Hollywood repeatedly seems to fail at opening doors for trans talent. This is despite a rise in transgender stories being told. Smaller independent directors are leading the way, but why is it big name directors continuously choose to cast cisgender actors in trans roles.
Ash Palmisciano, 28, is an actor who also happens to be trans. Ash wakes up after snoozing through five alarms. Then it’s a quick shower. He throws something on. In just 15 minutes he is ready for work. Ash is a very busy person. As well as pursuing acting he has three part-time jobs.
Ash strides confidently into the cafe at the Royal Shakespeare Centre, Stratford Upon Avon. He is wearing jeans, a black top under a black and red plaid shirt and a fleece-lined denim jacket. Before Ash’s transition it would have taken him much longer to muster up the courage to get out of bed, “I spent two hours getting ready in the morning, trying to look and feel okay. I left the house going to work wearing a mask.” He’d come home exhausted after spending the day repressing his mind with distractions, “I was daydreaming all the time about a life that didn’t exist.” A depressed Ash signed off work, “my day was literally living at home, trying to Google things and not finding any answers, and having an argument with my parents”. Back then he’d never imagine sitting here with a cup of tea, talking about his experiences and most importantly, feeling happy and excited about life.
In a survey conducted by Filmstrip, 17 out of 32 participants believed that cisgenders should be cast in trans roles. However 72% said more transgender actors are needed. The lack of diversity in the film industry – apparent by last year’s #OscarsSoWhite – made Ash contemplate telling people he is a transgender person. “There’s part of me that wanted to keep it secret. I was transgender. Make it as an actor in the cisgender society and then say, oh by the way just so you know.” He decided he couldn’t do that, “I feel like it’s my life purpose to use what I have got to try and change perceptions of transgender people.”
Acting started off for Ash as a way to escape. Ash reminisces, “I used it as escapism, so I’d put on costumes, make up characters with accents and silly little things and entertain people.” His passion for acting was ignited at a young age. Ash recalls, “I used to put on my grandparents’ clothes, you know my granddad’s hat and jacket and perform for them on the weekends.”
Ash is performing at the Royal Stratford East theatre this July in a production called Summer. Excited, Ash explains, “Every single actor in this play is transgender. It’s not a main focus of the play, the concept is that people are going to go and watch the love story and they’re going to forget that their trans.” He describes it as “groundbreaking”.
Elijah W Harris is a London based trans actor who played Jay in BLEACH, which premiered at the BFI film festival in July 2016. Currently, Elijah’s working on a production called Affection Devised. He highlights the few trans roles available are cast to cisgenders. An example is Bernadette, a trans character in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), played by cisgender actor Terence Stamp.
Elijah scoffs at the mention of Matt Bomer, who has been cast to play a trans woman in the film, Anything (2017). An amused Elijah says, “You know they auditioned trans women. How can you sit in a room with trans female actors and some cis white guy and be like oh yeah he’s the perfect choice”. In reference to a cis man playing a trans female, Elijah says, “It’s so dangerous, the fallout for trans women is scary because a man dressed up as a woman is so far from what it is.” He points out the same with Michelle Rodriguez who played Frank Kitchen in the film (Re) Assignment (2016).
“The idea of cisgender men is a tired trope that only enforces the idea that trans women are essentially men”
Tristan Chadwick, theatre student and aspiring actor says, “In general, trans women are played by cis men, and trans men vice versa. This is completely unacceptable in most cases, as this implies that trans women are just men dressing up as women, and again for trans men, vice versa.”
Ash says, “People think a trans person is a bloke dressing up as a woman or a woman dressing up as a guy they don’t realize that it’s actually a life-time complete change of your outer shell, they don’t get that. I think we need transgender people to do the job, so that when actors are doing acceptance speeches they see a trans person.”
Cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor shares similar sentiments. Last year, for the second year he won an Emmy for his role as trans woman, Maura Pfefferman, in the TV series Transparent. In his speech he asked Hollywood to “give transgender talent a chance, give them auditions, give them their stories”. He added, “I would not be unhappy if I were the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television, we have work to do.”
Fox Fisher, a non-binary trans artist, filmmaker and campaigner, thinks, “the idea of cisgender men is a tired trope that only enforces the idea that trans women are essentially men”. In 2013 Fox picked up his camera and started a YouTube channel, My Genderation, to document the lives of other trans people. He started it for two reasons. Fox was a part of My Transsexual Summer (2011), a TV series aired on Channel 4. He was unhappy with how he was presented, “I was not allowed to express my identity as a non-binary person and I was forced to present as a trans man on the series.” Fox explains the other reason, “A primary teacher who was a trans woman committed suicide after she was bullied and stigmatised by the press. This injustice made me think that we can do better and I thought that making documentaries about trans people would help people understand who we are and about our identities.”
Leon Lopez, 37, cisgender actor, director and musician, set up a production company, Brown Boy Productions, in 2014 to make his feature film Soft Lad. Leon’s latest feature film Almost Saw The Sunshine, release date unknown because of its submission to festivals. Leon hopes it gets into BFI Flare. It is not the common ‘coming out story’. It’s not mentioned that the main character Rachel (Munroe Bergdorf) is a trans person. Leon says, “She’s at the end of her journey and she’s a woman. Basically I wanted to tell a story of issues within the transgender community that weren’t be spoken about.” Almost Saw The Sunshine explores violence towards the transgender community. Filmstrip cannot reveal more details about this film until its current festival rounds are concluded.
Violence towards trans people is an ongoing issue. The Home Office recorded 858 transphobic crimes reported in 2015/16, a 41% increase from 2014/15. Leon says, “It’s something that’s been going on for years, the whole issue to do with the violence towards transgender women, I thought no matter how we put it out we just do it so that as many people can watch it.” Leon believes film has the power to help people understand what trans people go through he says, “It’s about spreading the messages through performances.” This is why Leon’s back-up plan is to put it on his Vimeo and YouTube channels. Either way it will be out sometime this year.
“It’s almost easier to kill yourself than be yourself in our society”
When casting for transgender characters Leon says, “Hiring a transgender actor especially to play a character who is transgender as a director 70-80% of the job is done because you don’t have to try and work hard to get into the psyche.” He stresses some of the struggles trans people face, “They have to go through psychological evaluations all kinds of things.” However Leon also says, “I also know that if it is a funded project then it might be getting funded for the fact that they’ve got somebody who is famous playing that role.” Even though he understands the pressures directors’ experience Leon hopes he’d never cast a cisgender person in a transgender role.
In the film Dallas Club Buyers (2013), Jared Leto plays Rayon, a trans woman with AIDS. During an interview on CBC Radio, director, Jean-Marc Valle spoke about casting decisions. He said, “And just like in every film — we’re actors, we’re directors. I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing”.
As an actor Ash Palmisciano understands artistic freedom. He says, “I actually think whoever is best for the role should get the job.” Nonetheless Ash thinks, “A transgender person would be able to convey a trans storyline much more authentically than a cisgender.”
Trans filmmaker Fox Fisher believes that much emphasis is placed on the physical transition, “I think that films need to move away from the medical narrative and making it all about trans people’s bodies, genitals, hormones and surgeries. Trans people are so much more than that, and I would love to see films and shows that have a trans person, but their role isn’t just to be the trans person.”
Ash ends with something someone once told him “it’s almost easier to kill yourself than be yourself in our society”. Ash believes that a trans comprehensive education is needed and film can do this, “Film is one of the most inspirational things we’ve got.”