Trans Actor or just Actor?
When I got my first acting gig, I was absolutely thrilled! I was cast in the Netflix series Deadly Women to play the role of Nicole Vonlee Titlow, a Southern American transgender woman who was imprisoned for the murder of her wealthy uncle.
Not only was this huge to be cast in such a role without any prior acting experience, I was also able to bring authenticity to the role as a woman of transgender experience myself. For a trans woman to be cast as a trans character and for the narratives of transgender people’s stories to be told is sadly often unheard and when it is, transgender people are predominantly portrayed in a dark light.
I think back to my early memories of gender diverse characters in film and media. My first recollection of a transgender person in a film was when I watch the 1994 film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and Terrance Stamp played the role of Bernadette Bassenger, a recently bereaved transgender woman.
As much as I adored this film and the performance of Terrance Stamp was phenomenal, I couldn’t help but question why a cisgender man had played the role of a transgender woman? I understand that at the time there were undoubtedly few recognised transgender actors in Australia (presumably internationally as well) and this to be the reason as to why Terrance Stamp was cast as Bernadette in Priscilla. I mean it’s just a character, right? Or is it?
Following my experience of the drag queens and Bernadette driving from Sydney to Alice Springs in the big pink bus, I then think back to memories of watching Hilary Swank’s Oscar winning performance for her role as trans man Brandon Teena in the early nineties film “Boys Don’t Cry”, a film that had a fatal ending for lead character Brandon (spoiler alert). I also viewed Jaye Davidson’s performance as Dil, a transgender woman in the 1992 war thriller “The Crying Game”. Both these narratives were dark and spoke of the alienated and broken love stories of Brandon and Dil. Not quite a vision of hope for a young trans person growing up in the nineties watching these films, I assure you.
A few years later in the early 2000’s we were able to once again watch another remarkable cisgender actor (Felicity Huffman) play to the role of Sabrina “Bree” Osbourne in “Transamerica”. Through this film we learnt of Bree’s struggles and understanding to fulfil her womanhood, she must receive gender affirmation surgery. Is this what it means to really be a woman? I think not.
These narratives and films have definitely opened the eyes to the general public in knowing that transgender people exist, but are the stories being told true to the lives of transgender people and if so, why in all of these films are the characters of transgender people being played by both cisgender men and women? Why don’t transgender artists act in these roles?
Having all of this in mind and then for myself to be cast into a transgender role, you can only imagine the excitement I had to be given this opportunity. In hindsight I do consider the story of Nicole Vonlee Titlow and how this portrayal of her once again fed into the stigma that smothers the transgender community. As a young inexperienced actor, I can look at this as a learning tool for future endeavours and I am thankful for the story of Nicole being shared. It showed after all the humiliation she had experienced, she was then further lowered to the inhumane treatment by being sent to a male prison, despite living as a woman for years. The reason I am grateful for Nicole’s story being shared is because this mistreatment of transgender people within the prison system is a talking point for the broader community to consider why a woman was sent to a male prison? This is a topic of discussion all on its own but an important one that must be heard.
Following my first acting gig, I was then typecast into another transgender role for a fictional short film. I was happy to play this character as I still felt I wanted to share this narrative for viewers and the broader community to see a transgender role being acted out by a transgender woman. It was around this time I started to question as to why I needed to typecast myself into only transgender roles? Yes I am a woman of transgender experience but should I only be restricted to playing transgender roles? That being said, it is important for transgender actors to play transgender characters as we are an underrepresented community and deserve our narratives to be shared authentically by those with lived experience.
As time continues as does the greater acceptance for the trans and gender diverse community across many scopes including mainstream media. Transgender people are given more opportunities and platforms to speak their truths, despite there still being a long way to go for complete acceptance. We can’t forget the backlash for Scarlett Johansson’s acceptance to play king pin and trans man Dante “Tex” Gill in “Rub and Tug”, which she later withdrew from due to the public outrage from the transgender community.
Most recently we were provided with the viewing pleasure of the exceptional series Pose FX, a series set in 1987-88 in the African American and Latino Ballroom era. Ryan Murphy’s series broke records with the highest number of transgender actors playing transgender characters of any series regulars of all time! Extraordinary talents included Dominique Jackson, MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore. Not forgetting to mention that Our Lady J and Janet Mock (also trans women) have directed episodes of this remarkable series, portraying the transgender community in a real and necessary light.
It's required to note that Pose followed in the footsteps of Laverne Cox in “Orange is the New Black” and Trace Lysette’s role in “Transparent”. Singular castings, yet two more exceptional American transgender woman playing transgender characters.
America has progressed dramatically with their transgender representation in film, television and media but unfortunately Australia is dragging behind. Carlotta (Carol Spencer) being the only transgender woman portrayed in an Australian film. Carlotta was featured in 1970 film “The Naked Bunyip”, the 1973 television series “Number 96” as well as her regular appearances on the nineties daytime classic talk show “Beauty and the Beast” and most recently “Studio 10”. Up until recently, Carlotta was the only nationwide recognised vision of trans identity in Australia, that was until Daniielle Alexis was cast in the worldwide prison based phenomenon “Wentworth”, followed by Evie MacDonald playing the role of transgender school girl Hannah in ABC’s “First Day”. Most recently, activist Georgie Stone will be featured in Australia’s longest running television soap Neighbours, the first transgender person to be featured in an Australian soup ever.
We have seen glances of other trans folk being interviewed on evening programs, guest hosting and on reality television, but is this enough? The transgender community is broad and diverse and we need more representation on all of our mediums. The Australian transgender and gender diverse community is finally being seen on Australian television and media and are given opportunities to play authentic transgender roles (as they should) but let’s take it a step further. Can we cast a transgender person to play a cisgender role or better still, why can’t actors that just also happen to be transgender be cast into any role without a focus on their gender identity or status? Is that something is Australia is ready for? I know I am!