Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club: Why can't we cast trans people in trans roles?

When will TV and film start opening the door to transgender actors, asks Paris Lees

Are you one of the millions of Corrie fans still mourning Hayley Cropper? The lovely Julie Hesmondhalgh, the woman who played the much-loved café owner – notable for being the first transgender character in a British soap opera – says the role would go to a transgender actor if it were cast today. I wish this were true.

Across the Atlantic, male actor Jared Leto recently picked up a Golden Globe, and is favourite for an Oscar, for his performance as a trans woman in Aids drama Dallas Buyers Club. Set in the mid 1980s, the film tells the true story of a straight Texas electrician, Ron Woodroof, who, after contracting HIV, helped transport pioneering anti-Aids drugs into the US in defiance of the medical establishment. Leto’s character, Rayon, is his partner in righteous crime.

However Leto’s awards success  has not been without controversy. His Globes acceptance speech was roundly condemned online after he referred to his character Rayon as a “beautiful creature”; one website responded with the headline: “The Golden Globes gave Jared Leto an award for playing a trans woman because Hollywood is awful”. To make matters worse, Leto has spent much of the publicity trail cracking jokes about cross-dressing – which is odd, tasteless you might say, considering he plays a deeply troubled trans woman and not a panto dame.

So if I’m honest, as a trans woman, I watched Dallas Buyers Club expecting to be offended. I wasn’t. It’s great and you should probably see it. And it’s wonderful to have a trans person’s story in a film that is being enjoyed by millions of people worldwide. Is it depressing to see another male actor playing a trans woman? A little. Is he any good? Yes. He had me in tears.

But is it an Oscar-worthy performance? No. As a transgender campaigner I’ve met a great many trans people. I can’t speak for all of us, but I know a fair few and probably more than you do. And Rayon isn’t quite like anyone I’ve ever met.

“They’d look good on me,” she sighs, staring at a barmaid’s cleavage. Later someone points a gun at her crotch and jokes about giving her “that sex change” she’s “always wanted”. So Rayon clearly sees herself as female and wishes to be female bodied. Why, then, does she remain silent as everyone, even her friends, refers to her as “he”? I’m sure trans women in Texas in the 1980s did face such rudeness, but would they really have accepted it without comment? Rayon never blinks. Apart from trans people, who will pick up on this? Most viewers will have never knowingly met a transgender person. Also, while Woodroof was a real person, Rayon is a fictional character, introduced to highlight Ron’s “homophobia”. I expect the producers brainstormed the most extreme sort of gay they could imagine and settled on “a tranny” – because everyone hates those, right? Rayon isn’t a person, she’s a function.

Hollywood does occasionally produce trans characters of depth. Who would argue that the Oscar-winning Hilary Swank was anything less than brilliant as murdered trans man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)? Contrast this, though, with Felicity Huffman’s approximation of a trans woman in Transamerica (2005). The producers worked closely with trans consultants, yet still ended up with an unlikely scene in which Huffman pees standing up, Mrs Doubtfire-style. I don’t know any trans women who would do that and if I’d been on set I’d have told them so. But I could be wrong. I haven’t been to the loo with all trans women.

For truly accurate portrayals of trans people, cast trans actors, I say. Not everyone in the trans community agrees though – some say that casting “regular”  actors is a positive step, which acknowledges that many trans people “blend in”. Many trans people do blend in. But wouldn’t it be better for those trans people to blend in themselves? On screen? If you’re one of the 1.5 million Brits who, like me, spent much of 2013 glued to online streaming service Netflix, you probably already know about prison comedy-drama Orange Is the New Black. The show boasts an abundance of racially diverse female characters and my favourite is prison hairdresser Sophia. Played by Laverne Cox. Sophia is transgender and so is Laverne. She’s perfect, but not just because she’s trans. She can act too. And the more audiences see Laverne and other trans actors – Harmony Santana and Jamie Clayton, for example – the less impressed they’ll be with transgender pretenders such as Leto.

Friends in casting tell me their first choice is to cast trans people in trans roles nowadays. What a shame we don’t have more established trans actors, or at least none on which Hollywood would gamble a big-budget film’s success. Until we encourage acting talent from diverse sources, that seems unlikely to change any time soon. So yes, watch Dallas Buyers Club and by all means enjoy it, but, when Leto’s on screen, keep an eyebrow raised.

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is released on Friday

 

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition