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by Matthew Hammett Knott
February 20, 2014 12:18 PM
21 Comments
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Heroines of Cinema: 10 Trans Actors Who Could Have Played Jared Leto's Role in 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Laverne Cox

I was going to start this article by saying that I don't want to take anything away from Jared Leto's performance in "Dallas Buyers Club". But in a sense, I do. The performance certainly holds up as a piece of art, but as a part of our culture, I believe it needs contextualizing.

I am not the first person to suggest this. Chelsea Hawkins wrote in PolicyMic that "Dallas Buyers Club" fails trans actors while Paris Lees in the Independent was perhaps more equivocal but still asked "Why can't we cast trans people in trans roles?"Of course, nobody wants to limit trans actors to trans roles, but in the context of the status quo and general acceptability of handing the role to an actor such as Leto, it would be an undeniably liberating move.

But wait, you say - Leto was playing a pre-op trans woman. Surely it would be appropriate for the character to be played by a biological male? This doesn't strike me as exquisite logic. Laverne Cox famously spoke out against the objectifying focus on the status of trans people's genitalia, while Janet Mock talks about the obsession with "passing", pointing out that in her mind she is not passing as anything, but simply being herself.

The concept of "passing" betrays a corrosive misunderstanding that being transgender is in some sense a performance as opposed to a reality. By casting a well-known cis actor in a trans role, it makes it all about the performance. Anyone who has watched "Orange is the New Black" will know that watching a real trans actor in a trans role has an entirely different, utterly compelling and humanizing effect.

With that in mind, I thought it worth highlighting ten actors who could have played the role of Rayon. This is not because they meet the specifics that Leto brought to the character. The role was a fictional one, not based on a real-life person like Matthew McConaughey's Ron Woodroof, a fact which would seem to afford a great deal of freedom and possibility. In this case, the filmmakers chose not to pursue that route. But that doesn't stop us from imagining.

Harmony Santana

1. Harmony Santana

Santana's role in "Gun Hill Road" led to a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards, the first trans actor nominated for a major acting award and a hugely significant milestone.

2. Laverne Cox

Breakout star of "Orange is the New Black", passionate trans advocate and exceedingly eloquent educator of Katie Couric, Laverne Cox's star is rising fast and is a delight to witness.

3. Jamie Clayton

Jamie Clayton

Clayton hosted VH1's TRANSform Me alongside Laverne Cox, but she is also an actress of note, with perhaps her most high profile gig to date being her appearance in two episodes of HBO's "Hung".

4. Stephanie Michelini

Fellow Francophone director Sebastian Lifshitz showed "Dallas Buyers Club" director John-Paul Vallee how it's done by casting a trans actor in his feature film "Wild Side". The film won the Teddy at the Berlinale and a clutch of other festival awards, including a Best Actress trophy for Michelini.

5. Alexandra Billings

With roles on "E.R." and "Grey's Anatomy" among her credits, Billings made history as the first trans actor to appear in a transgender role on American television.

6. Elizabeth Coffey

OK, so she hasn't done any screen acting for a while, but let's pay our dues regardless. Known as a "Dreamlander" as one of John Waters' regular cast of actors, Coffey played a transgender role in the iconic "Pink Flamingoes". Two years later, she returned to play a non-trans role for Waters in 1974's "Female Trouble".

Calpernia Addams

7. Calpernia Addams

Addams first made the news for tragic reasons when her soldier boyfriend was murdered by his colleagues on discovery of their relationship. A subsequent fiction film of events led to her meeting Jane Fonda at Sundance and conceiving the idea for an all-transgender production of "The Vagina Monologues". Addams was later invited to perform in the 10th anniversary edition of the play alongside Fonda, Glenn Close and Salma Hayek.

7. Eva Robin's

Robin's considers herself androgynous rather than transgender, having been born male and then developed feminine features naturally. Her most famous role was in Dario Argento's horror film "Tenebrae". While the film's politics are certainly thorny, a non-cisgendered actor playing a female role for a celebrated director is a shamefully uncommon occurrence.

Candis Cayne

9. Bibi Andersen

Competition for a place in Almodovar's stable of actresses is fierce, but Bibi Andersen clocked up no less than four credits in Almodovar feature films in the late eighties and early nineties. It is also rumoured that it was Almodovar's desire to attend the 1988 Oscars with Andersen as opposed to his leading lady Carmen Maura that caused the 18-year professional rift between Maura and the director.

