Rebecca Root, an English transgender actress known for her past roles in The Danish Girl and BBC's Boy Meets Girl, is having a watershed moment this year, as she is starring in two of the fall’s most critically acclaimed films.
The first, Colette is a biopic directed by Wash Westmoreland about a queer author in turn-of-the-century France (Keira Knightley) who ghostwrote the popular Claudine book series under her husband's name. Root portrays Rachilde, a writer who has both a friendship and rivalry, due to jealousy of her success, with Colette.
The second, The Sisters Brothers, is a Western directed by Jacques Audiard that centers on brothers Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) Sisters, who are assassins in 1851. Root gives life to Mayfield, a powerful bartender the Sisters brothers meet on their travels.
Root, in a recent phone call to The Advocate from Ireland, marveled at how the stars aligned that two such prominent productions in which she appears would debut back to back. In addition to Root's roles, both films are of interest to the LGBTQ community, because they tackle gender roles in period settings.
"It feels [like an] extraordinarily wonderful and happy moment," said Root, who revealed she had Knightley to thank for the timing, as Colette's release was pushed back due to the British actress' schedule.
In The Sisters Brother, Root's performance as Mayfield is revolutionary because it is one of the first times a trans woman has portrayed a cis woman on the big screen. But this groundbreaking performance almost never happened.
“[Director] Jacques Audiard asked to meet me," after Root self-taped for a part, she divulged. "He came over to London, where we met, and we actually read a scene that wasn’t a Mayfield scene. I read with another actor who was auditioning for another part and I actually read with her, for her casting.”
“When it was time to turn around [to] the other actress to read for my scene, my Mayfield scene, Jacques said ‘I’ve already seen enough. I don’t need to do anymore with you, Rebecca, thank you so much for coming in.' I thought ‘Alright, this is either a very good sign or a very bad sign’ and it turned out it was a very good sign!" Root exclaimed.
In the 2011 novel for The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, Mayfield is a man. Not so in the film version — the part is female, and Root portrays her as a cisgender women. This rewriting is alluded to when the character Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) expresses surprise at seeing a woman in Mayfield's boots.
“Joaquin’s character, Charlie, says something ‘Ah, you’re the great man himself?’, you know kinda like ‘I was expecting to see a guy here but you’re clearly not a guy. What are you?’"
Root's casting as a female character — in a part that was originally written as male — has led to some interpreting the role as transgender. "I play her as cis, but, some people may see her as trans, or an early form of a trans person, if you like," Root said. The film version of Mayfield was inspired by photographs uncovered from this era of what appears to be women with facial hair, reports Vanity Fair, who may be early trans, genderqueer, or gender-nonconforming pioneers.
Root hopes that her portrayal as Mayfield challenges the audience's expectations of gender roles in this time period.
“You also talk about gender expectations in terms of men and women, and women in that sort of society, that very macho environment. So, the casting, I hope my performance, but surely the story and the direction really does play with our expectations, and I’m so excited to be part of that conversation with this!" Root said.
Root also hopes to spark conversation around trans actors and actresses playing cisgender roles, which is still such a rarity in Tinseltown. Why? Root points to several possibilities.
"There’s an expectation of producers and writers and directors perhaps, that trans people only want to play trans," Root said. "They may sort of think, ‘Well, that’s what they are, so that’s what they’ll play.'"
Root said that it could also be the ignorance of the producers and directors, who mistakenly believe that trans people are unable to play cis roles. “Maybe they just don’t think that a trans person, a trans actor, has flexibility — or performative muscle, if you like — and can actually play a cis person," said Root, who argued that, in fact, a trans person's gender identity may work to their advantage in acting.
"Before transition, a lot of trans people pretend to be cis anyway, and in fact, after transition, a lot of trans people are in stealth and likewise sort of play cis for whatever reason. So there’s really no reason why a trans person can’t play cis," she said.
Root remains hopeful that change is on the horizon regarding the casting of trans actors, and she is doing everything she can to contribute to it.
