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

 

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own