What Trans Folks Think About Trans Representation in Film and TV
Most of the auditions I get, the first two lines of the script are, "I had a penis. I used to be a man."
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
If you asked most people to name a trans actor, they'd hopefully be able to name one, but they'd probably all name the same one. Laverne Cox.
Cox is a great actress and definitely one of the driving forces behind the success of Orange Is the New Black, but she's one of only a few trans actors that have managed to reach that level of success. It took a while for even Cox to get there. She was 41 when the show premiered.
With a long history of cisgender actors playing transgender characters (Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Elle Fanning in 3 Generations, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent), it doesn't seem like there are many opportunities for trans actors to succeed in film and television. And under the administration of President Trump, who's trying to ban transgender people from military service, representation should matter now more than ever.
So VICE spoke to trans actors, critics, and talent managers to find what the state of trans representation is right now.
VICE: How was your experience getting into the industry as a trans woman?
Victoria Beltran: I never knew a way to get into the industry because when I started, none of this trans stuff was open. It was very hush hush—it was an underground thing. I never had any kind of direction. I just kind of had to do it on my own. I never thought of doing trans characters because there were no trans characters out there to do. So I was doing female parts and booking cisgender female roles. But it was always in the back of my mind that I'm trans, and if it got out, how far could I get?
Do you feel comfortable now going into casting rooms and saying you're a trans woman?
I still don't sometimes, if it's a female part. Me being trans is a part of me, but I'm still female. Going into those audition rooms, I don't tell them unless it's a trans part, but I'm more than happy to say it, and if they find out, or they sense it, I'll own up to it. I've always owned being trans. One time, I was working on this law show, and when I was on the job, they found out I was trans from one of the other actresses. They ended up just putting me in a waiting room, while they called a casting agent and booked another model to fill my part. But they still kept me on the set the whole day to say that I worked the eight hours. I actually knew the model who replaced me, and when she was done, she apologized to me. I didn't even know it was happening until she did that. They just kept me in a waiting room. A lot of things like that have happened to me, but when people ask me, "Are you trans?" I've never denied it. I never felt like it was a big deal. I don't need to be ashamed; there isn't a reason to be ashamed. In audition rooms, it was always like if they knew or didn't know, I didn't really care because I was there to give them an audition, a part, a character—my personal life is my personal life.
How did that experience affect the next time you walked into an audition?
I'm such a thick-skinned girl. I've had worse experiences while growing up trans—being in middle school as a trans person in the 90s. What happened affected me that day, but in the end, I just kind of shook it off, and I worked so much after that. I have this fire inside me to keep going—I've had so many girlfriends who were trans who have passed away, and I feel like they're on my shoulders every day when I go audition, like they're pushing me. It's not easy. It's not an easy life. It's not an easy career to choose. And as an actor, you feel that passion to keep on going. I feel like it's just people and society that have to catch up to us. We've been ahead of them, and we've been here.
So are there more trans roles coming in?
I feel like sometimes the trans parts, a year ago at least, they were coming in really heavy, but it seemed like they only wanted very visibly presenting trans people in those parts. But recently, there's been more variety. One casting call asked for a trans woman who presents more as a woman. It feels like slowly they're progressing, as time goes they are letting the girls just be themselves, and they're going to see more girls coming out. I know this is all new for the casting directors. This was coming. It's evolution for people. The entertainment industry just has to catch up. There'll be a trans girl or boy to win an Oscar. It'll happen.
How have the trans roles that have been offered to you been?
The writers do need help with what they're writing for us. I get the script, and I'm like, "Why would they do that?" Having us onboard is going to help with the writing and the progression of the way people see us. Because the scripts that they're writing now I feel like they're solely based on surgery. Most of the auditions I get, the first two lines of the script are, "I had a penis. I used to be a man."
Or a lot of it's like, "She walks into a room, she drops her clothes, and she's standing there with a prosthetic penis." In a recent audition, I had to say, "He thinks he has the authority of slapping my new clit." It's like everything has to be about the organ or the body, and we're more than just a surgery. I hope more trans writers get into writing rooms because every time we get the scripts our reaction is the same "Oh God, here we go again." Even when they write us, it's as the best friend, and we're never just the best friend—we're the best friend who also has to walk in the room and be like, "I'm a tranny."
How do you feel approaching writers and calling out a bad script?
When I get these scripts, I never want to do the audition, and my manager would be like, "Go to the audition—do it and let them see how awkward it makes you feel because then you're showing them not to do this." There are auditions that you don't want to do, but if you want to work and get your name out there, you have to swallow your pride. I don't want to walk in and be the punchline. I want to be a lead, and I want to be funny without it being about my anatomy. But to get to that place I have to do these parts. We all got to eat.
Do you think representation is improving?
People come up to me and say, "It must be nice that Caitlyn Jenner is doing all this, and you can finally be yourself." Because of Caitlyn Jenner I can be myself? I've been myself. There are still times I'm walking down the streets, and I have to hide that I'm a trans person. There are still situations where you have to be quiet and not say anything. There are still trans people being murdered; there are still trans people being harmed. That's why I don't mind going into those auditions and showing people how it affects me because I know this is needed; otherwise things are never going to change. The way the Trump administration is and the military ban and everything, it's affected us. Now, because the president says we shouldn't be part of society, people think they have to right to say it as well. The entertainment industry can help change that by giving us more opportunities and better parts that don't solely focus on our sexuality. It's really simple. People just have to take a risk and give us the opportunity.
