When Rebecca Root auditioned for “The Sisters Brothers,” all she knew from the casting breakdown was it called for a “strong woman” with “some facial hair on her upper lip.” For her self-tape, Root’s partner drew in the hint of a mustache with eyebrow pencil, and she “made sure that [her] voice was strong.” After one callback, Root impressed French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) and booked the role.
For his part in “Colette,” Jake Graf was contacted via Facebook by director Wash Westmoreland, who said he was made aware of Graf’s work through friends. “Colette” and “The Sisters Brothers” opened the same week, leading the specialty box office. What makes Graf and Root special is that while both are trans, the characters they play in these two films are not.
Hollywood has a terrible track record with giving trans roles to non-trans (cisgender) actors. “Colette” and “The Sisters Brothers” are proof that casting trans actors in non-trans roles can be good for a film artistically as well as financially.
“The Sisters Brothers” is a Frenchman’s take on the American Western. It’s hard in the way a film about two traveling assassins has to be, and surprisingly soft in others. Root plays brothel owner Mayfield, who runs the Gold Rush town she named after herself with an iron fist. When brothers Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) Sisters show up expecting a fight, they are surprised to learn the notorious Mayfield is a woman. “I see who wears the pants around here, so to speak,” says Charlie, a bit befuddled and clearly thrown by this powerful woman in charge.
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“I certainly got a sense that there was an ambiguity that they wanted to explore,” Root told IndieWire in a recent phone interview. “The film is subverting the Western trope of the tough guy, in maybe a similar way that ‘Brokeback Mountain’ did. There was a certain ruggedness, but underneath there is also tenderness, poignancy, vulnerability.”
The Mayfield reveal exemplifies the film’s offbeat humor, which is silly and light where another filmmaker might have gone dark. Such hijinks and misunderstandings chart a compelling contrast to the film’s cold and often gruesome violence. The character of Eli, for example, is conflicted about his chosen profession, and throughout the film he sheepishly searches for a gentleness he has long repressed for survival. Mayfield, who goes out of her way to be feared, is essentially Eli’s inverse. Casting Root (who also appears in “Colette”) is a brilliant move by Audiard, and a subtle indication that this masculine bloodbath is not what it seems.
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“It takes someone with a really progressive mindset and a lot of foresight,” said Graf about Westmoreland’s decision to cast himself and Root in “Colette.” Describing the film as a “queer period piece,” Graff added: “To understand that if the film is shot beautifully and it’s a great story, and you’ve got a great team behind you, it’s really not gonna affect viewing figures … It’d be really great if other people could be open minded enough to take those risks, and realize that taking risks actually pays off.”
Seven years ago, when Graf graduated drama school in the UK, his teachers told him not to disclose he was trans in auditions. “They said, ‘It’s just not possible, just go and be Jake. If you’re the trans actor, you’ll get pigeonholed … and people won’t want to cast you as leading man.’ Back then, it wasn’t in the media and it wasn’t a point of conversation, as it is now.”
These days, Graf has a very different problem: “I’m frequently told that I don’t look trans enough.” Graf, who is also a filmmaker, described a trend of projects seeking out trans actors as an easy way to get press. “I’m being told that I don’t give enough ‘bang for your buck’ if you’re casting trans. They say, ‘You were great, love it, but you’re just not reading as trans.’ Which obviously is a little bit crushing.” That’s part of the reason, Graf said, there are so many more trans women than trans men in Hollywood. “Trans women on screen generally is going to give you more of a visible trans presence than a trans man.”
Brad Calcaterra, an actor and acting coach who specializes in training the LGBTQ community, said creators and writers are getting the message. “In the beginning it was, ‘We need a trans actor.’ Now, it’s starting to be more of the spectrum of expression of those trans actors. Before, it was kind of a soulless face people were wanting and now … the industry is doing much more due diligence in getting to know the community.”
As Audiard did with Mayfield, Calcaterra said the onus is on creators to be open, and to write character descriptions that can be interpreted for actors of all gender expressions. He singled out HBO’s “High Maintenance” as a prime example of trans-inclusive writing. “If you look at the breakdowns and the casting, it’s probably one of the most open casting notices that you will ever see.”
As French playwright Gaston De Caillavet, Graf gets one cheeky scene in which he reads Keira Knightley’s palm and fights with Dominic West. Behind the scenes, he shadowed Westmoreland during shooting, and consulted Denise Gough (“Juliet, Naked”) on her role as Mathilde “Missy” de Morny, an early crossdresser whom historians have identified as a trans man. Some were critical that the trans role went to a cis actress, but Graf supported the decision.
“I hugely respect what [Westmoreland] did on ‘Colette,'” he said. “It was a big role within the film and Denise is stunning and is becoming very big now within the industry. What he did instead was give Rebecca [Root] and I roles, which enabled us to gather profiles, gather experience and bolster our acting CVs. Which means for the next big role, we might actually get taken more seriously for the leading part.”
Both actors cite 2015’s “The Danish Girl” as a turning point, coming on the heels of “Transparent” and Laverne Cox’s Time Magazine cover the previous year. “The Danish Girl” earned Eddie Redmayne an Oscar nomination for playing Lili Elbe, one of the first people to receive gender confirmation surgery. Redmayne’s casting was controversial at the time, but again director Tom Hooper cast Root and Graf in small roles, providing huge breaks for both actors at the time. “I think [Redmayne] got that film out to a much broader audience with a much bigger budget than any other actor would’ve done,” said Graf. “The film industry is an industry, and it is a business.”
In many ways, “The Danish Girl” paved the way for the open casting in “Colette” and “The Sisters Brothers,” a trend that will hopefully become the norm. “Previously, nobody could imagine a trans person as an actor,” said Root. “Now, you have the astonishing proposition (I’m being ironic, of course), that a trans person could play cisgender. Gosh, really? Is that possible?”