NEW YORK—When actress Scarlett Johansson reversed course recently and cancelled plans to play a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug, transgender actors like Scott Turner Schofield were gratified — and pleasantly surprised.
After years of watching non-trans stars win accolades — including Oscars — for what was seen as bravery in playing transgender characters, finally it seemed that somebody got it.
The real goal, Scott Turner Schofield says, is access for the transgender community at every level of the Hollywood storytelling process, from the first idea pitch to the final product. (Jordan Strauss / Invision/The Associated Press file photo)
“To have someone with any amount of power be reflective and say, ‘I did something wrong, I learned something, and I’m sorry,’ that absolutely feels like change,” says Schofield, a veteran trans performer who stars in the upcoming European film The Conductor.
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Now, Schofield and others hope Hollywood will understand an even bigger point — that the “authentic casting” debate stoked by the Johansson episode isn’t just about who gets acting roles. The real goal, he says, is access for the transgender community at every level of the Hollywood storytelling process, from the first idea pitch to the final product.
“We need to take the reins here,” Schofield says. “We need to be a substantive part of this conversation.”
Advocates are hoping that the current focus on transgender Hollywood will help. “Hollywood right now is being very introspective about the stories it’s telling and how it’s telling them,” says Nick Adams, director of the transgender media program at GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group. “We’re having a cultural moment where the trans community is speaking up and saying, ‘We want to be part of that.’ ”
To that end, GLAAD and the equality organization 50/50BY2020 on Tuesday issued an “open letter to Hollywood,” signed by a large array of organizations and companies — from the American Civil Liberties Union to Time’s Up, from producers including Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Ava DuVernay and Judd Apatow to the major talent agencies.
“Trans people are fighting every day to be seen and accepted as human beings,” says the letter. “We believe we are at an unprecedented cultural moment,” it says, “where we can ask Hollywood to use its power to improve the lives of trans people by changing America’s understanding about who trans people are.”
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Not long ago, say Schofield and others, transgender people felt they had to be grateful for the mere fact that Hollywood was willing to tell their stories, albeit with non-trans stars, like Hilary Swank in the 1999 Boys Don’t Cry, Felicity Huffman in the 2005 Transamerica or Jared Leto in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club. (Swank and Leto won Oscars, and Huffman was nominated.)
“I don’t begrudge Boys Don’t Cry anything,” says Schofield, “but times have changed. We have trans people who are professionally trained artists.”
An even deeper problem, says Adams of GLAAD, is the impression given the public when an actor who is not transgender appears on the red carpet in a beard and tuxedo after playing a trans woman in a wig and a dress. “It reinforces, in some people’s minds, that trans people’s identities are not real; that it’s a costume, a show, a performance,” says Adams, who is a trans man. “That fundamental misunderstanding about who trans people are is toxic, and it can lead to violence.”
GLAAD also advocates, of course, for better representation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood. But the difference, says Adams, is that trans people are fighting for their very identity to be recognized: “Often we’re told our gender identity is not real, that it’s all in our heads.”
Some directors who’ve hired trans actors note that they bring a perspective that non-trans actors can’t. Dutch director Maria Peters, who hired Schofield for The Conductor, says the pivotal role he plays required an innate understanding of both genders. “I told Scott I would hire him again to play a man or a woman,” she says. She adds that in an ideal world, anybody could play anyone. But, she says, “Transgender actors are fed up with not having been taken seriously for so many years.”
The trans community was buoyed last year when A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, starring trans actress Daniela Vega as a transgender character. Adams says that victory was significant for the struggle for more prominent trans representation in movies.
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