After multiple seasons on Amazon’s Emmy-winning “Transparent,” a stint on Caitlyn Jenner’s E! reality show “I Am Cait,” and one as a guest judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Lysette’s career was on fire. She recently appeared opposite Jennifer Lopez in the fall hit “Hustlers,” in a role many viewers may not have realized was played by a trans woman. (She’s the one telling her boyfriend she’ll give him some pussy after her shift.)
With more trans roles being written than ever before, it’s reasonable to assume that Lysette would be awash with new offers. In reality, she didn’t earn enough in 2018 to qualify for SAG’s relatively low minimum — between $17,000 and $33,000 during a base earnings period — to be eligible for health insurance.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s very telling of how hard it is to be a trans woman in this industry,” Lysette told IndieWire in an interview over the summer. “It’s an odd thing when you walk down the street and people come up to you with tears in their eyes regarding your work, and telling you how much your representation means to them. And then you look at your bank account and it’s like, ‘What the fuck is happening?’ It’s not adding up, literally.”
It’s been six years since “Orange Is the New Black” premiered in 2013, followed shortly thereafter by “Transparent” and “Tangerine.” While the projects have little in common, they were all critically-acclaimed and commercially successfully works that featured complex, funny, and smart trans characters — all played by actual trans actors (save for one.) Those years — dubbed the “transgender tipping point” by Time magazine — led to cover stories for Laverne Cox, book deals for Janet Mock, and the eventual but final death knell for any project that dared cast a cis actor in a trans role. (Just ask Scarlett Johansson.)
When Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” debuted last year, boasting the greatest number of trans women in leading roles TV had ever seen, it seemed to indicate smooth sailing from here on out. “The Politician” cast trans-masculine actor Theo Germaine in a main role, Mock inked an overall deal with Netflix, and Asia Kate Dillon brought non-binary visibility to the mainstream on “Billions.” From the outside, things were looking up.
But trans actors and actresses paint a far different picture.
“The truth is that, as blessed as some of us are and have been, a lot of us are still struggling,” Laverne Cox said in an interview. “I heard a story about a trans woman who was on a show and some of the crew members were mis-gendering her and kind of giggling, and she heard it while she’s working. That is not something any actress should hear when they’re working. Acting is hard enough.”
Not to mention all the hurdles trans actors face before even booking a job. Multiple trans actors reported being told, either by casting directors or agents, that they were “not trans enough” for specifically trans roles. Such a baffling comment would be frustrating enough if they weren’t also being shut out of auditions for cisgender roles.
“There’s just a lot of barriers still,” said Cox. “So access continues to be the question. How do different folks get access in this business?”
Once they’ve landed the audition or even booked the job, the work is far from over. Trans actors often feel conflicted about whether or not to speak up when dialogue feels inauthentic or offensive. Elliot Fletcher, one of the first out trans men on TV with roles in “The Fosters” and “Shameless,” recalled suggesting some dialogue changes during one audition that didn’t go over so well.
“I went in and I said, ‘I don’t know if trans people would really refer to their bodies this way, can I phrase it in a different way?,’” Fletcher said in a phone interview earlier this year. “After the audition, they said, ‘Thank you so much for your input, and we’ll definitely take that into consideration, and try and work that into the script.’ Then they cast a cis woman to play a trans man.” (He declined to name the project.)
With no further feedback, Fletcher was left to wonder if speaking up had cost him the job. “Maybe I walked into the room and that was too much for them,” he said. “They felt like, ‘Oh no. He’s going to be too finicky or cranky about certain things. We don’t want that.’”
Fletcher admitted to passing on auditions that felt potentially damaging to the community, or were clearly written by straight cisgender creators. Other times, he’ll take the audition and try to offer feedback. “Sometimes it’s worked, and I’ve gotten the part,” he said, “and sometimes it’s not worked at all, and I’ve never heard from them again.”
Of course, not everyone can afford to be so choosy with auditions. “I still get scripts where a trans character will be outed in the first five pages,” said Rain Valdez, an actress and creator of the independent series “Razor Tongue.” “I just got an audition for tomorrow and it’s three scenes, and in every scene we’re talking about the character being trans and some white cis girl, you know… a savior story. So there’s still that going on.”