“I think people are just waking up to it actually, said Root. "I think Sisters Brothers is going to go — and my contribution to it, hopefully — will go a long way to opening up that new horizon for trans performers.”
Root, 49, has already seen progress in recent years. She has witnessed a drastic difference in the way trans performers are treated now as opposed to when she first started her acting career in 1990, even though she was not out as trans then. She began transitioning in 2003.
“I think there is a desire not to upset, or offend, a minority now. I think that’s a genuine thing that now people, as opposed to being ‘politically correct,’ they are now genuinely caring and wanting to nurture minority talent," said Root, adding, "The whole climate is changing, and certainly, even the last five years, it’s changed beyond recognition. I think within the next five years I think it will just go more and more strength to strength.”
One milestone of this change occurred this summer, when cisgender actress Scarlett Johannson withdrew from her role as a trans man in Rub & Tug after an outcry from the LGBTQ community. Root was among those that celebrated this outcome, but thought Johannson and her team could have dealt with the situation better.
“I was, frankly, delighted when she withdrew from the part because, to be honest, I couldn’t believe that she even thought that was a thing! ... I thought we’d gone past that. ... She’s surely a bright girl and she’s a talented actor but who on earth persuaded her that that would be cool casting? ... If there was any way out of it you would just say, ‘Look, I’m sorry, this is not a good idea, my bad’ and back down. The way they did it, her and her team, I thought really quite poorly handled," Root said.
Root said she hopes this becomes a teachable moment for actors and the entertainment industry in general around "transface" — this controversial practice of casting cisgender actors (especially movie stars) in transgender parts.
“There needs to be another way around casting like this; think bigger!" said Root, adding, "We’re supposed to be artists for God’s sake! Let’s make art, let’s be artistic, let's have creative freedom, and think outside the box. I think maybe we can make that a good thing. Maybe that whole situation reminds us that it’s not just a question of getting a ‘famous person’ in as a trans person. Maybe there are other ways this can be considered.”
Root has spent her career breaking through this glass ceiling for trans actors. She is still campaigning to portray the first transgender Doctor on Doctor Who, a British sci-fi series about a time-traveler. Yet she recognizes that television is a much different animal than film.
“The market is obviously different, I think television, even with the likes of Netflix and Amazon and the other streaming services, television is much more ephemeral," said Root, adding, "People rarely revisit TV as they do revisit movies where you could watch the same movie over and over again and recite lines from their favorites and so on.”
However, television does present more opportunities for parts — and diversity. Before Mayfield rode into town, Root was portraying a cisgender role, Samantha Eustace, on Doctors, a British daytime soap that she still appears on.
"It's a fun lunchtime soap, said Root. "It’s never come into a conversation that my character might be trans. She might be, but it’s never even been brought up in storylines so I just play her as cis. I just play her as a strong woman."
Ultimately, Root sees her gender identity as working to her advantage in her work. "There’s something gorgeously ambiguous about being trans," said Root. "That’s something I love about being trans, is that I use it to my advantage to be quite mercurial.”
Root delved into how she became a vocal coach — a job she studied for at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Although she does not have as much time for this work as her career as picked up, she is still passionate about the profession, particularly as she specializes in voice work for transgender people. "I love voice teaching," said Root. "There’s nothing more powerful than the human voice."
Yet still, Root takes whatever chance she can get to work with young actors. “When the time allows and when it’s all been offered, I jump at the chance to work with young actors because I learn from them, it’s not about me spouting all my knowledge, I’m learning from them and it’s very much a collaborative process, which all education should be really," she said.
What will the future hold for Root? The actress will be guest starring in an episode of the animated series Moominvalley, as well as Anna Paquin’s Flack, a dramedy about public relations. She is looking forward to the next chapter of her career — as well as her next job.
“I’m sort of looking at an empty diary so I’m hoping that somethings going to come along," she said. "Somebody’s gonna spot me in The Sisters Brothers, or Colette, and say, 'We need that lady in our next movie. Let’s bring her in.' So I’m keeping fingers crossed!”
Colette and The Sisters Brothers are now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer for The Sisters Brothers below.