10. Candis Cayne

Following a role on "Nip / Tuck", Cayne went one further by becoming the first ever transgender actress to play a recurring transgender role on primetime as Carmelita in ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money".

Matthew Hammett Knott is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Follow him on Twitter.


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21 Comments

  • Sonia | March 4, 2014 3:56 PMReply

    I think the real problem here is that the director of Dallas Buyers Club was not even aware of the possibility of casting an actual trans actor! In an interview with CBC, when asked if he ever considered casting a transwoman for the role, he replied, "Never. [Are] there any transgender actors?" he said. "I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing." Even his phrasing is disturbing. "The thing"? Jared Leto is a very good actor, and was more respectful in his treatment of Rayon, I think, than the director was.

    That doesn't mean that this wasn't a lost chance to build trans visibility in film.

  • Cath | March 3, 2014 3:06 AMReply

    I would have loved/preferred to see a transwoman play Leto's role, but about half of the ones listed here wouldn't have fit the character or the setting, which drastically limits the casting options. I don't think picking Leto for the role was an act of transmisogyny, but the fact that the director didn't even consider looking for a transgender actress (which he admitted) is.

  • Withnail | February 21, 2014 7:43 AMReply

    It's Jean-Marc Vallée, not John-Paul Vallee. Looking forward for the next article, "10 HIV positive actors who could have played Matthew McConaughey' s role in Dallas Buyers Club"

  • Trans Hollywood | February 20, 2014 8:20 PMReply

    Can you edit the problematic language in this article? "Coffey played a transgender role in the iconic "Pink Flamingoes". Two years later, she returned to play a female role for Waters in 1974's "Female Trouble"."

    "Female" should be "Cis woman" or "non-trans role." Calling it a transgender role and a female role insinuates that trans women are male.

    Thank you for this article and for challenging people who don't question the systemic disadvantages that keeps trans people underrepresented in trans stories and roles. It is very important for trans people to be represented in trans roles, both for cultural authenticy and the inherently political nature of trans stories these days.

  • INDIEWIRE | February 21, 2014 3:17 PM

    Thanks - we've addressed it!

  • Mark | February 20, 2014 8:17 PMReply

    I don't understand why all of this negativity is focused on Leto. He was cast in a role and played the character exceptionally well. The writers, director, and producers ultimately decide who will be cast in a project. Try directing all of this frustration their way as opposed slinging it on Leto.

  • ayo | February 20, 2014 7:52 PMReply

    Leto killed in the role, and added visibility to the film that an unknown trans actor probably would have not. Plus, a lot of the women listed in this article are very attractive and pass for cis women very well, which would have had a totally different impact than Leto's obviously male face creating a not traditionally attractive female character whose sexuality is right in Ron Woodruff's face. Having him act disgusted my a pretty face like Harmony Santana just wouldn't work as well.

  • Tobi | March 2, 2014 2:03 AM

    That's exactly the problem. Directors' obsession with creating a "non-passing" image of trans women goes so far that cis men are considered more "authentic" images of trans women then actual trans women! It's ridiculous. And the idea that trans women in movies can never have a pretty face, think about the message that sends to trans women in the world.

  • director | February 20, 2014 4:59 PMReply

    On a micro level, I wrote a film about a paraplegic and even contacted a disability casting director but no one I met fit the bill as much as a comedian I met who just nailed the tone, phrasing, etc. At the end of the day, the best actor wins period.

  • Ryan | February 20, 2014 4:07 PMReply

    SMH at people who think it's great to have a cis person play a trans role, but fume at the thought of a black actor playing historically white Johnny Storm.

  • Dennis | February 20, 2014 4:04 PMReply

    Everyone here is saying casting should simply go to "the best actor for the role." In theory that's fine, even if that kind of logic can easily give people (directors, casting directors et al.) an excuse never to look outside their usual boxes. But good as he was, how do we actually know Leto was "the best for the role"? Did the makers of "Dallas" even look at any trans performers? They should have at least been given the opportunity to compete for one of the relatively rare major trans roles. No one is saying ONLY trans actors should play trans roles. But how would trans (or other minorities, like physically disabled) actors ever get their foot in the door if we continued being OK with the vast majority of their roles being played by actors "passing" as their particular minority?