Both Fletcher and Lysette recalled collaborative and supportive environments on “Shameless” and “Transparent,” respectively, where their input was welcomed. Not by coincidence, both of these characters are some of the earliest examples of authentic and fully realized trans character arcs on TV.
In the case of “Shameless,” Fletcher was encouraged to speak up by his fellow cast members, many of whom had been with the show since the beginning. His first episode was directed by series star Emmy Rossum, who successfully negotiated for equal pay with co-star William H. Macy in 2016. Fletcher offered some input during his initial audition for the role of Trevor, who was introduced as a love interest for Cameron Monaghan’s Ian in the seventh season of the Showtime series.
“The way it had originally been written was in a way where Trevor referred to himself like, ‘I was once a woman, and now I’m a man,’” he said. “And I went into the room and I said, ‘As a trans person, I would never say this about myself. I never was a woman. I don’t think this guy feels like that either.’ They said, ‘Oh, do you have something else you would say?’” He recommended the line that ended up in the show: “You know, I don’t need your cisgender ass. I’m leaving.”
He was shocked when he booked the role without so much as a callback. “I heard from Emmy, ‘You were fucking killer in the audition and I love the line change,’” Fletcher said. “She was extremely open to me about being transparent about how I felt about certain dialogue and really encouraged me to say something.”
Such stories are heartening, and reveal the value of cisgender allyship in the workplace, but they are the exception. Stories like this also illustrate the extra legwork trans actors must undertake simply to feel comfortable on set.
Snagging roles has required a similarly proactive approach. Lysette landed her gig for “Hustlers” by tweeting directly at writer-director Lorene Scafaria about her past work as a stripper at Scores, the very club where the movie’s real-life story took place. While many trans actors are wary of voicing their concerns in public, Lysette has been outspoken on social media. She recently pushed back at Marvel for not hiring trans actors in response to a tweet from the studio celebrating the ethnic and gender diversity in its movies.
Can trans people at least audition next time @Marvel ? Pretty please 🙏💜
— Trace Lysette (@tracelysette) July 21, 2019
She was thrilled to learn that a trans actor, Zack Barack, appeared in last summer’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” a milestone that was highly touted by Marvel. But when Lysette went to see the movie, she was underwhelmed. “I don’t even remember a scene where they got to speak,” she said. (Barack plays Peter Parker’s smarmy classmate, Zach, and has a handful of lines throughout the movie.) “That’s not to diminish the accomplishment,” Lysette said. “It’s just to speak to the fact that we deserve to have something to say.”
Cox and Lysette have become good friends in their mutual quest to speak out about the challenges facing trans performers. “As much as there’s so much to celebrate, I think that this business is brutal,” said Cox. “I’m so grateful for Trace in my life personally. I’m so grateful that she has the courage to speak out about these things publicly. … What does it take for more of us to have breakthrough and break out moments?”
Most actors said the next step is auditioning trans actors for all roles, not just trans ones, and that approach has gained traction. Fletcher said he now almost exclusively auditions for cis roles. There is also a need for more trans people writing, directing, and producing, a practice and conversation kicked off by “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway. (That show faced its own representational challenges by casting a cis actor, Jeffrey Tambor, as its lead — but it unquestionably had a constructive effect on discussions about trans characters in popular culture.)
While Cox says film is lagging behind television, she added that she had noticed some progress behind the scenes. “I was just in a meeting yesterday about a project I’m developing, and the collaborators on the project were just way more literate about how to talk with and about trans folks,” said Cox. “There’s still some things that remain problematic, I’m not going to lie. But I think overall there’s a sensitivity to, and an understanding of what conversations we should and maybe shouldn’t be having. How do we do breakdowns? How do we not ask invasive questions in an audition? I used to go into auditions and people would ask about what surgeries I’ve had. That hasn’t happened in years.”
Still, for Lysette, the extra sensitivity is not translating to actual work quickly enough. “Sometimes I wonder, how many shows do I have to reoccur on before I get to be a main cast member with a normal size paycheck, so that I can actually think about financial security and taking care of my mother and maybe even dream about buying a house one day?” she said. “It’s kind of hard to dream in that way when the money is not reflecting the fame. It’s not adding up.”