Is Elle Fanning Taking a Role From a Transgender Actor?

It's a question that requires a lot of context to answer.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The entertainment trades lit up late last month with news that Elle Fanning had signed on to play a transgender teen boy in Three Generations, also starring Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon. The splashy casting announcement was carefully timed and placed for maximum impact at The American Film Market, an annual convention and trade show for independent filmmakers that ended earlier this week, around the time the first photos of Fanning in character surfaced.

Both Fanning and transgender issues are having moments in the public spotlight right now, so connecting the two has an air of inevitability. While many film fans may be excited about the casting news, within the trans community, an increasingly rancorous debate rages about what some call “transface,” a derogatory term for the practice of casting non-transgender actors as transgender characters. Some trans activists equate it with minstrelsy and blackface, believing these roles should go to trans actors.

Many trans people believe traditional casting creates a paradox: If all the major trans roles go to non-trans actors, how will trans actors ever get opportunities and experience needed to land major roles? It’s almost impossible to make a full-time living as a working trans actor in film and TV, and watching all the plum roles go to non-trans actors can make it feel like a war of attrition. Even Laverne Cox, who plays breakout character Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black, was about to abandon acting when her big role came along. So why do established actors keep taking most of the good trans roles?

That’s not a question for actors; it’s a question for producers and directors. Fanning did not literally take the role from a trans actor, because it was not offered to a trans actor. Fanning was brought to the project by the film’s producers and creative team, because she is marketable following the box-office success of Maleficent, and because she’s an extraordinary performer with a proven track record in art house films like Ginger & Rosa. She likely agreed not because of the paycheck, but because the role would offer an exciting acting challenge and the chance to work with other great actors.

Films like Three Generations are also potential award-winners or, less charitably, Oscar-bait—a genre of cinema with its own economics and politics. Playing a trans character is one of many roles that actors seek out for a big career payoff via industry recognition. Physically transforming for a role, like gaining or losing weight, or becoming unrecognizable through makeup and effects, is a tried-and-true way to generate awards buzz. Playing trans worked for Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Lee Pace in Soldier’s Girl, and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, to name a few roles that garnered acclaim. Harvey Weinstein snapped up Transamerica as one of the first features under the Weinstein Company banner after correctly betting that the film would become a big award-winner. Weinstein himself said he didn't recognize star Felicity Huffman for the first 15 minutes that her trans character Bree appeared on screen.

Developing a film or series requires not only investing money, but also time: Producing Dallas Buyers Club took 14 years from concept to screen. Actors for the major roles were shuffled around until the last went to Jared Leto, who replaced Gael Garcia Bernal just prior to filming. Leto is exponentially more famous than the most well-known trans performers, and he’s had the chance to demonstrate his talent in many well-regarded films. He also has a huge global audience of young fans for his band Thirty Seconds to Mars. No trans actor has his level of experience and name recognition, so the gender-fluid character Rayon went to Leto after all the time and energy it took to get the film to production. This long and torturous road to completion is quite common, and casting is often a game of musical chairs as schedules change and other acting opportunities emerge.

As the saying goes, it’s not called “show friends,” it’s show business. Trans issues were considered so edgy and unbankable just a few years ago that even Ryan Murphy, creator of hit TV shows Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story, could not get a trans-centered series to air. Originally saddled with the cringe-worthy title 4 Oz. (referring to the purported average weight of a penis), Murphy’s pilot centered on a sports writer who transitions to female. After a real transgender sports writer “detransitioned” back to living as male and later committed suicide, Murphy’s main character was changed to a gynecologist, but the most they could get on air was an unsold pilot released as a TV movie called Pretty/Handsome. The gynecologist was played by veteran non-trans actor Joseph Fiennes, but even with a known lead, the project failed just as many other trans-themed projects had over the years, most of which never even made it to pilot season.

Since then, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have made significant inroads into original production, allowing for even more diverse shows. These services are willing to take more risks and try new things, but even they are banking on shows from established industry figures.

Two series in development for about the same length of time, Transparent and Myrna, exemplify the challenges facing trans actors and producers. Transparent was created by non-trans producer Jill Soloway and is inspired by her own father’s transition late in life. Soloway had a noteworthy Hollywood career before successfully pitching her pilot script to industry newcomer Amazon Studios: She had produced and written for Six Feet Under and United States of Tara before writing and directing last year’s Sundance hit Afternoon Delight. She was able to attach Jeffrey Tambor on the strength of her reputation and her script, which she wrote with Tambor in mind for the role.

A show created by, written by, and starring a trans actor faces much tougher odds. The path to a completed pilot has been much different for Myrna, another transgender series that began development in 2011 and stars veteran trans actor Marlo Bernier as the eponymous lead. The pilot was shot on spec, largely funded by private investors, including many in the trans community. It took about three years and a false start with an earlier production team before it got off the ground. In a “write what you know” conceit, the dark comedy centers around a trans actor whose pre-transition fame disappears along with the paychecks after her transition, eventually forcing her to take a reality-show gig to make ends meet.

The Myrna pilot is in final post-production this month, and it does not yet have a distributor. A spec project is more likely to get greenlit with a piece of footage to show at the pitch meeting, especially if it’s an edgy concept or a relatively unknown cast. Bernier was not forthcoming with many plot details about the pilot except to say that it’s a very dark comedy. Unlike Transparent, it’s not a trans storyline that focuses on physical aspects of transition (the “during” of a gender transition). While transition pragmatics are interesting to non-trans people, those of us who make a gender transition do so for the life we hope to have after, not for the process itself.

Bernier discussed the current state of trans acting talent with the candor and wisdom of someone who has been at this since the 1970s. Since her gender transition, Bernier has been a fixture on the LGBT film-festival circuit, where filmmakers toil to create stories and on-screen opportunities by and for our communities. “People seem to think there are hundreds of authentic trans actors standing around the corner," she said. "Are there people of trans experience and histories who act? Yes. Are they right for the part simply by the fact that they are authentically trans? No, they’re not.”

Bernier rattled off her impressive list of acting roles to illustrate the problem with insisting that trans roles go to trans actors. “As an actor for decades, I played a gay man. I was never a gay man. I was never a lawyer, but I played [closeted lawyer] Roy Cohn. I was never a twin, but I played one. The list goes on. No one jumped up and down outside the theater because Mark Bernier was cast as a closeted anti-gay lawyer. Where do we draw the line?”

If trans people are the only ones who should play trans roles, is the converse true as well? Would that mean trans people should only play trans roles? Can trans women play trans men or vice versa, or is that off-limits, too? Bernier does feel that casting trans actors in trans roles can allow for greater suspension of disbelief. She’s also proud that they never use the words transgender or transsexual in the Myrna pilot. “Myrna’s just a person, period.” Bernier believes that being transgender alone is not enough reason to place a big bet on a trans actor. She also doesn’t think that protesting outside the theater is a particularly effective way to change the industry, saying, “If we want to change the dialogue, then we have to do it from inside the room, at the table.”

There’s also inconsistency among opponents of non-trans casting. Some of Leto’s most vocal trans critics openly embrace Transparent or are even employed by the show, and their selective outrage raises questions about why Leto is problematic, but Tambor is not. The most noticeable rift among trans women is sexual orientation. Trans women in relationships with women, like Transparent consultant Jennifer Finney Boylan, tend to dislike Leto’s Rayon. She chastised the Academy for honoring him, saying, “When you give Jared Leto best actor, you insult the people his character is actually portraying. Got it?”

Weeks earlier, Boylan wrote an op-ed in the New York Times praising Tambor’s Moira, because Moira more closely represents the experiences, sensibilities, and appearance of women like her. Rayon’s flamboyance bothers those who don’t want to be confused with gay men, drag queens, and trans women who make a gender transition after being part of those cultures. Conversely, trans women attracted to men often don’t want to be confused with the “man in a dress” trope that Tambor’s Moira personifies, full-time cross-dressers and weekend-warrior types with no intention of a medical or legal transition. “Passing” and appearance is more often a focus for trans women attracted to men, who do not want to be “clocked,” or uncovered as transgender. They act more like Leto’s Rayon and sometimes read visibly trans people who look like Tambor’s character, using cruel names like “bricks” or “pigs in wigs.”

Leto and the Dallas Buyers Club creative team also made several flawed statements in the press, including Leto’s jokey Golden Globe winner’s speech that felt to some as if he was trivializing the trans experience. Meanwhile, Soloway has taken great pains to approach trans issues from a place of empathy and respect. In an NPR interview, she stated that she cast Tambor as the ensemble show’s anchor before she was politicized about trans issues, and she’s apologized to those who are upset about that decision. Transparent has taken unprecedented steps to place trans actors in smaller roles and on crew and in post-production.

Perhaps the most important step Soloway has taken in the first season is creating a role for a trans man. Where trans women have to deal with a long history of negative stereotypes, trans men have been nearly invisible in the media. Transparent actor Ian Harvie opened up about his role as Dale, already considered one of the most significant trans characters ever brought to the screen. The fictional trans character on Degrassi is played by a non-trans actor.* Harvie and Tom Phelan of The Fosters hold groundbreaking places in the history of production simply because they are out trans actors playing trans characters.

Harvie mentioned the empathy for trans people that permeates Transparent, both on screen and behind the scenes, even from non-trans members of the cast and creative team:

The writers of my episodes, they’re not trans, but they truly listened, in way that now dawns on me is highly empathetic. You can tell they did because of their beautiful writing, not just in my episodes. There are so many people involved. They all contributed in making this art feel connective, real, loving, respectful, familiar, and so much more. So yes, my being trans is a part of that, that is significant, but I think many other moving parts are at play here to have made this beautiful art.

Harvie shared his thoughts about the current state of acting for trans people and what kinds of roles he thinks trans actors deserve:

The issue for me isn't as much about trans people playing trans roles as much as it is about trans people should be hired far more often. We live amazing and beautiful human lives, possess love, dreams, we are people of service, build communities. We have families, lifelong friends, we are funny, talented, hard working, dedicated to craft, artists. We have all the passion that it requires to be great storytellers and we deserve to take up space in all forms of media. Its long overdue for trans people be regularly employed in all forms of the entertainment industry, yes in some trans roles, but not limited to trans roles.

I asked Harvie who would be his top three trans actors to play the teen role that went to Elle Fanning. Echoing Bernier, he said, “The trans actors pool is so small…” then rattled off a few reasons why it’s hard to find someone who can deliver a performance. He concluded with another limiting factor for trans actors who are minors: getting parental consent, due to safety concerns. It’s a sad fact that trans children who appear in the media sometimes get attacked by anti-trans journalists and activists.

Harvie looked in the air, reaching for names of teenaged men who were trans and had done professional acting work. After a long pause, he said, “You know, I have no idea who those top three actors would be to play Elle Fanning's role.”

That’s the real question that needs to be answered.

* This post originally stated that trans characters in Degrassi and The Fosters were played by different actors. We regret the error.