  • Geena | February 20, 2014 3:04 PMReply

    Why do we keep coming back to this discussion!!?? Actors should be cast because they are the best PERSON/ACTOR for the role not because they are the closest to the role they are playing… Actors, be they gay, straight or transgendered should be cast based on how good they are for the role…NOTHING else. Why should only transgendered people play transgender roles??? Also, I'm sure the film needed some recognizable faces to get financing and so they went after actors that could facilitate that. Jared Leto created and portrayed the role of Rayon like no other - he played it with love and dignity and I feel that constantly bringing up the fact that the role did not go to a transgendered actor takes away from the amazing job he did.

  • Sam | February 20, 2014 2:54 PMReply

    I appreciate the point being made by the article. However, there are a couple points I'd like to make:

    1. It's called "acting" for a reason. The performer is playing someone other than themselves. Putting a trans actor in the role doesn't guarantee that the performance will be any better, genuine or compelling.

    2. This is show business. And, as crass as it sounds, the casting of Leto probably got a little more money for the production. The budget for the film is reported to have been $5 million. That's tiny compared to most Hollywood films. That isn't pretty. It isn't nice. But it's the nature of the business. And, on a film like DBC (which was going to be a hard sell and niche market anyway), I suspect the producers made a monetary decision there.

    3. Personally, I would rather trans performers be cast in non-trans roles. I think it would show their acting chops more. This smacks a little of the illegitimate criticism of Ramin Setoodeh that gay actors can't play straight. What a terrible and diminished world of art we would have if performers only played parts like themselves.

  • Bill | February 20, 2014 5:48 PM

    Really, the most thoughtful answer on this page. Even more so than this idiotic fluff piece called indie "criticism".

  • Melissa | February 20, 2014 2:47 PMReply

    Bianca Leigh, who played Mary Ellen in Transamerica.

  • jean vigo | February 21, 2014 12:16 AM

    "+2" reply meant in reply to "Bill"/Sam above.

  • jean vigo | February 21, 2014 12:15 AM

    +2

  • Selma | February 20, 2014 2:44 PMReply

    I keep seeing (on FB and now here) similar responses to this article. The argument runs: actors should not be chosen for whether they are trans or not, but for the quality of actor they are. I see what people are saying, and appreciate the point. In turn, however, I think *they* fundamentally miss one of the central points of this article (which maybe the author could have made clearer, though really, it is clear if you think about it). I take that point to be that trans actors find it more difficult to get work in Hollywood/TV. They themselves do not get seen, for example, for the women they are, and are rarely, if ever, get cast as cis women characters. Trans actors are left to play trans parts. So when even those parts go to cis actors it seems, for my money, that the onus is on the casting team and the director to make very clear that they have considered the excellent trans actors available (and yes, I do use the word actors in a gender-neutral fashion). If Vallee comes out and says that each of these ladies were auditioned then fine, but I'd bet my house that isn't the case.

  • filmchick | February 20, 2014 2:22 PMReply

    Actually, a lot of actresses prefer being called actors because they feel (rightly so) that what they do isn't different based on gender (we don't call female MDs "doctresses" or female filmmakers "directresses").

    And even though I appreciate and understand the point being made in this article, I don't completely agree with it. I feel, at the end of the day, a director should go with the best ACTOR for the role. Period. Steve McQueen thought Chiwetel Ejiofor was the best actor to play Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave." Should that part had gone automatically to an African AMERICAN actor? And going back to Dallas Buyers Club, why not criticize Vallee for casting an actor in the lead role of Ron Woodruff who isn't HIV-positive?

    I don't know how many people Vallee auditioned for the part of Rayon, and of that number I don't know how many of them were transgender women. If he didn't audition ANY trans women, then that was definitely myopic on Vallee's part. But he felt that Jared Leto was the one to play Rayon, and having seen DBC, I can attest that it was a great choice. Leto is the best thing in the film.

  • Pamela Curry | February 20, 2014 1:29 PMReply

    Actresses! Not actors!

  • Jane Law | February 20, 2014 5:03 PM

    What is this, 1957?Actually my union (SAG-AFTRA) addresses us all as actor. Calling me an actress is like calling a flight attendant a stewardess. Dated and tacky. Also, shut up if you aren't in the industry.