Actress Jen Richards explains the problem with casting cis actors in trans roles

I wonder if there’d be such an issue if a cis-woman actor played the part of a trans-woman character.

The concept of perpetuating the idea that: “When Jared Leto plays Rayon and accepts his Oscar with a full beard, the world see’s that being a trans women is just a man performing” does make sense to me and I’d never thought of it like that before.

It wouldn’t be ‘playing dress up’ if a woman played the part, I don’t think.
But, really, casting an actual trans-woman isn’t such an obstacle these days… though very few have any name recognition - which is what financial-backers look for most probably. But, then, I’m sure trans-women actors don’t want to only be relegated to being cast as trans-women characters… so there’s that can-o-worms.


I would point to Orlando as an example of exactly that, in which the cisgender Tilda Swinton played the main character both as a man and a trans woman to much acclaim.


Good point. But I thought the Orlando character was a cis-man who transformed into a cis-woman via magic - so not transgender as we know it.

I mean, a trans-woman is someone born with male genitalia and male physical traits but ID’s as a woman - they may decide to present as a woman at some point but they’ve always considered themselves female.
I think Orlando considered himself male (and had male parts) until magic made her female (with female parts). note: I could be foggy on this.

ETA: Just looked up some stuff on ‘Orlando’ and there is lots of mention about transgenderism… So maybe it falls under that purview.


that’s a good point - if only trans actors can play trans roles, the converse would be that trans actors can only play trans roles. i wonder if she thought about that.


I think Felicity Huffman in Transamerica is the example you’re searching for. Cis woman playing a trans woman, so she’s seen as transitioning yet undeniably female.


Whether you think it’s OK for cisgendered people to play transgendered people or not, I hope we can all agree that LaVerne Cox having a cisgendered identical twin to play the “before transition” version of her character on Orange is the New Black was a pretty darn fortuitous bit of casting.


Soooo . . . now when you go on a casting call, you have to report your sexual preferences in addition to the percentages in your racial background? It isn’t about how you can act in the role, it is solely about who you are?

That doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Trans actors should be bypassed for trans parts solely because of that, nor should they be bypassed for non-trans parts. Ian McKellen would play a great King Lear notwithstanding the fact that Lear is not gay. Daniel Day Lewis didn’t have to sever his spine for My Left Foot. Acting is a function of what you can do, not so much of what you are.

If you are so consumed by identity to the exclusion of ability and artistic value, well, that’s kind of sad for you.


The other tricky thing here is that, quite frankly, I think a lot of transgender people would prefer to just be themselves. If you’ve transitioned and now identify as female, and you’ve always felt female, then most likely you’re going to prefer to identify as a female actor, rather than specifically a “transgender female actor” who’s limited to those roles.

Transgender people don’t want to be seen as just trans. They’re men and women.


Now see, I’m not interested in SRS, but if something like that was available it would make life so much easier, especially for people like myself. Today, I’ve been more female, but tomorrow I mostly have to present as male. Transformation magic for the win! *Poof!*

I actually think most of your post here is good, but I have to correct that one. It would be easier if most of us figured out that we aren’t our assigned genders early in life, but it’s just not always that easy. (This is even more true for those of us who aren’t binary, be that cis or trans.) Sometimes we just go through many, many years of not feeling like you quite fit in some undefined way. Many people really don’t figure this out until fairly late in their lives. (Yeah, I speak from my own experiences in this case.)


aaaaaaaa i just wanted to come on here to say this was really good and I love Her Story and everyone should watch it but everyone’s talking about how this was unnecessary criticism and I just don’t have the energy to read it all
please just stop insisting that you, if you are a cis person, understand what it’s like to be trans. you don’t, not just because you don’t experience being trans, but because most of the media about trans people, like this, is created by and for cis people, and doesn’t actually portray us.
and don’t compare the experience of being a truck driver to the experience of being trans. there is nothing fundamentally different about the experiences truck drivers compared to non-truck drivers in our society. we are asking to be represented by ourselves because there is no comparable experience. "but there’s no comparable experience to being Gandalf or Hitler and we can’t stop people from portraying those characters-"
we’re not asking you to stop portraying anything fantastical, or writing stories that aren’t directly and solely about your own experiences. we’re asking you to stop portraying people who actually exist right now and are physically affected by this, in a specific way that affects them. which is their portrayal by cis people.
you can, of course, still write stories with trans characters as a cis person, and you should, because it’s great to be represented. what you cannot do is make that story about how that person is trans, because that is an aspect of human experience that you have never yourself experienced, so it would just be you projecting your ideas about transness onto that character. a good example of a well written trans character by a cis guy is Claire from Questionable Content. the author consciously decided that he needed to make his comic more inclusive, did his research (which meant talking to some real live trans people, to understand common mistakes cis people make when portraying trans characters, and what issues to address) and wrote being trans as part of her character, but did not make the story about that.

