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21 Transgender Stars, Creators Sound Off on Hollywood: “I Want to Portray These Characters, and I’m Ready”

Transgender actors, directors and writers break down Scarlett Johansson's casting (and un-casting) in a trans male role, audition horror stories, the perils of being "too passable" and the progress that is still needed behind the scenes and onscreen: "I'm sick of seeing us die. I want to see us live. I want to see us surrounded by abundance."

Scarlett Johansson’s announcement that she was exiting Rub & Tug — the feature biopic about transgender mobster Dante “Tex” Gill that was to be helmed by her Ghost in the Shell director, Rupert Sanders — hit hard and traveled fast throughout Hollywood when it broke Friday. “I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project” following ethical concerns about her participation as a cisgender actress, read the star’s statement, in part. “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive.” 

In that moment, trans actress and producer Rain Valdez (Transparent) was seated in front of a camera in The Hollywood Reporter’s Los Angeles offices for an interview about trans representation in entertainment. Informed of the news with cameras rolling, she paused to catch her breath and push back tears. “That actually makes me a little emotional,” she said, her voice shaking. “It’s not an easy industry for trans women. It’s not an easy industry for trans men.”

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Visibility and acceptance have seemed to be on an upward trajectory since 2014, a year that introduced Jill Soloway as a champion of trans-centric storytelling with Amazon’s Transparent and saw Laverne Cox break through with an Emmy nomination for her work on Orange Is the New Black. Ryan Murphy, long a champion of LGBTQ+ talent, doubled down this summer with his FX drama Pose, which employs more trans actors and storytellers than any series in history. Nick Adams, director of transgender media and representation at GLAAD and one of the organization’s trans staffers, praises Hollywood for helping change “how Americans understand gay and lesbian lives,” noting how the business can do the same for trans people. “The public outcry from both trans and nontrans people, along with the media attention given to this issue over the past few weeks,” he adds of the ScarJo casting controversy, “should be a game-changing moment for transgender portrayals in media.”

Still, even with mounting victories and the support of a small cadre of powerful showrunners, the 21 insiders who shared their experiences with THR (their interviews are condensed and edited together here) say that Hollywood remains a tough place to earn a living and build a diverse career. “Things kind of cracked open, and here we are four years later,” says producer-director Rhys Ernst. “It’s two steps forward and one step back.” Adds A Kid Like Jake director Silas Howard, “People are taking a stand where they may have been complacent before.”

Does Scarlett Johansson’s decision feel like a win?

ZACKARY DRUCKER, producer, writer, filmmaker, Amazon’s Transparent It’s a win for Scarlett Johansson because she gets to be a part of something bigger. We do a lot of coddling in Hollywood to make people in power not feel threatened. We do a lot of maneuvering around that, and maybe there is some value in just saying, “You might lose a little bit of your power, but you’re gonna live in a better world.”

JEN RICHARDS, actress, writer, CMT’s Nashville The argument that provokes my ire the most is people who keep responding to any critique about casting cis people in trans parts with, “It’s called acting.” Every one of them says this with this kind of glee, like we had never thought of that. Of course it’s acting. And of course, in an ideal world I would like anyone to be able to play any kind of part. That’s the kind of freedom I want for myself and the kind of freedom I want for others.

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IVORY AQUINO, actress, ABC’s When We Rise Accolades have been showered on cis actors who play trans people, and that glorifies the transphobic notion that the trans women they portray are men, just like these actors who play them. And accepting [those awards] in front of millions of people watching, when they receive awards in their tuxedos with their facial hair, it just sends the message that at the end of the day, trans women take off their makeup and they’re men, and that’s what’s damaging.

JAZZMUN, actress, ABC’s When We Rise Scarlett, because she’s in front of the camera, she’s a star, she’s getting the beating, but I’m holding the director responsible. I’m holding responsible the casting agent that did not bring in enough trans folks or didn’t believe enough trans folks could do that part. Everyone is responsible for that. Everyone. I’m not going to knock someone for doing their gig because I’m sure she would have been outstanding. They would have provided her with the right training, the right lighting, the right personal assistant. She would have gotten everything she needs to give the best performance she could give, right? But where is your intention? Do you want that voice to be authentic or does that matter to you?

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CASSANDRA JAMES, actress, ABC’s General Hospital I have faith in people’s ability to learn from their mistakes. It’s really important for people who are having their eyes opened to what’s happening within our community to commit to making this a learning moment for themselves and also using their cis privilege to lift up trans voices. That’s imperative moving forward.

SCOTT TURNER SCHOFIELD, actor, CBS’ The Bold and the Beautiful I don’t believe in censorship of any kind, but she did what I want all cisgender people to do when they mess up, right? And look, anybody can mess up all the time. I mess up. I’m a white guy. I mess up all the time too. When you mess up, you acknowledged that you did something wrong. You say, “I understand what’s going on,” and you do the right thing, which she did, which is the first big time that has happened. And I feel really overjoyed by that now.

