Is It Ever OK to Cast a Cisgender Actor in a Transgender Role?

Cisgender actor Matt Bomer has been cast as a transgender woman in the movie Anything.

Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

The announcement, earlier this week, that cisgender actor Matt Bomer will play a transgender woman in the movie Anything turned up the heat on a long-simmering debate about the ethics of casting trans roles. For some, Bomer’s new gig is a dispiriting continuation of the trend of cis people benefitting from increased public interest in transgender lives—and of cisgender writers and producers exploiting trans stories for prestige. And as trans actress and filmmaker Jen Richards pointed out in a devastating series of tweets, the problem isn’t just that producers give plum acting jobs (and juicy paychecks) to cis men rather than trans women; it’s that this kind of casting puts trans women in physical danger by perpetuating the myth that trans women are men in disguise—a key cause of “trans panic”–type violence.

Why do producers cast cis actors in trans roles? The usual justification is that movies and TV shows need recognizable stars to attract an audience and currently, at least, no trans actor has enough box-office pull. A related case could be made that trans actors don’t yet have the experience to handle the demands of an above-the-title role: a self-perpetuating argument if ever there was one. What’s more, the transgender acting pool is still relatively small—after all, producers aren’t looking for just “a trans actress.” Characters have a specific age and ethnicity, and Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton, Alexandra Billings, Candis Cayne, Jen Richards, Calpernica Addams, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, or one of the other relatively few out trans actresses might not fit the part.

Until recently, I was persuaded by the view that since trans parts sometimes involve scenes that depict the character’s life before their transition, it might be traumatizing to ask trans actors to revisit their pre-transition selves. It’s similar to how it might be upsetting to ask a pregnant actor to do a plot in which her character loses a baby, and not everyone is as lucky as Laverne Cox in having a twin brother who can be called upon to play her Orange Is the New Black character pre-transition. Now, that argument strikes me as condescending: Trans actors should decide for themselves if they’re comfortable with that kind of storyline.

Of course, playing trans can be a great boost to a cis actor’s career—Eddie Redmayne earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl; Jared Leto won one for his turn as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club; and Jeffrey Tambor has taken home a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance as Maura Pfefferman in Transparent. These are all experienced, immensely talented actors who played their parts well, and we can’t assume that transgender actresses would’ve gotten the same prizes if they’d played those roles. Apart from anything else, cis actors get an annoying “bravery” bonus from the other cis actors who vote on awards—just as able-bodied actors are rewarded for playing characters with disabilities, playing trans is seen as a demonstration of a cis actor’s commitment to the craft.

But does knowing why producers cast cis stars in trans parts, and why cis actors are drawn to these meaty, attention-grabbing roles, make the practice OK? Are allies complicit in transphobia if we accept cisgender actors in trans roles? As in all things, it depends—on the specifics of the show, on the creative team’s attitude, and how the cis actors comport themselves.

Obviously, the role matters. As much as I hate to pre-judge works of art, Anything sounds so clichéd and awful that even Matt Bomer’s pretty face will be hard-pressed to make it tolerable. It’s the story of a newly bereaved widower who moves from Mississippi to Los Angeles where he begins an intense friendship with Bomer’s character, a transgender sex worker. According to Variety, “The unlikely new couple must reconcile their vastly different backgrounds as they fill the void in each other’s lives.” So many red flags! First, must the transgender character be a sex worker? Sure, transphobic hiring practices mean that all too many trans women are pushed into sex work, but unless—like the great 2015 movie Tangerine—the film is squarely focused on the gritty reality of life as a trans street prostitute, the chances of exploitation are depressingly high. Not to mention that the whore with a heart of gold is the most played-out stereotype in moving pictures.

In contrast, a show like Transparent—created by Jill Soloway, a cis woman (albeit with a transgender parent), and with a cis actor in the lead role—feels much less exploitive, especially since Soloway has made an effort to involve trans and gender-nonconforming people in the show’s creative process, and given that Tambor has consistently acknowledged and thanked the trans community for their input and trust.

Nevertheless, Jen Richards’ observation that seeing cisgender male actors playing transgender women endangers real people’s lives is powerful and persuasive. If trans actresses aren’t yet famous or experienced enough for these big-budget productions, perhaps we need to wait a while to tell their stories—or pay attention to smaller projects with a more concrete connection to trans people’s lives. And if we can’t wait, perhaps we should cast cisgender women in those roles. Felicity Huffman played a trans waitress in Transamerica (snagging an Oscar nomination), Chloe Sevigny was a trans assassin in Hit & Miss, and Rebecca Romijn played a trans magazine publisher in Ugly Betty. Transface probably wasn’t truly necessary in any of those cases, but having cis women play trans women seems less likely to cause violence.

On Aug. 28 Richards tweeted to Matt Bomer and actor Mark Ruffalo, who is an executive producer of Anything, “[I]f you release this movie, it will directly lead to violence against already at risk trans women.”

Three days later, Ruffalo responded:

Richards replied, “this means a lot. I would love to talk to you about it, and how to move forward positively.” Now the onus is on Ruffalo and the rest of Anything’s creative team to listen to trangender voices. In his Aug. 31 Slate story about the making of the play Trans Scripts, which tells six transgender women’s stories in their own words, David Levesley described how the creative team prioritized feedback from the productions’ transgender actors: “[Trans actress Rebecca] Root told me that as a general rule of thumb, ‘the trans actors were always kind of given first dibs on comments and feedback, in that our voice was considered uppermost in its necessity in the creative process.’ ” Listening to transgender feedback—whether from members of the cast or filmmakers on Twitter—is a step in the right direction.