This week sees the release of The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s long-awaited film about Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener), the first person to ever undergo gender reassignment surgery. The lead role is played by the current ‘Best Actor in the World’, Eddie Redmayne, but should a trans actor have taken the role instead?
Three of our writers – Sophie Wing, Phil Bayles and Maddie Joint – will be putting forward their views, with the debate moderated by features editor Tom Bond. We’ll be using the terms ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ a lot throughout, so in case you’re not familiar with them, cis refers to someone who identifies as the gender they were born as, and trans refers to someone who identifies as a different gender to the one they were born as.
Tom: What was everyone’s initial reaction to Redmayne’s casting?
Sophie: I think it’s yet another example of Hollywood thinking itself open and forward thinking when in fact it’s reinforcing a continuing negative attitude towards trans people in Hollywood. Notice the distinction there is between trans people and trans roles?
Hollywood is ready to nominally forefront trans characters (think Jared Leto winning an Oscar for Rayon) – but it continues to turn its back on trans actors – to the point where the director of Dallas Buyer’s Club laughed off the idea that there might’ve been a trans actor who could have taken the role. Hollywood is saying “we can tell your stories, but you can’t be in them”
Phil: It is kind of strange that Tom Hooper is on record as saying “the film industry has a problem with transgender actors”, while at the same time completely missing the opportunity to give a really important role to a trans actor.
Maddie: My first reaction was just: “Seriously, Redmayne? Again?” He rode the line hugely with Stephen Hawking when there are such limited roles for disabled actors and then moved right on to trans women.
Tom: Is it relevant that for 99% of the film Redmayne is playing someone who is biologically male? Someone before any kind of surgery has taken place?
Maddie: I think actually there is something kind of clever about The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl in that for the majority of the film the character is pre-illness or pre-transition. It seems to justify his casting, but at the same time it’s a clever little Hollywood trick – a way of telling inclusive stories without really having to show them on screen.
Sophie: But if a cis person can play as post-transition transgender person, why can’t a trans person play a pre-transition trans person?
Maddie: Well exactly – it’s treated as if casting is all about ‘passing’. The idea that Eddie can pass for a woman but a woman couldn’t pass for a man is ridiculous
Phil: To play devil’s advocate, I suppose the logic behind casting male actors like Redmayne and Jared Leto is that they’re both fairly androgynous men, which makes it easier (from a production perspective) to transition. I’m not saying that excuses the casting, but the film could have been decidedly dodgier had a different actor been chosen.
Maddie: I’d actually argue that Jared Leto was a pretty poor trans woman and that’s interesting in itself. There are many trans women, transvestites and drag queens who perform that identity much more successfully so it’s interesting that these actors are given awards for their performances.
Phil: If the whole idea of the film is that Einar Wegener felt like a woman trapped in a male body (if you’ll excuse the horribly simplistic phrasing) it would have had more weight to find a trans actress to play male for most of the film. It would make the ending, when she becomes who she’s meant to be, feel so much more meaningful.
Tom: So would someone with that experience have provided a better performance? I think I’m the only one here to have seen the film yet, and I can say that Redmayne is very very good in the role.
Phil: I’m sure Redmayne is excellent but yes, I think someone who has actually experienced that transition probably would have been better suited to the role.
Maddie: The reality is that Lili was never male. Part of the point of transitioning for many people is the realisation that they were always the gender they transition to. Redmayne’s casting is, well, wrong if you want to represent who Lili was.
And I don’t actually agree that it’s about the experience – that’s just the job of being an actor – but there is something to be said for authority. Ultimately it comes down to this stubborn casting idea that trans actors can only play trans actors but white cis males can play anyone.
Sophie: The thing is: Redmayne can have any role he likes. I’m not saying he’s not a wonderful actor, but if a trans person isn’t offered a trans role when will they be offered anything else?
Tom: Let’s focus on that issue of trans people and the roles they can or can’t get for a moment.
Sophie, you began this debate by talking about the distinction between trans actors and trans roles. We’ve seen some big progress in the last few years with Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, the two trans leads of Tangerine, and the BBC’s new transgender comedy Boy Meets Girl whose lead is a trans actor, Rebecca Root (who also appears as a nurse in The Danish Girl!). Then there are other hits like Transparent – a show about transitioning, albeit one led by a cis man. Is Redmayne’s casting even more frustrating coming at a time of relative progress in this area?
Sophie: I was just thinking about Laverne Cox actually – and even more so Miss Hudson in Elementary. Now she’s only a supporting character but I think she’s a breakout one because her being trans is (I think) alluded to once and then never mentioned again. She is incidentally trans rather than her entire role on the show revolving around it. That feels like progress.
Boy Meets Girl was interesting as well. It was the result of a competition by All About Trans working with BBC Writersroom and ultimate the winning script was by a cis white male. I mention this as an interesting fact rather than anything else, because that dichotomy does seem to come up a lot.
Maddie: That’s so interesting – do you think it’s a case of sheer numbers? Like more cis white males are encouraged to get into the arts and when those are the only stories you see, I’m sure plenty of people stop connecting with films rather than making their own
Sophie: I just thought it was interesting that the script ended up being from a white cis man. Does that reflect something? Is it a point of disquiet or just something to brush aside because when it comes to writing we should be able to write as anyone anywhere?
Maddie: I find it really tricky because I know I don’t want to be just writing or seeing stories with white cis straight women in them, but then you stray into this problem of authority that I’ve never been able to resolve. I don’t have the authority to tell trans women’s stories, but I can empathise and if I’m in a better position to get that out there, is that a bad thing?
Which I suppose is kind of the point we haven’t talked about to do with Eddie Redmayne’s casting – would it have done as well in the box office if he hadn’t been cast? Would many people have been affected by it?
Phil: The sad part is, probably not. Like it or not, Redmayne is a bankable actor right now, especially considering things like Fantastic Beasts that he’s got coming up.
Sophie: Taking the heat off the people behind the camera for a second, at no point does it seem like Jared Leto or Eddie Redmayne asked if they were doing the best thing for the film, the role or the industry. I know we can’t expect someone to shoulder all that responsibility but it’s still that unquestioning stance of sure, he can play this role, but have we considered why we think that she can’t?
Tom: So, closing statements. I’ll be bluntly pragmatic about the whole thing and say that at this point in time, it was the right decision to cast Eddie Redmayne in the film. Trans representation is improving, and rapidly, but I think making this film with Redmayne has increased trans visibility to the average cinema-goer more than casting a relatively unknown trans actor would – and sadly, most trans actors are relatively unknown at the moment.
Maddie: I don’t think Eddie Redmayne should be in this part but I’m glad a film about such a significant trans woman has been catapulted in the box office, whether that’s down to him or not. I think trans actors should be everywhere, and once casting directors work harder to ensure trans actors don’t just have to play trans characters then they won’t have to answer to any gender-based casting decisions they make.
Phil: I think sadly you’re right Tom. At the moment it seems you can either have a well-made little arthouse film with a trans lead or a big awards contender with a cis actor, but you can’t have both at the same time. All we can hope is that everyone involved gives the story and the figure of Lili the respect that they deserve, and that as more LGBT stories come to the fore the actors will come too.
Sophie: I think there are so many nuances, but really we haven’t moved on from Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry. Perhaps cinema wasn’t ready for a genuinely trans actor in 1999, but this is 2015 and society has progressed in so many ways. The Danish Girl casting feels like such a missed opportunity to open the door to trans actors and it feels like Hollywood is offering tokenist support without actually doing anything to change the bigger picture. Hollywood can’t pat itself on the back with one hand and shut the door with the other.