RHYS ERNST, producer, director, Amazon’s Transparent Someone like Scarlett Johansson playing a trans man has a particular resonance for me because there’s been such a lack of examples of trans male or trans-masculine characters in film, TV, anything. I’ve heard statistics saying that more people think they’ve seen ghosts than have met a trans person. So, the general public learns about trans people much more through media than through a trans neighbor. And I can count the number of trans-masculine characters that I’ve seen in film and TV on one hand. There’s a lot of work to be done.

How do the challenges differ in Hollywood for trans men versus trans women?

TOM PHELAN, actor, Freeform’s The Fosters It’s kinda shitty all around. God knows, there are a lot of times where I’ll go into an audition and I’ll be in the waiting room with all of my trans friends [men and women] because the casting breakdown says trans and they don’t differentiate between the two.

SCHOFIELD Trans men have been completely invisible in Hollywood. We have Chaz Bono, who is great. We have Alex Blue Davis on Grey’s Anatomy, who is also great, but we do tend to blend into the background. One thing that I figured out is that, you know, we are very nice guys. You know what they say about nice guys, right? We’re nice guys because we were raised girls and that’s how this plays out for us.

ZEKE SMITH, reality star, CBS’ Survivor Trans women face this major challenge of combating stereotypes. There are all these poor representations of trans women as sex workers, as serial killers, as deranged sexual beings. Trans men sort of face the opposite problem. People don’t really know we exist. Trans men are so invisible in the zeitgeist that we don’t even have a slur. People haven’t even taken the time to come up with a mean thing to call us. Transgender men are so invisible that a guy whose biggest accomplishment is being on two seasons of a reality show is considered a worthwhile voice to comment on transgender men in Hollywood. No one’s writing for us in a positive or negative light. That’s why the Scarlett Johansson moment is so important for us to seize and to have this conversation because no one really pays attention at any other time.

What do you want people to know about what it’s really like to be a trans actor in Hollywood?

ALEXANDRA GREY, actress, Amazon’s Transparent The opportunities, there are very few. I probably get, maybe, five auditions a year, maybe. And as an African-American trans actor, those opportunities are even smaller, and I personally lose roles because I hear that I’m “too pretty,” I’m “too passable,” I’m “too normal” and I don’t fit this stereotype of what trans actors are supposed to look like. If I was just a normal actress, I’d have the whole package, right? I’m sort of beautiful, I think, I’m a good actress, I think, I have a personality, I think — I have that package. But when it comes to trans Hollywood, I feel like they’re saying, “That’s not what we want.” I feel like I’m being told, “You’re not what we want.” And that hurts. It’s hard because when you don’t work, you don’t eat. You can’t take care of yourself. All I want to be able to do is to make a difference, and as cheesy as that may sound, I want to change the fucking world. That’s all. I just want to be able to take care of myself, and live this dream. I want to portray these characters, you know, and I’m ready.

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RICHARDS No one is a fiercer advocate for other trans actors than a trans actor. We are all at the same auditions, and we actually have helped each other prepare for auditions that we are in competition for. I don’t know how many marginalized people that happens with when there are so few roles. Angelica Ross and I both got the audition for Nashville and were preparing for it. She had a certain take on it, and I helped her really strengthen and clarify it and vice versa. So, we walked in with two very different, very strong and compelling takes. Most recently, Angelica, Alexandra Grey and I were all at the Claws audition, and we kind of had a sense that the part was in Angelica’s wheelhouse and it was her turn. But I can still remember being in the hallway because Alexandra was a little bit nervous that day, and so we went out while Angelica was auditioning. And I helped Alexandra just work on her lines and get a little bit more confident — that’s the kind of thing we do, and it feels really good to have that kind of sisterhood among trans women.

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BUCK ANGEL, activist, former adult film star Here’s the deal: We’re people. We have the same lives as everybody else. We don’t do, like, weird things that other people aren’t doing. We do the same things as everybody else — so representing us in a family show where we just have families and we have lovers and we have friends, I think those are really important kinds of shows to make about us because it shows to the world that we are just like everybody else. So when Hollywood — because it will — starts to give us the opportunities to write our own movies, to write our own scripts, to write our own TV shows, to be in our own TV shows, you watch how much will change ’cause we’ll be represented as people.

JAMIE CLAYTON, actress, Netflix’s Sense8 If you’re going to tell stories about marginalized people, and you don’t include those marginalized people in that storytelling, it’s going to come across as very inauthentic and problematic. How many crime procedurals are on TV? On every single one of those shows, they have consultants like ex-cops, ex-FBI agents, ex-private investigators, ex-morgue people. CSI can’t even get a crime right without including people who’ve actually been involved in solving crime. What makes you think that you can tell a story of a trans person if you’re not trans and you don’t know any trans people and you don’t hire any trans people?

