Several transgender actresses have spoken out about Scarlett Johansson’s callous dismissal of signing on for a trans role with the same director who cast her as Asian in Ghost in the Shell. Now the director of the trans-themed film A Fantastic Woman, Sebastian Lelio, has chimed in and said that casting a cisgender person in a trans role should not be “prohibited.”
“It’s true [that] cultural representation has been scarce so far,” Lelio told The Hollywood Reporter in response to the outcry about Johansson being cast as trans. “And it’s also true that the gesture of casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender role can be aesthetically or ethically debatable — but it should never be prohibited."
Chilean filmmaker Lelio — who also directed the acclaimed Disobedience, which starred Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as lovers — cast trans actress Daniela Vega to star in his film A Fantastic Woman, which won the foreign language film Oscar this year. But he told THR that casting Vega was apolitical, that she happened to be the "right" choice for his film about a trans woman whose older lover dies, leaving her to pick up the pieces in a mostly hostile world.
“When I decided to cast Daniela Vega to play Marina in A Fantastic Woman, it was an act of artistic freedom, not political correctness,” Lelio said. “I wasn’t telling the world that transgender roles should be played by transgender actors. I was only doing what I felt was right for my film.”
The heated discussion around casting cis actors in trans roles is in response to Johansson signing on to director Rupert Sanders’s move Rub & Tug to play the role of Dante “Tex” Gill, a trans man who ran massage parlors and prostitution rings in ’70-era Pittsburgh.
It’s not surprising that Lelio would come down on the side of eschewing political correctness in favor of artistic expression. He continually refused in interviews to discuss anything beyond the artistry of A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience, films with important cultural resonance for marginalized groups.
While Lelio admitted there are “ethical” problems around casting cisgender people in transgender roles, his proclivity for elevating artistry over ethics doesn’t solve the problem of getting trans women into the rooms to audition for trans roles.
His comments come on the heels of actresses like Trace Lysette and Jamie Clayton calling out Johansson’s frustratingly tone-deaf response to the outcry over her taking a role away from a trans person.
When faced with criticism for agreeing to play trans, Johansson, referring to cisgender actors whose performances in trans role have been roundly praised, said through her representative, "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment.”
Transparent star Lysette tweeted in response, “So you can continue to play us but we can’t play y’all? Hollywood is so fucked...” Lysette added, “I wouldn’t be as upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that’s not the case. A mess.”
Sense8’s Jamie Clayton echoed Lysette’s sentiment in another tweet.
Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE. WE CANT EVEN GET IN THE ROOM. Cast actors WHO ARE TRANS as NON TRANS CHARACTERS. I DARE YOU #RupertSanders @NewRegency #ScarlettJohansson https://t.co/RkrW8MeGcG
— Jamie Clayton (@MsJamieClayton) July 4, 2018