thanks for reading. now go watch Her Story.


The easy solution is not to cast the wrong gender. Transamerica cast a cis woman to play a trans woman, and that perfectly avoids the cultural message that Richards is talking about because being a ‘woman’ isn’t just a part she is playing on-screen or in-bed.


Cis male actors playing trans women is a grotesque parody of non traditional casting that serves neither art nor equity.

If it were really about acting chops these trans female roles would be going to cis female actors in equal numbers to cis male actors. And trans female actors would be getting roles playing cis female and male roles.


I agree with what you are saying here, but the problem is one of opportunity rather than ability. In 2016, if people are casting the role of black person, for instance, they have the awareness to know that it might just make sense to check out some black actors. But that was not always the case. Hollywood is often still blind to the opportunity of casting actors who are Asian, or transgendered.

If there really were equal opportunities for people of all sexes, genders, races, ages, ethnicities, etc - then I would say that it is a daring challenge in the craft of acting to cast a black actor as a white character, or a male actor as a female character. Then it can truly be a matter of pure acting ability. But unfortunately we are a long way off from that situation. Opportunity and fair representation are more important as of now.


Well, we’re soon getting Idris Elba as Roland in The Dark Tower, a character consistently portrayed as, basically, Clint Eastwood, though never actually described that way. So while it’s debatable if Roland is a ‘white character’ or not, it’s definitely nontraditional casting for that role, and totally brilliant.


Likewise, one doesn’t have to revisit Doogie Howser to work out what Neil Patrick Harris’ sexuality means for the fictional character he was playing. The actor’s own identity should be subverted by the character, not the other way around.
That said, the desire to see oneself reflected in art is strong in society and to see a step towards that but then feel that the representation is not authentic would no doubt be frustrating. I would suggest though, that it is impossible to accurately represent anything more than yourself in any art. None of us truly know what it is to be other than ourselves. Every representation of a woman from a male author, every representation of a Frenchman by an American, every representation of you by me, and even a representation of a trans woman by another trans woman, all are inaccurate but true art (cinematic or otherwise) knows that, accepts it and attempts to show the reader something more universal.


Thanks for the clarification. I was being overly simplistic in my ‘definition’.


Excellent point. How many times have seen a character do or say something we would not, and think, “that’s crazy”. Throw in layers of identity issues and everyone can be shouting about how a performance was inauthentic because that inauthentic person said or did what they would not.

As said numerous times above, acting is pretending. Only matters whether it’s good enough to suspend disbelief. I might point out that Hedwig has been played by both cis men and women, gay and straight, and it was still good. Acting.

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I have never read The Dark Tower. It might be good casting for Elba, but I meant portrayal of a more grounded character. With TWD they are presumably casting Elba as a black actor portraying who they will insist was (or could well have been) a black character all along. But casting him to depict a white historical figure as a white person would be audacious. The more dissimilar the actor is from the character, the more skill of acting is required. But that would probably be used a gloss, an evasion in contemporary movies to avoid casting certain people, rather than a way to push acting. IMO Hollywood cares far more about marketing recognizable personalities than they do pure acting skill.

There are other trans people on this thread, just so you know.


That is a lot closer to my own views on gender. Gender is fluid partly because identity itself is a fluid construct. BUT I am sensitive to the fact that not everybody shares this perspective.

At least two! Did anybody say that you needed to pick one? They are just our models of reality, and a number of models can apply, so I find that it is better to not be too attached to them. Use whatever works.