How has trans representation moved forward in Hollywood?

RICHARDS Shows like Nashville that are popular all along the Bible Belt are really powerful because they can introduce characters that folks might not ever meet in real life. For a lot of people in places like North Carolina, where I’m from, all they knew about trans people is what they had seen in movies and television. They had only seen cis men in hair and makeup, and they didn’t imagine someone like me. But with my arc on Nashville, I don’t think it was until my third episode that it was even mentioned that I was trans, and it was kind of an offhand remark. So, the audience got to know this woman. She is a therapist for [Hayden Panetierre’s] Juliette. They kind of got to like her a little bit. And then they find out she is trans and it’s like, “Oh, well, that’s not what I thought trans people were like. But that’s not so scary. There is nothing frightening about her.” So, it has a real impact.

ERNST There’s a lot of opportunities to tell amazing stories that have never been told before and to include a whole new group of people who haven’t really been seen on camera before. And what’s interesting is that when you involve people who are not typically a part of the conversation or not typically at the table, it actually becomes really meaningful and exciting for everybody involved. On Transparent, the Teamster guys really enjoyed working alongside trans people. It elevated the whole situation. It’s good for everybody, and it’s certainly good for storytelling.

IAN ALEXANDER, actor, Netflix’s The OA [Brit Marling] and Zal Batmanglij, the co-creators of my show, both were very adamant about finding specifically a person who was trans who could play the role, who was Asian-American and, you know, 14 or 15 years old. The casting director told them, “We may not be able to find someone with these exact criteria,” but they were adamant about finding that authentic actor to portray an authentic experience and they wouldn’t budge on it. So that’s why they opened it up worldwide to people without any experience so that they could find, eventually, me.

AMIYAH SCOTT, actress, Fox’s Star Lee’s [Daniels] biggest thing is he loves the authenticity. He allows me to give my opinion or to comment on certain things. There were certain times — not many — where I was like, “I just don’t know …” As a trans woman, I would say that and they respected it. I think that [kind of] representation is so important.

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RAIN VALDEZ, actress, producer, Amazon’s Transparent I was not publicly out when I started my career about 10 years ago. I moved out to L.A. from Guam in 2000 and got myself in an acting class, waited tables, did a little bit of modeling, but because I came from a place that was far, far away, it was easy for me to kind of just start a new life. I’m one of the fortunate trans people who have passing privilege where I could sort of just live my life as a cisgender person. We call this term “stealth” in our community. So, I did that for many years, and it wasn’t until I started seeing more representations of trans people in the media that were positive that I started rethinking some of the decisions in my life. When I got the job at Transparent, that was the very first time I was out and proud as a trans woman.

DRUCKER Truthfully, casting is the tip of the iceberg. It’s what people see. It is how much of America knows what gender diversity looks like by seeing a trans person onscreen, but it is the tip of the iceberg. [You need] a deeper investment in telling an authentic story, which means having gender-nonconforming and trans folks in positions of leadership, whether it’s in the writers room, in the production office, in the costume department. It has been invaluable, really, on any given day, producing a scene with a ton of trans, gender-nonconforming folks, you need familiar faces. You need people who understand the experience of what it might be like to be a trans person walking out onto a set for a costume fitting, you know what I mean? There’s just areas of sensitivity that only we would be conscious of.

PHELAN Whenever I’m in a room of only cis people, I get pulled aside and they’ll say something along the lines of, “If I ever say or do anything offensive, you have to let me know because I’m still learning and I want to be an ally,” which is really nice and obviously appreciated but can feel alienating. It’s to be expected to be both an activist and an actor at the same time when, like, I’m just there to do my job and be an actor like all the rest of the people in this room.

EMMETT LUNDBERG, creator, star, Vimeo’s Brothers We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from folks who work on our set and who have experience on other sets in the industry. The biggest difference is that people can come to our set without having to explain themselves or their identities and simply focus on the work they are doing. Allowing trans folks, both cast and crew, to come onto a project and a set as our full and complete selves, without fear of how we will be received, opens us up to be our most creative. It gives us the space and opportunity to build a story authentically. And when you have trans folks in creative capacities, telling trans stories, it creates an environment of safety, support and truthfulness.

SYDNEY FREELAND, director, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy Take someone like Silas Howard, a trans director. He was shooting his feature A Kid Like Jake last summer, and then we both happened to be in New York at the same time, and we sat down and had lunch together. And we didn’t talk about our trans experience at all. It was just talking about filmmaking and the things that we encounter as directors and working with these types of actors and these types of actors. Like, “Oh, man, I remember I had this one shoot where I had to get this shot, and we are running out of time, daylight and money …” And I remember leaving that meal feeling so empowered, like I’m not the only one out there. There’s other people doing this as well.

