apologized for "the way the show is hurting people's feelings." Rhys Ernst, a trans man and adviser on the show, defended the casting choice by pointing out that Tambor is right for the role, as the character "does start out before a gender transition."
Arguably, Soloway has gone above and beyond any other prominent player in Tinseltown in incorporating trans people in the production of her show. Trans actors, among them Ian Harvie, play trans roles on the show, and she recently hired trans writer Our Lady J for the writers’ room for season 2. The show also had numerous trans consultants, among them Jennifer Finney Boylan, who also serves as the cochair of GLAAD’s national board of directors.
Anticipating criticism of Tambor's casting, Boylan wrote a New York Times op-ed in advance of Transparent's Amazon release that defended the move, saying that the initial inability of some viewers to see Tambor as more than just a "man in a dress" works to the role's favor, as it upends the "harmful effects of clichéd portrayals of trans women as victims or villains."
"It captures the surprisingly universal problem of being defined only by our biology, rather than our spirits," Boylan wrote of the series. "It should make us stop and think about what it means to be a man, or a woman, and the struggle that so many people face in trying to live our truth. This isn't a problem unique to transgender people; it's the same for all of us."
Yet the sting remains, particularly during awards season, when acclaim is invariably heaped upon these actors. Both Tambor and Soloway won Golden Globes for Transparent. Leto took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club. Other cisgender actors who have been nominated for Oscars for playing trans roles include Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, and John Lithgow in The World According to Garp.
"Playing a trans character is one of many roles that actors seek out for a big career payoff via industry recognition," trans filmmaker Andrea James acknowledged in a recent essay for The Atlantic. "Physically transforming for a role, like gaining or losing weight, or becoming unrecognizable through makeup and effects, is a tried-and-true way to generate awards buzz."
Of course, these types of "Oscar bait" transformations are not limited to trans roles. Straight actors have been playing gay and lesbian roles for decades. This year, Benedict Cumberbatch was nominated for his portrayal of the gay mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. In addition, actors who do not have disabilities have portrayed characters with disabilities; Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor this year for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, a performance that raised criticism of its own among actors with disabilities.
While big stars do raise awareness for sometimes overlooked causes in projects such as these, the casting of nonminority actors perpetuates a cycle in which minority actors continually lose the opportunity to become stars in their own right.
Or, as James framed the paradox, "If all the major trans roles go to nontrans actors, how will trans actors ever get opportunities and experience needed to land major roles?"
At the Santa Barbara event, in response to the criticism of his casting, Leto complicated this paradox, pointing out that requiring an actor to match the sexual orientation and gender identity of a role would also limit the acting opportunities of LGBT actors.
"Because I'm a man, I don't deserve to play that part?" Leto questioned the audience member. "So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian — they can't play a straight part? Then you've made sure people that are gay, people that aren't straight, people like the Rayons of the world, would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art."
At a recent gala honoring the 15th anniversary of Boys Don’t Cry, the Outfest Legacy Awards, many actors on the red carpet expressed a point of view similar to Leto’s.
Hilary Swank, whose star was launched by her portrayal of the murdered trans man Brandon Teena, told The Advocate she could "completely understand" that there are those who would be upset by the casting of a cisgender actor in a transgender role. But the part should ultimately go to the best actor, she said, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
"It's challenging. I think if the transgender actor is right for the role, then I think they should get the role, if they're the better actor for the role," she said. "But in the end, we're people who are portraying characters. ... It's like someone saying to me, well, you're not gay, lesbian, or transgender, you shouldn't play Brandon Teena. I think they thought I just happened to be the right actor at that moment to portray that character."
"Everyone should have an opportunity to audition and have the chance to act and to be a part of a film," Swank concluded. "But in the end, I don't think they should get it because they actually live that day in and day out."
Natasha Lyonne, a straight actress who portrays a lesbian character in Orange Is the New Black, agrees with Swank. "May the best actor win," she said, referencing Swank's powerful performance in Boys Don’t Cry.
"It's almost impossible to imagine that somebody would have done it better," Lyonne told The Advocate, pointing out that "stars bringing attention to a movie can also be a great thing," as when it puts a spotlight on trans issues.
In fact, Lyonne would like to see fewer restrictions for roles based on gender.
"Speaking selfishly, I would love to play parts that are written for men," she said. "So often when I'm reading something, [I say to myself] 'Why does it even say this is a guy? Why doesn't it say, Detective Reynolds?'" rather than using pronouns or first names that would limit the casting of the role.
However, others contend that Hollywood has a responsibility to cast trans actors that extends beyond the politics of the casting room. Laverne Cox, a star of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, is perhaps the greatest argument for giving trans roles to trans actors. Her visibility has launched her to a role of icon and activist, who has used her position to raise awareness of trans issues for many in the mainstream public.
Armistead Maupin, a gay author whose Tales of the City series features one of the most prominent trans women in literature, Anna Madrigal, noted the critical juncture of the transgender rights movement at present, and revealed to The Advocate that he would "think seriously about finding a trans actor to play Anna" should his novels find new life on the big screen. (The role was played by Olympia Dukakis in PBS and Showtime series in the 1990s.)
"I think that’s the only way it could move forward in the culture," Maupin said of casting a trans lead. "We're in a place in history now where I think it would be very, very interesting to have a trans actor playing that role. We've seen all things happen. Jeffrey Tambor is a straight guy playing a trans woman. But this movement has been all about opening up the world to everyone, and [casting a trans actress as Anna] would certainly be a big step in that direction."
But this casting isn't always so easy. James, who was also present at the Outfest event, said the issue of casting a trans actor is not so cut and dry as people make it out to be.
"There are business realities that force the industry to make certain kinds of decisions that aren't necessarily in our best interest as a community," she told The Advocate. "I understand from both sides of it. As a producer, I see why you want to get the best, and biggest, and most experienced person you can for a film, especially if you've worked on it for years and years and have investors who you want to pay back. But on the other hand, the other part of me wishes that there were more kinds of those opportunities for trans actors."
"It's complicated," she continued. "It's not as easy as people outside the industry want to think it is. In a perfect world, we would have trans actors playing those roles, but we don’t live in that world, and there are a lot of us working hard to try and change that. But it's going to take time, just like it did with gay and lesbian actors. We're about 30 years behind them."