Scarlett Johansson Caught Up in New Casting Controversy Over Transgender Role

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Scarlett Johansson

The actress reportedly pointed to other actors who have played transgender characters to justify her taking the starring role in 'Rub & Tug.'

Scarlett Johansson is once again at the center of what is shaping up to be another casting controversy.

Re-teaming with her Ghost in the Shell director Rupert Sanders, Johansson is set to star in a feature called Rub & Tug, about the true-life story of Jean Marie Gill, who was assigned female at birth but who assumed the identity of a man, Dante “Tex” Gill, and operated a massage parlor and prostitution business in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and '80s.

While it’s unclear how Gill identified, an obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that Gill “wanted to be known as ‘Mr. Gill’,” and that “she may even have undergone the initial states of a sex change that made her appear masculine.” 

When news of the project broke this week, online commentators began to criticize Johansson, a cisgender woman, for choosing to play a transgender man, arguing that the role should have gone to a transgender actor.

The website Bustle.com reported July 3 that Johansson, in a statement provided by a rep, said, “Tell them they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” The Hollywood Reporter could not immediately confirm that statement.

Johansson’s reported response references other cisgender actors who have played transgender characters — and while their performances have all won awards, they have not all been without controversy. Huffman was Oscar-nominated for playing a transgender woman in 2005’s Transamerica, and Leto won a supporting actor Oscar for playing another transgender woman in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club. Tambor was awarded two Emmys for playing a transgender woman in the series Transparent, but has left that show after being accused of sexual harassment, which he has denied.

Giving voice to some of the criticism of the casting that has begun to appear on Twitter, #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign called for Johansson to step away from the role, tweeting, “Scarlett Johansson is not hurting for money. She is in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is about to get her own film: Black Widow. She is also a well-established actress so she doesn't need the increased profile. So why would she take work away from a trans actor? #OscarsSoWhite."

Prominent transgender actress Trace Lysette, who has worked on Amazon's Transparent, tweeted her own criticisms of the casting on Tuesday, writing, "I wouldn’t be as upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that’s not the case. A mess."

Sense8 and The Neon Demon transgender actress Jamie Clayton also challenged the decision, writing on Twitter, "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. Cast actors WHO ARE TRANS as NON TRANS CHARACTERS. I DARE YOU."

Johansson’s critics are also pointing to the fact that she received similar criticism and was accused of “whitewashing” when she took the lead role in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, playing a character who was Japanese in the original manga series.

Joel Silver and New Regency are producing as a co-production between Silver’s Silver Pictures, Tobey Maguire’s Material Pictures and Johansson’s These Pictures banners.