What can Hollywood do to increase trans representation?

FREELAND This is going to sound silly, but ask. Just ask people. I recently directed a commercial that wanted to have a transgender director but didn’t know where to find one. There’s this really great website called Free the Bid for commercial directors, and they said, “We know of somebody,” and put us in touch. Bam! A month later, we’re shooting. All it took was that person asking the question.

JAZZMUN I want them to invest. I want them to intentionally invest on a financial level, on a working level, constantly creating opportunities in jobs for us to step in and to do those roles — and if they do not have the knowledge about whatever it is, the story they want to tell, well, go into the community and seek out folks that can possibly support. Like, I’m very proud of Ryan Murphy. I have been on several Ryan Murphy shows. I did Glee. I did Nip/Tuck. He used to call me in all the time when he was first starting out on his shows, and I was very honored. His allyship, like his direction bringing in Janet [Mock] and Our Lady J to do the writing and bringing in a beautiful array of trans women to come in and play these parts, that’s a big deal. We really get to sit and make some things happen, and it’s storytelling that often goes missed. There are nuances when you have two trans women onscreen together sharing space and story and ideas. It’s very powerful. Like on Hollywood Boulevard they just put in some new stoplights and crosswalks. Before, we were able to cross but now with the new lights and new crosswalks it’s even more comfortable. More people can get across. That’s how I feel with Hollywood.

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CLAYTON I always say I’m an actor who happens to be trans, I’m not a trans actor. Do you want your gender or your ethnicity or some part of your personality or your physicality preceding your job title? No. If I go to the bank, the woman helping me, is she a Latina bank teller or is she just a bank teller? There’s no such thing as a “trans actor.” There’s no such thing as a “trans activist.” You know, the only thing that should go before “actor” is “award-winning.”

MYA TAYLOR, Independent Spirit Award-winning actress, Tangerine After the Spirit Award when I was doing interviews, they’d always introduce me: “Trans actress Mya Taylor is here with us today to talk about …” It’s so annoying because if I were anybody else, it would be, “Award-winning actress Mya Taylor is here today.” I feel like that is the way to present me. I’m just so tired of the labels and I’m just so tired of how hard it is. You know, you would think that after the Spirit Award people would be knocking my door down to give me roles. I’ve done so many auditions compared to when I first started. I was doing auditions, but I was doing a lot of auditions for trans roles that focused around this victimology and I just got tired of that.

What is the worst trope about trans characters that you’re sick of seeing?

PEPPERMINT, performer, VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, Broadway’s Head Over Heels Early in my career, whenever there was a [trans] part you would see all the girls at the audition — you know, Law & Order, seeking transsexuals or drag queens or cross-dressers. None of those things are invalid identities, but they were all the same thing to the casting directors. If you were a trans person, a trans woman onscreen, you were probably the prostitute that was either going to get arrested or get killed. I honestly never thought there was any other reality that they were trying to explore. Of course, things have changed now and television is really leading the charge.

NICOLE MAINES, actress, USA’s Royal Pains If you’ve seen any, like, early cop shows from like the late ’90s, early 2000s, trans women were primarily portrayed by cis men as sex workers, as drug addicts or what have you, and it’s no mistake the media has traditionally forced this image upon viewers that trans women are men, trans men are women, and somehow we’re all faking it or just playing-dress up. And when we have cisgender people playing trans characters, it’s adding to that assumption. It’s contributing to that harmful stereotype, and we’re in a space right now in our movement, especially politically, where trans people are under such scrutiny. We can’t afford to have that right now. We can’t afford to be contributing to that idea because, you know, we’re so desperately trying to claw our way out of that hole that’s been dug for us — and so when we have cis people portraying trans characters it digs that hole a little deeper.

PHELAN I think it’s not so much any one specific role as it is the glut of — the relentlessness of all these projects which ask you to do the same exact cliched trauma-porn, coming-out thing. It’s the same story over and over and over. Projects keep getting lauded for including trans characters or, “Hey look, they cast a trans actor in this role,” but the material is the same. It’s just the same boring victim. Or the same kind of “I’m trans and this is my character’s problem and that’s my defining personality trait.” The scripts that I get, it’s disheartening, to say the least. I think gender, at least for me right now, is the single most boring topic I could ever think to base a story around. When the narrative drive of your story is based around whether or not this person will transition, whether or not they will experience violence, that’s just not a story that I care to see or tell right now.

DRUCKER I’m sick of seeing us die. Yeah. I’m sick of that. I want to see us live. I want to see us surrounded by abundance.