Act Your Age - And Your Gender While You’re at It - Bailey C with An Unpopular Opinion on transgender actors playing transgender roles in film, television and theatre.

(*Before I begin, I would like to state for the record: this is written completely on my viewpoint that I’ve formed based on hearing the outcry of “transgender actors should play transgender roles” and what that outcry means to me as an actor. There is a lot more depth and analyzing to do in this topic, but this skims the surface.)

I am American, born and raised in a small town in New York with no German background. I was not around during or right after World War II. I was not persecuted personally by Hitler’s regime for being mentally incompetent, nor was I made sterile by the Nazis. I have not had my mother be accused of being mentally unstable. I do not have a life that’s been forever changed and scarred by war and my country changing on a dime. Even so, I will become that person in a few weeks time as I shed my name and identity to pick up the one of Rudolph Petersen in a production of Judgment at Nuremberg.

“Lately, there has been a huge outcry of people, transgender, non-binary and cisgender alike, who have been demanding transgender characters in movies and TV shows are played by transgender actors only..”

I am almost 22 years old. Since age 7 or 8, I have been involved with theatre in all sorts of ways. I’ve studied all different playwrights and composers, from Shakespeare to Sondheim. I’ve admired many actors from those in small community productions to those who are taking center stage on Broadway for the millionth time. I’ve taken classes and learned about countless techniques. I am also a transgender man. Lately, there has been a huge outcry of people, transgender, non-binary and cisgender alike, who have been demanding transgender characters in movies and TV shows are played by transgender actors only; that casting cisgender actors erases the struggle of transgender people.

As someone who has spent the majority of his life in theatre, I stand with only one question when talking about the demand: Why? Isn’t the job of an actor to become the person in the script, regardless of their real life identity and experiences? I see Laverne Cox get more and more roles as her acting career expands, but I always find myself asking- so when is a major role of hers going to be a woman, with no regards to whether or not the character transgender? 

“As I dive further and further into the world of acting, I have feelings of anxiety that, considering how I’m openly transgender, I’ll always get stuck with being a transgender man in any show I’m in.”

Admittedly, I don’t know Laverne personally and I cannot tell you if she prefers the expressly-transgender or gender-nonconforming characters to playing someone cisgender or someone who’s gender identity is not specified. I know there are transgender actors/actresses out there like that. I can, however, speak for myself, and other transgender actors/actresses who share my position. As I dive further and further into the world of acting, I have feelings of anxiety that, considering how I’m openly transgender, I’ll always get stuck with being a transgender man in any show I’m in. I hate that idea. I don’t want to have to be reminded of my personal struggle when I’m trying to assume the mind and life of a fictional character! That’s not acting to me. That’s just living my everyday life on a stage for a ticket price.

I feel that a lot of the people who demand transgender actors and actresses play transgender characters have clearly never spent a day in their lives as an actor of any sort. First rule of acting: you are not yourself when you’re on stage or while the camera is rolling! Sure the real life experience you have might help if the character is in a similar struggle, but the challenge (and the fun) of acting is to become someone else in entirety for the time you’re acting, whether that be for a two hour play, or all day on a movie set.

Act Your Age- And Your Gender While You’re at It - Bailey C. with "An Unpopular Opinion" on transgender actors playing transgender roles in film, television and theatre.

Also, let’s consider something- I might be a talented actor, but if I’m competing for a role against another actor who is more talented, has much more experience in acting and is more what the director wants in terms of appearance, I’m obviously not getting the part regardless of what it is. I’d rather see a talented cisgender actor, than a transgender actor who is mediocre.

“Our anger and scrutiny is directed in the wrong directions.”

Our anger and scrutiny is directed in the wrong directions. How so? Let’s say you’re a transgender actor or actress and you get the role of a cisgender character. Audiences get angry and rage at you- how DARE you play someone who’s cisgender! Shame! You’d be angry and upset; after all, your identity isn’t something you can help, right?

So why would you say that to a cisgender actor or actress?

I know what you’re probably saying right now- transgender people are usually stereotyped and portrayed in horrible light! It wouldn’t be the same! In some ways, no it wouldn’t be the same. However, it would be the same in terms of attacking an actor for their identity, with nothing else taken into account, just the fact that the actor is transgender.

We should ask ourselves a few questions before immediately becoming enraged at a cisgender actor playing a transgender character:

  1. What is the movie/play about?  This year brings us (Re)Assignment, a movie about a man who is forced to undergo gender reassignment surgery as a punishment and violence by a rogue doctor. That’s not a light in which transition-related surgeries should be looked at. However, in another movie with a cisgender actor as a transgender person, The Danish Girl, it shows a trans woman’s struggle to be able to be herself in a time period that had more hatred towards transgender people, the 1920s. I’ve seen people give hate towards it without having seen it. Though admittedly I’ve only been able to view this movie in small clips and read the synopsis, myself, it seems far more rooted in reality than (Re)Assignment, and I feel like I could actually give it a fair watch.
  2. Who is/what is the mindset of the person who wrote the script? Someone who understands the transgender community and what we go through will be able to write a realistic and respectful plot and character.
  3. What does the actor/actress feel about the transgender community? It didn’t help (Re)Assignment’s backlash when Michelle Rodriguez, the star of the film, basically told the trans community to shut up because, “she’s one of us because she’s bisexual,” showing how ignorant she was towards what being transgender is.