VICE: As a film critic, how do you react to films that have cisgender actors playing trans roles?
Danielle Solzman: If it was me, I would have completely trashed the film just because of the casting. The Chicago International Film Festival recently selected a film with a cisgender person playing a transgender parent, and I pretty much wrote that I was skipping that film, because of the casting.
How should audiences react to films that cast cis actors in trans parts?
I vote with my wallet, and I just don't see the film. They keep on casting cisgender people in trans roles, but the tide, I believe, is turning. The Casting Society of America did a major casting call for trans actors, and within a matter of days, FX announced that they were casting five trans [actors] as series regulars on shows. It's not the first time trans actors have been cast as series regulars. In Canada, a little show called The Switch had five trans and non-binary actors, but because it's not FX or one of these major networks, it didn't get much press.
What are your thoughts on Transparent and Jeffrey Tambor?
I believe that Jill Soloway said knowing what they know now, they would have cast a trans person in the role. Jeffrey Tambor's speech hit close to home when he said—after winning an Emmy for best actor—that he wouldn't be terribly unhappy if he was the last cisgender actor to win an award for playing a transgender character.
Trans folk involved in the industry have created their own spaces, whether it's an actors' guild or on the internet. Can you talk about those?
There are those spaces out there, and they're very important because it gives me and other trans actors the ability to network. But it's like, "Do I have to do everything myself?"
Why does representation matter?
Representation is important for the one reason: so we don't get that common stereotype that trans women are just men in dresses, because we're not. And that's one of the things that hurts when you get Matt Bomer cast to play a trans woman. It'd be nice if there were more than 11 trans people on television. And it would definitely be nice if there were more films with trans characters played by trans actors who could find a larger audience. I only came out to myself two years ago, and it would have been a lot sooner if we had trans representation in the media. In the late 90s, when I was growing up, when I first started to have these feelings, I thought it was a phase and that it would go away, but those feelings never went away. It was only when Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Transparent came out—all that awareness in 2015—when everything made sense.
VICE: Casting directors always say they can't find someone, and as someone who manages trans talent, what do you think about that?
Ann Thomas: A lot of productions actually complain that they don't get any trans actors auditioning, and I tell them, "Well, you should have researched this and written the role differently." But they push back, and then they end up changing the role from a transgender actor to a cis actor because they know they'll get exactly what they want. But that doesn't mean the actor will understand the role and understand what we go through. There's also the fact that there are very few actors who can guarantee distribution, which is key in getting a film sold. Theaters don't want to run a film if they think no one's going to come to see it, and they get better attendance when they use name actors who have a dedicated fan bases. So that's what happened in the case of Anything. They tried to get the movie financed with a new trans actor, but they couldn't because they needed a name to sell the movie. After they casted Matt Bomer for the role, distribution signed for the role. If they didn't get Matt, the movie would have never been made at all. That's the kind of thing people don't understand when they say we need to have trans actors play trans roles. There's way, way more to that. They don't understand the way the industry works. And writers will throw something superficial together and think they're doing us a favor, and they're not.
How does the industry move on from casting cis actors in trans roles?
They need to know which transgender actors are out there, but the problem is that the vast majority of transgender actors are not being represented by anyone. Most of the major agencies have very few trans people they represent, so the vast majority of us, even if we're good, don't have anyone to properly represent us.
Are you more optimistic about trans actors getting more representation?
I think it'll probably take five years, maybe less. I'm hoping that more major agencies will start representing actors and the networks will have a slate of transgender actors to choose from. But there aren't enough openings. There aren't enough major roles, and most of the major actors who are trans are with major companies, and those companies don't give small productions opportunities.
Do you see more trans people getting into your line of work?
There are about eight other companies that do talent management for trans people. But of all those other agencies, only two are run by trans people; the others are not. So what's kind of dubious to me is what their intent is, I know they want to help us, but I don't know. I haven't been happy with what I've seen.
Actress and Trans Advocate
VICE: You've been in and out of acting. How do you feel about trans representation in the projects that you've seen?
Delia Kropp: I started to realize the kinds of stories being given to us were often exploitative and reductive. They were a cisgender person's idea of what a trans person is.
Yeah, lots of bad scripts. How do productions fix that?
The one sure way to test it is to just get transgender people involved. Get them involved, pay them, and if you can get a creative in the room who is involved with the production, you'll be doing better. You'll be doing better by your cisgender audience, you'll be doing better by the play, and of course, you'll be doing better by trans folks. I am 61 years old, and I'm not going to see the results of the changes that are happening now, but I know that I've helped get conversations started.
Why is representation so important?
Representation in the media, though it's getting more positive, still leans heavily into making us "them." We are a novelty; we are freaks. We are entertainment for that reason. For me, the most helpful and the most radical representation we could have is just to have a character played by a transgender actor, and have their trans-ness not even be part of the plot. We just want representation. A place at the table—the same table, that's the whole point. But we're a long, long way from that.
Do you think things are getting better?
Yes, definitely. They're improving, but we still have a long, long way to go. I think it'll get better once we start getting more transgender writers. Right now, Transparent is really the only major engine for transgender stories that are written mostly by transgender writers. It's inevitable. I'm old—I remember the 1960s when black people were going through the same thing in the entertainment industry. Every single story that featured a prominent black character was written by a white person, and looking back you can tell. You have to kind of assume ownership after a while and for me, that means assuming ownership of the writing and the directing. But things are definitely improving.
What does the industry need to start doing?
Listening to us is a good start. But the ultimate thing is to let us tell our stories. In 50 or 100 years when we're all equal and we're all living on an equal playing field, that won't be necessary, but right now it is because there's no way that a white cisgender person can possibly understand what life for us is like right now. And they can't tell our stories as well. That's ownership. That's us being at the table.
How do you feel about Caitlyn Jenner?
Representation by a very famous person is a double-edged sword. Yeah, we start to become part of people's vocabularies, that's good. I don't deny her authenticity, and I will never deny her transition, but I do not want someone who's wealthy and Republican to model all of trans people for America. We have to steer away from the easy. Let's not get lazy. Let's find authentic people who have taken a big risk with transitioning.
VICE: How'd you get into acting, and how has it been as a trans actor?
Cess Jones: My first role was on Orange Is the New Black. My experience hasn't been horrible, but it's definitely different. I'm a bit cautious in saying that I'm trans. It's just something where you don't know if you should put yourself out there like that. It's kind of sad that you have to hide behind that, and you can't always say, "Hey! I'm a trans actor," and hope that doesn't bother or change the audition process. It's already a known thing that you're not going to get the callback sometimes if you say you're trans. It is what it is.
How do you feel when you see cisgender actors cast in trans roles?
Please, I mean, it's horrible. A trans character should be played by a trans individual. We need the opportunity to just be out there. It's a sad situation, but it's reality. We do have a couple of trans actors out there making waves, but unfortunately, the industry is just not putting too many roles out there for us.
Do you feel like anything is changing?
Slightly, if it's a change, it's here and there. You see that one person who has that one role. But it's not across the board. The CSA (Casting Society of America) did put out the big casting call, but I don't know how much came out of it. I don't really know what's happening behind that scenes. There definitely should be more platforms for us, and I think if we did have that opportunity, people would understand we're the same. We just want to be respected. That's basically it.
Why is proper representation so important? Especially for trans folks?
It's important so that people can see us and understand us. I think many people have this misconception of who trans people are because we all come from different backgrounds, and things aren't always clear-cut. I can understand that just going through my transition and my life. But it's beautiful when you see someone who looks like you making steps and strides in the film industry or in anything because it shows you that you can do that, that you can attain that. So it's really important that we have that visibility so maybe some of the backlash and some of the hate can be understood, and we have these conversations at the table. If understanding was across the board and people just gave us time, we'd be able to flourish.
VICE: You're relatively new to acting. How did it feel getting into it?
Kiley May: Before getting into acting, I had a lot of anxiety because I know just from being trans that there are a lot of barriers and obstacles to overcome. In the beginning, I didn't feel that optimistic. But my opinion has changed. So far it's been great. Being trans so far has not been any kind of obstacle or burden. It's a non-issue, which is amazing. It's great because I've been offered roles that were both trans and non-trans characters, and that's been really validating.
How do you feel about the state of trans representation in the media?
I'm indigenous. I identify as a two-spirited person so I always felt that there were two layers of oppression that I've experienced, but I try not to let it define me. I find that transgender representation and indigenous representation are very similar experiences. I see lots of transgender roles taken by cisgender actors and a lot of indigenous roles played by white or non-indigenous actors, and it can be disheartening and discouraging. But also the way we're portrayed can be really problematic and offensive, just downright awful. It's a little better now, but in the 90s, there was Ace Ventura and Silence of the Lambs, and more recently The Hangover 2. The punchline in that movie is that the characters don't realize they're attracted to a trans woman at this strip club, and when they find out, they freak out. We're mocked, and our bodies are made into the joke or the plot twist. If it's not a negative representation, it's usually focused just on transitioning or coming out.
Why is proper representation so important?
There are consequences or risks when trans people are misrepresented. If an audience had no knowledge of the trans experience, and they watched a movie like Silence of the Lambs, and they see the trans character as a serial killer, it creates that idea of trans people for them—that we're killers or addicts or sex workers, troubled characters. People are learning from these representations so there has to be more care and sensitivity because it affects day to day interactions with people.
Are you optimistic that things are going to improve in the future?
Yeah, I feel like in the past five years we've experienced this paradigm shift. People are becoming more open-minded and socially aware... I think back to living on the reserve 15 years ago, I didn't see trans people on television, and if I did, it was a problematic representation. But there's been this movement, almost a transgender renaissance, and it's really exciting to see lots of trans characters being created and trans actors being given roles. It's very validating.
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