'Fantastic Woman' Director Weighs in on Scarlett Johansson Transgender Casting Controversy

Sebastian Lelio, who directed trans actress Daniela Vega in the Oscar-winning film, says casting a cisgender star for a transgender role “may be aesthetically or ethically debatable, but it should never be prohibited.”

Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, who directed breakout transgender star Daniela Vega in the 2017 Oscar winner A Fantastic Woman, has weighed in on the controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson's casting as a transgender man in an upcoming film.

Johansson is set to play the lead in Rupert Sanders’ Rub & Tug, a film about the true-life story of massage parlor owner Dante “Tex” Gill, who presented himself as a male and who may have been transgender man. 

After the project was announced on July 2, backlash to Johansson’s casting spread on social media, with transgender actresses Trace Lysette (Transparent) and Jamie Clayton (Sense8The Neon Demon) criticizing the choice on Twitter. #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign also called for Johansson to step away from the role, so to not take work away from trans actors.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about his own experience assembling A Fantastic Woman, Lelio said, “It’s true [that] cultural representation has been scarce so far. And it’s also true that the gesture of casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender role can be aesthetically or ethically debatable — but it should never be prohibited."

The director added, “When I decided to cast Daniela Vega to play Marina in A Fantastic Woman, it was an act of artistic freedom, not political correctness. I wasn’t telling the world that transgender roles should be played by transgender actors. I was only doing what I felt was right for my film.”

One of THR's "Breakout Talents" at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival, Vega played a trans woman who deals with the prejudice and rejection of her dead lover's conservative family. Her work received a Platino award (the Latin American Oscars) for best actress and was labelled "a transformative performance" worthy of an Oscar nom in a THR guest column by Nick Adams, GLAAD's director of transgender media & representation.

“Whenever the decision to cast Daniela Vega is interpreted as an authoritarian gesture, a gesture that tells people what to do, I always raise my hand and say ‘No.’ I’m not commanding anyone to do anything, I’m exercising my artistic freedom," the director said. (A Fantastic Woman has, since its release, helped push new gender identity legislation back home in Chile.) 

"If I said transgender roles should only be played by transgender actors, I would be implying that Daniela Vega shouldn’t play a cisgender role. And I believe she has every right to play a man or a woman," he added. 

Lysette and Clayton specifically called out the lack of opportunity for transgender women to play cisgender roles in their tweets about Rub & Tug. "Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE. WE CANT EVEN GET IN THE ROOM," Clayton said.

“I sympathize with the drama of transgender actors who have little chances of exercising their craft," the director added. "But I’ll never make myself available to join or empower any idea that aims to restrict one of society’s most precious assets, which is the freedom of its artists ... When artistic freedom is threatened, that’s a sign that society is becoming authoritarian, or moving towards behaviors and procedures that start to smell like fascism."

Lelio, who recently shot his first English-speaking feature Disobedience  — a lesbian love-story starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams — is now currently directing a remake of his own 2013 film Gloria with Julianne Moore in the lead role that won original actress Paulina Garcia a Silver Bear at the Berlinale.