Act Your Age - And Your Gender While You’re at It - Bailey C. with "An Unpopular Opinion" on transgender actors playing transgender roles in film, television and theatre.

After asking those questions, consider the answers as to where to direct your anger. If hypothetically, you have known ally Lady Gaga portraying a trans man trying to live his life, despite society’s cruelty towards him, with a well-written script that shows the young man overcoming the challenge of being transgender to realize his dreams, why would you get angry? However, if an actor expresses that he was not very educated on the transgender community and sincerely apologizes after he realizes his character was poorly written and paints trans people in a negative light, maybe you should be angry at the director and writer, but understanding that, with the lack of education about transgender people, the actor may not have known what he was doing. (This should be done especially if the actor tries to better his understanding and becomes an active ally in for the transgender community after the movie.) But then of course, if you get a situation similar to Michelle Rodriguez in (Re) Assignment, with no apologies and sheer nasty comments from people involved, if any at all, then it’s okay and completely justified to get upset at all involved. It’s even more so justified if transgender actors were overlooked just because of their identity.

Bottom line though, no matter the outcome, no matter the actor/actress, no matter the writer, no matter the director, no matter the plot, getting upset at someone for their identity alone and feeling that it should dictate their roles is counter-productive and hypocritical. Instead of getting enraged over who plays who, we should focus on educating the world and making sure that all releases portraying transgender characters are well-researched and respectful. Getting angry and demanding to section ourselves even more is getting us nowhere.

  • Eleven

    Thanks for sharing this. I come at this issue from the perspective of a (transgender) film director so it’s good to hear another angle on it. My counterpoint (although I don’t see our perspectives as opposed, necessarily) is what I wrote a couple years ago, framed more as a question of subtext of the end result than of the acting process. The premise is basically that cis actors playing trans characters creates a harmful narrative about trans people as deviations from a cis norm. The other important thing is that it doesn’t go both ways, meaning that the argument says nothing of trans actors playing cis or non-specified characters.

  • Matthew Cross

    okay that’s great but have you ever seen the movie “Romeos”? I couldn’t even make it through because I felt like an idiot, insulted actually watching a bunch of cisguys blunder around as if they have even the slightest, faintest idea of what being FTM is like. also “creates a harmful narrative about trans characters being a deviation from the cis norm” and “says nothing about trans characters playing cis characters, does not go both ways” I second both of these points.

  • I can understand the author’s point, from the vantage of one’s profession. However, there are also social and political issues at play. Perhaps most troubling is that by having a man – cis or trans – play the part of a trans woman, the director is telling the audience with a not-so-sly-wink, “she’s really a man”. It’s a horrible message, and one that is trumpeted during the pre-release publicity where much is made of the male actor playing the role of a woman.

  • Emily

    I am so happy you wrote this article, because every time I see someone complain about this it just makes me so confused and a bit angry too. Not even just when it’s about a transgender actor/actress, but also when dealing with race. So many people are livid that Scarlett Johansson is playing the main character in Ghost in the Shell, because it’s based on a Japanese anime. However she is an amazing actress and looks incredibly similar to the character in the anime, so I don’t see the problem. I feel the same about the transgender argument, and really love this!

    • Aiden Knight

      That fits into a completely different issue. Whitewashing in Hollywood is just as complex, and really should be kept a separate issue. At the same time, why not hire an ethnically Asian actor to play an Asian person?

    • The problem with that casting is that there has never been (or very rarely) a Hollywood blockbuster with a female Asian protagonist. Many Asian actresses thus find it hard to get roles, since there are so few female roles to begin with and most of them are only looking for white actresses. So when Ghost in the Shell finally came around, they were excited at finally having the opportunity to be considered for a role that did fit their race… only to have it *also* go to a white actress, and an already famous one at that. It’s a double standard, and they’re understandably furious.

      The same goes for trans actors who get rejected from auditions because they’re looking for cis actors to play cis characters. And then when there’s finally a trans role, it also goes to a cis actor. That’s why people are mad, and not because actors should only play characters like them. If trans actors had the same opportunities to play cis characters, there wouldn’t be a problem.

  • Aiden Knight

    I have no problem with a cis gender person playing a trams person if they’re an ally and the script is well written. What I do have a problem with is how no trans writers or consultants tend to get any kind of work. Also, at this point having a good trans person cast in the role is important. It gives work and visibility to the trams community.

    If you have to go with a cis person, though, they need to be an ally and actual trans people need to be involved in making it. Otherwise it’s just profitting off of the struggles of a community.