Is the tide turning for transgender actors?

J speaks to two trans actors in the UK, and asks if the landscape of acting and casting is becoming, slowly, more inclusive to trans people.

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There’s a lot of debate when it comes to trans people playing trans characters, and as a subject that’s been rehashed countless of times (you can scroll through pages of articles and blogs about Dallas Buyer’s Club, for instance), I don’t want to keep going around in circles. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of emotion, and a lot of criticism towards Hollywood directors, casting agents, and non-trans actors who take on roles as trans people.

I feel, from a trans perspective, that their anger is justified: it’s disheartening to see actors who do not identify as trans, cast time and time again in place of trans people. It seems that adding their name to the list now is Eddie Redmayne, of Les Mis fame, who’s set to play Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl.

On the other hand, there are many trans actors – of course, publicised by the casting of Laverne Cox in heavily-acclaimed US TV series Orange is the New Black. Featured on TIME’s front cover heralding the “Transgender Tipping Point”, she remains a committed and hugely inspiring trans activist and actor, currently working on producing a documentary on CeCe Macdonald, entitled Free CeCe, and another documentary about young trans people in the US. Jamie Clayton is also out there in Emmy Award winning web series Dirty Wor’, and now cast in new webseries pilot SCISSR.

Over here, it’s fair to say we don’t have an actor with as much profile as Cox does across the pond. One area where there has been some portrayal of trans people are soaps – watched by millions, there have been several trans storylines wrapped up in the lives of the citizens of Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. In 2010, Hollyoaks broke ground in featuring their first trans character, young trans man called Jason Costello, portrayed by Victoria Atkin. While this portrayal drew some criticism (notably for the amount of negativity Jason’s storyline included) it was one of the first times a trans man was featured in a drama on TV.

Arguably one of the best trans characters on-screen in the UK has been recently created by Coronation Street, hailed by many trans people as sensitive despite casting cis (not trans) actor Julie Hesmondhalgh, and with her trans identity as only part of an overarching, well-written story about euthanasia. Contrast this with Waterloo Road’s attempt at two trans storylines, which many trans viewers were only too eager to pretend never happened: one with a transgender girl, and the other a storyline about a trans man called Robbie, who apparently went back to living as a girl, Kacey.

However, as TV companies are becoming more aware of talented trans individuals – is that set to change? I caught up with Rebecca Root, who stars as Judy in the recently commissioned BBC Two’s sitcom Boy Meets Girl. Premiered at the BBC Salford Comedy Festival in March, the show was created by Elliott Kerrigan, and won the BBC Writers Room Trans Comedy Award, an idea developed as a result of the All About Trans project.

Firstly, tell me about how you started off acting.

I always enjoyed performing from as early as I can remember. I was a regular in school plays – all the Christmas shows at primary school, then more serious productions when in sixth form. I joined the National Youth Theatre when I was 16 and did summer projects and plays with them for a couple of years. Around the time of A-levels, a teacher suggested I try for drama school and he helped me with my audition speeches. After a number of unsuccessful attempts (the competition is hellishly fierce) I gained a place at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London on the 3 year acting course. I graduated in 1990.

Do you think that you would have been influenced positively by trans characters on screen or trans actors?

I’m sure I would have been had there been any. Growing up in the 70s, the only performers with any apparent gender non-conformity that I was aware of were female impersonators like Danny La Rue or comedians doing drag, like Dick Emery or Bugs Bunny. Hardly role models. By the time The Crying Game (1992) came out I was already in my 20s. That film, along with Boys Don’t Cry and HBO’s Normal, made an impact on my more mature perspective and helped crystallise my thoughts about transitioning.

What barriers or benefits have you experienced being trans and an actor?

I think the barriers I’ve faced has been the scarcity of roles, and when they do come along, not being seen for them. But this is as much due to the nature of the entertainment industry as to my gender identity. I’m not famous; getting a foot in the door is hard, especially when cisgender actors with more profile are already crowding the room. The benefits are that I’m in a very small pool of trans performers. So when a producer wants “the real thing”, I am more likely to be seen.

What do you think the future holds for young people wanting to get into acting who are trans? What do you hope will happen in the industry to encourage trans people to act?

There’s something of a sea change taking place that is seeing an increased visibility of trans people in all walks of life, not just the performing arts. The lives of these individuals and the stories they tell are being seen in more and more plays, TV shows and films. The trans perspective is now about where gay and lesbian characters were 20 years ago. Remember the hoopla when EastEnders screened the first gay kiss? That’s where we are as trans people today. In 20 years’ time – hopefully less if I have anything to do with it – the audience won’t so much as bat an eye at a trans person on their television. So our future as trans actors is promising. Admittedly, the nature of the acting industry will always be competitive and disappointments will inevitably outnumber successes for all but the tiny minority, but the fact that we are out there will make it less acceptable for cisgender actors to play trans roles.

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Perhaps because of body and self-esteem issues, many trans people think that often their role is more behind the screen than in front of it. Some turn their hand at directing, writing, or producing, or excel in their camerawork.

One film that was created by and with trans people premiered earlier this year in London: {Brace}, a film discussing trans issues in the gay scene, co-written and starring actor Jake Graf. He tells me that pre-hormones, he was painfully shy with no confidence to act. His confidence grew as he became happier within himself and as he started acting courses: “I could barely go out and meet friends let alone get on stage”. He told me that he would never push himself as a trans actor - just an actor – but, he said, that there have been limitations. Apparently, a lot of parts require a guy to whip his top off. To some people, scars from chest reconstruction surgery might look unusual; in a mainstream production, awkward questions might be raised. Like young people watching soaps like Hollyoaks, he related to characters he saw on TV, though these were gay. Had he seen trans people on TV, he said it would have been “mind-blowing”.

It seems, slowly, the tide is changing for trans actors. We at All About Trans met the team from Hollyoaks in May for a large lunchtime interaction in College Coffee, and you can read about what went on here. Since then, developments have been coming thick and fast: our volunteers have been able to consult on the script, keep up an ongoing relationship with Lime Pictures, and produce two backstage videos for Hollyoaks about trans issues. Perhaps most strikingly, while the storyline with Blessing does have drama, bullying and hardships, it’s very different to the earlier plot with Jason Costello: it’s more positive, and it feels less forced and more natural.

However, one of the most cited problem we come across when talking to producers and directors is that nobody knows where to look, despite being willing to search for trans actors. Rick Laxton, Casting Director, who we met at our interaction, told us: “I think perhaps casting directors aren’t aware of the pool of trans talent that is out there. Hopefully this can change, which will improve the odds of trans actors being cast in both trans and cisgender roles.”

But we’re remedying this slowly. You’ve got to start somewhere. Recently, Lime Pictures held a series of casting workshops in London so trans people could make themselves known, which will be spread out regionally and in the end compiled into a registry of trans talent. “Hopefully it’ll lead to some of the actors involved in the workshops securing auditions for roles,” Rick said. “Making a living as an actor is a difficult enough job, without any other barriers being in the way. So hopefully if any of the actors involved have felt that being trans has made the task of securing work even trickier, this will hopefully go some way to starting to break those barriers down.” 

The future for trans actors, it seems, can only be on the up.

All About Trans is about encouraging better understanding between media professionals and transgender people and inspiring more accurate and sensitive representation in print, broadcast and online media in the UK. All About Trans is a project run by On Road, a not-for-profit organisation that works in partnership with communities to solve social problems using the web and the media.