Transgender representation in Hollywood scored a huge victory last week when Scarlett Johansson stepped down from “Rub & Tug,” in which she was set to play a trans man — but it would be just as bad if the project disappeared entirely.
Naysayers are quick to point out there are no trans actors famous enough to carry a movie the way Johansson can, but “Rub & Tug” has a chance to reverse that narrative. The film is now high profile regardless of who is in the role; the casting controversy provided far more free publicity than Johansson’s name. If the film fizzles out, it would support the notion that trans movies can only get made with an A-lister attached. “Rub & Tug” needs to happen now more than ever, to prove trans movies don’t need cis movie stars to sell tickets.
“Rub & Tug” is now “the movie that Scarlet Johansson dropped out of,” just as “All the Money in the World” became “the movie where they reshot all of Kevin Spacey’s scenes.” Following allegations of sexual misconduct against Spacey last fall, Ridley Scott recast the role of J. Paul Getty with Christopher Plummer. Similarly, when Ed Skrein dropped out of Lionsgate’s forthcoming “Hellboy” reboot after whitewashing criticism, Daniel Dae Kim was tapped for the role. In both cases, the response to the controversy made the project (and the producers) look better, while also picking up free publicity.
There is now a heightened awareness around this movie that eliminates the fear that an unknown trans actor would not be able to sell tickets. Trans actors experience a catch-22: There aren’t enough trans actors famous enough to headline a movie, and there never will be if cis people keep taking their parts. Whoever lands the part in “Rub & Tug” could become a bona fide movie star.
Johansson’s production company, These Pictures, was set to produce, along with Joel Silver’s Silver Pictures, which most recently produced “SuperFly.” Now “Rub & Tug” could be the first major studio film about a transgender person, yet another reason it would be a shame if it got scrapped.
“Rub & Tug” tells the story of Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who ran a string of massage parlors as fronts for sex work in 1970s Pittsburgh, PA. Without reading the script, it’s impossible to know how screenwriter Gary Spinelli (“American Made”) handled Gill’s story. The producers may have been wrong to cast Johansson, but they got one thing right: Dante “Tex” Gill had one hell of an interesting life.
From the few accounts we have, Gill was quite a character. He fought scrappily for a piece of the dangerous Pittsburgh crime world, escaping letter bombs and once evading arrest by throwing a birthday cake at an undercover cop during a raid. Wearing suits and going by “Mr. Gill” long before there was a trans rights movement, he was a pioneer. He was described by his lawyer as “very complex” and “very tough,” and heralded by the Pittsburgh Press for having “an eye for fashion like no one since Michael Jackson.”
While there is so much more to trans people than their gender, it’s clear that Gill’s gender non-conformity makes his story unique. For producers to tell it without consulting or casting any trans people would only lead to harm and mistakes, as we’ve already seen. But with a trans man in the role and a trans director, there’s no reason “Rub & Tug” can’t rise from the ashes. What’s more, if “Rub & Tug” did somehow right the ship, it would be one of the most impressive comebacks since Rocky’s.
After a misstep of a response, Johansson stepped down from the project a little over a week after the initial announcement. “In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project,” Johansson told Out Magazine. “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive.”
If Johansson can learn from her mistake, so can the other producers of “Rub & Tug.”
Here’s my advice: Hire a trans man or a gender non-conforming person to play Dante “Tex” Gill. Someone who has walked the walk, someone who can fully inhabit the role with the wisdom of their lived experience. Hire a trans director. Hire a trans script consultant. Hire trans producers, consultants, and crew. Prove, like Johansson did, that you can listen, learn, and change. You will be rewarded.
Silver Pictures did not immediately respond to IndieWire’s request for comment.